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Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Great White Fleet Departs Hampton Roads ~ 106 Years Ago, December 16, 1907

Blog # 27. December 15, 2013 By Marcus W. Robbins

This coming Monday shall mark the 106th anniversary of the greatest show of naval strength our nation had assembled from since declaring its independence from England 131 years prior.  Sixteen of the nation’s finest warships would depart on December 16, 1907 and circumnavigate the globe, a voyage of nearly 44,000 nautical miles covering twenty port calls on six continents that spanned over fourteen months of time before returning back to Hampton Roads on February 22, 1909.

 The port of Hampton Roads has always been considered central to the settlement and advancement of our nation.  This fact is not lost on its military importance also.

 Beginning with Jamestown in 1607 this area was strategically recognized as important because of its many natural advantages; deep calm water, mild climate and abundance of harvest to support the new colony.

 The roadstead also served as a natural divide for Union and Confederate forces becoming central to each side during the earliest part of Civil War in 1861 and later in March of 1862 as it bore witness to the end of wood and sail warships with an event that would ever tie “The Battle of Hampton Roads” into naval conversation as a milestone event.

 Now in 1907 Hampton Roads would again become the focal point to bear witness to President Theodore Roosevelt's vision of the largest naval deployment of steam and steel warships assembled in order to project America's strength as a global naval power.

 Roosevelt was a firm believer that America’s interests abroad could only be protected with the ability to project naval power to anywhere around the globe.  In 1907 it was general knowledge that the fleet departing Hampton Roads left under peaceful terms; a simple training mission to the West Coast.  While held close with only a few knowing of Roosevelt’s real intention till the end of the first day of sailing the secret then became factual; that after the West Coast arrival that the fleet would then cross the Pacific, transit the Suez Canal, sail through the Mediterranean Sea, cross the Atlantic and again arrive back at Hampton Roads.  Nations lined up offering to become ports of call and the America’s ability to project its influence through naval diplomacy began.  Roosevelt later reflected about this cruise “the most important service that I rendered for peace”.

USS Connecticut leading the Atlantic Fleet's Battleships, 1907
(Naval History & Heritage Command image NH 59537)
It is important to recognize that this undertaking was supported by the nation’s East Coast public yards; those principally being located at Norfolk, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Each location was tasked with taking various specific ships and performing repairs to place them into top shape in very short order.  The common thing that each ship received at the conclusion of their individual availabilities was an entire fresh coat of white paint with the only exception being their bows, painted gilded gold.  

The shear amount of planning and final preparations for such a venture was monumental.  As extracted from the Naval History and Heritage Command the following summary is offered:

            During September and October 1907 all sixteen of Atlantic Fleet's modern battleships steamed to East Coast Navy Yards for repairs and alterations. Boston worked on four: Vermont, New Jersey, Missouri and Illinois. New York did five: Connecticut, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Ohio and Alabama. Four (Kansas, Georgia, Maine and Kearsarge) received the attentions of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, while the Norfolk Navy Yard performed work on Virginia, Minnesota and Kentucky. The three Norfolk ships had to go north to New York (first two) and Boston (Kentucky) for the drydock phases of their overhauls. This shipyard work was finished by early December and the battleships gathered in Hampton Roads, Virginia, to complete preparations for their forthcoming cruise around South America to the Pacific Coast.

The Norfolk Navy Yard, being the home of the Atlantic Squadron from the early 1800’s well before the modern day Naval Station was established in 1917 no doubt provided untold last minute supplies, coal and various final logistical support to the bulk of these sixteen warships in the final days leading up to 1907 departure.

U.S. battleships steaming out to sea.  Hampton Roads Va.
1907 Underwood & Underwood Stereoview #S145  (courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Teddy Roosevelt reviewing off of Old Point Comfort on the northern side of Hampton Roads upon the presidential yacht Mayflower observed that day the crews of sixteen warships manning the rails with “bully” pride.  Their passing in a long single formation while keeping 400 yards apart produced an almost 4 mile long armada that would later be nicknamed “The Great White Fleet”.

