Total Pageviews

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Flag of the CSS Hampton Returns Home

Blog #49.  April 26, 2015 by Marcus W. Robbins

“In the museum business, if you are lucky, you occasionally have an opportunity to experience what we call ‘wow’ moments.” – Elizabeth A. Poulliot, HRNM Director

On the evening April 22nd 2015 I was in attendance at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum to witness the return home of the flag that flew from the Confederate States Ship – CSS Hampton.  We built the Maury style gunboat CSS Hampton here at the Gosport Navy Yard in 1862, it is a part of our local heritage.  As we close out a four year remembrance – The Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial 1861-1865, what better place than about a mile from the old Gosport shipyard to celebrate a rare relic’s return home.

To have an actual surviving item with direct ties to the Confederate Gosport Navy Yard is indeed rare.  This flag represents a little known story of the various small gunboats built at Gosport in 1862 after the famous CSS Virginia is built.  The flag also documents the eventual fate of CSS Hampton at the fall of Richmond in 1865.

A flag invokes strong feelings of both honor and just cause and when placed in theater it is what makes the war machine function; one side against the other - it is what is fought for and what is fought against.  Looking back with historical context this is a story of both luck and timing for the artifact itself.  Most cloth relics never survive the elements over time but against all odds this one did.  This flag not only wraps itself with mysteries only known now to the wind but also shares many documented twist and turns in its long journey back home.

 Photo #1 ~ CSS Hampton Flag at Dayton Virginia
(Photo courtesy of Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial Blog - August 2, 2013)

Now how did this naval flag get into a local museum’s collection in the town of Dayton Virginia, west of the Shenandoah National Park?  Again I refer to the Navy’s Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial Blog - August 2, 2013 that I present here in total as it tells the story the best:
Richmond, Virginia: 1865

Virginia stood wounded and defeated in the last two years of war.  After suffering heavy casualties throughout Grant’s Overland Campaign, Virginia’s army braced their backs to the south of Richmond at Petersburg in June 1864.  To the west, Virginia’s lush and vibrant Shenandoah Valley burned, denying much needed food and supplies to the starving at Petersburg.  By March 1865, the Petersburg campaign was over.  One month later, approaching Federal armies captured the Confederate capitol.  Richmond remained a burned-out husk of its former self.  The Confederate military was gone and much of its population deserted.  It seems that the war would be over.  Yet victory did not come without its spoils. 

In the midst of the desolation and destruction, Lieutenant William J. Ladd of the 13th New Hampshire Regiment stood alone in the deserted city Capitol.  According to the History of the regiment, Ladd rode towards Rocketts landing and found a Union cavalryman.  The two rowed out onto the James, where they pulled down two flags off of the CSS Hampton, one of two Maury that saw action during the American Civil War.  Little did they know, the Confederates rigged the ship to explode.  Minutes after they rowed back ashore, the ship went up in a fiery blaze; symbolic of the Navy’s demise and that of its most prized city. 

Dayton, VA: 2011

Ladd kept the flag after the war at his home in Milton.  In the 1960s, the flag made its way to Dayton, VA and into the hands of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society (HRHS).  The flag that once flew defiantly against the government of the United States lay in a collections box.  Nancy Hess, Vice President of the society, came across the discovery in 2011.  Included with the flag was a handwritten inscription sewn onto the flag:

The flag was a terrific find.  Yet it remained in extreme disrepair.  The board at the HRHS decided to look for a new home for the flag, eventually reaching Captain H.J. Hendrix, Director of the Naval History and Heritage Command.  Captain Hendrix offered to see to the flag’s conversation and care. 

Dayton, VA: 2013

In front of a crowd of nearly fifty people, Captain H. J. Hendrix, NHHC Director, accepted the flag of the Hampton on behalf of the U.S. Navy.  After a long journey, the flag will be preserved and displayed at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) in Norfolk, VA.  Elizabeth Poulliot, HRNM Director, will gladly work with Washington, D.C. to see the flag make it to Norfolk.  What better place to preserve the history of the gunboat than near the place where it was built across the Elizabeth River? 

The flag is an important piece that helps us understand the importance of the Confederate Navy in Hampton Roads.  Poulliot plans to “to prominently display it in our Civil War gallery.”  She added that visitors will “want to learn more about the Civil War, and how the Confederacy built Maury gunboats.  The acceptance of this ensign from CSS Hampton is an honor for our institution.”
And now some additional background what it was like here at Gosport in 1862.  Matthew Fontaine Maury, one of the Confederate Navy’s foremost nautical scientists (Maury High School in Norfolk, Virginia is named for him) was a proponent of building a fleet of gunboats to swarm like bees to sting the Union warships to death.  Other than the one additional ironsides being the CSS Richmond (CSS Virginia II) that is launched here in 1862 we find that the Confederates have multiple launching ways at Gosport and become busy constructing the Maury gunboats.  It is a program that is dashed and doomed from the start after the Battle of Hampton Roads outcome as wooden shipbuilding soon shall come to a quick end but faced with desperate times Confederate Gosport presses on regardless. 

