The Naval Appropriations Bill of August 1886 was groundbreaking, as it for the first time provided for modern armored ships for the USN, the Maine and the Texas . However, this bill and these ships were not the birth of the modern American Steel Navy. That occurred three years earlier in 1883. In 1881 the naval advisory board had looked into the possibility of the United States building an armored ship of up to 8,500 tons but had rejected the idea. The industrial infrastructure of the United States could not produce the armor plate, large caliber guns or other technologically advanced features of a major warship. Not only was the technology required beyond American shipyards but existing slips and docks were too small.

Instead the USN had to comfort itself with beginner’s ships. It was better to build ships of a substandard caliber and smaller dimensions, just for experience and to get yards used to building modern construction than to continue in the moribund state of the USN of 1881 with nothing other than rust and wood. The 1883 appropriations act actually had its genesis in the spring of 1881 when William H. Hunt became Secretary of the Navy at the start of the term of republican President James A. Garfield. He appointed a board to advise what new construction was needed by the navy. There was a quite a disagreement among its members as to what was needed but in the end they advised to start a very ambitious program of 68 steel warships. 

Hunt knew that he couldn’t sell that big of plan to Congress, then in the fall of 1881 Garfield was killed in an assassination. The presidential successor, Chester Arthur, used his elevation to the presidency to pay off old political debts and replaced Hunt as Secretary of the Navy with William E. Chandler. Hunt was made ambassador to Russia and he died at his post in 1884, two years before his vision of a modern steel navy started to come to fruition with the launching of the first modern steel cruiser, the USS Atlanta. This would not be the first time that politics would intervene drastically in the formation of a modern American steel navy, nor would it be the most serious intervention. If any American naval building program was fraught with political intervention and bungling it was the initial program of 1883. 

Congress would have none of a program for 68 ships, so the program was whittled down to a modest six cruisers and nine smaller ships. Even this was too grand for the isolationist Congress. The final bill authorized only two small cruisers to be paid out of existing naval funds with no extra money for their construction to be administered under a new committee. This last provision, instead of being a detriment was actually a benefit as the members of the new committee were more practical, realistic and had the temper of the current political environment. The new committee, headed by Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt, revised the plan by deleting the largest of the approved cruisers, added three even smaller cruisers and a dispatch boat, all to be paid out of additional construction funds. This bill passed almost intact. The final approved act called for the smallest of the two initial proposed cruisers, two of the smaller cruisers and the dispatch boat but with an additional $1,300,000 in construction funds. On March 3, 1883 this Bill was signed by President Arthur and the American Steel Navy was born. 


Profile, Plan & Quarter Views
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These first four ships were called the ABCD ships because the names of the four ships started with those letters. The two small cruisers were Atlanta and Boston , the larger cruiser left over from the earlier attempt was Chicago and the dispatch boat was Dolphin. Secretary Chandler wanted to start on the ships as soon as possible so bids were solicited in May 1883 before the final plans had been developed. Because of this confusion some possible builders were frightened off, with good reason as it turned out. There were only eight bidders and only two, William Cramp of Philadelphia and John Roach of Chester , Pennsylvania bid on all four. John Roach was the low bidder on all four, as the Roach facility was the only one that had the infrastructure of rolling steel plates, hull construction and erecting machinery already in place. All four ships were given to Roach.

Although strictly in conformance with existing law, it was unfortunate that all four bids went to this one company. Since Roach was a friend of the Secretary of the Navy and had been involved in some earlier questionable dealings, the whole thing became a political football, which the Democratic party seized upon as an election issue. As construction started the Roach Yard experienced problems that had been predicted by minority of the first advisory committee. This was the first time that modern steel warships had been built for the USN and every step in the construction process presented new unexpected challenges. Steel plates were more difficult to produce than anticipated and the quality of the plates varied. Some were rejected as not meeting naval specifications. A fire at the Roach yard destroyed some of their critical machinery and it had to be replaced. Even during construction different naval boards kept changing requirements on the ships. 


