Mar 28

#PeopleMatter – The Rebirth of the U.S. Navy and the Legendary Exploits of the Original Frigate Sailors

Friday, March 28, 2014 11:21 AM
USS Constitution fires a 21-gun salute toward Fort Independence on Castle Island U.S. Navy

USS Constitution fires a 21-gun salute toward Fort Independence on Castle Island
U.S. Navy

 From Naval History and Heritage Command

The Naval Act of 1794 brought the U.S. Navy back to life after it was disbanded following the revolutionary war. The Act provided for the building of six frigates, ConstellationConstitutionUnited StatesCongressChesapeake and President. They were among the most sophisticated warships of their time. As is the case with the 21st century Navy, so it was in the Navy of 18th and 19th centuries: our great ships are nothing without great people to bring them to life. The exploits of the Sailors who took these ships to sea are the stuff of legend. Here are a few examples.

Commodore Edward Preble
On the evening of Sept. 6, 1803, USS Constitution having left Boston encountered an unknown ship close to the Rock of Gibraltar. She was there to work out a deal with Morocco whose Sultan was holding American ships hostage during the Barbary Wars.


In the dark, Constitution’s commander had made several attempts to hail the unknown ship’s commander. The only response to Constitution was to obnoxiously repeat Constitution’s hail. The impatience of her commander grew, and he bellowed a final warning, “I am now going to hail you for the last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you.

A return threat and order was made, warning Constitution’s commander she would encounter return fire from a British ship with 84 guns, the order further directed Preble to report to the British commanding officer via boarding party.


The frigate Constitution wouldn’t stand a chance against 84 guns, but that didn’t faze her commander’s growing rage. He climbed the mizzen shroud and made the following reply, “This is United States ship Constitution, 44 guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel.

The American commander even ordered his crew, “Blow your matches, boys!” Thankfully, before anything escalated, the British commander apologized for having ignored the hails, claiming Constitution had been so quiet there was no time to respond. Oh, and by the way, the British ship turned out to only be 32-guns.

But Preble’s reputation for fearlessness from this incident quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean.

Commodore Edward Preble NHHC

Commodore Edward Preble

Edward Preble’s temper was something already well known to those who served with him, and they understood where it came from: the British had burned his father’s house during the American Revolution, an act that would drive him to join the Navy. Then the British held him prisoner aboard the infamous prison ship Jersey where more than 10,000 Americans died with eight dying per day from starvation over the course of ten years. Preble survived and with him an understandable bad temper which would serve the Navy well.

Among his exploits in the Mediterranean, planning the blockade on Tripoli and ordering Lt. Stephen Decatur to recapture and burn the captured USS Philadelphia. The ship had been abandoned by its Capt. William Bainbridge who found himself on the wrong side of Preble’s judgment for having done so; Preble, it is said, believed Bainbridge and his crew should have chosen death over slavery.

After preventing Philadelphia from falling into enemy hands, Preble laid siege to Triploi in August of 1804. From Constitution, his Third Squadron flag ship, Preble forced many Tripolitans to move further into the countryside. Still, Tripoli showed no signs of surrender.

In addition to his temper, Preble was also relentless. He renewed the attack on Tripoli on Aug. 24, 1804 even though President Jefferson had failed to send reinforcements. Still, Preble had no fear. Preble’s persistent attack on Tripoli worked, forcing the Bashaw [ruler] of Tripoli to surrender to the Navy on June 4, 1805 and return all American prisoners of war including Capt. Bainbridge.[PT1] 

Lt. Stephen Decatur
On Feb. 16, 1804, Lt. Stephen Decatur burned the frigate, Philadelphia, in Tripoli Harbor. British Adm. Horatio Nelson called it, “the most bold and daring act of the age.” It was an event that established the reputation of the young Naval officer and set him on a path of continued outstanding naval service.

As a commanding officer, the high point of his career came when he commanded one of the six frigates, USS United States.


After having been laid up with President, Constellation, Congress, and Chesapeake, United States rejoined the fleet on June 10, 1810 sailing from the Washington Navy Yard for Norfolk for refitting under Decatur’s command. Coincidentally, Decatur had served in United States as a midshipman more than ten years earlier.

While at Norfolk, British Capt. John S. Garden, of the new British frigate HMS Macedonian, wagered Capt. Decatur a beaver hat that his vessel would take United States if the two should ever meet in battle.

The opportunity to settle the bet came sooner than either officer expected, as the United States declared war on Great Britain on June 19, 1812. United States, the frigate Congress, and the brig Argus joined Commodore John Rodgers’ squadron at New York and put to sea immediately, cruising off the east coast until the end of August.

The squadron again sailed on Oct. 8, 1812, this time from Boston. Three days later, after capturing Mandarin, United States parted company and continued to cruise eastward. At dawn on Oct. 25, five hundred miles south of the Azores, lookouts on board United States reported seeing a sail 12 miles to windward. As the ship rose over the horizon, Decatur made out the fine, familiar lines of Macedonian.

Both ships were immediately cleared for action and commenced maneuvers at 9:00 a.m. Capt. Carden elected not to risk crossing the bows of United States to rake her, but chose instead to haul closer to the wind on a parallel course with the American vessel. For his part, Decatur intended to engage Macedonian from fairly long range, where his 24-pounders would have the advantage over the 18-pounders of the British, and then move in for the kill.

United States vs. Macedonian NHHC

United States vs. Macedonian

The actual battle developed according to Decatur’s plan. United States began the action at 0920 by firing an inaccurate broadside at Macedonian. This was answered immediately by the British vessel, bringing down a small spar of United States.

Decatur’s next broadside had better luck, as it destroyed Macedonian‘s mizzen top mast, letting her driver gaff fall and so giving the advantage in maneuver to the American frigate. United States next took up position off Macedonian‘s quarter and proceeded to riddle the hapless frigate methodically with shot. By noon, Macedonian was a dismasted hulk and was forced to surrender. She had suffered 104 casualties as against 12 in United States, which emerged from the battle relatively unscathed.

