Sunset Cruises – History’s Last Sail-Powered Fighting Ships

The End of an Era -- The Battle of Navarino (1827) was the last naval engagement between sailing ships. Subsequent clashes would be between steam-powered fighting vessels.

The End of an Era — The Battle of Navarino (1827) was the last major naval engagement in history fought entirely between sail-powered ships. Subsequent clashes would involve steam-driven fighting vessels.

“While ship-builders would continue to add sails to their designs for decades to come, by the 1830s most naval powers were busily retrofitting their existing wooden sail fleets with boilers, engines, paddles and screws.”

FRANCE’S Valmy was a behemoth. In fact, she was hands-down the largest sail-powered fighting ship ever built.

The three-decker sported a 200-foot-long hull and housed a crew of 1,100. She also packed a staggering 120 guns, all of which that could throw a thousand pounds of iron in a single broadside. While a small handful of other vessels, namely Spain’s Santísima Trinidad (140 guns), carried more cannons, they were all dwarfed by Valmy’s staggering 5,800-ton displacement.

The Valmy -- Obsolete before she was even built.

The Valmy — Obsolete before she was even built.

But most surprising of all, the Valmy, which was laid down in 1838 and completed a decade later, was obsolete even before construction on her had started. The last naval battle in history fought entirely by sail-powered vessels (at Navarino) took place in the 1820s and by the following decade, newer steam-powered warships were taking Europe’s navies by storm.

And while ship-builders would continue to add sails to their designs for decades to come not only out of a sense of tradition per se, but to augment the new propulsion systems, by the 1830s most powers were busily retrofitting their existing wooden sail fleets with boilers, engines, paddles and screws.

In fact, by the time Valmy entered service, France had already converted nearly 30 of its sail vessels to steam and had even commissioned purpose-built screw-powered warships like the 90-gun Duquesne and the Napoleon.

Valmy’s shortcomings became all too clear when France and Britain went to war against Russia in 1853. During the Siege of Sevastopol, contrary winds rendered her virtually immobile. Ironically, she had to be towed into and out of action by steamboats. It would be her only engagement. By 1855, the Valmy returned to France at which point she was renamed Borda, stripped of her guns and converted into a training vessel before eventually being broken up in 1891.

Interestingly enough, the Valmy wasn’t the only hold over from the Age of Sail that continued to serve well into the era of steam power. Consider theses other fighting ships.

The 'galleon' Mahmudiye at Istanbul.

The ‘galleon’ Mahmudiye at Istanbul.

The Mighty Mahmudiye

Twenty years before the Valmy was completed, the Ottoman Empire’s Mahmudiye was considered to be the world’s largest warship. Completed in 1829 by Sultan Mahmud II, the 128-gun floating fortress would go on to fight alongside French and British ships in the Crimean War. After the advent of screw-powered fighting vessels, effort went into retrofitting her with a new-fangled steam engine. Yet one large enough to drive the massive boat simply could not be fitted into its hull and all plans to modernize the Mahmudiye were soon forgotten. By the 1874, the vessel that was once the pride of the Ottoman Empire had become an expensive relic of a bygone era. She was withdrawn from the service and broken up.

HMS Ganges, seen here in 1900. (Image source: WikiCommons)

HMS Ganges, seen here in 1900. (Image source: WikiCommons)

HMS Ganges

One of the last sailing warships ever built for the Royal Navy, HMS Ganges, wasn’t made of oak like many of her predecessors. Her hull was fashioned from sturdy teak — hardly surprising when considering she was laid down in Bombay, India. The 84-gun vessel, which was a duplicate of an 18th Century warship (HMS Canopus), was completed in 1823 after just two years of construction. Despite the fact that Ganges was something of an artifact as soon as she first slipped her moorings, she still went on to serve capably as a Royal Navy flagship. Ganges sailed the South Atlantic for much of her career and later saw action against the Ottoman Empire in the late 1830s. After being mothballed in the 1840s, the Ganges was recalled a decade later and sent to the Pacific coast of Canada where she represented British interests in a dangerous standoff with the United States over control of San Juan Island near Vancouver. In fact, the town of Ganges, British Columbia is named in the ship’s honour. From 1865 until 1923, she was operated as a training ship under various names until being scrapped.

The sinking of the USS Cumberland in 1862. Possibly the last battle involving a sail-powered naval vessel.

