Archive for the 'Commemorations' Category

Oct 5

David Takes On Goliath: 5 October 1863

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 1:30 AM
On the night of 5 October 1863, David faced Goliath. It would not be the epic showdown of biblical times during the American Civil War, but one of explosions, iron, and rushing water under the moonlight of Charleston.

USS New Ironsides, a casemate ironclad steamer boasting fourteen eleven-inch smoothbores, was at the time considered the most formidable warship in the world. It proved to be nearly impenetrable to the Charleston harbor defenses. The Union “Goliath” and its Captain, S.C. Rowan, waited for any answer the Confederates had to test the mighty ship. Little did they know its “Davidian” foe would pack such a punch given its comparable size.

The Confederate semi-submersible ship David did not have rocks and slings. Instead, its armament consisted of a single spar torpedo attached to its bow. As the cigar-shaped vessel was designed to operate in shallow water, its five foot draft allowed her to sneak up on enemies seemingly undetected. Around 9 p.m. on the 5th, CSS David slipped into Charleston Harbor unnoticed, avoiding the blockading monitors as it sailed toward the pride of the Union fleet. It was not until the David was 50 yards from the Union ship that a sailor spotted her. David successfully rammed its spar torpedo into the starboard quarter of the New Ironsides, exploding seven feet below the water line. From the account of New Ironsides Captain S.C. Rowan:

“At 9 p.m. discovered a very peculiar looking steamer which at first appeared like a boat standing toward our starboard beam from seaward; hailed her rapidly four times, and she making no reply, fired into her with musketry; she returned fire, dangerously wounding Ensign C.W. Howard in charge of the deck [. . .] the steamer struck us near No. 6 port, starboard side, exploding a large torpedo, shaking the vessel and throwing up an immense column of water, part of which fell on our decks.”

The blast threw water on the deck and the smokestack of the David, which put out a fire in the engine. The explosion knocked down armory bulkhead and store rooms aboard the New Ironsides in the wake of the torpedo’s explosion. Amidst the confusion, David floated attached by her spar, unable to reverse without steam power. As a result, Union sailors rained down rifle and pistol fire onto their aggressor. The Captain of the David ordered to abandon ship, and the crew set out swimming for nearby Morris Island. As they headed toward the shore, Assistant Engineer J.H. Tomb swam back to the wounded ship and got its engine working again. David limped back to safety in Charleston, picking up her remaining crew along the way.

Although the attack caused a large fissure into the side of the New Ironsides, the damage was superficial. One Union sailor died, and two others suffered minor injuries. Two of David’s crew were captured from the attack. Yet if it wasn’t for the quick thinking of Tomb, David’s story would begin and end in 1863.

Remarkably, New Ironsides remained on duty without repair until May 1864. Its damages were superficial. CSS David went on to unsuccessfully attack USS Memphis in March 1864 in the North Edisto River and the USS Wabash the following month. Although the ultimate fate of the David is uncertain, several similar vessels were captured in Charleston after its capture in February 1865.

Today marks the 147th anniversary of the event.

Sep 13

The Bombardment of Fort McHenry and the Star Spangled Banner, 13-14 September 1814

Monday, September 13, 2010 12:01 AM

Following the capture of Washington in late August 1814, British expeditionary forces under Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane moved to attack Baltimore. As the third largest American city and home to privateering operations that had netted over 500 British merchantmen, the Maryland port offered a tempting target for a destructive, retaliatory blow. Fort McHenry, a star-shaped masonry fortification guarding the entrance to Baltimore harbor, held the key to the city’s defenses. U.S. naval forces not only helped garrison Fort McHenry but manned shore and floating batteries protecting the water and land approaches to the American bastion.

On 12 September the British landed approximately 5000 soldiers and sailors at North Point, launching a landside attack on Baltimore’s eastern defenses. While the British assault succeeded in rolling back the city’s defenders, it failed to breach the main American lines. It also resulted in the death of Cochrane’s second-in-command, Major General Robert Ross. To aid his stalled land forces, Cochrane ordered a bombardment of Fort McHenry on the morning of the 13th. For twenty-four hours the American garrison withstood the bombs and rockets hurled at them from enemy vessels lying off the fort. The stout Yankee resistance displayed by McHenry’s soldiers and sailors ultimately compelled Cochrane to abandon his attack on Baltimore.

