Ever since the first caveman figured out that wood floats, the sea has been a part of human history. From hollowed out logs to Roman Triremes, and from ships driven by the wind to the nuclear powered super carriers of today, man has had an impenetrable bond with ships. In fact, until the age of steam, they were mankind’s only practical means of moving goods around the world, making them an indispensable part of the civilization process.
They have also been an important part of war as well, with improvements in warship design driving almost every innovation in maritime history, from steam power to construction techniques. As such, ships continue to fascinate us, both for their power and mystique, and they probably always will.
Of course, there have been literally millions of ships built over the millennia, but only a handful have left a lasting impact over the centuries. Some of these were famous for their accomplishments while others served as a symbol around which entire nations would rally. All of them, however, survive the centuries and are noted here. So here is my list of the top ten most famous ships—both military and civilian—in history.
10. The Santa Maria
Though less than 70 feet long and by all accounts a slow and hideous vessel, few can deny the fame the tiny Spanish boat achieved when she brought Christopher Columbus to the new world.
While Columbus has acquired a bad rap of late for his brutality as governor of Hispaniola and other little foibles he was famous for, no one can deny his extraordinary seamanship or his courage in making the crossing not just once, but four times during his lifetime. Unfortunately, the sturdy little Santa Maria would not be making a repeat journey, as she ran aground on Christmas day, 1492, and was salvaged for her wood (which, interesting enough, went into the construction of another ship originally called La Navidad—Christmas—because the wreck occurred on Christmas Day).
While the original is long gone, no fewer than four replicas of the ship have been built since, all of them capable of putting to sea. Unfortunately, none of them are exact duplicates as no records of the ship’s original construction exist, resulting in a number of different configurations.
9. C.S.S. Hunley
This early excuse for a submarine proved to be far more dangerous to her own crews than she was to the Union Navy, but she was to start a revolution in naval engineering that remains with us to this day. Built by the Confederates in 1863 specifically to sink Union ships then barricading Southern ports, she sank twice while being tested, killing 13 of her crew (including her designer, H.L. Hunley) in the process. Finally ready for her first combat test, on the evening of February 17, 1864, the Hunley, which never seemed to run out of men eager to serve on her despite the generally suicidal nature of doing so, snuck up on the Union sloop Housatonic and buried a spar torpedo in her side.
Remarkably, the torpedo detonated as planned and the Housatonic sank, giving her the dubious distinction of being the first ship in history to be sunk by a submarine. Tragically, the little boat didn’t make it back to dock but sank for the third and last time that evening for unknown reasons, taking her entire eight-man crew down once again.
After sitting on the bottom of Charleston Harbor for the next 136 years, she was finally located and raised in August of 2000 to great fanfare. The remarkably well preserved hulk now sits in a specially designed tank awaiting conservation.
8. U.S.S. Monitor and C.S.S. Virginia (aka Merrimack)
While the hours-long battle fought between these two behemoths off Hampton Roads, Virginia in March of 1862 was relatively unspectacular and ended in a draw, it may have been one of the most important battles in naval history in that it was the first time two ships made predominantly of iron rather than wood ever engaged in battle. The Union-built Monitor—derisively called a “cheesbox on a raft” (which proved to be a fairly accurate description)—also had the distinction of being the first ship to possess a rotating gun turret, changing the course of naval warship design for the next century.
The interesting thing about the Confederate ironclad was that it was built upon the refloated hull of the Union frigate Merrimack (hence the confusion regarding her name), which had been scuttled when Norfolk fell into the hands of the South in April of 1861. Refloated and fitted with massive iron plates, she not only proved to be impenetrable to cannon fire, but a dangerous weapon the South used to sink a pair of traditional wooden Union warships a day earlier. Neither ship fought again or survived the year, however; the Virginia would be blown up to prevent her from being captured in May of 1862 when Union troops retook Norfolk and the Monitor would be lost in heavy seas off Cape Hatteras on New Year’s eve of that year, taking 16 of her crew down with her. (Note: The wreck of the Monitor was located off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in 1973 and was designated a national landmark.
Since then, many artifacts from the ship, including her turret, cannon, propeller, anchor, engine and some personal effects of the crew—along with the remains of two of her crew—have been recovered and are now on display—minus the bodies—at the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Virginia.)
