Armored Ram Katahdin
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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.
Katahdin 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
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
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.
Katahdin’s 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
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.
here to order Great War at Sea: Remember the Maine.
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold likes to bark.