Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Old Man Graham Tells Richmond Kids to Get Off His Lawn...err...Ships, 1891

USS Manhattan on the James River, 1880s
In the years following the American Civil War, the Navy placed its monitor-type ironclad warships in a reserve status. In its search for a suitable place to lay up these ships, the Navy decided that City Point, Virginia, on the James River would be a good place for six of the monitors.

The squadron consisted of Ajax, Canonicus, Catskill, Lehigh, Mahopac, and Manhattan. The squadron was not a "ghost fleet" per se because the Navy assigned a small contingent of officers and sailors to watch over the ships. In charge of this squadron was Commander Felix McCurley of Baltimore, Maryland. At 74 years old, McCurley entered the Navy as one of the hundreds of "volunteer" naval officers at the beginning of the Civil War and experienced his fair share of combat and diplomatic standoffs (in the Kingdom of Hawaii, for example). McCurley possessed an easygoing personality.

While at City Point, McCurley's sailors became restless and openly expressed their displeasure at being assigned to such a backwater location where there was nothing for them to do while off-duty. To accommodate them, McCurley received permission to move the squadron closer to Richmond.

The change of base piqued the curiosity of the locals. The public wanted to walk the decks of the historic warships, even if they were Yankee warships against which their fathers had fought. All of the ships in the squadron had been in battle during the late war. McCurley welcomed excursion boats that frequently passed by the ships and he was happy to have visitors on board. One newspaper report commented that the visitors had made the monitors "a resort," implying that they did more than just walk the decks of the ship.

Lehigh's turret with battle scars caused by Confederate
guns guarding Charleston, South Carolina.
In 1891, McCurley received orders to take command of League Island (Philadelphia) Navy Yard. His relief was Commander James Duncan Graham and the fun came to a sudden end. A member of the U.S. Naval Academy's class of 1857 and a veteran of many battles on the Mississippi River during the late war, Graham had a much more serious view of his duties. He proclaimed to the press that he was issuing a strict policy regarding ship visitation. The result was a revolt among the local boaters. As Graham described the situation to a local reporter, "The good people of Richmond have no idea of the indignities, insults and other annoyances the officers and men on board the monitors are subjected to, particularly on Sundays and holidays. People come down the river in boats and insist upon coming directly abreast the monitors, and using the most vile language, shouting at the tops of their voices, and jeering at the men aboard ship." Fearing for his own family's safety, he moved his wife and children north.

After a quick fix at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the
Navy moved the James River monitors to League
Island (Philadelphia) Navy Yard.
Navy leadership saved everyone additional trouble by ordering all six monitors to be taken to Norfolk Naval Shipyard for minor repairs and then to League Island for their new permanent station. It is not clear whether public threats made by Richmond boaters had anything to do with the transfer. The Navy would later mobilize the squadron for the Spanish-American War.

But in the opinion of Graham, one thing was for sure: these were ships of war. A newspaper commented, "The foundation of adverse feeling in [Graham] is simply owing to the fact that he had never considered it commensurate with his duty to permit the monitors to be used as a public museum or a Pleasure Resort."

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