The cruise also became a proving ground of sorts to determine both physical and tactical conditions of the warships after such a long voyage because as Roosevelt stated “I want all failures, blunders and shortcomings to be made apparent in time of peace and not war”.  Although the cruise produced no major breakdowns it served as to bring technical changes with ship design concerning hull design and gunnery arrangement.  It underscored the dependence upon foreign coaling stations and the need to convert warships into oil as a primary fuel.   Also improvements were made below decks concerning ventilation and crew living spaces

1909 Postcard (courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
Finally, shown above is a look at some of the crew members in Norfolk Virginia after their return to Hampton Roads as part of the largest battle fleet to ever circumnavigate the globe.  They, some 14,000 strong represented from their naval service over the prior 14 months a renewed sense of national pride and a positive upturn for the United States Navy in order to firmly establish itself as a global force for good because – “history matters”.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

See, Touch & Learn of Gosport Navy Yard & Portsmouth's History 1860-1865 This Weekend ~ August 17, 2013

Blog #26. August 11, 2013 By Marcus W. Robbins
When I last wrote in my History Matters” Blog #25 it was about the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum which originally opened to house the artifact collection of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 1963.
Then, as now, I say to people that this small unassuming building at # 2 High Street is one of the best kept secrets in Portsmouth.  Often people ask me about being able to learn of the early history of the Gosport Navy Yard from its early beginnings and through it’s almost 246 years of continual operation under four flags and there is where I point them.  My good friend, the current Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Curator, Mr. Corey Thornton and his staff do a wonderful job in conveying not only the shipyard story but also the close association of the shipyard with the City of Portsmouth.

The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum website is full of upcoming events and related links as found here:

You cannot tell the story of one institution, shipyard or city without making reference to the other.  At no other time in past history is this more evident than as we look back upon the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, roughly the years of 1860-1865.
As a way to both honor and in commemoration of the effects of the Civil War period had upon the local citizens working in the Gosport Navy Yard and living in the City of Portsmouth the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center is proud to present My Heart Beats For Peace upstairs in the Court House Gallery continuing through August 25, 2013.

I provide for you here the official exhibit description of the My Heart Beats For Peace program:

 Portsmouth's Civil War Home-front
In commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. Drawing from regional history and local collections My Heart Beats for Peace explores the impact of the war on the homefront of Portsmouth, Virginia. The exhibit examines Portsmouth in the early days of the war, when Virginia seceded and became part of the Confederate States of America. The exhibit then concentrates on the Federal occupation of Portsmouth and the area, and how occupation affected the community from 1862 to 1865. Through artifacts such as daguerreotypes, carte-de-visites, letters, camp goods, tools, military equipment, uniforms and dresses the exhibit offers to take you back into wartime Portsmouth. My Heart Beats for Peace also offers a historical glimpse across time into the lives of its people, who despite their differences in race, gender and social status were forever changed by the Civil War.

The following pictures are from the Naval Shipyard Museum website and should give readers of “History Matters” a peek at the professional level of presentation concerning the My Heart Beats For Peace exhibit.  This is something that should not be missed!

Be sure to visit Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center to view the historical exhibit “My Heart Beats for Peace: Portsmouth’s Civil War Homefront,” on exhibit May 25-August 25, 2013.

(Courtesy of Portsmouth Naval Museum)

Be sure to visit Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center to view the historical exhibit “My Heart Beats for Peace: Portsmouth’s Civil War Homefront,” on exhibit May 25-August 25, 2013.

(Courtesy of Portsmouth Naval Museum)
As an aside, and providing a very small part, I contributed three original handwritten letters, dated from within the walls of the shipyard, two of them by a Union solider in May of 1862 and one from the yard’s Naval Constructor in 1864 that are also on display in My Heart Beats For Peace.  As shared before in prior blogs, early Gosport or Norfolk Navy Yard in this time period is my passion.

See, Touch & Learn of Gosport Navy Yard & Portsmouth's History 1860-1865 This Weekend ~ August 17, 2013
At the Court House Gallery within the first floor display hall, this Saturday only, I along with a wealth of other local collectors shall display actual period items from within our personal collections that recognize impact of the Civil War for both the Navy Yard and Portsmouth area.  There will be many tables set up with original artifacts this coming weekend.

With the My Heart Beats For Peace exhibit upstairs and this special one-time only local gathering of historical personal Civil War collections downstairs this is shaping up to be an event to where you can see, touch and learn from a very important time period 150 years ago and how it ever affected the local area because – “history matters”.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Establishment of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum ~ 50 Years Ago on January 27, 1963

Blog #25. January 27, 2013 by Marcus W. Robbins 
This past Wednesday I attended an enthusiastic appreciation of our local naval history at one of the best kept secrets in Portsmouth.  Located at # 2 High Street is found a small simple building that took on a 2nd life 50 years ago this week because on January 27, 1963 it officially opened to house the artifact collections of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

The words of prior Public Affairs Officer, Joe Law best describe:

A much-prized collection of model warships, old weapons, flags, books and other memorabilia is displayed in the Naval Shipyard Museum located near the foot of High Street in downtown Portsmouth.

