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T2, R3, Prng 82: American Great Lakes Corvette vs French Corvette & Brig

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  • T2, R3, Prng 82: American Great Lakes Corvette vs French Corvette & Brig

    In your opinion, which of these two warship types was most significant, influential and/or effective?
    Feel free to apply those criteria as you please, along with any others you think appropriate.
    Note: Suggestions for some additional criteria are at the foot of this post.

    According to the criteria as you see and apply them, please vote for your preferred candidate in the attached poll.
    If your chosen criteria are significantly different from those suggested, telling us what they are and why you used them would be helpful.

    During the 18th and 19th centuries, building sailing warships for service on the Great Lakes of North America was quite different in some ways, than building them for the World's seas and oceans.
    For a start, on the positive side for example, travelling across the clean non-salt lakes allowed a ship's crew to draw safe drinking water en-route; provided they were not close to mooring points or other places near the shore that might be contaminated with effluent. Not having to carry much drinking water allowed more space for cargo, munitions or stores.
    Secondly, from the point of view of construction, the ships themselves did not need to be quite as robust or strongly built as their ocean-going equivalents. While the waters of the Great Lakes were by no means always calm, titanic forces such as those generated by the more extreme ocean storms did not have to be allowed for.
    A third advantage was that Great Lakes ships also did not need to adopt copper plating or other measures to deal with timber-eating organisms such as the teredo worm, that plagued shipping on salt water.

    One small disadvantage is the fact that in fresh water, ships are slightly less buoyant than in salt water; by a factor of about 3 percent. In effect, what this means - for example - is that a ship drawing 12ft of water on the ocean would draw 12ft 4in on the Great Lakes. That might not seem like very much but it did affect load carrying capacity to some extent. Also - and this applies on salt and fresh water alike - although having less draft is an advantage for movement in shallower waters, designers could not go too far in that direction either. A primary reason for this is the fact that the stabilizing effect of any ballast being carried is less when its center of gravity is closer to the surface. To some extent, this can be countered by having lower mast heights but there are limits to how far that can go too, before sailing efficiency is lost. As with most design challenges, it's all about getting the balance right.

    Finally, it has probably already occurred to most of you that the Great Lakes warships we'll be looking at in this tournament were all built on or near the edges of the Great Lakes themselves. I'm sure I don't need to explain why.

    37: American Great Lakes Corvette 1801-1815

    The corvette USS Saratoga, named after the battles of Saratoga in the Revolutionary War, was built in Vergennes, Vermont, for service on Lake Champlain during the War of 1812 (June 1812 - February 1815). She came fairly late into the conflict, being launched in April 1814. However, late or not her addition to the American side put the United States ahead in the naval construction race on that particular lake; for a short time at least. (By August of that year the British had completed construction of their new 36-gun frigate HMS Confiance, swinging the balance back somewhat.)
    Saratoga's crew was 212 officers and men. She displaced about 750 tons and carried 26 guns as follows:
    • 8 x 24pdr guns
    • 6 x 42pdr carronades
    • 12 x 32pdr carronades

    Battle of Lake Champlain (also known as the Battle of Plattsburgh)

    This battle was fought both on land and on Lake Champlain. Here, I shall focus on the naval battle only:

    On 11 September 1814, a British squadron led by Commodore George Downie aboard HMS Confiance, approached the American squadron, led by Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough aboard USS Saratoga.
    By this time, MacDonough was aware of the new British ship and his enemy's overall superiority in gun-power; especially at medium to longer ranges. He therefore decided to remain within the relatively narrow confines of Plattsburgh bay, where the British would be forced to engage at closer ranges to bring about a decision. This was a wise tactic, because the American ships had a considerably higher percentage of shorter-range carronades with much heavier shot. Shorter ranges would effectively at least even out the firepower disparity, or perhaps even favour the Americans.
    McDonough selected good positions from which his ships could fight at anchor, and had their crews put out anchored cables in such a way that they could swing their ships through a wide arc more quickly when needed.
    As the British ships closed for combat and attempted to maneuver for better positions, an intense and fierce exchange of fire began and casualties became heavy on both sides. However, the British were unable to defeat or break the American line. Partway through the battle, when most of Saratoga's starboard guns had been destroyed or dismounted, McDonough ordered her swung around to bring the guns of her undamaged port side to bear on the enemy.
    Confiance was unable to reply in any strength. By this stage, Downie and several other British officers had been killed, so a relatively junior Lieutenant was now in command. He attempted to maneuver to bring the guns on Confiance's less damaged side to bear but instead, all he achieved was to present his vulnerable stern, which allowed Saratoga to rake her with a devastating broadside. By this stage, the American brig Eagle had also positioned herself to bring fire upon the stern of the British ship. With the position now being completely hopeless, Confiance struck her colours and the battle was as good as over.

