By Naval History and Heritage Command
NOTE: This blog posits that USS Indiana (BB 1) was the U.S. Navy’s first battleship. Why? The hull number, for one thing – BB 1. There’s also the fact that the ships after Indiana were called Indiana-class battleships. Also, based on the Naming of Ships Act of 1819, Indiana was a “first class” battleship based on her 42 guns. Texas was a second-class battleship with only 34 guns. Despite all that, we admit that Texas was commissioned three months before Indiana. No matter which side of that debate you fall on, no one can deny Indiana, which was launched on this date in 1893, was a great ship and those who sailed in her were great Sailors!
As the Navy’s first numbered-as-such battleship, Indiana (BB 1) was the heaviest such ship at nearly 10,300 tons, the longest and widest of any other ship, and outfitted with the most guns, 42. The downside to all of that was she was among the slowest, with a top speed of 15 knots compared to 17 for the lighter “second-class” battleships Maine and Texas.
Launched 121 years ago today, Indiana might have been slow, but her weapons and armor would serve her well during the critical Battle of Santiago de Cuba July 3, 1898.
Relaunching the Navy
Before you sail them, you have to build them. Years before President Theodore Roosevelt would introduce the world to the Great White Fleet, those ships had to be built. There were only two commissioned vessels in the Navy that could be considered warships at the time President Benjamin Harrison took office, March 4, 1889 – armored cruisers Atlanta and Boston. Two more ships were under construction, USS Maine and USS Texas, considered second-class battleships since they sported fewer than 40 guns, the requirement for ‘first class’ status.
Harrison’s commitment to growing the naval forces was evident in his inaugural address, stating “construction of a sufficient number of warships and their necessary armaments should progress as rapidly as is consistent with care and perfection.”
To put that goal into action, Harrison turned to another Benjamin — Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy — to work out the details. His first proposal a few months later was an ambitious 15-year program of 35 battleships and 167 other vessels, with 10 of those battleships designed for protecting American shipping interests around the world, while the rest would be built to protect America’s coasts and ports. It was a compromise for those who felt the United States should remain an isolationist nation rather than an imperialistic world power.
That bill failed. Tracy’s second attempt was far less reaching. On June 30, 1890, Congress approved a Navy Bill authorizing construction of three new battleships that were more of the coastal-protection design: heavily armored, plenty of weaponry, and while not speedy, a respectable 15 knots. Years later, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt would call them “sea-going coast-line battleships.” The first would be called Indiana, no doubt a nod to the president’s home state. By 1898, the Navy boasted 10 modern warships and turned the United States into a legitimate naval power. Seven of those would have begun during Harrison’s 4-year term, including the two other Indiana-class battleships Massachusetts (BB 2) and Oregon (BB 3).
Ironically, getting approval from Congress to fund the fleet took less time than building USS Indiana. Her keel was laid down May 7, 1891 by William Cramp & Sons out of Philadelphia. With just four days left in his presidency, Harrison attended Indiana’s launch Feb. 28, 1893, along with 10,000 others. It would be another two years before the “sea-going coast-line battleship” would be commissioned into the Navy.
During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Indiana’s heavily-armored structure proved vital during the Battle of Santiago de Cuba. The battleship was part of Rear Adm. William Sampson’s North Atlantic Squadron fleet based out of Key West, Fla. The Spanish government had ordered Adm. Pascual Cervera’s 6-ship squadron to guard Cuba. Leaving from the Canary Islands, Cervera’s squad arrived at Cuba in late May, but two days later the Spanish ships were spotted by the Americans. USS Indiana was part of a squadron sent to blockade the Spanish fleet within the harbor at Santiago de Cuba.
After more than a month blockaded in the harbor, Cervera planned his escape. He hoped his faster ships could slip by the Americans while they were conducting church services on Sunday, July 3. Other factors worked in Cervera’s favor that Sunday morning: Sampson’s flagship was out of place to communicate with another ship and two vessels were being refueled at Guantanamo Bay.
As Cervera’s cruisers Infanta María Teresa and Almirante Oquendo fled, Sampson’s squadron took chase, sinking or running aground the two cruisers. Indiana and the armored yachts moved into position just in time to pound Cervera’s destroyers, Pluton and Furor, with gunfire, sinking them. By the end of the morning, Sampson’s ships sank or forced aground the rest of Cervera’s ships, Vizcaya and Cristóbal Colón. More than 323 Spanish crew were killed with 151 wounded. Adm. Cervera was one of the 1,500 sailors and officers taken prisoner. The U.S. lost one crew member with minimal damage to the ships.
After the battle, as the Navy continued to transform its fleet to fill a more global mission, Indiana would be used to train sailors. She was decommissioned Dec. 29, 1903.
That would last but three years. Indiana would be recommissioned Jan. 9, 1906, to serve with the Naval Academy Practice Squadron, sailing to Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. On June 22, 1911, while in Queenstown, Ireland, the “sea-going coast-line battleship” fired a 21-gun salute in honor of the coronation of King George V.
Indiana would continue training midshipmen until she was decommissioned again May 23, 1914, but again, her value to the Navy would continue as she was recommissioned three years later, serving through World War I as a training ship for gun crews off Tomkinsville, N.Y. and in the York River.
She was decommissioned as Indiana for the last time Jan. 31, 1919, and the name itself was cancelled March 29, 1919, leaving the opportunity for another battleship to be named Indiana, one that would serve infamously during the naval battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II.
But the battleship formerly-known-as-Indiana continued to serve the Navy. Reclassified as Coast Battleship Number 1, she was used as a target for important aerial bombing tests. Finally, the ship’s hulk was sold for scrap March 19, 1924, just over 31 years after 10,000 people watched her launching Feb. 28, 1893, in Philadelphia.