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Now You Know, October 2023 Bonus Article

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

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.

You will also read about ships becoming “receiving” ships at the end of their lives. In the 19th century, there were no shore-based facilities for inducting (“receiving”) and training newly recruited sailors. Instead, ships that were past their useful life and no longer seaworthy would be converted to be a receiving ship. They would be permanently tied up at a harbor or navy yard and greatly modified. Armament, masts, and other equipment would be removed and interior spaces modified. Usually, a roof or structure was built on the deck. This can be seen in the photograph of the USS Constitution, which served as receiving ship in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from 1882 until 1897. [Note the photo from last week’s segment, which you will find linked below.]

An extreme example of this is given by the USS Pennsylvania, the largest sailing ship built for the U.S. Navy. The ship, which was rated for 136 guns, was built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and launched in 1837. She took her only cruise, partly manned and without a full complement of guns, from Chester, Pennsylvania, to the Norfolk Navy Yard (then called “Gosport”). The ship could not be fully manned, it did not have a mission, and using it was unaffordable, so it went into ordinary until 1842 and then became a receiving ship. She served in that capacity until 1861, when she was burned to keep her from falling into Confederate hands.

Receiving ships might have other uses as well. They could provide office space or temporary berthing for sailors in between ships or, occasionally, be used as hospital ships. In the Royal Navy some were even used as prison ships.

It’s not uncommon when reading biographies of naval officers in the 19th century to see that, in addition to time at sea or on shore assignments, they spent time on a receiving ship. There were some advantages to such an assignment. First and most importantly, it counted as an assignment at sea. In the 19th century, promotion was by strict seniority and there was no mandatory retirement age. So, in addition to waiting your turn for promotion, it was necessary to build a resume. The most important part of a personal record was time at sea and, eventually, command at sea. Other advantages included easy duty with time to pursue other interests and the opportunity to live (and spend time) on shore rather than on the ship.

Passed Midshipman John A. Dahlgren served on the receiving ship USS Sea Gull in his hometown of Philadelphia in 1832. Dahlgren used his ample free time to study law by reading and making detailed notes on Blackstone and other notables. However, berthing on shore was at the discretion of the commanding officer, and Lieutenant Charles Guantt required all junior officers to remain on the ship instead of rotating ashore when they did not have the duty.

By the early 20th century, it became apparent to the senior leadership of the Navy that receiving ships would not satisfy the needs of a modern and expanding Navy. The Navy’s medical community had long considered berthing of large numbers of sailors on receiving ships to be unhealthy. Most receiving ships were decommissioned as shore facilities were built in the first decades of the 20th century. However, there are a few cases of receiving ships staying in service until the late 1930s.

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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