    Initial maneuvers, with Confiance (left, background) in position to rake Saratoga.
    Saratoga was able to turn quickly using previously prepared anchored cables.

    Corvette-Sloop Saratoga Lake Champlain 1814 p29 onv188.jpg

    Closing stage of the battle:
    American brig Eagle (right) has just joined Saratoga (left) and prepares to engage Confiance.

    Corv-Sloop Saratoga & Eagle engage Confiance Lake Champlain 1814 2.jpg

    Our third illustration shows the main types of guns used by warships during this conflict:

    1. Carronade. A short-barreled gun, attached to a carriage fitted on a slide. This in turn was fixed to the bulwark with a pivot pin. Two small wheels mounted sideways at the rear of the slide allowed the carronade to be pivoted. Carronades had a shorter range than regular guns but fired a ball of far greater size and weight, which was extremely destructive. The main downside was the need to close the range to use them. In the process of closing the range, an enemy using regular "long guns" could inflict considerable damage. For this reasons, many warships of the era carried both types of gun, experimenting with various combinations.

    Long guns used two main types of mounting:

    2. Pivot mounts had the gun on a carriage and slide combination, resting on a ring fixed to the ship's deck. Sometimes there were small wheels on the slide but it was commonly mounted directly on to the ring, which was usually lubricated with "slush" (beef and/or pork fat skimmed off during cooking). The slide allowed for recoil. The main advantage of this type of mount, when correctly set up, is that it allowed guns to be centrally mounted and fired to either side of a ship.

    3. By far the most common mount was the traditional truck carriage. In this configuration, the carriage had four small wooden wheels. When the gun was fired, these would allow recoil to occur smoothly but it was the "breeching rope" attached to the bulwark that absorbed most of the recoil forces.

    Guns p35 od79.jpg

    70: French Corvette and Brig 1701-1860

    The first known reference to "corvettes" is in the Marine Nationale (French Navy) during the 1670's. Sailing corvettes of this period were quite similar to sloops, being warships with a single deck of guns and smaller than a frigate. Corvettes usually had three masts; the larger ones being generally somewhat bigger and having a greater displacement than the largest sloops, with up to about 28 guns. Nevertheless, either way across the leading navies of this time, they shared the general position of the sloop in representing a warship being "next size down" from a frigate. As with the sloops, sailing corvettes were fast and agile warships that proved extremely useful and could fulfill a considerable variety of tasks.

    Our first example is Bayonnaise, launched in 1793. Her displacement was about 580 tons. She was rated for 24 guns as her "nominal" main armament; beginning her career armed with 28 (24 x 8pdr & 4 x 4pdr).
    Later, this was changed to 24 x 8pdr, 2 x 32pdr carronades and the option for an additional 6 x 8pdr guns. With both arrangements, provision was also made for a number of swivel guns. Her complement varied from time to time but would usually not have been less than 220 officers and men.

    Her first major action was in the Croisiere du grand Hiver (Campaign of the Great Winter) in December 1794; an unsuccessful operation but for reasons that were no fault of Bayonnaise and her crew, who presumably did their duty.

    Coppering of a Ship's Hull

    In 1795, Bayonnaise was kept in dock for a time to have her bottom "coppered"; a process that began to be favored in a number navies during this period. The British had been the first to introduce the method. It consisted of a coating of many small thin copper plates, being fixed to the portion of the hull below the waterline. The purpose was to inhibit salt-water corrosion and the growth and destructive effects of various forms of marine life that invariably attached themselves to the hulls of ships. Given sufficient time, these could not only gradually weaken a wooden hull (some creatures, notably a type of marine worm, could bore into the timber); but the encrustations of general marine growth would also gradually make the ship slower and slower in the water, due to the "drag" they created when the ship was under way.

    Recognition of this problem and efforts to deal with it were far from new. Prior to the advent of coppering, some navies - and a few going back to ancient times - experimented with other solutions such as an extra layer of outer planking (that could be removed and replaced); and covering with thin lead sheets. However, in particular the excessive weight of lead was a performance killer. Other solutions included regular in-dock maintenance cleaning - if and when the opportunity arose - combined with re-coatings of various inhibitive substances and paints.
    However, it was discovered that copper plating worked far better and for substantially longer. Not only did it effectively prevent creatures boring into the hull but also, it had a considerable inhibiting effect on most forms of life attaching themselves to the hull to begin with. Therefore, the build-up of encrustation in itself was much slower. Although coppering was unquestionably expensive, in the long run it not only saved maintenance costs but also helped to preserve performance in the water for much longer than previous treatments. As little as one or two extra knots could mean the difference between defeat and victory in a moving engagement and the advantage could sometimes be considerably more than that; depending on factors such as the state of one's opponent's hull.

