Thursday, February 16, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Alabama on the Elizabeth

Over the last couple of years, prevailing strategic thinking in the United States Navy's surface community has, for the first time in decades, gravitated back towards an emphasis upon offensive capability.  This concept, known as Distributed Lethality, marks the return to a posture presuming that the navies of rival nations present a credible threat wherever the US Navy operates.  Thanks in part to advances in missile technology, rival militaries now possess anti-access/area denial capabilities that can effectively put American naval vessels under threat hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from their shores.  This new reality has forced a paradigm shift on the part of American planners.  The Cold War-era battle groups of a dozen or more frigates, destroyers and attack submarines screening a huge capital ship have been replaced by three to four American and allied vessels comprising a hunter-killer surface action group.

Seventy-five years ago today, however, a different mindset held sway as the South Dakota-class battleship Alabama (BB-60) was launched at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.  Perhaps the ethos behind her conception and construction could be thought of as "Concentrated Lethality."
An aerial oblique view of USS Alabama (BB-60) in the Elizabeth River after launching at Norfolk Navy Yard, February 16, 1942.  Her Sponsor was Henrietta McMcormick Hill, wife of J. Lister Hill, senior senator from Alabama. (US Navy/ National Archives via NHHC Flickr)
Two years and two weeks after her keel was laid at Norfolk Navy Yard, Alabama was launched on February 16, 1942.  Commissioned in August, she taunted the Kreigsmarine in the North Atlantic for a year before earning her 9 battle stars in the Pacific, serving as protection for aircraft carriers and providing shore bombardment.  Although her concentrated lethality in the form of nine 16-inch guns, 20 five-inch guns and numerous 20mm antiaircraft guns made Alabama a devastating machine of war, it was her air search radar that proved pivotal in the run-up to the June 1944 battle later called the "Marianas Turkey Shoot," from which Japanese naval air power would never recover.

Perhaps one of the greatest testaments of her effectiveness is that, despite repeated action against enemy forces during the war, during which over 1,200 16-inch shells were fired and 22 enemy aircraft were shot down, the only casualties incurred during the war were accidental.  Like many of the most powerful and effective ships ever to sail the seas as a part of the most unrivaled navy ever assembled, however, Alabama's operational life was short.  It was not because of obsolescence or any other reason that she was consigned to mothball status after the war.  It was just that there were no worthy adversaries still afloat.
USS Alabama (BB-60), seen here in September 1974, is permanently docked at Battleship  Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama. (US Navy/ PH1 Richard Pendergist, National Archives via NHHC Flickr)
Decommissioned on January 9, 1947 and stricken from the naval register on June 1, 1962, a grassroots fundraising drive on the part of the citizens of Alabama saved the battleship from the cutting torch, and for over a half-century she has served the public in Mobile as a reminder of the battles she fought and the men who fought those battles.  Not to be forgotten, however, are the over 3,000 shipyard workers at Norfolk Naval Shipyard who worked around the clock for two and a half years to make her a reality.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Destruction of the Mosquito Fleet

By Julius Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

"Destruction of the Mosquito Fleet."  (Harper's Weekly Archives)
The combined Navy and Army operation that set out to clear Roanoke Island of Confederates had been successful, but its job was not complete. While the Army would continue to extend their control to the rest of the Outer Banks, the job of the US Navy would be to seek out the vessels of the Confederate Navy defending the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds and destroy them or capture them.
Elizabeth City, North Carolina, appears the upper left of this 1850 survey map of the Pasquotank River. (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration)
While the ships of the Confederate Navy fought well during their attempt to prevent the taking of Roanoke Island, they also used up all the ammunition and powder and had to retreat north to Elizabeth City to repair battle damage and resupply. Unfortunately, this trip would prove to be a fruitless effort, as there was no powder or shot in the town. The commander of the Confederate naval forces in the area, Flag Officer William Lynch, dispatched men and two vessels north to Norfolk in order requisition the needed supplies. This effort would also prove futile due to the limited amounts of powder and shot available in Norfolk. The officer who commanded the group sent to gather supplies was only able to secure enough ammunition to restock two of the six ships of the “Mosquito Fleet.” This left Lynch with a major problem. He decided his best course of action was to spread the ordnance out among his ships, what would amount to ten shots per ship, and to position his vessels so they could be supported by a Confederate battery of four cannon on Cobb’s Point east of the town. 
Stephen C. Rowan. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Unbeknownst to Lynch, the Union flotilla commander, Stephan C. Rowan, also faced a shortage of ammunition. His fourteen ships, though, carried 37 guns, almost two and a half times the number of pieces the Confederates had at their disposal. Because of this shortage, Rowan elected to ignore and bypass the Confederate battery altogether and concentrate on the main target of the Union offensive, the ships of the “Mosquito Fleet.” The Union commander also directed his ships to fire judiciously and, if possible, sink or disable the vessels by ramming or boarding.

