In April of 1855 Congress authorized the construction of "six first class steam frigates to be provided with screw propellers." These ships were superior to any warship in the world when they were completed the following year and were admired and copied by European navies. For five years they reigned supreme, and then, with the coming of the ironclad, their type was outmoded forever.
One of these frigates was the Merrimack. The story of her burning at Norfolk and her rebirth as the CSS Virginia is well known. There was, however, another ironclad conversion in this class— the Roanoke—and the result, in addition to being less spectacular, was somewhat less effective.
The Roanoke, along with still another of the class, the Minnesota, was present at Hampton Roads on the day when the Virginia made her devastating appearance. Both ships, after getting under way (the Roanoke only with the help of tugs, since her main shaft was broken), grounded and were saved from almost certain destruction only by the fact that the Virginia drew too much water to come after them without grounding too.
As a result of its expensive lesson at the hands of the Confederates, the Navy decided to make an ironclad out of the Roanoke. On March 25, 1862, she was decommissioned at Brooklyn Navy Yard and her conversion begun. She was cut down almost to the water line in the same manner as the Virginia had been. Here the resemblance ended.
Instead of a casemate, three Ericsson turrets were installed by the same Novelty Iron Works which had been responsible for the turret of the Monitor. The result was a formidable-looking ship. Her performance, however, was somewhat less. Her deep draft hampered her as much as the same deep draft had hampered her famous sister, and the weight of the turrets was a serious strain on her hull, in addition to causing her to roll excessively in heavy seas. Recommissioned in June, 1863, she continued to be used in the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, but she was not very effective. On June 25, 1865, she was decommissioned for the last time. Inadequate as she was, she still rates the distinction of being the first seagoing turret battleship.
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