Rebel Raiders on the High Seas is a strategic game of the Civil War which focuses on the role of the navies on the rivers, along the coasts and on the oceans. While most ships are represented by generic counters for Ironclads, Blockade Runners, Gunboats, Screw Sloops and, of course Raiders, there are cards and corresponding counters for many individual vessels. This series presents those cards and offers a glimpse into the history of these storied ships.
Part IV– The Union Ironclads : USS Roanoke The “Acme” Ironclad – A great idea that worked – in theory
“Great ideas that work – in theory” is the motto emblazed on the crates of the Acme Company from which Wile E Coyote of Looney Tunes orders strange devices in his never-ending efforts to catch The Roadrunner. If Acme made an ironclad, it would have been the USS Roanoke (USN Card 20 in Rebel Raiders on the High Seas).
Originally built as a steam frigate in 1855 and successful in catching blockade runners early in the war, she was chosen for a pilot conversion program and rebuilt not just as an ironclad but as a massive triple-turreted ocean-going ironclad. The decision to do so was made by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles (USN Card 29), whom Chief of Steam Engineering Benjamin F. Isherwood convinced 10 days after the Monitor vs
(USN Card 19 vs CSN Card 70) clash
that reconstructing USS Roanoke into
a seagoing ironclad would be faster and cheaper than designing a new vessel
from the keel up. Virginia
USS Roanoke was the first ship to ever have a third turret. Each had a pair of matching guns (Dahlgren 15 and 11 inch guns and 150-pounder Parrot rifles (Yankee Guns - USN Card 3 and John Dahlgren, USN Card 31). Each turret had 11 inches of armor. She had belt armor as thick as 4.5 inches in some parts, plus 1.5 inches of deck armor. This added so much weight, however, that she displaced about 6,400 tons – half again what she had displaced as steam frigate (and she was a big, modern frigate to begin with – and when initially launched sank and had to be refloated).
As the Brooklyn Navy Yard neared completion of the project, the Navy decided to add a ram – making it not only an ocean-going ironclad monitor, but one that could also ram its prey. Unfortunately, all of this weight made her too slow to do so – and while she could briefly push ahead in good conditions at 8.5 knots, her best sustainable speed was only 7 knots – slower than she had been as a steam frigate.
In addition, the weight made the ship so unsteady that as her captain lamented in order to fire the guns he had to “secure them with pieces of timber to prevent them fetching away.” (Three of the six guns dismounted because of the recoil the first time they were fired). When the guns fired, moreover, the ship would roll so dangerously as to “preclude the possibility of firing her guns at sea.”
The turrets were also so heavy that, even with additional boilers added just to power them, they took five minutes to make a full rotation.
Having built a massive monster that was slow, unsteady, unsafe and useless in combat, the Navy sent her to Hampton Roads to defend the harbor, where she sat out the remainder of the war.