After spending a day at anchorage north of Roanoke Island, the Union flotilla weighed anchor and got underway at dawn. The Cobb’s Point battery, manned by North Carolina Militia and gunners from the CSS Beaufort, were the first ones to engage the oncoming Union warships. Their shots were ineffective and poorly aimed, and this issue was compounded by the fact the militiamen abandoned their post as soon as the action began. Lieutenant Commander William Harwar Parker, commanding the battery, watched helplessly as his shots splashed wildly around the Union flotilla that was slowly heading towards the Confederate gunboats beyond. 
USS Commodore Perry. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
The first Confederate vessel to meet her demise was CSS Black Warrior, a civilian schooner pressed into service by the Confederacy after the outbreak of hostilities. The fact that she was formerly a civilian owned ship was not unique. All Confederate and Union ships engaged this day, as well as many of the warships in both navies at this time, were originally civilian ships that had been requisitioned by their respective governments and armed. Many of the Union ships commanded by Rowan were former paddlewheel ferries, steamers, or tugs. Next to go was CSS Ellis, captured and saved from destruction by a boarding party off the USS Ceres. After the vessel struck her colors, a Confederate sailor alerted the Union men that the former commanding officer had set charges in an attempt to blow up the vessel to avoid capture, and these were extinguished. CSS Sea Bird, the flagship of Confederate Flag Officer Lynch, was destroyed by fire from the USS Commodore Perry.
The armed tug Fanny, seen here after her capture by Union forces in the James River, bore a strong resemblance to CSS Beaufort. (Harper's Weekly Archives) 
Not all the ships of the “Mosquito fleet” met the same fate that day. CSS Beaufort and CSS Appomattox escaped up the Great Dismal Canal heading to Norfolk. Appomattox had to be burned after she was found to be two inches too wide to fit through the lock in what is now the city of Chesapeake. Beaufort made it safely to Norfolk and would later serve as a tender for CSS Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads, which took place March 8-9, 1862.

With the capture of Roanoke and with the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds firmly in Union control, the flow of supplies to Norfolk dwindled to a trickle. The Confederates would try to break the blockade with the CSS Virginia, but with the arrival of USS Monitor, this would also prove unsuccessful. The Confederates, knowing their position was untenable, began to leave Norfolk, and by May it was completely abandoned. The Confederates attempted to move Virginia up the James River, but her 22-foot draft made it impossible to cross the sand bars at the mouth of the James. The Union Army entered the city on May 10th, 1862, and it stayed in Federal hands for the remainder of the war. CSS Virginia, having lost her home port and with no options for escape remaining, had her cannons removed and was blown up off Craney Island in the early morning hours of May 11th, 1862.

A mass-market postcard from the early 1900s showing the scuttling of CSS Virgina. (HRNM Collection, HR98-2870-001)