The two ships lay alongside each other for over two weeks while Macedonian was repaired sufficiently to sail. United States and her prize entered New York Harbor on Dec. 4 amid tumultuous national jubilation over the spectacular victory.

Wherever they went, Decatur and his crew were lionized and received special praise from both Congress and President James Madison. Macedonian was subsequently purchased by the U.S. Navy, repaired, and had a long and honorable career under the American flag.

Capt. James Lawrence
James Lawrence was second in command under Decatur during the burning of Philadelphia in one of the most daring acts of the young U.S. Navy. But history was not finished with Lawrence who had joined the Navy as a midshipman with a background mostly in law. 

Roughly five years after the Barbary Wars, America was closer to going at it again with Great Britain. When the war of 1812 began, Lawrence had already been in command of the sloop of war, Hornet for two years.

From the beginning Lawrence was a thorn in the side of the British navy, capturing the privateer Dolphin in July 1812. Early the next year he blockaded the British sloop Bonne Citoyenne at Bahia, Brazil on Feb. 24, 1813. Then, Lawrence captured the Brig sloop, HMS Peacock and reduced it to a sinking ship in fifteen minutes. This is exactly the kind of behavior the British didn’t like. Most especially annoying to the British was the embarrassing fact that of the one-on-one naval battles fought so far, Americans had won almost every time.

Captain James Lawrence NHHC

Captain James Lawrence

Once Lawrence was promoted to the rank of Captain and given command of the frigate Chesapeake, one of the original six frigates, the commander of the British HMS Shannon wrote to him challenging the U.S. Navy’s ability and offered a fair one-on-one fight before British reinforcements came. Shannon’s commander appeared to delight in literarily poking Lawrence in the eye writing, “… after all, these single-ship actions are all that your little navy can accomplish.”

On June 1, 1813, Chesapeake battled Shannon off Boston. Lawrence would lose, but it was the manner with which he kept fighting that echoes to date. In full officer dress uniform, he fought alongside his men without fear. Conspicuously standing out, Lawrence was first shot in the leg with a pistol ball. Later he received his fatal blow from Shannon’s swivel gun. Although dying, he reiterated the same order even as his men carried him below, “Don’t give up the ship!” Even when his surgeon told him the British were boarding Chesapeake, he ordered the ship be blown up.

Boarding of The Chesapeake NHHC

Boarding of The Chesapeake

The British navy was so impressed with Lawrence’s temerity and courage, they buried him with full military honors in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Accounts vary, but from paintings and testimony, it is remarkable that the British opted not to strike the American flag even upon entering Halifax. Instead, they flew the British ensign above it.

Naval forces in Lake Erie under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry named the flagship Lawrence upon hearing Lawrence’s remains were transferred from Nova Scotia to Trinity Churchyard in New York in September 1813.

Oliver Hazard Perry by Gilbert Stuart

Oliver Hazard Perry by Gilbert Stuart

This banner would have an impact on American Sailors against immense odds. The Navy defeated the British at the Battle of Lake Erie on Sept. 10, 1813. In fact, the book War on the Great Lakes Essays Commemorating the 175th Anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie notes this was the first time an entire British squadron would surrender and every captured ship would be returned.

And it’s worth noting that Perry’s victory occurred under a blue flag embroidered with the words that still serve as a rallying cry for Sailors in today’s Navy, “Don’t give up the ship!”


Mar 27

#PlatformsMatter — The Rebirth of the U.S. Navy: A Fleet of Frigates to Equal None

Thursday, March 27, 2014 12:46 PM

By Joseph Fordham, Naval History and Heritage Command


Yesterday, we outlined how piracy was the catalyst in getting the leadership of the young United States on board with creating a national naval force.

 As the Barbary Coast pirates continued to either break or try to renegotiate their treaties with the U.S., Congress finally authorized the construction of six frigates at the cost of $688,888.82, which was signed into law March 27, 1794.

 Piracy is a battle that continues to be fought today. Modern Sailors have at their disposal agile ships with the most advanced technology used to, among other things, deter, disrupt and suppress piracy in order to provide maritime security and secure freedom of navigation.

 And that is exactly what the first Department of War Secretary, Henry Knox, wanted this fleet of six frigates to be: “equal, if not superior, to any frigates belonging to any of the European powers.”

Henry Knox Secretary of War U.S. Army

Henry Knox
Secretary of War
U.S. Army

 That was 1794. It had been nine years since the Navy sold its last warship, so the task was to build a fleet nearly from scratch.

 Joshua Humphreys, a shipbuilder from Philadelphia who had turned merchant ships into warships during the Revolution, was chosen as the designer for America’s first Navy. Construction of the ships would take place at several different seaports simultaneously: Norfolk, Va., Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Portsmouth, N.H., and Baltimore.

 Three would have 44 guns – Constitution, President and United States — and three would rate between 36 and 38 guns – Chesapeake, Congress and Constellation.

USS Constellation National Archive

USS Constellation National Archive

 Humphreys had specific ideas about the ships to be constructed, he wanted to build frigates as big as any built in that day, heavily armed yet built in a way so that even in a modest wind, they would have the speed necessary to elude a squadron.

 The ships would be 20-feet longer than British ships and 13 feet longer than the 40-gun French frigates. Their longer, but more-narrow design gave the ships their speed and agility, which was evident when the British nicknamed USS Constellation the “Yankee Racehorse.”

 A combination of white oak and live oak made up the 3-layered hull, spaced just two inches apart compared to 4-to-8-inches for the British and French ships. Live oak, which at that time grew only in the southeastern U.S., was five times denser than other oak woods. The live oak chosen for the hull construction came from Georgia. This hardened external shell helped fact become legend as cannon balls seemingly bounced off the planking of USS Constitution, which earned her the nickname Old Ironsides.

 The planks were held together with copper pins made by a Boston coppersmith named Paul Revere, along with 150,000 wooden pegs. The hull was 25-inches thick at the waterline, and then plated with copper sheets imported from Great Britain with tarred paper called “Irish felt” placed between the hull and sheeting.