Hull Detail
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The smallest of the ships, the Dolphin was the first to be completed. Then, shortly after President Grover Cleveland and the Democratic party came to power in November 1884, the steel propeller shaft of Dolphin shattered during trials. The new Secretary of the Navy was a political hack named William C. Whitney who used minor deficiencies of the Dolphin to launch to outright attack the naval program and the Roach yards. Whitney refused to accept the Dolphin into the navy and refused to pay for it. What’s worse Whitney persuaded the Attorney General to call the entire contract with Roach for all four ships void. Work on all ships ceased and creditors besieged Roach demanding money, which the constructor did not have because of the improper actions of the Secretary of the Navy and Attorney General. Furthermore, the Attorney General threatened legal action against Roach to return the money the company had already received from the government.

That put an end to Roach. John Roach placed his company into bankruptcy and the New York World gleefully proclaimed; "John Roach’s career as a naval barnacle is ended." Whitney was dismayed to discover that even the biggest of the naval yards at New York was incapable of finishing the three cruisers’ hulls and engines. Roach had been right in the problems that he had presented to the navy and had been amply justified in his delays. Whitney seized the Roach yard and completed most of the work on the three cruisers there, under the supervision of navy constructors. 


Smaller Resin Parts
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It was also realized that Whitney’s rejection of the Dolphin and the Attorney Generals voiding of the contract with Roach were completely improper. By then it was too late for the John Roach Shipyard. John Roach had died broken hearted and the company that he had founded was bankrupt, financially destroyed in the political hatchet job. One hack politician, appointed as Secretary of the Navy, along with the help of his fellow hack politician, appointed as Attorney General, had deliberately destroyed a shipyard for political purposes. In 1883 this yard was the most advanced in the nation. By 1886 it was no more. There is no telling what further contributions the John Roach Shipyard may have made to the progress of the American Steel Navy if no but for the misguided actions of Whitney et al. However, Whitney at least partially redeemed himself in pushing the rapid expansion of the American Steel Navy for the balance of his tenure as Secretary of the Navy. 

The design for the two small cruisers to be named Atlanta and Boston was by Francis Bowles who had studied his trade Greenwich , England . Many features of the design were very similar to those found in the Armstrong export Elswick Cruisers. The design featured a cut back superstructure to allow a greater arch of fire for the echeloned 8-inch guns. William Watts a mentor of Bowles, and DNC of the Royal Navy, thought the design would cause too much blast damage to the superstructure. The pair were powered by a plant of 4,030 ihp and had a single screw. Capable of only 15 knots, they were far too slow for a cruiser design. On a displacement of 3,189 tons with an armament of two 8-inch and six 6-inch guns, the Atlanta Class started a trend for the USN, heavy armament in warship designs. The eight-inch guns were ordered from Great Britain , as even guns of this moderate size were beyond the current US ordnance capability of 1883. The pair also featured a full brig sailing rig. Considering that the USA had no overseas ports or coaling facilities, it was considered imperative that sail be incorporated in the design. The two as well as the Chicago were protected cruisers. They had no side armor but did have 1 ½-inch armored deck, which in theory would protect the engine spaces and lower ship from damage and flooding. At the time of their design US industry was not capable of rolling steel plate belt armor. Atlanta was commissioned July 19, 1886, almost a year ahead on Boston . For the next two years the Atlanta was assigned to the North Atlantic Squadron, steaming along the Atlantic coast, in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean with occasional forays into South American waters. 

USS Atlanta Vital Statistics

DIMENSIONS: Length - 283 Feet (86.26m) oa: Beam - 42 Feet (12.80m): Draught - 17 Feet Mean (5.18m): 
DISPLACEMENT -
3,189 tons: ARMAMENT - Two 8-Inch/30; Six 6-Inch/30; Two 6 pdr; Two 3 pdr; Two 1 pdr; Two 47mm; Two 37mm

ARMOR: Belt - none; Protective Deck - 1 1/2 Inches, slope & flat: MACHINERY - Eight cyl boilers; One Shaft horizontal compound (HC) Engine 3,500ihp: Sail - 10,400 square feet: MAXIMUM SPEED - 13 knots under steam: COMPLEMENT - 19 Officers & 265 Ratings

 

In 1889 the A,B,C ships, plus gunboat Yorktown, were formed into the Squadron of Evolution and were used to train the officers and crews of the new Steel Navy in tactical and operational theories. They inaugurated the squadron’s formation by cruising as a squadron to Europe . On July18, 1893 she was decommissioned at Norfolk but was recommissioned the following April 2, 1894. On March 8, 1895 she landed personnel at Boca del Toro, Columbia to protect American lives and property threatened by local political unrest. This certainly would not be the only time that US cruisers were used for gun boat diplomacy but then, every naval power did the same thing at the height of the age of imperialism. In an economy measure she was placed into reserve in September 1895 at the New York Navy Yard and stayed there for five years, missing the entire Spanish-American War. 