Francis Scott Key, a young D.C. lawyer and amateur poet who witnessed the bombardment from the vantage point of the British fleet, was so inspired by Fort McHenry’s resolute defense that he composed a poem to honor its gallant defenders. This poem, set to the English tune “Anacreon in Heaven,” was soon published in sheet music form as “The Star Spangled Banner.” The Star Spangled Banner gained steady popularity as a patriotic tune in the nineteenth century. It became our nation’s national anthem on 3 March 1931.

Jul 22

Behind the Scenes Tour of the Surgeon’s Cockpit Aboard USS Constitution

Thursday, July 22, 2010 12:01 AM

Jul 21

Special Tour of the USS Constitution’s Powder Magazine and Filling Room

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 12:01 AM

May 10

What’s in a Name? Remembering CSS Virginia

Monday, May 10, 2010 8:55 PM

As we celebrate the 148th anniversary of the CSS Virginia‘s final day (11 May 1862), it is important to note how the legendary “Mistress of Hampton Roads” is remembered. Although she is two years away from being properly celebrated by the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial, her importance in the annals of naval history remains a yearly affair. 

At the beginning of the American Civil War, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory puzzled over an effective way to break the Union Blockade. How does one wrestle the “great snake” without succumbing to its venom in the process? With no naval might at the start of the war, Mallory knew he had his hands full. The limited material of the Confederacy as a whole had to be used to the fullest of capabilities. Mallory needed to play magician from the outset. How does one create a navy from nothing? Smoke and mirrors aside, the “rabbit” he needed to pull from his hat needed to effectively test his foes in Washington would be tough. Eventually, it was decided the best chance to meet these demands was to create the CSS Virginia. Perhaps Mallory did find his rabbit. The Virginia proved to be a formidable opponent to the might of the US Navy until its own vanishing act in May 1862. 

Virginia’s career, albeit short, still resides in the memories of those who study and admire her. Although there were two other attempts to bring the combatants of the “first duel of ironclads” back together in April and May 1862, sadly they failed to engage in general action again. When the Federals fired on Confederate batteries at Sewell’s Point on 8 May, Virginia decided to stand down from conflict for fear of being ambushed and attacked by a larger Union foe. Her enormous draft would not allow her to engage the Federal flotilla near Fortress Monroe. The realization proved ominous. 

 Two days later on 10 May, four Union infantry regiments landed off Ocean View near Willoughby Point. General Benjamin Huger, commanding Confederate Forces in Norfolk, decided to evacuate the city and its fortifications. Virginia, upon this realization, would have to follow suit for fear of capture by overwhelming forces. Mallory ordered her to protect the mouth of the James River, the main artery to the Confederate heart in Richmond, yet the odds were stacked against the famed “mistress.” As historian Raimondo Luraghi noted in his History of the Confederate Navy, Virginia’s only choice was to “immediately sail up the James river before the enemy could arrive at its estuary overland, attack and destroy (John) Rodgers’s flotilla, and then help defend the Confederate capital, Richmond.” (History of the Confederate Navy, 165)

Confederates decided to evacuate and subsequently destroy (again) Norfolk Navy Yard as they withdrew from the coast from Union forces. Virginia intended to follow. Attempts made to lighten her draft proved a failure. It was decided that her crew would destroy her. On 11 May, her sailors watched from the woods on Craney Island as the ship went up in flames, among them Catesby ap R. Jones, the daring Lieutenant who fought the Monitor to a draw two months previous. 

Burning of CSS Virginia, 11 May 1862. Painting by Colonel Samuel Wetherill, 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The picture shows the destruction of the Virginia by her crew off Craney Island in Hampton Roads. (NHHC)

An UN-Civil War of Names

Not unlike battlefields spanning east to west, Civil War-era ships are remembered based on regional differences. Much of this is attributed to the notion that “winners write the history,” and commemorates them as such by their own choosing. For instance, the battle of Shiloh in April 1862 is often referred to as Pittsburg Landing. The bloodiest single day of the American Civil War, Antietam (or Antietam Creek), is revered by some geographically as Sharpsburg.