 Six curved timbers ran from keel to the gun deck allowing for equal distribution of weight by the ship’s 24-pound armament. Other innovative elements to give the ships their edge included diagonal riders, lock scarfing (notched planking on the deck) and standard knees.

 One of the frigates remains afloat today: USS Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat.

USS Constitution in Boston Harbor June 11, 2005 - Navy Office of Community Outreach

USS Constitution in Boston Harbor June 11, 2005 – Navy Office of Community Outreach

 The frigates were the most advanced ships of their time and as the young nation embarked on one of its first major procurements, there were challenges during the construction process. Of immediate concern during the construction was the signing of a peace treaty with Algiers in 1795. According to section 9 of the Naval Act of 1794, a peace treaty with Algiers would negate the need to build the six frigates, of which work had already begun on Constellation, Constitution and United States.

 But President George Washington, perhaps knowing the tenuous nature of treaties with the Barbary Coast nations, urged Congress to continue building the three ships. Sure enough, as the treaties were violated, the remaining three ships – Congress, Chesapeake and President – were built as well.

Eventually the ships were launched between 1797 and 1800.

 The frigates were born of necessity, and, necessity, being the mother of invention, resulted in a project to construct the most technologically advanced warships of their time. But as Ben Franklin once quipped, “Necessity never made a bargain.”

 In the Naval Act of 1794, Congress set aside $688,000 to build the ships six frigates, a significant percentage of the nation’s $8 million budget. The building of just three of the frigates — Constellation, Constitution and United States — consumed nearly all of the original funding allocations. That required several more budget increases from Congress. First $172,000, then another $200,000, followed by an additional $115,833 for a total of $1,176,721 million, a cost overrun of 70 percent, and using more than a fourth of the 1795 defense budget of $5 million. The prior year’s defense budget? $1 million.

 There were rumblings through Congress of fraud, waste and abuse, treaty delays, issues with logistics in acquiring the desired ‘live oak’ for construction, bad weather, a plague of yellow fever and even fires all thwarting the progress of attaining the sea power the country so desperately needed.

 Bookkeeping proved sloppy, an admitted issue for the War Department, resulting in the establishment of the U.S. Department of the Navy on April 30, 1798.

 But eventually all six of the frigates would come to fruition, with the last ship launching in 1800: Constellation, Constitution, United States, Congress, Chesapeake and President. Four were designed to be larger ships at 175-feet, with two rated at 36-38 guns at 164-feet. A design dispute between the overall designer Joshua Humphreys and the Chesapeake’s master constructor Josiah Fox, resulted in the Chesapeake coming in at just 152-feet and downrated to only 38 guns. Humphreys later would disavow the ship’s design.

USS President and HMS Endymion Buttersworth, Sr., Thomas

USS President and HMS Endymion
Buttersworth, Sr., Thomas


So how did these ships, born of necessity, change the world for America?

 The six frigates served with distinction. Constellation was one among many that tallied victories during the Quasi War from 1798-1800, after the new Republic of France was a bit put out America quit paying its debt to that country. America claimed the debt was owed to the newly deposed and beheaded crown monarchs of France, not the French revolutionaries.

 From 1798 through 1815, United States took part in a variety of wars and skirmishes: Quasi War with the French in 1798-1800, two Barbary Coast Wars and then the War of 1812.

 During the Barbary wars, Congress and Constitution formed blockades off the coast of Tripoli and assisted in the capture of other vessels. It was Congress that brought the Tunisian ambassador to Washington, D.C. helping end the piracy of American cargo for the first Barbary War.

USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere - NHHC

USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere – NHHC

 During the War of 1812, Constitution captured 14 ships, including five British ships, with eight of them being burned or scuttled. The British blockade of American harbors kept Constellation out of the fight. But the four other frigates – President, United States, Congress and Chesapeake – together captured, sank or burned dozens of ships. The news of United States capturing Macedonian, and Constitution capturing Guerriere and Java, shocked Europe and the world and damaged the reputation of the Royal Navy’s inherent superiority.

H.M.S. Shannon Leading American Frigate Chesapeake into Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia John Christian Schetky 1830 Canada Library of Archives

H.M.S. Shannon Leading American Frigate Chesapeake into Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia
John Christian Schetky
Canada Library of Archives

 The British would eventually capture both President and Chesapeake before the war was over. Chesapeake went down infamously in 1813 as her mortally-wounded commanding officer, Capt. James Lawrence, ordered “Don’t give up the ship.” President was taken three days after the treaty was signed in 1815 and renamed HMS President.

Flag of USS Chesapeake, exhibited in London, 1914 - NHHC

Flag of USS Chesapeake, exhibited in London, 1914 – NHHC

 The remaining frigates were engaged in the Second Barbary Wars and returned to Tripoli and Tunis, then continued to protect the Gulf of Mexico against further piracy from 1816-1817. Congress went to South America in 1818, and from there to China, the first U.S. vessel ever to go to that country.

USS Congress National Archives

USS Congress National Archives

 Since those first six frigates, the U.S. Navy has continued to launch the latest and greatest technology in the defense of freedom. In 1862, the clash of two titans, the ironclads — Monitor and Merrimack — in the narrow straits of Hampton Roads, made all the rest of the navies in the world seem obsolete. The Great White Fleet of 1907 was meant not only as a great show of force and a display of American ingenuity, but also as a physical manifestation of President Teddy Roosevelt’s diplomatic foreign policy: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” On Nov. 14th 1910, Eugene Ely flew off the deck of Birmingham, launching a new era for naval aviation around the world. This was followed by achievement after achievement, including examples such as the launches of the first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus and the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise. All these breakthroughs in technology resulted from the need for more presence, increased capability and greater survivability.

 In 1794 the architects of the Constitution recognized that the nation needed a naval force to operate continuously in war and peace. Today our nation continues to face risks, challenges and threats from afar and the need for a Navy is even greater.

 “Whether facing high-end combat, asymmetrical threats or humanitarian needs, America’s maritime forces are ready and present on Day One of any crisis for any eventuality,” said Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus March 25, 2014 during a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee. “In today’s dynamic security environment, the forward presence of naval assets serves to reassure the nation’s partners, and remind potential adversaries that we are never far away.”