7. U.S.S. Constitution
Known as “Old Ironsides” due to her sturdy construction, the oldest still intact ship in America serves as a museum in Boston, Massachusetts. Still afloat after 213 years, she had an usually long service life, having remained in commission on and off between 1797 all the way to the Civil War, after which she was made a training ship and continued sailing periodically right up to her final decommissioning in 1881.
During that time she fought in two conflicts: the First Barbary War—when she battled real pirates—and the War of 1812, during which she distinguished herself by defeating the British frigates HMS Guerriere and HMS Java. It was those engagements that gave her something of a reputation as a ship that could take on the British in a head-to-head fight, which was no small feat when one considers that the Royal Navy was the largest and most powerful in the world at the time. Her fame saved her from the wrecking yard and in 1907 she began serving as a museum ship.
Old Ironsides has been restored, refurbished and otherwise rebuilt so many times, it is said her keel is the only part of the original ship that remains, the rest having being replaced numerous times over the decades. She can still get underway, however, which she proves once a year when she is towed into to Boston Harbor for her “turnaround cruise” designed to ensure she weathers evenly on both sides. She is also a still officially commissioned warship, with a sixty-man crew who are all active duty members of the United States Navy.
6. Battleship U.S.S. Missouri
Though not a participant in any major ship-to-ship sea battles, the “Mighty ‘Mo”, as she became known to her crew, had the distinction of being the vessel upon which the surrender documents that ended World War Two were signed in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. But World War Two wasn’t the only action the massive 45,000 ton battleship was to sea in her lifetime; decommissioned after the war, she was reactivated and sent to fight during the Korean War, and again in 1984, when she became part of Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship fleet plan.
She even saw service in the First Persian Gulf War in 1991, when she lobbed cruise missiles and 16-inch rounds from her massive guns against Iraqi targets in Kuwait. Today she sits tied up serenely at Pearl Harbor, where she serves as a museum and war memorial. Interestingly, she is moored just a few hundred yards from the wreck of the Battleship Arizona (see no. 3), making it possible to see from her decks both the place the war started and the place that it ended at the same time.
5. HMS Victory
No single ship serves as a better symbol for the power that was the Royal Navy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century than does Lord Nelson’s venerable and, indeed, almost legendary, flagship. One of the largest wooden warships ever built, the ship not only saw considerable action in the last decades of the eighteenth century fighting both the French and Spanish fleets, but she became the stuff of legends at the pivotal battle of Trafalgar in 1805, where Nelson was to be mortally wounded but not before besting the combined French and Spanish fleet and effectively saving England from a sea-borne invasion.
Originally slated to be broken up shortly after the Napoleonic Wars ended, she was saved, the story goes, by the wife of the First Sea Lord, who, upon learning that the vessel that had served so long and gallantly was to be delegated to the wrecker’s yard, broke into tears and demanded that he rescind the order. Being no fool—and perhaps in a well-advised effort at maintaining marital bliss—the man did exactly that and the ship served for the next century as a pier-side training school. Heavily restored in 1922 by the British government, she now serves as a museum in Portsmouth, England, making her one of the oldest ships still afloat in the world.
4. Battleship U.S.S. Maine
Some ships become famous not for what they did, but for what they represented. In this case, the battleship Maine (a tiny thing compared to the later behemoths that were to carry the title of battleship) became a rallying point for a nation intent on war. Anchored in the shallow waters of Havana harbor late on the evening of February 15, 1898, the ship was torn in two by a mysterious explosion and sank in a matter of minutes, killing all but 89 of her 355-man crew.
Though the cause of the explosion was never determined (some historians and naval engineers believe it may have been an accidental detonation of her magazines by a coal bin fire), it was immediately suspected to have been an intentional act of sabotage—probably by a pre-placed mine—sending the country into a war frenzy that would, in the next few months, propel the United States into a short and spectacularly successful war with Spain.
While Spanish complicity in the incident has never been proven (and would have been counter-productive to the Spanish in any case), the battle cry “Remember the Maine” would remain a popular and long-remembered one for many decades afterwards. As for the ship itself, in 1911 what was left of her was raised from the mud of Havana Harbor where she had become a hazard to navigation, towed out to the open sea, and scuttled with full military honors—a fitting end to a ship that did so little but caused so much trouble.
