Thursday, July 15, 2021

100 Years Later: The Ostfriesland Test and the Rising Popularity of Air Power

By Laura Orr
HRNM Director of Education

General William "Billy" Mitchell (U.S. Army)
At the turn of the twentieth century, many U.S. admirals believed that planes could never sink a ship. To them, the very idea of devoting a portion of the Navy’s budget to airpower seemed laughably unsound. However, in 1921, U.S. Army General William “Billy” Mitchell taught the Navy’s naysayers that airpower forged the future of human warfare. From June 21 to July 21, Mitchell led a team of pilots from the U.S. Army Air Service in a bombing test against five target ships: USS Iowa, an old U.S. battleship converted to a radio-controlled target ship; G-102, a captured German destroyer; a German light cruiser, Frankfurt; a submarine, U-117; and the German battleship Ostfriesland. The results of the “Ostfriesland tests” stood the world on its head. Mitchell and his fliers sank all of the German vessels, including the Ostfriesland.

For years, high-ranking American admirals argued that airplanes would never revolutionize combat. Battleships, they said, would always be the Navy’s future. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William Benson commented, “I cannot conceive of any use that the fleet will ever have for aircraft. . . . The Navy doesn’t need airplanes. Aviation is just a lot of noise.” Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels agreed. He also derided Mitchell’s plan, saying, “I would be glad to stand bareheaded on the deck or at the wheel of any battleship while Mitchell tried to take a crack at me from the air. If he ever tries to aim bombs on the decks of naval vessels, he will be blown to atoms long before he gets close enough to drop salt on the tail of the Navy.”

Mitchell aimed to prove the battleship establishment wrong publicly. His testimony before the House Appropriations Committee in January 1921 led to two Congressional resolutions forcing the Navy to provide the targets for Mitchell’s weapons tests. The admirals did not want to conduct the tests, but they also did not want to appear obstructionist to the wishes of Congress. Confident that even a decrepit battleship could withstand a few hits, the admirals believed the tests could be used to observe the type of damage bombs might cause.

The Navy greatly restricted the manner in which the Air Service pilots could conduct their attacks. The pilots could not use aerial torpedoes or score more than two hits with their heaviest 2,000-pound bombs. This latter restriction did not matter to Mitchell, however. He intended his pilots to avoid direct hits, in favor of near misses, because when the bombs exploded underwater, they would inflict maximum damage on a ship’s hull.
Sailors and dignitaries aboard USS Henderson (AP 1) watch the tests (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Mitchell’s bomb tests would take place in the Atlantic Ocean, fifty miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The dignitaries observing the test didn’t believe that Mitchell’s fliers stood a chance. The German ship Ostfriesland had taken eighteen hits at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, hit a mine on the way back to Germany, and returned to action two months later. In addition to having a four-layer steel hull to protect it from mines and torpedoes, Ostfriesland was divided into separate watertight compartments so it couldn’t be sunk by any single hull breach. As the New York Times reported before the tests, “Naval officers are insisting that the fliers will never sink the Ostfriesland at all.”

Starting on June 21, bombing tests took place against the smaller ships. The German vessels were sunk quickly. The naval officers did not exhibit much concern at these proceedings, as their focus was on the Ostfriesland. The main event took place on July 21, 1921, when six Martin MB-2 biplanes and a Handley-Page O/400 attacked Ostfriesland. Over 300 disbelieving observers watched six bombs strike the water right next to the big ship. At 12:40 P.M., twenty-two minutes after the first bomb fell, Ostfriesland sank. Some of the naval officers had tears in their eyes as Ostfriesland and their devotion to battleships sank beneath the waves. In an instant, the U.S. Navy looked weak and helpless.
Ostfriesland hit during the bombing tests, July 21, 1921 (Wikipedia)
Even so, not everyone was convinced by the result. General John Pershing commented, “These tests against obsolete battleships will not, I hope, be considered as conclusive evidence that similar bombs would sink modern types of battleships.” The Joint Army-Navy Board’s report on the tests noted that the ships were unable to maneuver, employ antiaircraft fire, or conduct damage control. Of course, Mitchell pointed out that his forces suffered the most restrictions. They could not use all the ordnance at their disposal, and they could not inflict more than two direct hits. Moreover, under battle conditions, a loaded battleship would suffer secondary explosions. The Ostfriesland went under through the success of the main attack alone.
A cartoon from the Chicago Tribune showing the differing opinions about the Ostfriesland tests (Chicago Tribune)
Mitchell testified to Congress that the test “demonstrated beyond a doubt that, given sufficient bombing planes—in short an adequate air force—aircraft constitute a positive defense of our country against hostile invasion.” In the following years, Mitchell continued to criticize Army and Navy leaders for their dismissal of airpower. Because of this, in 1925, Mitchell was court martialed for conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline. Upon receiving the guilty verdict, he resigned his commission.

