Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Pitchers and Catchers Report to the Fantail! Baseball During the Great White Fleet

This is a picture of sailors calling their home run shots on the fantail of the battleship USS New Jersey (BB-12) in 1908 during the cruise of the Great White Fleet. These sailors were not just hitting the ball around to alleviate boredom; bragging rights were on the line.
Fleet teams land at Magdalena Bay, Mexico

When the U.S. Battle Fleet set sail around the world, the voyage was as much about training and fleet readiness as it was a political statement. This training included several competitions between ships, namely marksmanship competitions with the ships' big guns. Equally fierce in competition were the sporting events. Each battleship had its own football, rowing, and baseball teams. To make it more interesting, the Navy set aside a cash prize of $1,200 and a gold trophy for the winning team in each event.

Teams from the armored cruisers USS Washington (ACR-11)
and Tennessee (ACR-10) play a game at Magdalena Bay.
(Image from greatwhitefleet.info)
According to one account, the sailors acted with the greatest sportsmanship during the baseball games. The account stated that one would never hear the words "kill the umpire," as was sometimes heard during a professional baseball game back home. This was no doubt due to the fact that the umpires happened to be the sailors' division officers.

The teams competed throughout the cruise, including exhibition matches in Australia. Some Australians had taken quite a liking to the American game and fielded a few teams against the Fleet's teams. They were actually quite good. In one game, the team from New South Wales defeated USS Missouri's (BB-11) team 8-0.

The Fleet baseball tournament ended with a "world series" taking place in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). New Jersey's team took on USS Nebraska (BB-14), with Nebraska winning 22-10. Given that the teams did not have a very deep bench (teams had only about three to four reserve players), it is evident that the pitchers' arms for each team must have been spent by the time the Fleet arrived in Colombo.

USS Nebraska's baseball team--winners of the Great White Fleet around-the-world baseball tournament.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Cheese Blocks on a Slab- New York City's Ferry System at War

USS Commodore Morris on the James River.  Notice the addition of boiler plate iron along the side of the vessel.
New York ferryboats working in
the East River before the war
New York City ferryboats were among the many civilian ships purchased by the U.S. Navy at the beginning of the Civil War. With their wide beam, sheltered decks with windows, and two wheel houses, they looked more like houseboats than warships. No one could have expected that when these ships began transporting people across the New York Harbor and the East River, they would actually become incredibly important to local Naval commanders during the Civil War. At least one vessel that used to be a New York ferryboat could be found in almost every campaign in and around Hampton Roads and the tributaries of North Carolina.

The company of the former Staten Island ferryboat
Hunchback poses for one of the best Civil War images
taken of the U.S. Navy during the war.
It is not exactly clear what the Navy’s purchasing agents were thinking when they scoured the docks in New York. But someone had the foresight to see that the Navy was going to need shallow draft vessels capable of negotiating rivers and coastal waterways. The ferryboats’ ability to go backwards as easily they went forward--without having to turn--greatly assisted them in doing just that. The Navy purchased and converted nineteen ferryboats, most of which served in Hampton Roads. They were (and New York ferryboats continue to be), very rectangular in shape. If USS Monitor was the “cheese box on a shingle,” then the ferryboats could easily be labeled “cheese blocks on a granite slab.”

Most of the ferryboats displaced 600 to 750 tons; were about 175 to 180 feet in length and about 29 feet wide; and only drew ten feet of water when fully loaded. The vessel’s armament varied, but generally they were equipped with 100-pounder Parrot Rifles, IX-inch Dahlgren smoothbores, and assorted smaller guns, such as 32- and 12-pounders.

In addition to being gunboats, they also excelled as amphibious assault ships. Since the ship’s primary function before the war was to carry people, U.S. Army commanders frequently requested use of the vessels for raids. The ship could carry several hundred soldiers on board along with heavy guns and ammunition.

USS Commodore Barney (ex-ferryboat Ethan Allen)
These ships did not have any added protection, as they were they made out of thin wood. Enterprising naval officers often used boiler plate iron to reinforce critical areas of the ships, such as the wheel house, before taking them into battle. As a result, the ships took a beating during battles. However, in this area, none of them were ever sunk by gunfire. CSS Albemarle rammed USS Southfield on the Neuse River and a torpedo exploded underneath USS Commodore Jones on the James River.
CSS Albemarle rammed and sank the Staten
Island ferry USS Southfield in 1864.

Once commissioned as warships, the Navy kept the original names for most of the vessels. When a name change was deemed necessary, the ferryboat Commodore Perry seems to have inspired the Navy to introduce the “commodore” series of ship names after Age of Sail flag officers. Names included USS Commodore Jones, McDonough, Morris, Barney, and Hull.

After the war, the Navy sold the ferryboats either back to their original owners or to local merchants. Commodore Perry continued to serve as a New York City ferryboat until 1931. Today, the Staten Island ferry system has not forgotten the contribution of their boxy-looking craft to the war. A list of the vessels that served in the war can be found on their web site, http://www.siferry.com/SIFerry_Current__Ferries.aspx.

USS Commodore Perry trails the monitor USS Onondaga on the James River, 1864