The sinking of the USS Cumberland in 1862. Possibly the last major sea battle involving a sail-powered naval vessel.

USS Cumberland

Although the U.S. Navy pioneered the world’s first steam-powered warship in 1815, the USS Demologos, the emerging power continued to rely on sailing vessels long after most other militaries had upgraded their fleets. The USS Cumberland, one of the last of America’s sailing ships to see battle, was a Raritan-class frigate. Congress ordered her construction as far back as 1816, but because of budget constraints it took eight full years before any work on her commenced. Once laid down, other spending priorities beckoned and the partially completed frigate sat idle in a Boston shipyard for years. Cumberland was finally commissioned in 1842. Once in service, she participated in the war with Mexico and served in the Mediterranean squadron in the years leading up the Civil War. Already outclassed by the growing number of paddle and screw-driven warships, the Cumberland’s obsolescence was further underscored on March 8, 1862 when she became the first warship ever to be sunk by an ironclad. In the opening minutes of the famous Battle of Hampton Roads, the Confederate vessel CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) rammed and sank the Yankee frigate. The Rebel warship didn’t escape unscathed however. The collision inflicted more damage on the southern vessel than its protracted duel with the steel-hulled Union gunboat Monitor did. By the war’s end, most of the U.S. Navy’s sailing ships were decommissioned or converted to training boats or floating barracks. Another vessel, the USS Constellation, was the last American wind-powered warship ever built. Launched in 1854, her first duty was to help in the multi-national effort to suppress the slave trade. Later, vessel would chase Confederate commerce raiders through the Mediterranean. The Constellation continued to serve on after the Civil War in various minor roles until 1894 when she was designated a training vessel — a role she excelled at for another 39 years! She is now a museum ship in Baltimore.

The SMS Seedler in 1917 -- the Kaiser's fighting tall ship.

The SMS Seedler in 1917 — the Kaiser’s fighting tall ship.

The Kaiser’s Sailing Ships

When the modern nation of Germany burst onto the world stage in 1871, it did so with imperial designs. But in order to make good on these ambitions, it would need a navy befitting a great European power. Among Germany’s first warships were a number of second-hand Prussian sailing frigates like SMS Niobe. Originally designed by British shipbuilders in the 1840s as a 20-gun frigate with a single massive 68-pound swivel gun, the vessel was dumped by the Royal Navy amid the rush to modernize. She sat idle for years until being finally sold to Prussia for the bargain basement price of £15,000. When the Imperial German Navy was formed, the Niobe became one of a handful of Prussian and North German Confederation coastal defence ships that formed the backbone of the new fleet. While the Kaiser ordered a modernization campaign that would eventually see the creation of a steel navy, ships like the Niobe would continue to sail right up until 1890. Among those who served aboard her was Germany’s future admiral Alfred Von Tirpitz. Europe’s last commissioned sail powered warship that actually saw battle was the SMS Seeadler. Completed in Scotland in 1878 as the Pass of Balmaha, the ship spent its first 38 years afloat as an American freighter. In 1916, the ship was captured intact by a German U-boat and pressed into service as a commerce raider. Re-christened the Seeadler and armed with twin 105 mm cannons and an assortment of mounted machine guns, the ship headed out into the North Atlantic to savage Allied merchant shipping. Under the command of an officer named Felix von Luckner, SMS Seeadler conducted a 225-day campaign in 1917 that spanned two oceans and saw the sailing ship capture 15 vessels before breaking up on an atoll in the Society Islands of the South Pacific. Admittedly, the Seeadler was equipped with a reserve engine that could be used in emergencies, but she was the last wind-powered fighting ship of a major naval power to see action.

5 comments for “Sunset Cruises – History’s Last Sail-Powered Fighting Ships

  1. 11 September, 2013 at 1:33 am

    Great article as usual!

    Hate to point the mistake in German out again, but von Luckners ship was called the Seeadler (Sea Eagle).

    • 11 September, 2013 at 6:08 am

      No… Please point this out. Thanks for your input.

  2. 11 September, 2013 at 1:53 am

    It is difficult to imagine the immensity of some of these ships having never seen even the USS Constitution… but 120 guns? My god. And I see Obama-nomics was in full force for the building of the USS Syria… I mean Cumberland. 🙂 Never would have thought of these ironies had it not been for your good article.

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