Only the CSS Nansemond and CSS Hampton each being 80 tons, wooden hull, steam screw with two guns were in the water and began service also in 1862 along with the CSS Richmond before the Confederates abandon and burn the yard on May 10, 1862.  Five uncompleted ships under the supervision of John Luke Porter are burned on the stocks to prevent capture at Gosport being the: Norfolk, Portsmouth, Escambia, Elizabeth and the Yadkin.
Photo #2 ~ CSS Nansemond
(Photo courtesy of Hampton Roads Naval Museum)

So how close was this flag to becoming just a memory?  Again I defer to my friends at the Navy with their prior research as the following puts things in perspective:

It was early morning as Lt. William Ladd rode his horse into a nearly deserted Richmond, Va. The siege of the Petersburg had come to an end after eight months, signifying an end to the war that had divided America. With the Confederate capital of Richmond captured, the last hopes of the rebel army vanished and the army and populace of the city had scattered. It was while investigating the city that Ladd observed a Confederate ship flying their colors.

"I was in the Capitol grounds as early as 5:30 am," wrote Ladd, in the History of the 13th New Hampshire Regiment. "I saw no flag on the Capitol at that time. After looking about the grounds and vicinity for a few minutes, and realizing I was alone in the city, I rode back towards Rocketts, and when near there met a white Union cavalryman - the first Union soldier I had seen in Richmond that morning. We tied our horses, took a skiff and rowed out to a rebel war ship in the James, and captured two Confederate flags then flying upon her. I pulled down the larger flag, the cavalryman the smaller one, and we rolled them up and tied them to our saddles."

Unknown to Ladd, the Confederates had previously rigged the ship, Confederate States Ship (CSS) Hampton, to explode, denying the Union Army its capture. Soon after he and the cavalryman left with their captured flags, the ship was rocked by an explosion and slowly sank into the waters of the James River.
On the night of April 22, 2015 we are treated to a lecture by Mr. Kenneth D. Alford that shares information about nautical and battle flags found while writing his recent book – Civil War Museum Treasures: Outstanding Artifacts and the Stories Behind Them.  Also in attendance is Nancy Hess from The Heritage Museum, Volunteer and Board Member.  Standing with them in the center is Elizabeth A. Poulliot, Hampton Roads Naval Museum Director.  The time had come to unveil and acknowledge the return of the CSS Hampton flag to a permanent location both for public display and education purposes.  The flag of the CSS Hampton returns home to the same riverfront where it last sailed 153 years prior.  

Photo #3 ~ CSS Hampton Flag at HRNM   
Unveiling on April 22, 2015
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

And of course as this was a public event I took the opportunity to capture an image of a great friend of mine, Mr. Stephen Milner, a prior long time Public Affairs Officer at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  I teased with him later when we looked at the picture I had taken as he was holding his hat in such a way that the Norfolk Naval Shipyard showed very well, its great naval tradition continues.  Also I mentioned that it was unfortunate that over time he has lost a bit of hair, the same as over time the CSS Hampton flag had lost some of its stars but in the end both of them are survivors.

Photo #4 ~ CSS Hampton Flag at HRNM  
Unveiling on April 22, 2015
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
The historical plaque within the display case reads as follows below:

Photo #5 ~ CSS Hampton Flag Plaque at HRNM  
Unveiling on April 22, 2015
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

 I invite you to visit the Hampton Roads Naval Museum located at - One Waterside Drive in Norfolk, Virginia because not only is it home to a world class Civil War gallery but the entire museum pays honor to the Navy with a special emphasis on this location (Hampton Roads) including our Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia and the Norfolk Naval Station located in Norfolk, Virginia.  A link for the HRNM website is found here:

Should you wish to join the museum’s foundation and find out how to get your own quarterly edition of the Daybook (next month in May 2015 has more on the CSS Hampton) or volunteer your services please phone directly to Elizabeth (Becky) Poulliot, Hampton Roads Naval Museum Director at (757) 322-2990.