But while the Navy and Army were not strongly convinced, both Congress and the general public took Mitchell’s point seriously: aircraft could sink battleships. In the Ostfriesland test’s aftermath, Congress created the Bureau of Aeronautics to manage all aspects of naval aviation. Aircraft would be the future of the U.S. military, as the Second World War confirmed just twenty years later.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Did Demon Rum Play a Part in the Destruction of CSS Virginia?

By Hunt Lewis
HRNM Volunteer

One of the last survivors of the crew of the CSS Virginia (ex USS Merrimack) said so.

In an interview conducted by B.C. Utecht for the Calvert News, Calvert, Texas in 1923, 85-year-old Andrew Jackson Sharp claimed rum did indeed play a part in the ship's destruction. Sharp was a landsman on CSS Virginia when it was destroyed by the Confederates on May 11, 1862.
Article from the Calvert News
Sharp related:
        "The Merrimac, or Virginia, suffered some damage from the Monitor’s guns, but the damage was easily repaired, and the warship then was in good shape as before. But now about this prohibition; "Our plans were well laid," said the aged veteran as he sat reminiscing on the veranda of his home. "The Merrimac had been thoroughly gone over, and we had plenty of ammunition and were in shape for good work. We were close to the mouth of the James River, and in order to steam upstream it was necessary for us to raise the ship about two feet so that we could cross the bar at that point. To do this it was necessary to throw off ballast.
        "We began the job of lightening the vessel about 9 o’clock that night. Now, as everybody knows, sailors in every navy are, or were, supplied with whisky rations. Both the navies of the North and South were furnished with rum. While throwing off ballast, so we could head up the James to relieve Richmond, members of the crew got hold of a barrel of whisky and drank it down with a large dipper. A little of this was all right, but they kept at it too long and were soon tipsy. No officer was at hand at the time. The men continued to throw off ballast until all of it went overboard. I remonstrated with them, raising quite a row and they argued back at me. I told them of the danger, and we had quite a tilt. Soon I saw our ship, instead of being raised only two feet, was up five feet exposing the wooden sides. This was due to throwing away all our ballast. I hurried to Captain Technor and explained the situation, but by this time it was too late. Federal ships were not far from us, and they could see us plainly because of the five foot difference. A shot from one of them into our wooden sides would have done for us. So the plan to go to the relief of Richmond was abandoned for the lack of ballast control protection on such an undertakings and decided to attack the Union fleet off Newport News instead." 

Sharp’s memory may have failed him or else the reporter misunderstood the name of the Virginia’s captain. It was Tattnall, not Technor, and the attack was never made.
CSS Virginia's captain, Josiah Tattnall (Naval History and Heritage Command)
There may be an inkling of truth in Sharp’s story, although the presence of Demon Rum is never mentioned in official reports. Commodore Tattnall in his report on May 14, 1862 to Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory stated, "The pilots had assured me they could take the ship with a draft of 18 feet to within 40 miles of Richmond...Confiding in these assurances...I determined to lighten the ship at once and run up the river for the protection of Richmond. 
        "All hands having been called on deck, I stated to them the condition of things, and my hope that by getting up river before the enemy could be made aware of our design we might capture his vessels which had ascended it. And render efficient aid in the defense of Richmond, but to effect this, would require all their energy in lightening the ship.
        "Being quite unwell, I had retired to bed. Between 1 and 2 o’clock in the morning the first lieutenant reported to me that after the crew had worked for five or six hours and lifted the ship so as to render her unfit for action,.. the pilots had declared their inability to carry 18 feet above Jamestown flats, up to a point the shore on each side was occupied by the enemy." [2]