    Of course, there is far more to all of this than the very cursory coverage I've given here. For those starting out as I recently did (i.e. knowing almost nothing) and looking for a bit more detail, the wiki article is one possible starting point:

    Bayonnaise's most famous action

    This French corvette became famous when she reluctantly engaged and captured the larger and much more heavily armed 32-gun British frigate Ambuscade, off the West coast of France near the Gironde estuary. The British frigate, commanded by Captain Henry Higgins, was commencing blockade duty at the time. Initially the French captain, Jean-Baptiste-Édmond Richer, felt that discretion was the best option and began to withdraw from the area. However, as soon as this became apparent Ambuscade gave chase and eventually came within cannon range.
    After an exchange of fire lasting almost an hour, Bayonnaise had gotten the worst of it and was looking as if she would go down. However, while Ambuscade was maneuvering to Bayonnaise's stern in order to rake her, one of the British ship's guns burst. In the ensuing confusion, Bayonnaise attempted to make good her escape. However, Ambuscade soon resumed the chase and caught Bayonnaise a second time. With the British ship drawing alongside to port, to resume the exchange of gunfire, Richer finally decided that a desperate situation called for desperate measures. He ordered his ship to "back sail" and to turn towards the British and ram them. Bayonnaise's bowsprit broke the British ship's mizzen and the two vessels became locked together. Both ships then fired their last broadside and prepared for close-quarter combat!
    Under fire of some of the smaller guns and the exchange of musketry, grapples were used to bring the two ships closer together and an intense exchange of fire and melee lasting about 30 minutes, ensued. The French managed to gain the upper hand and eventually, the only British officer left standing - William Beaumont Murray - surrendered his ship.
    Both ships had been severely damaged but of the two, the captured Ambuscade was the more seaworthy so she was used to tow Bayonnaise back to a French port. Both ships were repaired and Ambuscade became Embuscade in French service.

    French corvette Bayonnaise ramming British frigate Ambuscade, December 1798

    Corvette Bayonnaise 1793 vs Ambuscade Dec 1798.jpg

    My chosen example of a French brig is Cygne of the Abeille class, launched in 1806. She displaced about 350 tons and was armed with 16 guns; 14 x 24pdr carronades and 2 x 6pdr chasers, having a crew of 84.

    Model of brig Cygne 1806

    Brig-Corvette Cygne 1806 model.jpg

    Cygne had a short career with a few successful engagements, under the command of her captain Menouvrier Defresne. Her final battle was a "last stand" against a British squadron in the Caribbean, in December 1808. The action took place over a couple of days, with repeated attempts to capture Cygne being repulsed and some British prisoners being taken. A brief opportunity for Cygne to escape came to nothing when she ran aground. With the British ships closing in, Defresne ordered her to be abandoned and destroyed by fire.

    Painting illustrating a moment during the 1808 battle. Cygne is to the left, with assault boats from the British ships attempting to capture her intact.

    Brig-Corvette Cygne 1806 vs Brit ships 1808 by Mayer.jpg

    OK, so what's your decision for this particular pairing?
    American Great Lakes corvette or French corvette & brig?

    Suggested additional criteria you might wish to consider, along with any others you deem appropriate.
    (Note: Some of these could be considered already covered by Significant, Influential and Effective)

    Which warship type ...
    • was the best?
    • was the greatest?
    • was the most widely used?
    • had the greatest longevity in service?
    • was the most versatile?
    • represented the best value for the cost/effort invested ("bang for the buck" in today's language)?
    • was the easiest to operate?
    Any other criteria you have applied (please tell us what they were).
    37 - American Great Lakes Corvette
    70 - French Corvette & Brig
    Last edited by panther3485; 04 Nov 18, 09:44.
    "Chatfield, there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!"
    Vice Admiral Beatty to Flag Captain Chatfield; Battle of Jutland, 31 May - 1 June, 1916.

  • #2
    These candidates - in terms of the merits of the ships themselves - are pretty much equal IMO.
    However, Influence and importance on the Great Lakes for a decade and a half vs influence and importance on the World's oceans for a century and a half?
    No difficulty with this one.
    "Chatfield, there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!"
    Vice Admiral Beatty to Flag Captain Chatfield; Battle of Jutland, 31 May - 1 June, 1916.


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