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Now You Know, October 2023 Bonus Article, Section 1 of 2

Ordinary and Receiving Ships

By Dr. Rob Gates

When you read the history of individual ships in the 19th century, you will see references to periods that the ship was in “ordinary” or served as a “receiving” ship. Those terms are not in current use. What do they mean?

Sometimes, and especially in time of war, navies acquire large numbers of ships that are designed to meet wartime missions and needs. When the war ends, many of the ships are no longer needed or do not match the requirements of the peacetime missions. Defense budgets are also reduced – often significantly – and the ships and sailors needed during the war cannot be supported in peacetime.

At that point, a decision has to be made ship-by-ship. Is it possible that the ship will be needed in the future? If the answer is “No,” then the ship is disposed of either by sale or by being scrapped. On the other hand, if there is a possibility that it may be needed in the future, it would be put in “ordinary” or, in modern parlance, “mothballed.” Technically, when a ship went into ordinary it was decommissioned and then re-commissioned when it went back to active service.

When a ship went into ordinary, it was preserved in a state from which it could be returned to active service. Armament and masts would be removed and stored. Likewise, sails, equipment, and other items were also removed. Openings such as gun ports and hatches would be closed and sealed or covered. A small crew of sailors – unfit for sea duty because of age or disability – would be assigned to the ship for security…mostly against trespassing or vandalism. Despite these efforts, it was not unusual for it to take more than a year to restore a ship to active service from ordinary.

When you look at a ship’s history, you will see that they often spent a number of periods in ordinary for several years each time. The USS Constitution provides an example of this. The ship was launched in 1797, was in active service until 1801, and in ordinary until 1803. It returned to active service and served through the War of 1812. It was in ordinary from 1816 until it returned to active service in 1821. From 1828 on, there were alternating periods of active service and ordinary (each lasting 3 to 5 years) until it became a training ship in 1857.

While this discussion has focused on the 19th century, there are similar examples in the early years of the 20th century.

About the Author

Dr. Robert V. Gates is vice president of the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation. He had a long and varied career at NSWC Dahlgren Division and retired after serving as the technical director of the Indian Head Division, NSWC. His various degrees attest to his commitment to lifelong learning, and he supports his community through offices and membership on various boards.

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