The chief pilot explained that 18 feet could be carried only if the prevailing winds were blowing up-river, but for the last two days the winds had been blowing downriver: "I had no time to lose. The ship was in not in a condition for battle even with an enemy of equal force, and the force was overwhelming. I therefor save the crew for further service by landing them at Craney Island, the only road for retreat open to us, and to destroy the ship to prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy."
Explosion of the CSS Virginia (Naval History and Heritage Command)

[1] The Calvert News story by J.C. Utecht dated Sunday November 25, 1923 is reproduced verbatim on pages14-17 of On the Hills of Home by John Calvin Sharpe. This book can be viewed or downloaded from

[2] Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1,Volume 7, North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, pp 336-338

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz: Five-Star Leadership, Part 2

By Lee Duckworth
HRNM Volunteer

Part 1 of this blog is available here.


The greatest difference between Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz was in their personality. MacArthur was renowned for being egotistical and seeing himself as invincible and infallible. Nimitz was the antithesis: humble and unemotional.

MacArthur felt he was living out his destiny in his meteoric rise to five-star general. He rarely cracked a smile and seldom used profanity. Nimitz, on the other hand, loved to tell stories and jokes. He enjoyed mingling with the troops and had many friends, both junior and senior.
General MacArthur and his chief of staff on Corregidor, Philippines, 1942
(Wikimedia Commons)
MacArthur was domineering, enigmatic, decisive, highly principled, and outspoken. But he was also egocentric, arrogant, had a love for theatrics, and had few friends. MacArthur was an outstanding strategist and superb at seeing the big picture of the war in the Pacific. He worked long hours and expected his staff to do the same: they needed to be completely loyal and energetic. He “wrapped himself in a cloak of dignified aloofness” and “no one was permitted to forget he was both warrior and aristocrat.”[1] He seemed to live by the concept that “rules are mostly made to be broken.” He was a farsighted administrator but flamboyant and had great moral courage that inspired confidence.
Admiral Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller, 1942
(Naval History and Heritage Command)
Conversely, Nimitz was a more reserved leader, had a will of steel, was humble and a team-builder. He too was a superb strategist and tactician. Nimitz was unflappable and calm and had a great sense of humor, which helped alleviate tension. He led by common sense and example yet avoided the press and publicity. He demonstrated an astonishing coolness under pressure and was known for his quiet manner. Nimitz was hardworking, eager to take charge, rule-abiding and conscientious, and was the consummate organizer. He was superb at the art of delegation, freeing himself from the minute details of his job.


What can we glean from the background of these five-stars? Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur were highly intelligent, great strategists, and had loyal followers. As historian D. Clayton James relates, the two men “had much in common. Both had highly trained command minds that cut through underbrush to reach the core of projects and problems. Both had that extraordinary quality of leadership that inspires loyalty; both were endowed with the champion’s will to win. But here the similarity ceases. The admiral seldom rode the emotional pendulum; joy and sorrow would set the general off on lusty zooms or steep dives.”[2] Both were groomed and excelled in their own way. They were both very aware of the political influence they wielded, though MacArthur took more advantage of that influence. Yet, their approach to the vast and seemingly overwhelming responsibilities demonstrates their uniqueness and individuality. MacArthur’s style was "A leadership that kept you at a respectful distance, yet at the same time took you as an esteemed member of his team, and very quickly had you working harder than you had ever worked before in your life, just because of the loyalty, admiration and respect in which he held you."[3]

