This Warship Was Built in 1904. It Became the First Guided Missile Battleship.

Robert Farley

Key Point: The world’s first guided-missile battleship could trace its origins, oddly enough, to a failed Congressional attempt to limit the size and cost of battleships.

In 1904, the United States laid down USS Mississippi (BB-23), second of her name and the first of a class of two pre-dreadnoughts intended to stem the growth in naval construction costs. Congress, embittered by the cost of the six Connecticut-class battleships, limited the Mississippi’s to 13,000 tons, three thousand tons smaller than their predecessors. This resulted in a lighter secondary armament, lower speed, and shorter range, characteristics which only enhanced their obsolescence when HMS Dreadnought entered service before they could be completed. The USN sought to discard these unusable ships as quickly as possible (they could not even operate with the pre-dreadnought squadrons that then constituted the Atlantic Fleet), and in 1914 succeeded in selling both to Greece. German dive bombers would sink both ships in the spring of 1941.

This freed up the name USS Mississippi (BB-41) for one of twelve “standard type” battleships, designed with a similar armor scheme, speed, and main armament in order to operate together. The new Mississippi displaced 32,000 tons, could make 21 knots, and carried twelve 14” guns in four triple turrets. She differed from her immediate predecessors, the Pennsylvania class, by having a clipper bow and a better arranged secondary armament. Because of the fortuitous sale of the preceding USS Mississippi, the United States government could afford to buy three ships of the class, rather than the standard two.

Commissioned in late 1917, Mississippi was not deployed to the United Kingdom because of oil shortages created by the German U-boat campaign. In any case, the Grand Fleet then held presumptive dominance over the High Seas Fleet, and the battleships remaining on the western side of the Atlantic made up a capable reserve. She spent most of the war training in the Caribbean. Mississippi and her sisters survived the Washington Naval Treaty, although in 1924 she suffered a dreadful gun mishap that killed forty-eight men, at the time the worst peacetime naval disaster in U.S. history.

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