Ship Name Cost Launched Final Destination/Destiny

Constellation $314,212 1797 1853 (broken up)

Constitution $302,718 1797 Still in service

United States $299,336 1797 Abandoned in 1861; CSS United States abandoned 1862; reclaimed by U.S. and broken up in 1865.

Chesapeake $220,677 1799 Captured by British in 1813, sold for timber 500 pounds

Congress $197,246 1799 Broken up in 1834 (trip to China in 1819)

President $220,910 1800 Captured in 1815, by British, broken up in 1818

 As is the case with the 21st century Navy, so it was in the Navy of 18th and 19th centuries: our great ships are nothing without great people to bring them to life. Tomorrow we’ll wrap up this three-part series with a look at some of the Sailors who took these ships to sea and their legendary achievements.

Mar 26

#PresenceMatters – The Rebirth of the U.S. Navy and the Scourge of Piracy

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 10:20 AM


USS Constitution fires a 21 gun salute U.S. Navy photo

USS Constitution fires a 21 gun salute
U.S. Navy photo

Salutations with a Bang! The Military Gun Salute


By Joseph Fordham, Naval History and Heritage Command

It was 220 years ago this week when the 3rd U.S. Congress received a committee report suggesting the young nation build six frigates to fight against Algerian piracy and then set aside the money needed to maintain them.

It would be the forbearer to the Naval Act of 1794 that was approved two months later.

The report requested a resolution to create a naval force to consist of four ships with 44 guns and two ships of 20 guns, to be provided for the protection of the commerce of the United States against the Algerian corsairs.

The next resolution defined ho

w to pay for the ships requesting permission to tax upon all goods, wares and merchandise, imported into the United States, an additional duty of one percent on top of the already levied 7.5 percent. Marble, slate, stone and tile were taxed an additional five percent, while salt, at 56-pounds per bushel, were nicked three cents per bushel.

The taxing didn’t stop there: ships made in the U.S. or employed in foreign trade were levied six cents per ton. The “not-made-in-America” ships were taxed 25 cents per ton.

The resolution also requested a separate fund be created to begin to build up the $600,000 expected to pay for the naval armament, including six months stores and provisions and three months’ pay to the officers and seamen, and $247,960 for the annual expense.

When the final resolution was approved two months later, March 27, it bumped up the two 20-gun frigates to 36-guns and left out the tax levy language. The final resolution did include guidelines on how to man each of the vessels, their salaries (captain at $75 a month, six rations per day; boatswain at $14 a month plus two rations a day), and the type of food they could expect for those rations: A pound of bread, a pound and a half of beef and a half-pint of rice for Sundays; one pound of bread, a pound of pork, a half-pint of peas or beans and four ounces of cheese for Monday. Added to that was a half-pint of distilled spirits, or one quart of beer per day.

Sailors know that the Navy celebrates its birth date as Oct. 13, 1775. So what happened to the Navy of the revolutionary war? After gaining her independence in 1783, the new nation’s leaders disbanded its Continental Navy, claiming a national military would be too costly to maintain, and besides, Congress had no authority to raise the money to pay for it.

But as piracy began to impede the young country’s economy, discussions arose in Congress about bringing back its navy as a means to protect the commerce flowing in and out of the fledgling nation’s sea ports.

By 1789, the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified and it gave Congress the authority they needed to “provide and maintain a navy.”

It was Ben Franklin who said “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and in this case, the need to protect the country’s economy from piracy and possible future invasion conceived the approval of the Naval Act of 1794. That decision didn’t come without much debate, funding challenges and politics. The same can be said 220 years later of today’s Navy, but as was the case then so it is today: America needs a Navy; presence still matters.

In this first of three parts, we’ll touch on the main challenges faced by America’s leadership as they attempted to re-create its naval force.

USS Enterprise Battling Tripolitan Pirates National Archives

USS Enterprise Battling Tripolitan Pirates
National Archives

Piracy and plunder hit profits

The arguments for a navy came from the systemic problem of piracy, and not just in continental waters, but also on the high seas abroad. The early republic had no capable response to these threats because it had no people, partnerships, power nor, as mentioned earlier, platforms. After winning their freedom from Great Britain, the Continental Navy had been disbanded, with the last of its warships sold by 1785.

In his book “Six Frigates,” Ian W. Toll explains early American leaders managed the problem of Barbary piracy “with a combination of flattery, promises, bribes and occasional threats.” Yet American ships would still be hijacked, taken to Barbary Coast ports, their cargo confiscated as tributes to the Ottoman régime and their crew held for ransom, in one case, for more than 10 years.

Six Frigates by Ian Toll

Six Frigates by Ian Toll

Attempts to lean on former allies fell flat for the young nation. As a colony of Great Britain, the Royal Navy protected merchant ships from piracy. But the former motherland was hostile to American merchant ships and suspected them of aiding and abetting France during the Napoleonic Wars. British ships intercepted American merchant vessels, commandeering cargo and impressing their sailors into the British Navy, as many as 15,000 between 1793 and 1812.

In fact, English merchants appreciated having fewer nations compete for goods coming from the Barbary Coast as it gave them more of the market share, a sentiment Ben Franklin heard in London and then repeated: “If there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.”

France, which had been America’s ally through her independence from Great Britain, also declined to provide safe passage through the treacherous waters of the Barbary Coast because they had their own interests to protect.

While the United States got no love from Great Britain or France, Portugal provided some protection to American ships when that country began blockading Algerian ships from entering the Atlantic.

Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat NHHC

Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat

Shortly after the warship Alliance, was sold, two American merchant ships were attacked by Algerian pirates in 1785, the survivors forced into slavery or offered to be returned for a ransom. Rumor got back to the U.S. that Ben Franklin, who was returning from peace talks in Europe around that time, may have been on one of the ships. He was not, but that just fueled the flames for a naval force to protect American interests.

In an effort to appease the pirates, the United States entered into its first treaty with Morocco in 1786.