MacArthur and Nimitz reported to their respective service chiefs on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) during World War II (MacArthur to General George C. Marshall and Nimitz to Admiral Ernest J. King). Fortunately, the two service chiefs had leadership and personality styles opposite of their corresponding Pacific leaders. King was a notorious workaholic who was driven, outspoken, and extremely demanding. Marshall was the opposite: mellow, calm, and very forward-thinking. King understood Nimitz’s style of leadership and though he pushed hard, he held great respect for Nimitz. Marshall was the perfect foil for MacArthur and knew how to keep him under control. He would wait, sometimes for days, before responding to MacArthur’s messages and demands, completely ignoring them on occasion. Marshall was supportive of MacArthur but never pushed around by him. The two JCS chiefs were perfect matches for MacArthur and Nimitz and supported them extremely well. Had their personalities been exchanged, there may have been bigger battles on the Washington front that there were in the Pacific.
Douglas MacArthur and his staff returning to the Philippines in 1944 
(Wikimedia Commons)
Two of the major actions of WWII in the Pacific highlight their differences: MacArthur’s return to the Philippines and Nimitz at the Battle of Midway. MacArthur’s speech on his return was broadcast all over the Philippines and began: “People of the Philippines, I have returned! By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil…Rally to me!”[4] MacArthur had used the phrase “I shall return” as his clarion for nearly three years and went so far as to have thousands of packets of matchbooks printed and distributed with those words on the cover.

Nimitz, some 30 months earlier (May 1942), flew to Midway a month prior to the battle and inspected the preparations being made to defend the island against the impending Japanese assault. In response to the commander of the ground force’s list of items needed to fight against the Japanese, he asked: “If I get you all these things you say you need, then can you hold Midway?” To the reply of “Yes Sir,” Nimitz smiled and began to look relaxed. “In his usual quiet way he thoroughly alerted the defenders of the atoll and at the same time instilled confidence in them.”[5]
Nimitz explains his recommended strategy at a July 1944 conference with MacArthur, President Roosevelt, and Admiral Leahy. (Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps most telling is President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s comments during the July, 1944 Pearl Harbor meeting to discuss the Formosa/Philippines strategy. FDR told aides that each man was intelligent, insightful, and gentlemanly. They were consummate professionals, both very respectful of each other and committed to working together.

Nimitz and MacArthur stayed the course, and in their unique styles, triumphed in the war years. It is clear that they were the right men, in the right place, at a most critical time to lead the allies to victory in the Pacific in the Second World War.

[1] James, Vol II, 77, 81
[2] James, Vol II, 398-399
[3] Kinni, 163
[4]  James, Vol II, 558
[5] Potter, 78

Recommended Reading

Borneman, Walter R. The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King: The Five-star Admirals who won the War at Sea. Little, Brown and Co., New York, NY, 2012.

Borneman, Walter R. MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific. Little, Brown & Co, New York, NY, 2016.

Hoyt, Edwin P. How They Won the War in the Pacific: Nimitz and His Admirals. Lyons Press, Guilford, CT, 1970.

James, D. Clayton. The Years of MacArthur 1880-1941, Volume I; The Years of MacArthur 1941-1945, Volume II. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA, 1970 and 1975.

Kinni, Theodore and Donna. No Substitute for Victory: Lessons in Strategy and Leadership from Douglas MacArthur. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2005.

Manchester, William. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964. Little, Brown & Co., Boston, MA, 1978.

Potter, E. B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976.

Spector, Ronald H. At War at Sea: Sailors and Naval Combat in the Twentieth Century. Penguin & Putnam, New York, NY, 2001.

Stavridis, Admiral James. Sailing True North; Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character. Penguin Press, New York, NY, 2019.

Toll, Ian W. Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945. W. W. Norton & Co, New York, NY, 2020.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz: Five-Star Leadership, Part 1

By Lee Duckworth
HRNM Volunteer 

A study of the background and early careers of General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz is essential to understanding the leadership styles and personalities of the two senior five-star officers in the Second World War’s Pacific Theater. MacArthur appears to have been born with the proverbial “silver spoon” and Nimitz came from a hard scrabble background. The marked differences in their upbringing and personality traits are reflected in their dissimilar leadership styles, yet both are venerated for their accomplishments during the Second World War.

