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A vessel that almost wasn't

The USS Puritan churns through East River ice while passing under the Brooklyn Bridge in the winter of 1901. The 296-foot monitor was designed as an improvement on the Civil War ironclads, which had transformed naval warfare and made all of the world’s wooden warships at once obsolete.

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The Navy, at war’s end, had called on Congress to fund the construction of five new monitors. Congress instead appropriated funds for the repair of five outmoded and unfinished Civil War-era ironclads, including one named Puritan, which had been languishing for a decade. Under the guise of repairs, a new Puritan took shape at the John Roach & Sons yard in Chester, Pa., and was completed at the New York Navy Yard in Brooklyn in 1882. Several other monitors also were “repaired” in the same manner.
Congress found out, and a scandal ensued. The new Navy Secretary, William H. Hunt, called the monitors “bad copies of old models” and a “worthless class of vessels.” It was too late to scrap the project, but it would be 14 more years before the USS Puritan was commissioned.
In light of the Puritan’s naval record, Hunt’s assessment was perhaps too harsh. Armed with four 12-inch guns mounted in cylindrical turrets, she served in the Spanish-American War in 1898, taking part in the Cuban blockade, shelling Matanzas and accompanying the U.S. fleet at the Battle of Santiago.
The Puritan later served as a practice ship for the Naval Academy, among other duties. She was decommissioned in 1910, struck from the Navy List in 1918 and sold to private owners in 1922, at which point she was lost to history.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.