3. German Battleship Bismarck
Perhaps no ship struck as much fear into the heart of the British Navy in the spring of 1941 than the massive German dreadnought Bismarck which, at 823 feet and with a top speed of 30 knots, was the largest and fastest warship then afloat. Breaking out of her Baltic haven in late May, 1941 intend on decimating the ragged and besieged British merchant fleet keeping the British Isles afloat, the ship became the subject of the largest naval hunt in Royal Navy history and one that was to cost the British dearly.
Engaged by the British battle cruiser HMS Hood and new battleship HMS Prince of Wales off Iceland in the early morning hours of May 24, after a brief but vicious battle the Hood exploded and sank, taking down all but three of her 1,418-man crew, and left the Prince of Wales damaged and limping for home. Damaged herself a day later by British aerial torpedoes, the wounded battleship made a run for the French coast for repairs, only to be chased down by a pair of British battleships, the Rodney and King George V, whose combined firepower finally managed to send Hitler’s proud but battered warship to the bottom—along with all but 200 of her 2,200-man crew—after a two-hour barrage.
There the infamous warship remained undisturbed until it was located by Robert Ballard (the same man who had found the Titanic three years earlier) in 1989 and carefully examined. Even then the venerable ship had a story to tell, for it appeared that despite the heavy damage it endured during its final battle, it was still largely intact, suggesting that she had been scuttled rather than sunk by the British after all, giving her, even in death, the last laugh.
2. Battleship U.S.S. Arizona
Few ships illicit the sort of emotion among American veterans as does the name Arizona. A World War One era battle wagon with an undistinguished career, her active life in World War Two lasted a mere fifteen minutes before she was sunk by a well-aimed Japanese bomb that ignited her forward magazine and tore her in two during the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941. The “unlucky shot”—a one-in-million hole in one—killed 1,177 men out of her crew of 1,400—including her captain and an admiral—and left her a blazing wreck that was to burn for days.*
Too badly damaged to be salvageable (she was one of only three ships sunk during the attack that was never repaired) the ship remains there to this day as a war memorial, where she is visited by literally millions of people every year. Considering how famous the ship is today, it is interesting that few Americans knew about the Arizona’s fiery fate until years later due to wartime censorship, and that she lay largely forgotten in the shallow waters of Battleship Row for decades after the attack. It wasn’t until the 1960s that she became a symbol of American resolve and sacrifice and acquired the mystique—along with a simple but powerful memorial that straddles her remains—that she enjoys today.
1. British Luxury Liner RMS Titanic
Easily the most famous ship in history, this luxury liner was designed to showcase mankind’s technological brilliance but instead only illustrated his hubris. The largest and fastest passenger ship of its time, the British White Star liner left England on April 10, 1912 on its maiden voyage to New York, only to strike an iceberg five days later and sink.
While most would imagine two hours would be plenty of time to evacuate the nearly 2,300 souls onboard, the ship had only half the lifeboats needed, dooming some 1,500 passengers and crew to a watery grave in the middle of the icy North Atlantic. The sinking sent shockwaves through the maritime community, resulting in wholesale changes in regulations mandating the number of life boats every vessel was required to carry and making other much needed safety improvements. Eventually the ship’s name became synonymous with avarice, indifference, and class privilege (most of the lost having been passengers from steerage) and holds a mystique that, if anything, has only grown over time.
The ship was rediscovered three miles below the surface of the North Atlantic in 1985, and has since then become the inspiration for a multitude of documentaries as well as the backdrop to the most successful movie of 1999. It could truly be said that with the Titanic, humanity learned a hard lesson that continues to pay dividends to this day.
Other Famous Ships in History: Battleship Potemkin (Russian warship famous for firing the first shots of the Russian Revolution in 1905); HMS Bounty (British frigate famous for its mutiny); HMS Endeavor (Captain Cook’s ship used to explore the Pacific Ocean); Mayflower (the ship that delivered the Pilgrims to Massachusetts in 1620); U.S.S. Enterprise (the most decorated warship of World War Two); RMS Lusitania (her sinking in 1916 was the catalyst for America’s entry into World War One); Japanese Battleship Yamato (largest battleship ever built); and the English Galleon Golden Hind (the ship used by Sir Francis Drake to make the first complete circumnavigation of the globe between 1577 and 1580.)
*It may be of interest to the reader to note that the author’s wife’s uncle, Hansel Grant Nicholson, was among those who died onboard the Arizona on December 7th, 1941.
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.