The Early Years

MacArthur has an almost unmatched pedigree. On his paternal side, his grandfather was Lieutenant Governor of the state of Wisconsin and a Justice of the Supreme Court of Washington DC; his father was a Medal of Honor recipient and three-star army general (highest rank in the US Army at that time). From his mother’s side he was related to Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. MacArthur’s mother, Mary “Pinky” Hardy MacArthur, played prominently in his career and unhesitatingly reminded senior officers who had served under her husband to see that her son was promoted. His father, Arthur MacArthur, was stationed throughout the West during the late 1800s, and that was the place where Douglas learned first-hand about riding horses, the cavalry, and the army.
A young Douglas MacArthur (Wikimedia Commons)
MacArthur was seemingly a shoo-in for West Point, although it took three attempts for him to be accepted. His father was stationed in the Philippines during much of the time Douglas was at the military academy, so his mother decided to spend all four years there and met almost daily with her son. Despite the hazing he received for being the son of a senior officer and having his mother watch over him, he rose to be the First Captain (head of the Corps of Cadets) and graduated first in the class of 1903.

By contrast, Nimitz came from a completely opposite background. His family was very poor and his father died before he was born. He too was raised by a strong mother, Anna Nimitz, who concentrated on keeping her son physically fit. Nimitz was strongly influenced by his paternal grandfather, Charles Henry Nimitz, who was a former Texas Ranger and Confederate Civil War veteran. The grandfather had served in the German merchant marine and was an innkeeper who loved to tell stories of his life at sea and in the military. He counseled his grandson to “…learn all you can, then do your best and don’t worry—especially about things over which you have no control.”[1]
Midshipman Chester Nimitz with his grandfather, c. 1905
(Naval History and Heritage Command)
Nimitz grew up in the land-locked German immigrant city of Fredericksburg, Texas, and was an excellent student. His family could not afford college so an appointment to a military academy was Chester’s only avenue for further education. He studied hard for the better part of a year in preparation for the Naval Academy’s entrance exam, besting all other candidates and was admitted to the class of 1905.

Commissioning and Early Careers

Nimitz in 1905
(Wikimedia Commons)
Both men were extremely intelligent and academy classmates sensed they were destined for great military futures. Nimitz graduated 7th in his class and immediately after graduation went to sea on a destroyer. He yearned for command as a young officer, receiving his first command as the CO of USS Decatur, a torpedo boat destroyer. As a 22-year-old ensign he managed to run it aground in the Philippines and was court-martialed for the incident. He accepted full responsibility and learned to never let down his guard. Because Nimitz had a strong engineering background and proficiency in the German language, in 1913 he was selected to serve in Germany, learning about diesel engines and their application in submarines. He later became a submariner, where he spent the majority of his career prior to reaching flag rank.

MacArthur as a student in 1897
(Wikimedia Commons)
MacArthur elected to go into the Army Corps of Engineers and didn’t distinguish himself initially. While stationed in Washington DC he was more interested in the social scene serving as a temporary aide in the White House--his evaluations reflected his less than enthusiastic interest in engineering. In 1905-1906 he served as aide to his father in the Philippines, and along with his mother, made a nine-month tour of Asia observing military capabilities and operations in various countries from Japan to India. This was the first of his four assignments to Asia, where he fell in love with the culture and people. He had the benefit of learning about leadership from a senior officer perspective at his father’s knee. From him he was urged to be bold, do the unexpected, and to act quickly and decisively.

An added benefit of being the son of a three-star general officer was that Douglas was asked for by name to fill vital positions. The posting that paid the most dividends was to Washington DC in 1912, where he joined the Army Staff and later served as its first Public Relations person (then called the Bureau of Information). He became a favorite of Secretary of War Newton Baker and his career soared.