But then Portugal signed their own treaty with Algiers in 1793, and that left American merchant ships vulnerable again. By the end of that year, 11 U.S. ships had been seized by pirates.

That was enough for President George Washington, who stood Jan. 2, 1794 before the House of Representatives for the 3rd Congress. He asked to have six frigates built for the protection of American commerce.

The House of Representatives approved the request and asked a committee to create a bill. Just 18 days later, on Jan. 20, 1794, that committee presented its recommendation for building, manning and maintaining the six frigates.

After the Senate heard and approved the bill two months later, Washington signed it into law March 27. But the bill had a clause that would later confound the construction of the frigates. In order to appease those against building a navy, Section 9 stated “…that if a peace shall take place between the United States and the Regency of Algiers, that no farther proceeding be had under this act.”

That treaty came about in 1795, and soon to follow would be treaties with Tripoli and Tunis in 1797. All involved some sort of payment, or tribute, to the Ottoman regime. For the anti-navy proponents, paying bribery and protection fees was cheaper than the cost of funding a real navy. Despite the clause, Washington asked for the three ships nearly completed to be finished, especially since trouble was brewing with their former ally, France.

Tomorrow, we’ll address the challenges of building a navy from scratch.  

Mar 12

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Mar 6

Civil Engineer Corps unique among other military services

Thursday, March 6, 2014 8:03 AM


Civil engineers discussing new facility in Japan in 2012. (Photo courtesy of PWD Sasebo)

Civil engineers discussing new facility in Japan in 2012. (Photo courtesy of PWD Sasebo)

 Rear Adm. Kate Gregory, Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, and Chief of Civil Engineers

 This year, the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) observes its 147th anniversary, embracing a legacy of providing facilities engineering expertise to Navy and Marine Corps commanders that began on March 2, 1867. The CEC is a unique organization with no exact counterpart in any other service or any other Navy in the world. Its officers are the Navy’s professional engineers and architects, responsible for executing and managing the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the Navy’s shore facilities. CEC officers work primarily in three areas: construction contract management, public works, and with the Seabees.

Rear Adm. Katherine L. Gregory Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Chief of Civil Engineers

Rear Adm. Katherine L. Gregory
Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command
Chief of Civil Engineers

Today, the Civil Engineer Corps continues to support the Chief of Naval Operations’ tenets of “Warfighting First,” “Operate Forward,” and “Be Ready,” while adapting to changing national security threats, the drawdown from the war in Afghanistan, and fiscal uncertainties. The demand for CEC officers to support the capabilities of joint war fighters and supported commanders through efficient, innovative and responsive facilities and expeditionary expertise has never been more critical.

At every Navy base around the globe, these men and women are on the job, around the clock. From public works to building design, from environmental assessment to alternative energy development, and even to disaster recovery efforts, the Navy’s civil engineers are there.

This same cadre of officers also leads the Seabees, who provide the naval expeditionary forces with a wide array of support. Whether helping to build a combat outpost so Marines can extend their reach in Afghanistan, erecting a pier that extends a kilometer into the surf to support logistics coming over the shore, working to open a damaged port in Haiti, or drilling a fresh water well in Africa, CEC-led Seabees live by their motto “Can Do!” and can be counted on to get the job done.

Rear Adm. Christopher Mossey visits with elements of three Seabee battalions in Afghanistan in 2011. Navy photo by Utilitiesman 2nd Class Vuong Ta

Rear Adm. Christopher Mossey visits with elements of three Seabee battalions in Afghanistan in 2011.
Navy photo by Utilitiesman 2nd Class Vuong Ta

As we celebrate nearly a century-and-a-half of dedicated service, this is a time to reflect upon the Civil Engineer Corp’s storied past, the critical work it is doing now, and the accomplishments it will achieve in the future. As CEC officer Cmdr. La Tanya Simms summarized it, “We don’t just build facilities and roads. We build partnerships, lasting legacies, solutions, and linkages to improve people’s lives.”

Happy 147th birthday, Civil Engineer Corps!

 Rear Adm. Gregory assumed duties as commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command and chief of civil engineers on Oct. 26, 2012.
Previously, Gregory served as commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific and the Pacific Fleet civil engineer. Her other facilities assignments include tours in Yokosuka, Japan; Naples, Italy; San Francisco; Adak, Alaska; and Pearl Harbor. She has also had staff tours in Washington, D.C., serving as the Seabee action officer and Chief of Naval Operations Overseas Bases planning and action officer.
Within the Naval Construction Force (Seabees), she has served with Amphibious Construction Battalion One; Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) One; commanding officer of NMCB 133; commander of the 30th Naval Construction Regiment; and chief of staff for the First Naval Construction Division. Throughout her Seabee tours, she deployed to the Western Pacific, Mediterranean, Iraq and Haiti.
Gregory is a native of St. Louis, and a 1982 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Southern California and George Washington University, and has completed the Senior Executive Program at the London School of Business.
She is a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a qualified military parachutist and Seabee combat warfare officer.

Mar 4

Building for a Nation and for Equality: African American Seabees in World War II

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 8:41 PM

 Dr. Frank A. Blazich Jr., U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command


Members of the 34th Naval Construction Battalion erecting a 40 x 100 foot Quonset hut warehouse at Halavo Seaplane Base, Florida Island, Solomon Islands, September 19, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Members of the 34th Naval Construction Battalion erecting a 40 x 100 foot Quonset hut warehouse at Halavo Seaplane Base, Florida Island, Solomon Islands, September 19, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Visitors to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum may wish to walk to the display of battalion plaques from World War II. Among the blur of polished wood, painted plaster, and engraved metal one may gaze upon the plaques of the 34th, 20th (Special), and 80th Naval Construction Battalions (NCB). The plaque for the 20th bears the motto “Proving Our Worth,” an apt description for men fighting for victory over fascism abroad and discrimination at home. Over 12,500 African Americans served in Seabee units in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters during World War II, a group largely forgotten today. During the war these men not only built advanced bases and offloaded cargo, but helped break institutional conceptions of race, paving the road toward complete integration of the Navy.


