Bradley A. Rodgers
THE IRON SENTINEL: U.S.S. MICHIGAN, 1844-1949.
(Under the direction of Professor William N. Still, Jr.) Department of History, 1985.
In 1844 the U.S.S. Michigan was the United States Navy's first iron hulled warship. She was also the first U.S. Navy ship to use steam as her primary power source. The speed, power and reliability obtained by using the new building material combined with the new source of power insured the continuance of iron hulled steam propelled ships into the future. The U.S.S. Michigan was the United States Navy's first modern warship.
The Michigan was placed into service at Erie, Pennsylvania, on Lake Erie. The fact that the navy's fastest and potentially most powerful steamship of the mid-nineteenth century was placed into service on the Great Lakes boundary between the U.S. and the British possession of Canada throws doubt on the popular notion that all was peaceful between Britain and the United States on the lakes since the end of the War of 1812.
The history of the Michigan therefore includes the Agreement of 1817 between the U.S. and Great Britain to limit naval forces operating on the lakes and the reasons why this agreement was broken by both sides in their nervousness over the Canadian rebellion of 1837. The construction of the vessel to protect the United States lake trade led to further diplomatic disputes between Britain and the United States which continued until well after the Civil War.
War with Britain on the Great Lakes was barely avoided on several occasions in the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century. The warship was therefore never tested in battle, yet, her presence at times calmed hostilities and insured peace.
In the 1850's the Michigan played a role in the unfortunate Beaver Island incidents and the consequent destruction of the Mormon colony located there. In the 1860's the Michigan helped the union war effort during the Civil War; recruiting men for the Union army, quelling draft riots in the port cities, and stopping potentially bloody strikes in the towns of Houghton and Marquette, Michigan. The importance of the vessel during the war was underscored by several Confederate attempts to capture or destroy her.
After the Civil War hostilities continued on the Great Lakes with the formation of the Fenian Brotherhood. These Irish veterans of the Civil War attempted an armed invasion of Canada and were only just thwarted by the intervention of the Michigan and the U.S. troops under General Meade.
Although the ship was obsolete by the later part of the nineteenth century, she remained on the lakes training sailors for the navy. The Michigan continued to have a great social impact on the town of Erie even after she was renamed, the Wolverine, by the Navy Department in 1905.
The vessels' final years were shrouded in legal entanglement. The historic vision of the ship preserved for posterity was destroyed in 1949 at a scrap yard in Erie, not far from where she was launched.