From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
He was Northern by birth, but Southern by choice. During the Civil War, while living in New Orleans, he was forced to serve in the Confederate Army, yet his sympathizes were against secession, and for the Union. He rejoiced when New Orleans fell to the Union in 1864.
Hunt had but a short tenure in that position, but during the time he was there, his legacy was rebuilding a Navy neglected by a country still recovering from a four-year Civil War. Hunt began with the creation of a Naval Advisory Board that on Nov. 7, 1881, dared to ask Congress for $30 million to build 21 armored ships, some with steel hulls rather than iron, and nearly 70 unarmored vessels.
Hunt would face more than a few hurdles in pushing his agenda through the bureaucracy. He was a Southerner in the North. President James Garfield, who appointed him, was shot just four months into his presidency, succumbing to his assassin’s bullet Sept. 19, 1881. Less than two months later, SECNAV Hunt would present his advisory board’s recommendation to Congress.
“The condition of the Navy imperatively demands the prompt and earnest attention of Congress. Unless some action be had in its behalf it must soon dwindle into insignificance,” Hunt said.
About 18 months later, on March 3, 1883, Congress would approve the Naval Appropriations Act of 1883 that included only $1.3 million to build a fraction of the ships requested in 1881, but with steel rather than iron hulls. They authorized building three cruisers and a dispatch ship, most commonly known today as the ABCD ships – cruisers Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and dispatch ship Dolphin – the beginnings of a steel Navy.
Iron vs Steel Hulls
The first Advisory Board, which convened June 29, 1881, was made up of 15 representative officers and materiel corps of the Navy. The use of mild steel for construction of hulls was so fully discussed and the difference of opinion so varied the Nov. 7, 1881 report was “divided” in its recommendation. Three of those dissenters would be officers of the Construction Corps of the Navy, who were concerned more about the ability of American manufacturers to produce the steel without excessive cost rather than using the steel itself.
Presenting a divided report on Nov. 7, 1881, gave the Naval Committee of the House of Representatives a chance to add two-cents. A four-month “exhaustive examination” included meetings/interviews with ship-builders and iron and steel manufacture workers, visits to those factories and testing at the Washington Navy Yard.
One who gave testimony to the committee was George Wilson, the superintendent of machinery at the Washington Navy Yard, who pointed out the biggest difference in working with iron and steel was the greater chances of “spoiling” up to 10 percent of iron flanges.
“You may have men working 10 days on a sheet of iron, and then have it spoiled. But we have never spoiled but one sheet of steel. In the many thousands that we have used in the last four years we have spoiled but one; and even that we could have used,” he said.
At the time, only one company had constructed any ships with steel plating: Pusey & Jones Company of Wilmington, Del. The owner spoke to Congressional members about the reliability of steel hulls in collision and groundings of his river-steamers, claiming “vessels built with these sheets of steel, much thinner than we have ever used for iron vessels, and they have been thumped and banged against rocks and stones until one of those boats is all dinged…yet there has been no sort of fracture.”
The House Committee on Naval Affairs was sold on the idea. In a follow-up report accompanying H.R. Bill 5001 on March 8, 1882, it states that “after carefully taking the opinions of the most extensive and experienced manufacturers of steel and iron in this country whom we could reach, we have unanimously decided that steel should be used instead of iron…”
The House Committee went on to say if the members of the Naval Advisory Board could have had the same information before them and had been as “fully informed as to the progress, extent and present condition of the manufacture of steel in this country as the committee have been, they would have all united in recommending steel as the only proper material for the construction of vessels of war.”
They weren’t too far off. Once presented with the information, all but one of the Naval Advisory Board dissenters agreed steel was the way to go.
The committee was also pleased to report the United States was able to manufacture steel better than it is made in Europe through the open-hearth method, which was best for ship-building, and there should be no problems in procuring steel “in sufficient quantity and at a reasonable cost.”
It took another year for both sides of Congress to maneuver the March 3, 1883 Naval Appropriations Act that approved four ships with steel hulls for $1.3 million, a far cry from the nearly 90 ships and $30 million the first Naval Advisory Board had recommended. But it was a start.
William Hunt, the man who jump-started the Navy’s reconstruction in 13 months, would never see his dream come to fruition. He was replaced as SECNAV by President Chester A. Arthur in April 1882 with one of his own political choices: William Eaton Chandler. Despite his ill health, Hunt was appointed ambassador to Russia, and he died at Petersburg in Feb. 1884, just two months before USS Dolphin, the first of the steel-hulled Navy he helped formulate, was launched in April.
NOTE TO MEDIA: For additional information about naval history, please contact the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Communication and Outreach division at 202-433-7880 or via email at NHHCPublicAffairs@navy.mil