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Demologos – One Year Sooner


Richard Paul Smyers

            When the United States declared war on England, on June 19, 1812, the U. S. Army could muster only 6,750 officers and men, even though it had an authorized strength of 10,000.  The Navy had been run down badly since 1801, leaving it with just nine frigates, two sloops, two brigs, a few lesser craft and a lot of oar-driven gunboats which turned out to be practically useless.  In spite of several military blunders along the way, by the end of 1814 the U. S. had rung up a string of naval victories on the high seas, the Great Lakes, and Lake Champlain, along with a few successful land battles.  It was enough to get a peace treaty from England with no loss of territory.  But during the war there were a number of places where things might have been different, and one of them could have made a major change in the course of naval history.

            On March 9, 1814, Congress authorized the construction of a steam-powered warship of sorts, to be built by Robert Fulton.  The design was unconventional, and it could not make long cruises on the high seas, but it would be a navigable, maneuverable vessel able to go out and fight British blockading warships in coastal waters, such as Long Island Sound.  Construction began on June 20th and the “steam battery” was launched on October 29, 1814.  Although it was never formally given a name, Fulton called the ship the Demologos (“voice of the people”).

            The Demologos was a catamaran, with two side-by-side hulls, one holding the boiler and the other the steam engine.  The engine drove a paddle wheel that was located between the two hulls, which kept the wheel safely shielded from enemy gunfire.  There were rudders at both ends, so the ship could steam in either direction with ease, while the hulls were joined by an enclosed gun deck housing twenty-six 32-pounder long guns.  Although it had two masts with lateen sails, the ship was designed to only use steam power when in battle, and the gun deck of the Demologos had rounded ends, with timbers just as thick as the ship’s sides.  Twelve of the guns could fire on each side of the ship, one gun could fire dead ahead, and one directly astern.  The firebox of the boiler was fitted up to let roundshot be heated, for firing at an enemy.  On a calm day with little or no wind, the biggest ship-of-the-line would have been no more than a target for this steamer.

            There is no technological reason why this ship could not have been built at least a year sooner than it was.  Fulton’s first steamboat entered service on the Hudson River in 1807, and at least four more had been built by 1814.  A twin-hulled steam ferry had also been built in New York for service on the Hudson.  Assuming that the authorization and construction of the Demologos took place a year sooner, in 1813, then by the summer of 1814 the British would be facing a serious threat to their blockade of New York harbor.  At that time there were no steamships in the Royal Navy.  Indeed, no steam-powered vessel had really gone to sea anywhere, yet.  A small steamer named Comet had started operating on the Clyde in Scotland in August 1812, while the first steamboat on the Thames River did not enter service until 1815.  Even if British agents had gathered accurate information about the Demologos and sent it to the blockading ships, the Royal Navy could not do much more than watch the entrances to the harbor, and wait.

In early August 1814, on an almost windless day, a British 74-gun ship of the line is becalmed near the western end of Long Island Sound.  A 32-gun frigate and a 16-gun brig are nearby, while other vessels lie farther east in the Sound.  A lookout on the 74 reports a column of smoke to the west, moving and coming eastwards.  In an hour all can see a blocky vessel coming toward the British ships at a steady five knots.  The ships beat to quarters, man their guns and hoist out their small boats to pull the ships around so that their broadsides will bear on this Yankee vessel, but to little use.  Even the brig can barely move in what faint breeze exists, and the steamer is moving too fast for the 74’s boats to turn the ship quickly enough to keep her guns bearing.  Just outside effective gunnery range the steamer swings around the British ship on a curving path that keeps out of the guns’ arc of fire.  Once it is astern of the 74, the steamer closes in to about fifty yards range and begins a slow, steady, destructive fire from its guns, raking the big sailing warship unmercifully.  The solid shot smash in the stern and tear along the length of the gun decks, dismounting guns and cutting down the gun crews.

            As the pounding goes on, the British captain soon learns that about one roundshot in ten that hits his ship is red-hot!  Such projectiles have to be pried out of the ship’s timbers and dumped over the side in order to prevent a fire, and wrestling with 32 pounds of red-hot iron is no easy task, with regular shot ripping into the hull at the same time.  Being steadily hit without being able to hit back, the captain faces a painfully simple choice.  His ship will be shot to bits or set on fire if he does not surrender.  After a brutal hammering he concedes, and hauls down his flag.  Another steamboat – one of those that operate on the Hudson River  – has followed the Demologos and lies off, waiting on events.  Now it comes paddling up to the 74 and sends some American sailors over in a small boat.  They take possession of the warship, a towline is passed, and the steamer hauls the ship of the line past the coastal batteries into New York harbor.

Meanwhile the Demologos puffs over to the frigate and soon forces it to strike as well.  A second steamer takes the frigate in tow, and the gun-brig’s turn is next.  By this time there’s enough of a breeze to let the brig maneuver slowly, and her captain gets his broadside to bear on the approaching steam battery.  He opens fire at about 300 yards, which is long range for the short Carronades that make up nearly all his gun battery.  In reply the Demologos turns away, steams astern of the brig and gives it a broadside.  Turning, the steam battery fires twice more, raking the brig each time, until the brig’s mainmast comes down, and it is all over.  When a breeze springs up in the evening, the British warships that were well out in the sound set sail to move well away from land, and the remaining senior officer begins to write his report of the day’s painful events.

            Over the next few weeks the British blockade on Long Island Sound becomes almost non-existent.  Royal Navy warships that venture close inshore are liable to be snapped up by the American “steam battery” on the first calm day, and those that stay well off shore cannot catch American vessels that slip out and hug the coast until well clear of the blockaders.  The American frigates United States (44) and Macedonian (38), which have been bottled up in New London, Connecticut, since June of 1813, are able to put to sea once the Demologos turns up offshore.  Privateers waiting in port for a chance to sail seize the opportunity and set out with guns ready and profit on their minds.  And each British warship captured is taken in hand for refitting and commissioning in the U. S. Navy.  In a letter to a friend, one frustrated British naval officer writes that trying to blockade New York only results in the reinforcement of the American Navy with prizes.  

            The most effective way to change an army or a navy is to hand it a sharp defeat, using new tactics or technology, so this is a POD that would surely have a major effect on naval history.  A practical demonstration that a steam warship could be built, go into action and defeat the enemy would force all navies to look closely at steam power for warships.  More vessels like the Demologos would certainly be built for harbor and coastal defense, and the subject of cruising warships with auxiliary steam power would receive attention and money for development.  In England a patent for a screw propeller to drive a vessel had been taken out as early as 1785, and trials with a hand-cranked screw propeller were made in 1802.  If the Demologos had been built a year sooner, and proved successful in action, would warships with steam-driven propellers have been built sooner?  It seems likely.

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