Monday, February 6, 2017

Brick By Brick 2017: The Winners

Neil and Yevette Newlin from Gloucester, Virginia, bring in Neil's scale Lego creation, the Cyclone-class patrol craft Tornado (WPC-14), which was in US Coast Guard service from 2004-2011.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)  
On Saturday, 2,936 visitors and volunteers attended Hampton Roads Naval Museum's Sixth Annual "Brick by Brick: LEGO Shipbuilding" event at the Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center in Downtown Norfolk.  Over 100 of them entered their ships into the event's shipbuilding contest, which was divided by age classes and by where the models were created.  If the models were made outside the museum using parts provided by the builder, they were judged in the "Home-Built" section, while models made between 10 am and 2 pm (the judging deadline) at the event with parts provided by the museum were judged in the "Museum-Made" section.
Neil Newlin fixes some slight damage to his Lego scale model of USCGC Tornado (WPC-14) while setting up to display. He based its size upon the standard Lego figure, which he estimates at 1:107. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
Newlin's Lego scale model of USCGC Tornado (WPC-14) featured a cutaway combat information center and bridge. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
Winning entries made at home continued their strong scale streak this year.  In the 17-and-older division, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Neil Newlin from Gloucester, Virginia, wowed the judges with a scale Lego model of USCGC Tornado, a ship he was stationed on for three and a half years.  The model, made to the exact scale of a standard Lego figure and featuring a detailed bridge and combat information center, took nearly 15 months to create.  
Division winner Jack Koleszar went to lengths to ensure his Slava-class cruiser's SS-N-12 anti-ship missiles and distinctive radars looked authentic.  Although a Soviet-era design, three remain in Russian navy service today.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
The Slava-class cruiser Marshal Ustinov passes Fort Monroe after a port visit to Norfolk in 1989. (Official US Navy Photo by PH1 Jeff Elliot, via Wikimedia Commons)
Jack Koleszar, who won his age division last year with his scale Vietnam War river monitor, this year crossed the Cold War divide by bringing in a Soviet Slava-class cruiser.  He also utilized custom parts for just the right look which, according to Koleszar, sometimes took longer to come in through the mail than it took for him to build the model itself. 
Mark Anderson creatively used Logo bricks to depict the secret operation Project Azorian, which used the giant "mining" vessel Glomar Explorer to attempt to salvage a lost Soviet submarine from the seabed three miles below.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
An early depiction of the Project Azorian operation (

Historically-based models once again netted second places in the 13-16 and 17-and-older categories.  In the latter, nuclear engineer Mark Anderson once again used Lego bricks to create a historical diorama.  Last year, he told the story of the destruction of the Gosport Shipyard (Now Norfolk Naval Shipyard) during the Civil War.  This year he introduced event visitors to Project Azorian, a daring CIA-led effort during the Cold War to raise a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine.  Scott Endrusick of Smithfield, Virginia, captured second place honors in the 13-16 category with a perennial HRNM favorite, USS Monitor.   
Scott Endrusick's USS Monitor display included details about how conspirators in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln were confined to a Union ironclad after their apprehension. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
Category: Home-Built

Ages 4-6

     1st place: "Victory," by Victor.

     2nd place: "Minecraft Zombie Hunter," by Liam.

Ages 7-9
     1st place: "Devastator," by Daniel.

     2nd place: "Viper," by Emerson.

Ages 10-12
     1st place: "SS Bounty," by Mitchel & Mark.

     2nd place: "The Jewel," by Ben.

Ages 13-16

      1st place: "Slava-Class Cruiser," by Jack Koleszar.

      2nd place: "USS Monitor," by Scott Endrusick.

Ages 17+

     1st place: "USCGC Tornado," by Neil Newlin.

      2nd place: "Glomar Explorer," by Mark Anderson.

Fan Favorites

     1st place (4-6): "Captain Fire"  

     2nd place (13-16): "Pirate Ship," by Joshua.

Category: Museum-Made

Ages 4-6

      1st place: "The Ship Yard," by Maliyah.

      2nd place: "Lady Pirate," by Dalton.
Ages 7-9

      1st place: "Vikingator," by Mattanial.

      2nd place: "V8 Power," by Nicole.

Ages 10-12

      1st place: "Modest Hog," by anonymous.

      2nd place: "Carnival Lego" by Joshua

Ages 13-16

      1st place: "USS Wisconsin," by Chase.

      2nd place: "Inspiration Ninja," by Dyahmi.

Ages 17+

      1st place: "WWI Light Cruiser," by Juston.

      2nd place: "Floating Deck," by Patric.

CONGRATULATIONS to all the winners! 

