The Navy Department's 1864 Damage Control
By the outbreak of the war in 1861 the United States Navy had grown from a scant forty five vessels commissioned for duty to well over six hundred by the year 1864. The Naval blockade from Hampton Roads to the Gulf along the Texas coast forced many ships to navigate in tight areas all along their theatre of operations and the problem of collisions between vessels became a significant problem when maneuvering.
On May 4, 1864 the Navy Department published General Orders No. 34 providing the commands at sea an adopted plan on collision prevention. The order was republished by the War Department on August 13, 1864 and passed along to the Quartermaster's Department of the Army to be adapted for all vessels by September the 1st.
The idea of making these vessels more visual at sea would greatly reduce the risk of negligence and accidents brought on by less than desirable seamanship. New also to the age was the transition from the ship under sail to a larger number under steam power; the speed of which required reaction time to be greatly reduced in avoiding such disasters underway. Many ships up to this time had been guilty of maintaining their present speed upon approach of another and thought nothing of reducing, stopping or even reversing when venturing too close to another vessel.
Steam ships, including those equipped with sails would fasten a bright white light fixed to shine outwardly over the sides to cover twenty points of the compass, ten on the port and ten on the starboard. All ships approaching ought to be able to mark the light from 110 degrees on either side. The starboard side of the ship would possess a fixed green light and the port side a fixed red light both illuminating ten points of the compass and bright enough to be spotted from two miles out.
In the event of fog night or day, both the steam ship and the sailing vessel will signal their presence in the water with the ship's bell, the distinction between the two shall be underway as the steamer will signal with a whistle and the sail ship with the fog horn.
To ensure no mistake is made as two ships are meeting, whether under steam or sail all officers of the deck will ensure that their helm is put to port so all ships will pass down the left side of the other. The steam ship is always charged with slackening speed, reversing or stopping if necessary, and will always keep clear of the sailing vessel.
Although greatly reduced, collisions at sea did happen and the commanding officers were charged with reporting to the Navy Department their own investigations to the pertinent facts, officers involved, and witnesses thereof. These concepts became a sound guideline towards safety at sea in a time when our Navy had grown beyond the imagination of the people, let alone the world it had partaken in.
I'd like to extend my appreciation to Mr. Robert Macomber for his expertise in the Navies of the 19th Century in helping me visualize the concepts of this historical document. My special thanks to Captain William Stark, United States Naval Reserve for showing an old Yeoman some tricks to the Quartermaster's trade.
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