By 1894 the ships were part of a much larger assemblage called the White Squadron after their paint schemes but by then new and better ships had come into the fleet and their defects were more apparent. Here is where the value of the cruisers came to the fore. They were the instruments that permitted the USN to train to the new standard of naval warfare in the age of steel, until newer and better ships were designed. They also allowed for US designers to cut their teeth in the designs of modern steel warships and started the designs of unique American origin that would come to fruition with the first armored warship of the USN to be completed, the armored cruiser New York . However, their greatest value was in the realm of industrial capacity. In spite of the unfortunate fate of the John Roach Shipyard, they also provided the impetus for forging the industrial infrastructure that allowed the USN to be truly independent of foreign warship and armament manufacturers and this was accomplished with extraordinary speed. This happened not a moment too soon because at the end of the next decade the ships would be needed. Although Atlanta sat out the war at the New York Navy Yard, her sister ship Boston was a key performer for George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron at the Battle of Manila Bay. 


Brass Photo-Etch
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After the war the Atlanta as well as the Boston had their sailing rig deleted. The fighting tops were removed and crow’s nests substituted in their stead. They were further rearmed with rapid fire guns to serve in a gunboat role. Placed back into commission on September 15, 1900 and the next month was operating in the South Atlantic . In November 1902 she was reassigned to the Caribbean . She got into the landing party business again and landed Marines at Santo Domingo , Dominican Republic in April 1903 and at Porto Bello, Panama in December 1903. In 1904 she cruised to the Mediterranean and then journeyed around Africa arriving back in the US in December 1904. From January to May 1905 she was out of commission at Annapolis , Maryland until being paced back into service for midshipman cruises. In November 1905 Atlanta was relegated to the end-of-career duty of a barracks ship, first at Norfolk for torpedo boat crewmen and then at Charleston .  After seven years acting as a barracks ship, Atlanta was stricken on April 24, 1912 and was sold for scrap on June 10, 1912 but Boston had a long run. She became a receiving ship at San Francisco and in 1946 was towed to sea and sunk after 59 years of service. (History from The American Steel Navy by John Alden, The Naval Annual 1899, The Spanish War, An American Epic 1898 by G.J.A. O’Toole 1984, The Story of the War of 1898, by Nephew King 1898

The Combrig USS Atlanta
The purpose of this article is to show the modeler their first glimpse of the Combrig
USS Atlanta. A full kit review will appear for sister ship USS Boston, which has also been produced by Combrig in 1:700 scale. These ships are mostly hull and masts, so the parts count is fairly small. A dedicated brass photo-etch fret is included. There are a number of very striking features. First and foremost are the turtleback superstructure and deck edge 8-inch gun positions. The superstructure was cut back with the turtle back design in an effort to allow the 8-inch guns to train over a greater area. There are differences between the two builds. The Atlanta has a larger navigation bridge than Boston and Atlanta also has nice photo-etch front splinter shields for the 8-inch guns. These shields angle back at 45 degrees and are open at the sides with support struts. Both models have fighting tops and represent the pre-modernization appearance, which deleted the sailing rig and landed the fighting tops for crow’s nests.


Box Art & Instructions
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Verdict
So what if the USS Atlanta protected cruiser rode the pine at the New York Navy Yard for the big one of 1898, while sister ship USS Boston snagged the glory at the Battle of Manila Bay. You don't have to feel like a Times Square Commando when you get the Combrig 1:700 scale USS Atlanta. Snag one of these babies and you'll be ready to send in the Marines at any of those pesky Central American, South American or Caribbean states that dare to threaten US interests and critical banana supply. 

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