Remember, naval history is all around us here in eastern Virginia, go visit it today because –history matters”.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Navy’s First Shot of World War I - April 19th, 1917

Blog #48.  April 17, 2015 by Marcus W. Robbins
We hold an artifact adjacent to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard on the Path of History that played such an important naval role with our entry into what was once considered the Great War.  I wish to share a brief review of a 6" gun named "Teddy" named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt that was placed upon the aft end of the American Steamship S. S. Mongolia.  It was with this gun a group of United States Navy men fired the first successful shot that sank a German submarine on April 19th 1917.  This week, 98 years ago marks that historic event and thus begins “History Matters” reviews with this and future issues leading up to the 100th anniversary of World War I in 2017.

Photo #1 ~ 6” Gun from S.S. Mongolia at Path of History
Adjacent to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins, taken on April 14, 2015)

By 1915 the European Allies were in need of desperate measures to bring in large amounts of gross tonnage; supplies, food and war support items of all types so various large commercial steamships were outright purchased from private lines and pressed into military support services.  At this time America had not entered the Great War and in fact the United States does not declare war upon Germany until April 6, 1917.  Dates aside, nothing removed the current threat of German submarines and blockading efforts to stop all supplies headed to Europe at all cost.  Overseas shipping was not only risky but a deadly business.
It was because of this threat the United States placed 6” guns both fore and aft on some of these commercial vessels preforming military sea service.  S. S. Mongolia encountered a German submarine in the English Channel in which the crew fired, hit and sunk that vessel when it broke surface with its periscope and tower.  This was the first shot from an American vessel on the high seas after war had been declared.  

This is “Teddy” at sea on the aft end of the S.S. Mongolia from a real picture photo postcard after the conflict.  On April 27, 1918 the ship was acquired by the United States Navy and on May 8, 1918 is commissioned USS Mongolia ID 1615.  The ship preformed troop transport duties till returned to its owners on September 11, 1919.

Photo #2 ~ Real Picture Postcard
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
The following text is from the Naval History and Heritage Command:

The ship's after six-inch gun and its crew are pictured in April 1917.  The two officers at right are identified, in the original photo caption, as Lieutenant Ware and Captain Emory Rice of the U.S. Naval Reserve Force.  Note shells on deck, painted with letters: "T-E-X-A-S" and "T-E-D-D-Y."  Mongolia was assigned a Navy armed guard on 17 March 1917.  She engaged a German submarine on 19 April 1917, the first U.S. ship encounter with a U-Boat after the United States entered World War I.

Photo #3 ~ Image NH 781
Six-inch gun on S.S. Mongolia, April 1917
(Photo courtesy of United States Navy)
I brought a ladder out to view the upper part of the breach to better observe the small brass plaque that reads:
Photo #4 ~ 6” Gun Brass Plaque from S.S. Mongolia at Path of History
Adjacent to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins, taken on April 14, 2015)

And finally in closing, something that caught my eye many years ago in my Mother’s barn that she allowed me to have was a heavy paper poster of sorts, a bit frayed and silverfish eaten at the edges yet very cool.  I framed it having no idea at the time of the historic significance and how it would tie into the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  It portrays a large waving American flag and a ship underneath with an inscription that reads:

Photo #5 ~ S.S. Mongolia War Poster circa 1917
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins, taken on April 16, 2015)

While we shall mark the 1917 formal entry of the United States into the Great War at 100 years ago in 2017 it is just as important to listen as the drumbeat on the home front was getting louder by the month well before that as these commercial vessels were armed and crewed by the Navy to protect both the Allies and American interests.  The Norfolk Navy Yard, and for that matter the entire country was about to be forever changed because of this very 6” gun that is within a couple of baseball throws from the northern shipyard wall today because –“history matters”.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Men That Built Pier 4

Blog #47. April 10, 2015 by Marcus W. Robbins
An untold number of men have labored day in and day out doing their job constructing Uncle Sam’s shipyard facilities for the United States Navy at America’s Shipyard here on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River.  Their names never recorded when the photos were taken and now lost to time.  For sure these would have been local men, maybe even related to us that read these words today.  Pictures do tell a story so let us look back 96 years ago this week as Pier 4 was taking shape.

Photo #1 ~ Pier 4 Looking West
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2182 taken April 12, 1919)
In the above photo taken looking west you can see two large pile drivers and their associated cranes swinging concrete sheet pile into an upright position.  Well the next step would be drive the pile and repeat many times on both sides of an almost 1,000 foot long structure.  It takes a lot of work to build the foundation for a wooden deck relieving platform and earth filled pier such as Pier 4 was.  This very pier is later demolished just after the year 2010 to support an even larger new Pier 5 structure but that is for another story, thus Pier 4 stands about 90 years total.

