Remember the Maine:
Armored Ram Katahdin

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2022

I like it when we can include odd pieces in our games. Not many of them are much odder than the American armored ram Katahdin from Great War at Sea: Remember the Maine. It appears, as a game piece, to be utterly useless. Mostly because it is.

at sea.

Katahdin was authorized in 1889 as a political sop tossed to those who preferred that the United States build a coast-defense navy rather than the deep-water fleet represented by the three battleships of the Indiana class authorized a few months later. Rear Admiral Daniel Ammen, head of the coast-defense faction, designed the ship himself. She was named for a mountain in Maine, a name also sometimes used for a Bigfoot-like monster said to roam the north woods. Maine's Congressional delegation pushed the project through for for the sake of home-state Bath Iron Works. The idea was to build many such rams, but only one actually appeared.

Katahdin’s design was inspired by a misunderstanding of the British torpedo ram Polyphemus. While Polyphemus did have a ram, this was an afterthought and her primary weapons were her five torpedo tubes and the 18 reloads she carried (an unusually high number for the day). Her basic hull form was curved (a unique design feature for the time) and protected by thick armor. In essence, she was intended to operate much like surfaced submarines would a few years later, as a semi-submerged torpedo boat. Polyphemus was completed in 1882, and attracted a great deal of international attention - she even serves as the inspiration for the armored ram Thunder Child in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

When Congress authorized Katahdin, the U.S. Navy had not yet adopted the self-propelled torpedo. Therefore, the American version carried only four light guns to repel boarders and no torpedoes. Just before action, she would take on extra water ballast into her double bottom (yet another unique feature) to lower her profile even deeper into the water, and then attempt to ram enemy ships. She had a heavily-armored conning tower and very few deck fittings; she resembled a submarine more than a surface warship and in many ways was a very technically advanced craft. At 2,300 tons full load, she had a crew of 97.

crew prepares
to sail for the war zone, 1898.

But while Polyphemus was slightly faster than the battleships of her day, by the time Katahdin was commissioned in February 1896, most foreign battleships were fast enough to run away from her pretty easily. Katahdin came in a full knot short of her contracted 17-knot speed on trials and had trouble making 14 knots in normal conditions, and the Navy refused to accept her. But Bath Iron Works, then as now, had enormous political pull and a special bill was rammed through Congress forcing the Navy to accept the ship. She spent only a little over a year in commission, almost all of that tied to a pier in New York, before going into reserve.

When war with Spain broke out a year later, the green-painted ram came back into service, but now the admirals refused to take her with them to Cuba. Instead she steamed from city to city on the East Coast as part of the North Atlantic Squadron, reassuring citizens that the Spaniards would be kept at bay. In June 1898, Capt. George F. Wilde received orders to report to the blockading squadron off Santiago de Cuba, but the Spanish fleet exited the port and met their total destruction before Katahdin arrived to provide a diversionary target for Spanish gunnery. In October, Katahdin once again was decommissioned. She rusted for another 11 years at Philadelphia Navy Yard before being towed out into the Atlantic and finally providing the Navy a useful service, as a gunnery target.

In the game, Katahdin is of little use. There is an optional rule for ramming, and a number of ships are eligible to try it. She appears in one of the game's 45 (!) scenarios, defending the American East Coast from Spanish depradations.

Click here to order Great War at Sea: Remember the Maine.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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