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The U.S. and Foreign Navies in 1860

"Mr Lincoln's Navy" by Donald L. Caney
Reprinted with permission from the U.S. Naval Institute Press

Though no foreign, (i.e., European) adversary arose during the Civil War years, there was, at least up until late 1862, a distinct possibility that either Britain or France might ally themselves with the Confederacy, in part due to the much ballyhooed 'cotton diplomacy', as well as British and French complicity in fitting out raiders such as Alabama. Fortunately, this did not materialize.

However, as late as 1864, Secretary of the Navy Welles still felt it necessary to begin a program for a significant number of fast steam sloops designed specifically as commerce raiders. As the Confederacy had no commerce to speak of, these ships were obviously intended for a foreign conflict. When Emperor Maximilian appeared in Mexico, the bete noir of European interference in the hemisphere seemed to be at the doorstep.

With these factors in view, it might be well to present a short description of a selected group of foreign navies, as they were in 1860.

Great Britain in 1860 was not yet the ally she would become in the twentieth century. She was nor, on the other hand, the ogre of the era of George III. Between these two extremes there was a certain affinity, yet not complete trust.

Merely a name list of the British navy's vessels in 1860 would be sufficient to make the point that their fleet was an overwhelming force. In specifics, the inventory included fifty-three steam ships of the line (60 to 131 guns and 2400 to 4200 tons), plus twenty-one on the ineffective list. (The United States had no steam liners.) There were 128 steam cruising vessels -- corvettes, sloops and frigates -- plus ten sailing ships of the line and an equal number of sailing frigates and sloops. Screw and paddle-wheel gunboats of 2 to 6 guns numbered 197.

During the years of the Civil War, twelve new ironclads were commissioned, totalling approximately 212 guns. These were oceangoing ships with broadside batteries. As will be seen, the American ironclads were almost exclusively coastal or river vessels.

In France, the fleet numbered thirty-seven screw liners of up to 130 guns each; fifteen screw frigates and eighty-four steam corvettes and sloops, plus at least twenty-five gunboats. The sailing fleet included eight ships of the line, twenty-seven frigates, and thirty-four corvettes and brigs.

Beginning with Gloire (1860), the French would have eleven ironclads in commission by 1865. Additionally, there would be seven new coastal defense floating batteries, over and above the five batteries constructed for the Crimean War. Finally, during the Civil War years, some thirteen new screw cruisers would be commissioned.

Again, the French navy was a formidable force. Though the US fleet would outnumber them in vessels by 1865, as will be seen, the majority of the American ships were hastily converted merchant ships suited for little more than their intended role: maintaining the blockade of southern coasts.

The Imperial Russian Navy was considered the third largest in this era. There were ten screw line-of-battle ships, nine screw frigates, and twenty-six screw sloops and corvettes. Between 1862 and 1865, four ironclads were built, two of which were coastal vessels. It is noteworthy that ten monitors based on John Ericsson's design were begun in 1863 and completed three years later.

In the western hemisphere, the most formidable navy other than that of the United States was that of Brazil. This consisted of fifteen steam sloops and twenty sailing ships. Eight steamers were under construction 1860, and five ironclads were completed by 1865.

THE UNION FLEET, MARCH 1861 (Serviceable Vessels)

Vessel Type Guns Location
Pawnee    screw sloop 8 Washington
Crusader    screw steamer 8 New York
Mohawk screw steamer 5 New York
Supply sail/storeship 4 New York
Sabine sail/frigate 50 Pensacola
St. Louis sail/sloop 20 Pensacola
Brooklyn screw sloop 25 Pensacola
Wyandotte screw steamer 5 Pensacola
Macedonian sail/sloop 22 Vera Cruz
Cumberland** sail/sloop 24 Norfolk (ord.)
Pocahontas screw steamer 5 ret. from Vera Cruz
Powhatan paddle steamer 11 ret. from Vera Cruz
Richmond screw sloop 16 Mediterranean Sqdrn
Susquehanna paddle sloop 15 Mediterranean Sqdrn
Iroquois screw sloop 6 Mediterranean Sqdrn
Constellation sail/sloop 22 African Squadron
Portsmouth sail/sloop 22 African Squadron
Mohican screw sloop 6 African Squadron
Mystic screw steamer 5 African Squadron
Sumter steamer 5 African Squadron
Sanjacinto screw sloop 13 African Squadron
Relief storeship 2 African Squadron
Congress sail/frigate 50 Brazil Squadron
Seminole steam sloop 5 Brazil Squadron
John Adams sail/sloop 18 East Indies
Hartford screw sloop 25 East Indies
Dakota screw sloop 6 East Indies
Niagara steam sloop 12 ret. from Japan
Saratoga sail/sloop 18 Africa
Pulaski screw steamer 1 Brazil
Saginaw paddle steamer 3 East Indies
Michigan* paddle steamer 1 Great Lakes
Saranac paddle sloop 9 Pacific Squadron
Lancaster screw sloop 25 Pacific Squadron
Potomac sail/frigate 50 New York (ord.)
St. Lawrence sail/frigate 50 New York (ord.)
Santee sail/frigate 50 New York (ord.)
Savannah sail/sloop 24 New York (ord.)
Jackson sail/sloop 22 Philadelphia (ord.)
Vincennes sail/sloop 15 Boston (ord.)
Marion sail/sloop 15 Portsmouth (ord.)
Dale sail/sloop 15 Portsmouth (ord.)
Preble sail/sloop 10 Boston (ord.)
Bainbridge brig 6 Boston (ord.)
Perry brig 9 New York (ord.)
Roanoke steam frigate 46? New York (ord.)
Colorado steam frigate 48 Boston (ord.)
Minnesota steam frigate 48 Boston (ord.)
Wabash steam frigate 48 New York (ord.)
Pensacola screw sloop 24 not complete
Mississippi paddle sloop 12 Boston (ord.)
Water Witch paddle sloop 3 Philadelphia (ord.)

*Vessel remained on Great Lakes during war.
**Towed from yard before yard was destroyed.
Ord: In ordinary at navy yard




steam frigate 40


sail/sloop 22


sail/sloop 22


brig 4


ship of the line 120

United States

frigate 44


ship of the line


ship of the line





New York

ship of the line (unfinished)


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