Also while you are gaining your bearings remember I mentioned the first Pier 5, it is constructed some 30 years later, located well to the left in the above photo where you see that pine tree on a swampy finger of land that will become clearer by the final photo.  For you all that know the layout of the shipyard you can see the original Machine Shop, Building 171 to the left and the extreme southern end of the Structural Shop, Building 163. 

But back to the topic of this edition of “History Matters” it is supposed to be about the men that built Pier 4.

Photo #2 ~ Unidentified Men on Pile Driver at Pier 4
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2183 taken April 12, 1919)
And another view of our workmen as again crews from both pile drivers have gathered to have their picture taken.  What tough and dirty work this must have been.
Photo #3 ~ Unidentified Men on Pile Driver at Pier 4
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2184 taken April 12, 1919)

So fast forward to the month of October 1, 1920 as this is how Pier 4 appeared as Wet Slip 3 to its north and Wet Slip 4 to its south were almost complete of final dredging.  Also note the Belt Line Railroad track in the distance has a center swing span, not the high lift of today that we normally see in the raised position.
Photo #4 ~ Pier 4 Looking East
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2719 taken October 1, 1920)

And finally a real American icon of a ship, the USS Arizona that received modernization at the Norfolk Navy Yard along with a drastic physical makeover from May 4, 1929 to becoming fully re-commissioned on March 1, 1931.  The location this final photo is but where else – Pier 4.

Photo #5 ~ Pier 4 Looking South West
(Norfolk Navy Yard Serial No. 142-31. taken on March 2, 1931)

These great facilities and piers did not just happen.  It took the physical labor many unknown souls giving an honest day’s hard work for Uncle Sam.  The result of their physical efforts is evident both in photographs and the facilities we still use today.   Pier 4 most likely outlived most of the men in the above pictures but it is important to remember that their efforts supported our naval history and heritage because –“history matters”.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Submarines on the Marine Railway

Blog #46. April 3, 2015 by Marcus W. Robbins
A true multi-functional shipyard not only can perform work on ships but submarines also.  “America’s Shipyard” otherwise known as the Norfolk Naval Shipyard is well into its second century providing this important service to our country.  While often overshadowed by larger warships the submarine repair world is just as important thus I wanted to provide equal time to honor them with this “History Matters” blog.

We can trace our submarine heritage all the way back to SS-1 USS Holland, which is recognized as the first modern submarine in today’s unbroken chain of under water craft as it was commissioned on 12 October 1900.  While it was home ported north of here for most of its career we decommissioned that same submarine on 21 November 1910 thus continuing on a long line of “first accomplishments” for Norfolk being involved in this new cutting edge marine technology even back in the day.  Norfolk can repair and support every vessel the United States Navy operates including submarines and continues that fine tradition to this day.

Anyway, I wanted to share first a very common view of submarines not in dry dock or pier side as is the common practice today but on our long gone Marine Railway.   Many of you might have seen this view near the site of the current Rusty Anchor Snack Bar as it has been often reproduced and displayed in our work spaces.

Photo #1 ~ USS Moccasin & USS Adder
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #331 taken April 1904)

Now look at this rare glass plate view from the other direction and you can see that the location of the Marine Railway was actually to the north of today’s modern Wet Slip #2.  In this view and the following views you can see progress being made as the Wet Slip is created from the ruins of destroyed ex-Shiphouse “C” and its stone building ways of the Civil War era.
Photo #2 ~ Unidentified Small Ship and Submarine on Marine Railway
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #412 circa late 1904)

And another view of our work upon an even different submarine, perhaps in the 1905 timeframe.  Note the workmen and crew, they seem to be right on top of the job.
Photo #3 ~ unidentified submarine on Marine Railway
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #451 circa 1905)

Well I made reference earlier to the stone building ways and the ruins of ex-Shiphouse “C”.  I dare say that no one alive today has ever seen this image in person yet but this postcard from my personal collection confirms the Marine Railway location in great perspective.  The large building in the rear is the southern elevation of ex-Building 28 the Mast House that was constructed in 1828 and the site of Building 1575 that we know today.
Photo #4 ~ Submarine Boat in Navy Yard
(Postcard courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins collection, view circa 1903)
And finally a real picture postcard that captures both a Marine and a Sailor posing for a picture.

Photo #5 ~ USS Moccasin on Marine Railway
(Postcard courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins collection, view circa 1903)

In conclusion I hope you have enjoyed looking back to the earliest support that Norfolk provided to the submarine fleet.  While the physical location of the work has changed and the Marine Railway is beyond anyone’s memory it is still important to know where we came from.  Our shipyard has been providing world class service to the United States submarine fleet now into a second century because –“history matters”.