MM1c J.P. Weaver of Martinsburg, WV at the controls of a Seabee dozer. Weaver rose from Seaman to Petty Officers in 20 months with the 34th Naval Construction Battalion, earning the most promotion of any member during its first deployment in the Pacific. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

MM1c J.P. Weaver of Martinsburg, WV at the controls of a Seabee dozer. Weaver rose from Seaman to Petty Officers in 20 months with the 34th Naval Construction Battalion, earning the most promotion of any member during its first deployment in the Pacific. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Navy debated its exclusionary and discriminatory race policies. In June 1940, only 2.3 percent of the Navy’s personnel were African American, almost all serving as stewards for white officers and chiefs in the messman branch. Passage of the Selective Service and Training Act in September 1940 necessitated the Navy to change its policies, as the legislation stated that “any person, regardless of race or color . . . shall be afforded an opportunity to volunteer for . . . the land and naval forces of the United States.” Subsequently, Navy Secretary Frank Knox established a committee to investigate the integration of African Americans into the service. The committee’s December 1941 report, however, argued against enlisting African Americans as other than mess attendants due to “the limitations of the characteristics of members of certain races.” But after December 7, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pressed the White House and Knox to accept African Americans for service other than stewards.


Members of the 41st Special Naval Construction Battalion on Hollandia in 1944. The Specials integrated in the latter stages of the war in the Pacific, some of the first full-integrated units in the Navy. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Members of the 41st Special Naval Construction Battalion on Hollandia in 1944. The Specials integrated in the latter stages of the war in the Pacific, some of the first full-integrated units in the Navy. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, balancing the issues of race while pursuing a two-front war, pressed for a compromise solution. In January 1942, Knox asked the Navy’s General Board to submit plans for African Americans to serve in billets outside of the steward branch, but the new plans only reinforced prevalent racial views that African Americans exclusively remain in the messman branch. Roosevelt remained unconvinced, and requested Knox reinvestigate the matter. In late February, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold R. Stark recommended that African Americans could be rated in construction battalions or serve in the naval shore establishment. On April 7, 1942, Knox announced that the Navy would enlist African Americans for the general service, with open enlistment for messmen and the new Seabees.

Seabee divers from the 34th Naval Construction Battalion work on a marine railway using improvised diving equipment, Gavutu, Solomon Islands, November 8, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Seabee divers from the 34th Naval Construction Battalion work on a marine railway using improvised diving equipment, Gavutu, Solomon Islands, November 8, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum


For the Bureau of Yards and Docks (BuDocks), recruitment and organization for African American construction battalions began in April 1942. In September, 880 African American men from 37 states reported to Camp Allen near Norfolk, VA to become Seabees. To command the new units, BuDocks decided to use southern white men, chosen for “their ability and knowledge in handling” African Americans, but who also received orders to treat all personnel without difference in regards to promotions and assignments. With almost eighty percent of the enlisted men hailing from the South, RADM Ben Moreell and other senior BuDocks leaders felt this arrangement would help produce a “crack battalion, one which will be proud of themselves and to the Seabees.” On October 24, 1942, the Navy commissioned the African American 34th NCB which shipped out of Port Hueneme, CA for the Pacific. The men served 20 months overseas, constructing naval facilities at Espiritu Santo and in the Solomon Islands before returning to Camp Rousseau, Port Hueneme in October 1944.


The 80th Naval Construction Battalion at work at Edinburgh Field, Trinidad construction a steel lighter-than-air hangar, November 30, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

The 80th Naval Construction Battalion at work at Edinburgh Field, Trinidad construction a steel lighter-than-air hangar, November 30, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Around the time the 34th shipped out in January 1943, the second African American construction battalion, the 80th NCB, formed at Camp Allen and commissioned on February 2. After advanced training, the unit moved to Gulfport, MS before embarking for assignment to Trinidad in July. As with the 34th, the 80th’s officers and chiefs were also white southerners, although the battalion’s African American personnel mostly came from northern states. Also in July 1943, the first of fifteen predominantly African American stevedore construction battalions, termed “specials,” commissioned. All but one of these specials served in the Pacific. These battalions varied considerably in composition from the 34th and 80th NCBs. While still commanded by white officers, the 15th, 17th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd Specials had at least one African American chief petty officer, and the white leadership consisted predominately of non-southerners, less inclined to impose the edifice of segregation in the workplace or at the base camps.

While deployed, the men of the two construction battalions performed their assignments admirably and efficiently, but the corrosive effects of commander-imposed racism and discrimination would result in two imbroglios for the Navy. Initially, nothing appeared out of order with either battalion. In the Pacific, the 34th endured Japanese bombing raids and lost five men killed and 35 wounded in their first deployment. Their work in the Solomons garnered numerous commendations and citations for exceptional service. In Trinidad, the 80th constructed a massive airship hangar and other airfield facilities in defense of the Caribbean from German U-boat operations. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Moreell, and other dignitaries visited the unit to inspect their progress.

Upon returning to the United States in late 1944, racial tensions in the 34th boiled over at Camp Rousseau, Port Hueneme. While rebuilding for its next deployment, the commanding officer refused to rate any African American as a chief petty officer, and instituted segregated barracks, mess lines, and mess huts. African American petty officers were used for unskilled manual labor and never placed in charge of working parties. With morale low, the African American personnel of the battalion staged a hunger strike from March 2 – 3, 1945, refusing to eat but continuing to perform all scheduled duties. In response, following a Board of Investigation, BuDocks relieved the commanding officer, his executive officer, and twenty percent of the original officers and petty officers. Their replacements were all screened for racial prejudices and southern men predominately avoided. The new commanding officer, a New Yorker, organized a training program for enlisted personnel to be rerated and ensured that qualified men receive the promotions unfairly denied them under the previous commander.