More than a thousand artifacts that reflect the long and distinguished history of the Norfolk naval Shipyard are housed in the museum, which is open six days a week.  Most of the collection was assembled in the shipyard by Marshall Butt, shipyard historian and director of the Technical Library, and displayed for many years in Building 33.

Rear Admiral Homer N. Wallin initiated the collection and display of shipyard documents and artifacts after taking command in 1949.  The shipyard's museum opened in March 1950.

The original collection, which was loaned to the city during 1961, has been expanded by additional Navy material.  The museum's content also includes many items illustrating the city's history.

In the simplest of terms, this is a place where you can see up close historical items that tell the story of the birth of our shipyard from its earliest days to present.  As shown in the photo below there was much excitement on opening day as the collaborative efforts between the Navy and the City of Portsmouth were finally realized.  Now also the general public could share and gain both education and cultural awareness from the local hometown naval artifacts.

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, Opening Day ~ January 27, 1963
(Photo courtesy of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum)
So what was the real motive to move the collection from out of the shipyard?  From what I can gather it is really no different today that in time past, a lack of adequate space.  On one hand the collection was far larger than the space allotted to display in 1949 and as shipyard missions grew ever more complex it became painfully obvious that prime 1st floor administrative space was needed to be reclaimed at Building 33.  The location of the former museum is where the large open assembly meeting room is located, northern end on the 1st floor of Building 33.

Portsmouth undertook major investments of their waterfront in the 1960's and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum became an anchor at the end of High Street, a focal point of success.  In 1967 the Coast Guard's Lightship Portsmouth would sail no more as it became permanently berthed, surrounded by concrete and turf to become the newest nautical attraction along the new seawall that was completed in the early 1970's.

Portsmouth Naval Museum Postcard (circa 1965)  
(courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
 Five interesting notes about the postcard view shown above:

  1. The drone Polaris missile and associated water fountain was for years the object of countless pranks that involved boxes of soap powder are no longer there but; who says you can't have clean fun in P Town?   The drone was later taken to Trophy Park for a display.
    2.  The flags display the heritage of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard - "Under Four Flags".

United States
Confederate States

  1. The sidewalk cannon artifact displays are different today than found on the post card view as time progressed forward.  In the 1990's the modern ferry slip was excavated up to the site of the old fountain and much new construction was accomplished placing a large multi-story waterfront condo along the seawall.
    4.  The Lightship Portsmouth has not yet been permanently docked and landlocked (circa 1967)

    5.  The 1917 USS MISSISSIPPI ship bell at the right of the front door was still being polished.

The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum website is full of upcoming events and related links as found here:

The museum takes pride to actually tell three local stories under one roof. Those stories honor both the Naval Shipyard and the city of Portsmouth as partners growing up so connected to each other for well over 200 years and also the local military.  The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum offers a unique perspective on U.S. history, from Colonial to Civil War times and beyond. You’ll find beautiful ship models, uniforms, military artifacts and exhibits portraying life in 18th, 19th and 20th century Portsmouth, Virginia.

When I first began to be associated with the museum and realized that I had a passion to preserve and tell the story of Norfolk Naval Shipyard I introduced myself to long time Curator, Alice Hanes.  I remember that day well (July 10, 2006) as I purchased a couple of small matted pictures and had her sign and date the rear of them (all good historians' document memorable events).  To me, Alice provided that physical link back to Marshall Butt who first had the foresight to assemble the original collection because soon after, she passed to torch forward to my good friend, the current Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Curator, Mr. Corey Thornton.

50th Birthday Celebration of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.
(photo taken by Kristi Britt on January 23, 2013)
Whenever I give a new employee tour or simply answer a co-worker's question about the history of the shipyard I try to slip in my own question, "Have you ever been downtown to the museum at the end of High Street?"  More times than not, sadly it is responded with "I didn't know it was there".  As I started out this writing don't let #2 High Street be one of the best kept secrets in Portsmouth anymore because – “history matters”.