World War I

MacArthur was in the trenches and on the front lines in Europe in 1917-1918 and was the nation’s most decorated soldier, earning two Distinguished Service Crosses and seven Silver Stars. He was promoted from major to colonel (skipping over Lt Col) and by war’s end, was a brigadier general. MacArthur saw firsthand the futility of fighting from the trenches and the use of direct assault. He applied those lessons in his World War II island-hopping campaigns.

Conversely, during World War I, Nimitz served on a surface ship that never saw combat. He was however, instrumental in pioneering the underway refueling of ships from auxiliary vessels, which stood him in good stead for World War II.

Check back next week for part 2 of the Nimitz and MacArthur story!

[1] Potter, E. B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD (1976)

Thursday, June 3, 2021

The Naval War College: An Army Idea?

By John Pentangelo
HRNM Director

No, the U.S. Army did not give birth to the idea of a Naval War College, not exactly. But, a discussion between one of its most famous officers and one of the Navy’s most visionary intellectuals at the close of the American Civil War provided a spark that influenced professional military education forever after.

Established in Newport, Rhode Island in 1884, the Naval War College was the first institution of its kind in the world. It is renowned today for its role in educating naval officers in their chosen profession. The lectures provided by Alfred Thayer Mahan in early years became the basis of his seminal book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. The book, published in 1890, was read widely by world leaders and influenced the build-up of major naval powers in the early 20th century. The college continued to do innovative work in the field of war gaming and the development of war plans after the First World War. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a 1923 graduate of the college, credited the war gaming program with helping to prepare the Navy’s ultimate victory in the Pacific during the Second World War. Today the college educates military personnel from all over the world, nourishes global partnerships, and offers a Master’s degree in Defense and Strategic Studies. So how did the idea for the Naval War College originate?

General William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865 (National Archives)

In 1865, Lieutenant Commander Stephen B. Luce was in command of the gunboat USS Pontiac with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. He was ordered to report to General William Tecumseh Sherman to guard the crossing of Savannah River as Sherman marched north to begin his campaign in the Carolinas. In discussion, Sherman shared his opinion on how to take the city of Charleston. The Navy tried unsuccessfully to take Charleston by bombarding Fort Sumter for three years. Sherman told the naval officer that Charleston would fall into the Union’s hands “like a ripe pear” when he cut its communications. This proved to be true in the next few weeks. Luce recalled: “After hearing General Sherman’s clear exposition of the military situation the scales seemed to fall from my eyes. ‘Here’ I said to myself, ‘is a soldier who knows his business!’ It dawned upon me that there were certain fundamental principles underlying military operations, which it were well to look into; principles of general application whether the operations were conducted on land or sea.”[1] The seed was planted.

Lieutenant Commander Stephen B. Luce, c. 1865 (Naval History and Heritage Command

Long devoted to education, Luce devoted much of his career to the formal education of naval personnel. Assigned to the Naval Academy during the early years of the Civil War, he revised W.H. Parker’s Instructions for Light Artillery, Afloat and Ashore. He also wrote and published Seamanship, a text for midshipmen. After the war, Luce lamented that naval officers began to specialize increasingly in navigation, hydrography, engineering, or ordnance. He fought against this, insisting to his fellow officers that their profession was war and it was war that they must study. After helping to establish the maritime college in New York (1874), he established the naval apprentice program aboard training ships in the late 1870s and was instrumental in the creation of the Navy’s first shore-based recruit training station at Newport (1883). During this time, he never forgot his meeting with Sherman. The general’s assessment of the military situation and his ability to execute a solution in a non-military way convinced Luce that decision makers required subject matter experts to advise them on military problems. The expertise in the art and science of naval warfare would be best developed through formal education. After years of advocacy, correspondence, research, and thought, Luce became the founding president of the Naval War College, established in 1884. He defined the college as “a place of original research on all questions relating to war and to statesmanship connected with war, or the prevention of war.”[2] The College owes its existence to the visionary leadership, perseverance, and commitment of Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce. Perhaps it owes its inspiration to General William Tecumseh Sherman.