For the CSS Virginia, however, the debate continues over how she is properly named. And why not? Almost any mention of something involving the Confederate Navy has a picture of the Virginia on it. Upon first glance on the CSS Virginia’s official website, the first tab on the left side of the screen reads in bold letters NOT the “Merrimac,” and continues with this description:

“The misspelling continues today. The fact that the battle at Hampton Roads is often called the battle of “the Merrimack and the Monitor” rather than “the Virginia and the Monitor” may be because much of the press coverage (and hence history) was by Union newspapers and magazines who, along with the Union military, may have knowingly continued to use the prior name of the ship rather than her proper name. Throughout the Official Records, Federal sources referred to the ship as the “Merrimack” while Confederate sources refer to her as the “Virginia.” (It appears that the compilers of the Official Records would use the name “Merrimack” regardless of whether the original document had used “Merrimac” or “Merrimack.”) Harper’s Weekly refers to the ship as “Merrimac“. Some Southern sources did refer to the ship as the “Merrimac[k].’” (

One author which speaks differently of this name is Ivan Musicant. In his 1995 work Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War, Musicant’s only mention of the Virginia itself is a “see also” to the Merrimack’s indexed pages. Merrimack, in Musicant’s eyes, takes place of all things Virginia, including the Battle of Hampton Roads, which is a duel between the Monitor and Merrimack. Virginia is textually included only when scantly mentioning the ironclad ram built and named in honor of the original ship, then named CSS Virginia II (Divided Waters, 430). 

Maybe Musicant is right. After all, a part of the original ship Merrimack, which was named after the Merrimack River, still existed on Virginia. Then again, when parts of ships were used to outfit newer vessels, most were not named after only parts of the whole. So then maybe the folks at are correct. What about just calling it “The Rebel Monster,” like many Union sailors often did during the Civil War. One recent Civil War work worth reading, Ari Hoogenboom’s 2008 study Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy, uses both Virginia and Merrimack interchangeably in the text and index. Maybe there is hope for a middle ground after all. 

Other monographs and online resources, such as the Naval History and Heritage Command, refer to the ship as the “ex-USS Merrimack.” The NHHC write-up acknowledges the conversion and rechristening of the steam frigate to ironclad, giving her its proper name when it was commissioned as CSS Virginia in February 1862. Even the Merrimack falls victim to incorrect spelling. NHHC historians note that before, during, and after the war, Merrimack’s name was often mispelled “Merrimack,” and is oftentimes confused with the USS Merrimac, a 684-ton side-wheel steamship built by England and captured by USS Iroquois in 1863. 

Other disputes in the correct usage of the ship are more widely known. The Monitor Merrimac Bridge tunnel, which connects the Peninsula to the Hampton Roads Beltway, is one such example. Similarly, one of the showcases at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition in Hampton Roads, VA was a diorama of the “Battle of the Merrimac and the Monitor.” According to one source, the amount of tickets sold to the event at one point exceeded Exposition attendance. Sterling silver spoons sold at the Exposition commemorated the Merrimac and Monitor, not the Virginia. This may seem rather odd as the event itself was held in close proximity to the 8-9 March engagement itself. 


One of the more interesting examples of the battle over the Virginia and Merrimack was included in The Daybook, the official publication of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. The article was titled the “First Annual Bamboozle Awards,” given to those ships which best exemplify the strange and curious throughout American naval history. The last “award” was given to the CSS Virginia under the category “Most Confusing.” Calhoun, writing in Clark Kent fashion as the “Museum Sage,” says it best:

“No vessel has been so confused and verbally abused as this ship. Many visitors who come to the museum see the model of this ironclad and instantly called it Merrimack. This the Sage can understand. After all that is why we have the museum here in the first place, to educate the public on Naval history. What the Sage can not understand, nor excuse, are when historians and other Civil War “experts,” refer to this ironclad as Merrimack. The Sage has seen many Civil War histories for sale in book stores written by professional historians that call the ironclad by the wrong name. Of further insult is when Merrimack is spelled without the “k.” The ship was named after the Merrimack River, thus the Merrimac spelling is incorrect.” (The Daybook)

These examples follow the same ideas put in place from the website. When one looks at the myriad uses of information and misinformation from the battle itself, it dulls the conflict, leaving only the ship’s name, and not the memory or pride of the men who served on her during the Civil War. It’s dizzying, if not confusing. More often than not, every victory for Virginia is countered by one of the Merrimack or Merrimac

Some will always call it Merrimack. Others will always call it Virginia. You can hear faint sounds of Louis Armstrong singing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in the background. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Merrimack or Virginia? Agree to disagree? 

Is there a way to find a resolve, or should opposing camps fight a renewed “civil war” over names? In a conflict where thousands of books are produced each year in its memory, it seems that this renewed fight will continue not with cannon fire, but with words. As a commemorative committee, the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial is interested in understanding what readers of this blog feel is the best way to celebrate Virginia’s storied past. For more information on the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial, visit the blog here.

Print Sources

Calhoun, Gordon. “The First Annual Bamboozle Awards.” The Daybook. Vol. 3, no. 6 (Sept.-Oct. 1997). 

Hoogenboom, Ari. Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. 

Luraghi, Raimondo. A History of the Confederate Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996. 

Musicant, Ivan. Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2000. 


Civil War News (Review of Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy):

The Official CSS Virginia Homepage:

Naval History and Heritage Command:

Souvenir Spoons:

Apr 18

Out of the Box Thinking and Execution 68 Years Ago: The Doolittle Raid

Sunday, April 18, 2010 2:17 PM

Sixty-eight years ago . . .

. . . guts, determination, innovation & courage were defined
(and well before Joint was “cool”)

Conceived in the dark aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the raid had its genesis in the idea of CAPT Frank Lowe, USN who predicted that Army twin-engine bombers could be launched form a carrier under the right conditions. Planned by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, USA and executed by 16 modified B-25B’s of the 34th BS, 17th BG flying from the deck of the USS Hornet (CV-8 ) – 650 nm from Tokyo, history was made and an enemy left shocked. The raid took place after only two months of planning and special training with 16 all volunteer crews. More on the raid itself here, here and here.

North American B-25B Mitchell

The B-25 emerged from an Army Air Corps competition that was won by Martin with their B-26 design. The contest was a novel one in that the Army would order the winning design straight into production, by-passing the prototype phase. Despite having garnered almost double North American’s score, Martin was adamant that they were not going to be able to produce the B-26 in the numbers the Army Air Corps wanted – so they awarded North American with the remainder of the contract. The B-26 was fast, rugged and could carry a significant bomb load – outstripping he B-25 in each category. It’s airframe was designed and constructed such that the ability to take punishment was legendary and second only to the B-17. Yet because of its high wing loading, the B-26 was also notable for its fast landing speeds and long takeoff requirements. The B-25, on the other hand, reached production sooner, also demonstrated a capable bomb carriage capability and, for the purposes of this mission, had take-off requirements that suited it for the carrier.

Still, when all was said and done, these were (relatively speaking) big aircraft on a small flight deck. Carriers wouldn’t see the likes of this until after the war with the advent of the specially modified P2Vs for the nuclear mission – and then those were limited to the much larger decks of the Midway-class carrier.

Armament: Six .50-cal. machine guns; 3,000 lbs. of bombs
Engine: Two Wright R-2600s of 1,700 hp each
Maximum speed: 328 mph
Cruising speed: 233 mph
Range: 2,500 miles (with auxiliary tanks)
Ceiling: 21,200 ft.
Span: 67 ft. 6 in.
Length: 53 ft.
Height: 16 ft. 9 in.
Weight: 29,300 lbs. maximum
Cost: $109,670 (1943)

Post Script:

Some number of years ago (OK, 27 years) I was standing in line at a bank in the main building of the Naval Postgrad School in Monterey, quite engrossed in some transaction I had to make. Standing in front of me was an elderly, quite dignified gentleman who also was quietly waiting his turn at the busy counter. As he approached, the teller exclaimed with considerable joy and surprise “Why General Doolittle! What a pleasure to see you sir – we see so little of you lately it seems!” Needless to say, I jerked my head up so fast I swear I’d broke my neck. Still, it’s not every day you got to meet a living legend and a very gracious and humble one at that…


Mar 30

Upcoming Opportunities to Honor our Navy’s Heritage

Tuesday, March 30, 2010 12:01 AM

Greetings from the Navy Commemorations Office.

For your handy reference, here’s a list of upcoming anniversaries that honor our nation’s naval heritage.

US Navy Birthday (Annual; 250th Anniversary in 2025)

Battle of Midway (Annual, 75th Anniversary in 2017)

Centennial of Naval Aviation (100th Anniversary in 2011)

The U.S. Navy has an enduring legacy of hosting major maritime events throughout the history of our nation. On 31 May 1934, USS Indianapolis hosted President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the 1934 Presidential Naval Review off New York City.

First American in Space (50th Anniversary in 2011)

Civil War (150th Anniversary in 2011-2015)

USS Monitor v. CSS Virginia (150th Anniversary in 2012)

War of 1812 (200th Anniversary in 2012-2015)

Establishment of US Navy Reserve Force (100th Anniversary in 2015)

World War I (100th Anniversary 2017-2018)

World War II (75th Anniversary 2016-2020)

Women in the Navy: Establishment of Yeoman (F) Rating (100th Anniversary in 2017) and the WAVES (75th Anniversary in 2017)

D-Day Normandy (75th Anniversary in 2019)

Founding of West India Squadron (Anti-piracy: 200th Anniversary in 2022)

Commissioning of First Aircraft Carrier (100th Anniversary in 2022)

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