USS Roanoke was a large steam frigate which was part of the blockading squadron seeing action at Hampton Roads, Virginia, during history's first battle between ironclad warships in March of 1862; later, she would be an unsuccessful conversion to an ironclad herself.
Roanoke was launched on 13 December 1855 at Norfolk Navy Yard; and commissioned 4 May 1857, Capt. John B. Montgomery in command.
Assigned to the Home Squadron as flagship, Roanoke’s first duty was to return the American filibuster and former president of Nicaragua, William Walker, and 205 of his men to the United States. Sailing for Aspinwall, Columbia, on 30 May 1857, Roanoke returned on 4 August with Walker and his followers. Subsequently, Roanoke was sent to Boston Navy Yard where she decommissioned on 24 September 1857.
Recommissioned on 18 August 1858, Roanoke resumed her duties as flagship of the Home Squadron. Roanoke devoted the following months to cruising in the West Indies, carrying the U.S. Minister at Bogota, George W. Jones, to Aspinwall and Cartagena. For over a year, she was stationed at Aspinwall awaiting the arrival of a special Japanese embassy to the United States. The Japanese delegation, travelling to Washington to exchange ratifications of the 1858 treaty, departed Yokohama on 13 February 1860 in the frigate Powhatan and reached Aspinwall by a train across the isthmus on 25 April 1860. Roanoke embarked the delegation and reached Hampton Roads on 12 May 1860 and was decommissioned.
Civil War service
Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Roanoke recommissioned on 20 June 1861. Attached to the North Atlantic Squadron, she destroyed the schooner Mary off Lockwood’s Inlet, N.C., on 13 July 1861. The screw frigate subsequently took part in the capture of the schooners Albion and Alert and helped take the ship Thomas Watson off Charleston, S.C., on 15 October 1861.
During CSS Virginia’s (the former USS Merrimack) attack on Union warships in Hampton Roads, 8 March 1862, Roanoke’s deep draft prevented her from engaging the Confederate casement ram and kept her out of action the next day when the Virginia engaged the Union turreted ironclad, Monitor. Roanoke embarked 268 men from the Congress and Cumberland which Virginia had sunk, transported them North, and arrived at New York on 25 March, and decommissioned the same day.
Conversion to an ironclad
While being extensively modified by Novelty Iron Works, N.Y., Roanoke was cut down to a low-freeboard ship and given three revolving centerline turrets. She kept her single funnel but landed her full ship rig, and in her new configuration was accepted by the Navy at New York Navy Yard on 16 April 1863. An ordnance report, dated 31 August 1863, listed her battery as follows: fore turret one 15”, one 150-pounder; middle turret one 15”, one 11”; after turret, one 11”, one 150-pounder
Sea trials indicated that her heavy turrets caused her to roll dangerously in a seaway, and that her hull was not sufficiently strong to bear their weight and the concussion of the continuous firing. Recommissioned on 29 June 1863, Roanoke was assigned as harbor defense ship at Hampton Roads, Va., a duty she performed through the end of the Civil War.
Roanoke was decommissioned on 20 June 1865 at New York Navy Yard. Retained in reserve, Roanoke’s only postwar service was as flagship of the Port Admiral at New York. Roanoke was recommissioned on 13 January 1874 and remained in reduced commission until again placed in reserve on 12 June 1875. Struck from the list on 5 August 1882, Roanoke was sold for scrapping on 27 September 1883 at Chester, Pa., to E. Stannard & Co., Westbrook, Conn.
This article incorporates text from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, a work in the public domain.