Left to right, 34th National Construction Battalion members MM3c Joseph E. Vaughn of Cambridge, MA, CM3c Harry E. Lash of Gastonia, NC, and GM3c William A. Shields of Trenton, NJ displaying Purple Hearts for wounds received by Japanese bombing on February 22, 1943. Photo taken May 28, 1944 at Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Left to right, 34th National Construction Battalion members MM3c Joseph E. Vaughn of Cambridge, MA, CM3c Harry E. Lash of Gastonia, NC, and GM3c William A. Shields of Trenton, NJ displaying Purple Hearts for wounds received by Japanese bombing on February 22, 1943. Photo taken May 28, 1944 at Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum


For the men of the 80th, discrimination in Gulfport prior to embarkation continued on their transport at sea and at Trinidad, where segregated facilities manifested themselves. After the Officer in Charge heard complaints from a group of Seabees about racial discrimination in the battalion in September 1943, the commander initiated the discharge of 19 members for what he deemed seditious behavior bordering on mutiny. The commanding officer of the Naval Operating Base, Trinidad and commandant of the Tenth Naval District approved the discharges. The discharged men thereafter contacted the NAACP and the African American media, who demanded answers from the Secretary of the Navy. Under the legal guidance of the NAACP and their special counsel, Thurgood Marshall, a review board upgraded the discharges of 14 of the men in April 1945. Meanwhile, after the battalion returned to Port Hueneme in July 1944, BuDocks ordered the removal of the Officer in Charge and all of the original white officers and chiefs, aside from the medical and supply officers, and replaced them with non-southerners.

BuDocks could have easily disbanded both battalions and declared African Americans incompatible with the Seabees, but instead chose to recognize the error of its way and change its policies. A Civil Engineer Corps officer noted during the war how when choosing officers for a Seabee unit, “A man may be from the north, south, east or west. If his attitude is to do the best possible job he knows how, regardless of what the color of his personnel is, that is the man we want as an officer for our colored Seabees.” The work of African American units proved equal to that of white units. Leadership – as with any military unit – made the difference in morale and efficiency. This is particularly noted in the African American special battalions, which often reported high morale and performance. After replacing the leadership of the two construction battalions, BuDocks redeployed both units to the Pacific in 1945, where they worked without incident and with high morale.

The accomplishments of African American Seabees in World War II demonstrated then and now that the spirit of “Can Do” does not differentiate between age, race, or gender. By late 1945 as American forces closed in on Japan, several African American Seabee specials integrated, and white and black Seabees found themselves unloading ships or constructing advance bases, united together for victory. These constituted, arguably, the Navy’s first fully-integrated units in the twentieth century. Perhaps more importantly for these Seabees, they recognized how their work in the Pacific factored into the fight against discrimination at home. Writing in April 1945, 80th NCB member CM1c Arthur H. Turner of Detroit, MI declared: “Wherever we go, whatever our assignment may be, we still employ all our talents and efforts to do a good job, one that will be a lasting monument to the navy and to the negro race.”

Members of the 34th Naval Construction Battalion construct a timber pile bridge over the Teneru River on Guadalcanal using native lumber, July 10, 1944. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Members of the 34th Naval Construction Battalion construct a timber pile bridge over the Teneru River on Guadalcanal using native lumber, July 10, 1944. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum


Part of Naval History and Heritage Command’s nine museums the mission of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum is to select, collect, preserve and display historic material relating to the history of the Naval Construction Force, better known as the SEABEES, and the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps.

The second oldest of the official Navy museums, the Seabee Museum was established in 1947 in Port Hueneme, Calf., which today is part of Naval Base Ventura County (NBVC).



 Mon – Sat: 9am to 4pm

Sun: 12pm to 4pm

Closed all Federal holidays

Admission and parking are free.

 The Museum is open to the public and tours can be arranged for schools or other groups.

Call (805) 982-5167 or email

Visit the Seabee Museum’s Facebook page.

Feb 20

Destroyer duty ‘made me who I am’

Thursday, February 20, 2014 1:24 PM

Hard work, sense of community just two reasons why Sailors are passionate about their tours on destroyers

By Naval History and Heritage Command staff

It’s been said that if aircraft carriers and big deck amphibious ships are like cities on the sea, the destroyers represent the small towns where everyone knows everyone and Sailors often do more than one or two jobs on the ship.

And when destroyermen talk about what they liked during their time on these Greyhounds of the Fleet, they will almost inevitably bring up the comradeship they shared.

“The destroyer is the hardest working asset in the fleet,” said Marc Tuell of Deltona, Fla., who served from 1993 to 2013. “Often called with a moment’s notice to deploy, the Sailors you serve with are the most steadfast and devoted of shipmates and friends. The bond that is built is stronger than any other bond in the Navy.”

Tuell, who served as a fireman recruit on USS Hewitt (DD 966) in Japan, learned the ship “inside and out.” But when he was assigned to VF-154 aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63), he found a very different culture “full of individuals,” and a clear segregation between the ship’s company and the Air Wing.

His final duty station in 2010 was aboard the destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62). Tuell said the ship “consistently outperformed the other ships” despite what he describes as manning challenges.

“The crew of the Fightin’ Fitz’ always took assignments, on short notice, and always executed them with a pride and professionalism that was truly amazing to be a part of,” he said.

Tuell said he would never trade the “difficulties we face during my time as a destroyerman,” on the “hardest working ships in the fleet,” both at the beginning and end of his career in the Navy. “It made me who I am.”

Billy Miller, of Ingleside, Texas, was fond of the Fletcher/Gearing class of ships serving on USS Hamner (DD 718) from 1971-72.

“The crew was very tight and incredibly hard-working. No one had time to carry a slacker,” said the Navy veteran, whose email moniker is bilgewaterbill. “We might fight amongst ourselves, but Lord help you if you wore another ship’s patch and picked on one of ours!”

John Shanahan Jr., who served as a radarman (now operations specialist) on USS Taussig (DD 746) and USS Haynsworth (DD 700) in 1962-63, whose missions included astronaut recovery.

“The crews were small enough so that you got to know pretty well all on board and the missions were versatile and exciting,” Shanahan, who now lives in Ireland, said.

