The U.S. Navy has owned thousands of ships throughout the years—among them were hospital ships that have been around as far back as 1798. Unlike today, though, those hospital ships weren’t protected by international legal protocols. We can only imagine how these ships aboard with medical staff braving the treacherous waters while naval combat was active and EVERYWHERE without the immunity to keep them off as enemy targets.

The Second Geneva Convention prohibits all kinds of military attacks on hospital ships as long as they meet its specified requirements. While belligerent forces may enter and inspect patients and take them as prisoners of war, they can not take staff working at these ships.

Check out these six U.S. Navy ships to have served as medical support and cared for the wounded sailors at sea.

The First (unofficial) USS Intrepid in the U.S. Navy

The first hospital ship appeared amid the Tripolitan War, also known as the First Barbary War (1801-1805), though it wasn’t really intended to be a medical vessel. Instead, it was a captured ketch that was renamed the USS Intrepid. She was briefly converted to serve as a hospital ship to transport injured men during the recapturing and burning of the USS Philadelphia in 1804. Then, she was reverted as a combat ship, fitted out as a “floating volcano” that would eliminate enemy corsair fleets near the walls of Tripoli. Unfortunately, the Intrepid exploded before reaching its final position, lighting up the dark seas and killing all men on board.

General Specifications:

  • Type: Bomb Ketch
  • Displacement: 64 t
  • Length: 60 ft
  • Beam: 12 ft
  • Propulsion: Sail
  • Armament: four guns
USS Intrepid
An illustration depicting the ill-fate of the USS Intrepid on the night of September 4, 1804. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

USS Ben Morgan: Union Navy’s Hospital Ship

During the American Civil War, the Union Navy acquired USS Ben Morgan, a schooner (some identified it as a ship rigged), to serve as a hospital ship at the Hampton Roads. She took in sick and wounded sailors from the Union warships deployed to blockade the Confederate waterways. Simultaneously, she functioned as a collier and supply ship on the sidelines.

The highlight of her naval career was in 1862 when she received on board wounded men during the deadly incursion of CSS Virginia. After the collapse of the Confederacy, Ben Morgan was decommissioned in 1865 and returned to New York City, where she’d be sold to a private citizen.

General Specifications: