Yeah, my brain has continued to delve into my understanding of naval history and terminology, as checkered, incomplete and perhaps confused as it may be.

Consider the naming of ships. A century ago Naval warfare was dominated by the “Battleship.” The actual name “battleship” is a contraction of “line of battle ship”, which referred to the 18th century naval tactic of lining up several “ships of the line” to fire massive multi-ship broadsides at the enemy. Back then a ship involved in the line of battle was not designated as a “battleship” but instead was designated as a “ship of the line”.


I find this sort of historical rumination to be incredibly fascinating. Back at the end of the 18th century, the newly created US Congress had approved the construction and maintenance of nine ships of the line. The first of these, as I recall, was the USS Independence, and as has become the custom since, the subsequent ships created in the same design were called “Independence class” ships of the line.

At that time Great Britain probably had several dozen ships of the line, which should give some indication of the difference in naval power between the USA and Great Britain. It would be difficult, for example, to consider nine ships to constitute an “armada”.

And that would be if the US had actually completed the nine ships commissioned. In fact the USA had a rather dismal record in creating ships of the line. Attempts to build such ships during the Revolutionary War period were rapidly abandoned or the shipyards captured so no such ships were completed. An additional set of ships originally intended to be built around 1800 were abandoned as the USA decided to honor George Washington’s admonition to avoid foreign entanglements. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the War of 1812 that the USA decided that such a show of force would actually be beneficial, and while the resulting few ships of the line along with the small navy of frigates and other smaller ships might not have been much of a deterrent to the massive fleets of European nations, they did allow the USA to discourage piracy against US naval and merchant ships.

Eventually the US did manage to launch the approved nine-ship “fleet” of such ships, but it took almost a decade to do so, and in the process several ships were aborted in the build process due to the rapidly changing nature of warfare. By the time the ninth ship was officially launched in 1820 the nature of naval combat was already changing due to the advancement of artillery technology, and the USA focused further shipbuilding on faster, smaller ships armed with more advanced guns.

As for the “ships of the line” themselves, these first “battleships” for the most part had remarkably unimpressive careers. In part that was because the period between 1820 and the Civil War was a period the USA managed to avoid major conflict with European powers who could overwhelm the tiny American line. Most of the ships barely saw any combat at all and most served as flagships or performed diplomatic duties while the day-to-day naval engagements of the period were managed by the more numerous and less costly frigates of the navy.

The Civil War itself introduced the concept of iron-clad ships and that so radically changed the nature of naval combat that ships of the line become obsolete more or less overnight. About the only thing that these ships bequeathed to their metal successors was the name “battleship” which was never an official designation until the Age of Sail was over and the steam-powered dreadnaughts ruled the seas.