If there are any questions about the Lego shipbuilding competition or for any other questions relating to past or future Hampton Roads Naval Museum events, please call Special Events Coordinator Elijah Palmer at (757) 322-3168.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Coast Division and Burnside's Expedition

By Julius Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Although Confederate-held Norfolk, Virginia, was well protected by batteries at Sewells Point and other strategic locations  along the Elizabeth River early in the Civil War, Forts Monroe and Calhoun (changed to Wool in 1862) remained under Washington's control, and a Union blockade prevented the city from resupply from the sea.  Trade with Norfolk came not through Hampton Roads but through the North Carolina sounds, until an audacious operation to take Roanoke Island, seen here, began on February 7, 1862. (North Carolina Collection, UNC Chapel Hill)     
On May 10, 1862, a column of 6000 Union men led by 78-year-old Major General John Wool landed on Willoughby Spit and made their way to Norfolk. Upon arrival, the soldiers were met by Mayor William Lamb, who surrendered the city without resistance. But what led to this symbolic and military victory? Much of the credit can be given to operations south of the city earlier that year.   
A contemporary map by D.S. Walton showing Hampton
 Roads to the north, the North Carolina sounds to the south,
and the strategic location of Roanoke Island near the mouth
of Albemarle Sound. (University of North Carolina Libraries)

At the beginning of 1862, the Union presence in Hampton Roads was limited to Fortress Monroe in what is now Hampton, and Fort Wool, an island in the channel between Hampton and Norfolk that bristled with artillery. The fortification was formerly named after the noted secessionist and former Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, but the war had brought about a change of name. South of these two positions lay Confederate-held Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard, where the steam frigate USS Merrimack was transformed into the mighty ironclad CSS Virginia. Norfolk, though cut off from supplies via sea by the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, was well supplied from the south through the numerous inlets, sounds, and bays that lined the North Carolina coast by way of the Dismal Swamp and the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canals.
Matthew Brady's portrait of Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress)

The cornerstones of defense for this area were Roanoke Island and its batteries manned by 3000 Confederate troops, and the “Mosquito Fleet,” gunboats crewed by experienced waterman, that patrolled the waters of the Outer Banks. In order to cut off the flow of supplies to Norfolk, these two issues had to be dealt with by Union forces. That responsibility would fall to two men, Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside, a West Pointer and Mexican-American War veteran with distinctive facial hair, and Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, the Commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Burnside’s idea was to raise a “Coast Division” made up of New England sailors, dockworkers, fisherman and lobsterman, whom he reasoned, due to their previous work experience and familiarity with ships, would be better equipped to make amphibious assaults. By January, successful recruiting efforts led to a force of 13,000 trained men ready for the planned invasion.

A contemporary War Department map
of the route taken by Burnside's Expedition.
 (University of North Carolina Libraries)
The job of the US Navy would be to silence the artillery batteries on Roanoke Island and then take control of the waters of the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. To accomplish this task, Flag Officer Goldsborough assembled 20 vessels, as well as several hastily constructed floating batteries, mounting 108 guns in total. The ships and floating batteries would first concentrate their fire on the Confederate artillery on the western side of Roanoke Island and then support the attack by the Union Army. Once Roanoke Island was captured, the ships were to be dispatched to find and destroy all Confederate vessels in the area.

On January 5, 1862, the men of the Coast Division began to embark on the transports that would take them from Annapolis, Maryland, to a secret location in the South. By January 9, the men and their equipment were loaded and the ships began to get underway to rendezvous with the US Navy units waiting at Fortress Monroe. Two days later, the assembled fleet left the protected waters around the fort and headed out into the open sea. Even at this point, only Burnside and his staff knew their precise destination. In a short time, however, the captains would be requested to open the sealed orders they had been given to inform them that they all were headed to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

A contemporary War Department map from the campaign. (University of North Carolina Libraries)

After a rough and stormy southbound transit and a time consuming and difficult crossing of the shoal water around Cape Hatteras, the fleet assembled in Pamilco Sound, south of Roanoke Island, with a planned start of operations occurring the next day, February 6. Due to stormy weather, operations did not start till the 7th when the Union gunboats took up positions to attack the Confederates, and the Union Army landed troops to engage the Confederate Army the next day. Only four of the Confederate cannons could engage the Union fleet. While the Confederate artillery proved less than useful, the ships of the Mosquito fleet proved their worth by hitting and lightly damaging several Union ships with no losses of their own. They eventually had to leave the battle due to running out of ammunition.
The Battle of Roanoke Island. (Colliers Weekly Archives)
The next day, February 8, would be the culmination of the effort when Union troops routed the Confederates and took control of Roanoke Island. While the Confederates were defeated on land, the mission of the US Navy was not yet complete, the ships of the “Mosquito Fleet” still proved a threat and their destruction or capture was now paramount.