Destroyers during the Vietnam-era were deployed to South Vietnam to help keep enemy ships away and remove contraband weapons from shipping traffic, said former destroyerman Jose Hernandez, who served for more than five years on USS McGinty (DDE 365) from late 1959 to mid-1965. The ship, which had survived World War II kamikaze attacks, served as the flagship for Task Element 95.21 in Wonsan, Korea, and was the “pivotman” in what was called the Irish Triple Play: O’Malley to McGinty to O’Bannon. Lt. Francis J. O’Malley, a pilot from the carrier Essex, was rescued at sea by McGinty, which delivered him to the destroyer O’Bannon.

Scott Welsh, Petaluma, Calif., who served from 1982-85 on USS Benjamin Stoddert (DDG 22), an Adams-class guided missile destroyer, also said his time on destroyers were among the best in his life.

“Nothing against the frigates and gator big decks I served in, but Stoddert looked and performed like a warship. Built for Arleigh Burke’s Navy with design values that stressed speed and hitting power over habitability. Having been around for nearly 20 years, she had a strong culture of excellence, a high-performing crew and during my time, superb leadership at every level.

Life on a destroyer, he added was “where ‘pride and professionalism’ was not a slogan, but a way of life.”

To read more about the evolution of destroyers, visit the Association of the United States Navy’s website for 110 Years of Tin Cans:

Feb 16

In Harm’s Way: Lt. Decatur Avenges Capture of The Frigate Philadelphia #WarfightingFirst

Sunday, February 16, 2014 8:00 AM
Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli By Edward Moran 1897 U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection

Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli
By Edward Moran 1897
U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection

On Feb. 16, 1804, Lt. Stephen Decatur burned the frigate, Philadelphia, in Tripoli Harbor. British Adm. Horatio Nelson called it, “the most bold and daring act of the age.” One wouldn’t think an officer burning a Navy ship would garner such an accolade, but the capture of Philadelphia had been an embarrassment to the young U.S. Navy.

The United States was in her first Barbary war with Tripoli, and back then Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis and Morocco were independent North African kingdoms that frequently employed piracy in the Mediterranean unless they received regular payments. The Tripolitans had captured Philadelphia four months earlier in October 1803, humiliating the Navy. Now that she was in enemy hands, the frigate was also a potential threat. Should the Tripolitans fully fit the frigate, they could navigate her out of the harbor and attack other United States ships blockading the harbor.

Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis and Morocco had been preying on weaker navies by capturing their ships, taking their crews captive, and then extorting their countries’ governments for their return. Between 1801 and 1816, United States and European ships would fall victim to these pirate raids in the Mediterranean, resulting in two Barbary Wars. As with Europe, the United States had been repeatedly forced to pay for the release of any captives from any merchant trade ships. The Pasha of Tripoli had declared war on the United States claiming “late payments on tributes owed” to him, and he had made his intentions clear by cutting down the flagpole in front of the United States’ consulate’s residence on May 14, 1801.

In Oct. 1803, Capt. William Bainbridge had been Philadelphia’s commander and was ordered to blockade Tripoli’s harbor in hopes of ending the thug-like tactics the Tripolitans had been using in the Mediterranean. While chasing an enemy ship in the harbor, he miscalculated the low tide and beached Philadelphia on what is now known as the Kaliusa reef, which at the time had not been charted. Before she was taken, Bainbridge ordered a large amount of her guns be thrown overboard in order to free her from the reef. This left Philadelphia defenseless, and Bainbridge had no choice but to surrender the ship. He and his officers would remain prisoners until the Barbary War with Tripoli ended in June 1805.

The thought of allowing Philadelphia to remain in enemy hands was intolerable to the Navy. So much so that the Commander of the Third Mediterranean Squadron, Commodore Edward Preble, commented that Capt. Bainbridge and his crew should have “chosen death over slavery.” The ship now posed a threat to all U.S. vessels. Within weeks of her capture, Philadelphia had been quickly fitted as a gun battery by the Tripolitans. Once complete, the frigate could become Tripoli’s most powerful corsair.

The Navy and Decatur had had it. Neither had any intention of paying any more “tribute” to any of the North African kingdoms. However, they also weren’t interested in attempting to retake Philadelphia, because Tripoli’s harbor was heavily fortified, and retrieving her once the tide receded would have only risked repeating the same mistake Capt. Bainbridge made four months prior. The Navy instead assigned Decatur to burn and destroy the frigate.

Decatur took a simple 60-ft ketch that he had seized from the enemy and renamed Intrepid. With a crew of 80 from two other U.S. ships, he sailed on Feb. 3 from Sicily to Tripoli posing as fishermen. Decatur and his crew endured two weeks of severe storms, gale force winds, lack of food, and filthy conditions in the tiny ketch. Finally, on Feb. 16 with only moonlight to guide them, Decatur and his men navigated into Tripoli harbor and slowly made their way towards Philadelphia. Decatur’s ruse on acting like poor fishermen tricked the Tripolitans and got them alongside Philadelphia. They told the guards they had lost their anchors from the storms and needed to tie up alongside Philadelphia. By the time the Tripolitans saw the anchors and sounded the alarm, they were too late. Decatur and his men were already too close to Philadelphia for the Tripolitans to fend off any attack. Many of them ended up jumping from Philadelphia, and within 20 minutes, Decatur had set fire to the ship. She eventually burned to the waterline and sank. None of Decatur’s men were injured.

Decatur would serve the Navy through both Barbary wars, the Quasi-War with France and the War of 1812. He would go on to defeat Algerian warships and capture hundreds of prisoners of war. His actions placed the Navy in more formidable diplomatic positions to negotiate with the Barbary rulers. Decatur was able to obtain the release of not only all U.S. prisoners from the other Barbary rulers, but also the release of European prisoners. Naples dubbed him the “Terror of the Foe.” Pope Pius even congratulated Decatur and the United States and commented, “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble and humiliate the barbarians on the African coast in one night than all the European states had done for a long period of time.”

Stephen Decatur by Alonzo Chappel 1828-1887 Library of Congress

Stephen Decatur
by Alonzo Chappel
Library of Congress