[1] Stephen Luce, “Naval Administration, III,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings Vol. 29 (1903): 820

[2] Stephen B. Luce, An Address Delivered at the United States Naval War College, The Writings of Stephen B. Luce, eds. John D. Hayes and John B. Hattendorf Naval War College Press Newport, RI, 39-40

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Wooden Warrior: The First USS Minnesota

USS Monitor defends Minnesota during the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 9, 1862 (U.S. Navy)

By Zach Smyers
HRNM Educator

When the smoke cleared and the cannonade ceased on March 9, 1862, the wooden frigate USS Minnesota was still standing and the Battle of Hampton Roads was over. During the battle, Minnesota had gotten stuck on a sandbar, and the ship suffered heavy damage and several casualties from the attacking ironclad CSS Virginia. Due to the arrival of the ironclad USS Monitor, Minnesota was spared a fate similar to its fellow wooden ships, USS Cumberland and USS Congress, which were both sunk on the first day of the battle. Minnesota was successfully removed from the sandbar on March 10, 1862. The ship received much-needed repairs and returned to duty, serving as the flagship of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Built at the Washington Navy Yard, Minnesota was high-tech for its time. Minnesota had two engines operated by four boilers, as well as a full complement of sails known as a “ship rig.” This allowed Minnesota to reach a top speed of 12.5 knots (approximately 14 mph). Initial construction of the ship began in 1854. It was launched on Dec 1, 1855, and commissioned on May 21, 1857. The newly commissioned USS Minnesota, classified as a Steam Frigate 1st Class of the Merrimack class (interestingly, the same class as the renamed CSS Virginia), displaced 4,833 tons, had a length of 264 feet 9 inches, a beam of 51 feet 4 inches, and a draft of 23 feet 10 inches. The ship’s crew consisted of 646 officers and enlisted sailors. Armament included two 10-inch guns, twenty-eight 9-inch guns, and fourteen 8-inch guns.

USS Minnesota (Naval History and Heritage Command)

After the Battle of Hampton Roads, Minnesota experienced its fair share of action. On April 14, 1863, Minnesota participated in the Battle of Suffolk. During this battle, four Sailors from Minnesota earned the Medal of Honor while temporarily assigned to USS Mount Washington. While operating on the Nansemond River on April 14, 1863, Mount Washington lost propulsion after its boilers were destroyed by Confederate gunfire. Despite being dead in the water, the Sailors from Minnesota manned a 12-pound howitzer and returned fire for six hours.

The following year, during the December 1864 Battle of Fort Fisher in Wilmington, North Carolina, Minnesota provided gunfire support against Confederate positions located inside the fort. In addition to this, Minnesota contributed 240 men to the landing force during the second battle, which took place from January 13 to January 15, 1865. The second assault on Fort Fisher was successful, and the Union was able to shut down a vital port that had supported the Confederate war effort.

After the Civil War, Minnesota was decommissioned on Feb 16, 1865, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The ship was re-commissioned in June 1867 to help train midshipmen during a cruise to Europe. On January 13, 1868, Minnesota was placed in reserve at the New York Navy Yard. The ship was re-commissioned again on June 12, 1875 and served as a gunnery and training ship for naval apprentices. The ship would serve in this capacity for the next twenty years.

USS Minnesota with its signal flags flying (Naval History and Heritage Command)

In 1895, Minnesota was loaned to the Massachusetts Naval Militia. This would be the ship’s last duty station prior to being sold to Thomas Butler & Co. of Boston in August 1901. Minnesota’s name was stricken from the Navy register so it could be used again on a brand-new battleship (BB 22), and the original Minnesota was burned at Eastport, Maine, to salvage its iron fittings. USS Minnesota represented its namesake state in a proud manner during its Navy career. It fought gallantly during the Battle of Hampton Roads, and despite being stuck and unable to move, the Sailors on Minnesota never gave up. Their determination and fighting spirit lived up to the Navy’s core values of honor, courage, and commitment. These values were represented again by Minnesota Sailors during the Battle of Suffolk and the Battle of Fort Fisher. It is appropriate that a fighting ship like Minnesota was used later in its life to train future Sailors before they joined the fleet.