Friday, August 28, 2015

120 Years Ago: USS Texas Joins the Fleet

USS Texas, depicted in a Koerner & Hayes print made between 1897 or 1989 (Naval History and Heritage Command Image via Flickr).
By Jerome Kirkland 
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

In August of 1895 the United States got its first steel battleship.  USS Texas was this first battleship, beating USS Maine by just one month.  Texas was built at the Norfolk Navy Yard, spent much of her service based in Norfolk, and was eventually sunk in the Chesapeake Bay for target practice, which demonstrated the importance of Hampton Roads to the new Steel Navy.  Texas's production faced years of delays and was largely outdated by the time the ship was launched, but, like the ABCD Ships that preceded her, USS Texas was still an important step forward for American shipbuilding. 

Both USS Texas and USS Maine were authorized by Congress in August of 1886 as second class battleships. “Second class” meant the ship was meant more for coastal defense rather than as an oceangoing battleship meant to take the fight to a foreign country.  Although USS Maine was originally meant to be an armored cruiser, this role changed during the construction process, resulting in two “near” sister ships. Maine and Texas represented the latest in battleship construction at the time of their design and early construction, but delays in their completion resulted in outdated ships by their commissioning nine years later.  Chief among the “advanced” design elements that became outdated by their launch was the “en echelon” placement of the main gun turrets.  This meant that for USS Texas, the forward turret was placed to the port (or left) of the centerline, while her aft turret was placed to starboard (or right), and not centered like on modern ships.

USS Texas postcard by the Rotograph Company of New York (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection).
After her launching, a series of defects and mishaps earned Texas the nickname “Old Hoodoo.” While undergoing sea trials before her commissioning, several deck plates buckled and cement near the keel cracked.  These problems were fixed by reinforcing the hull and brackets supporting the deck.  In 1896, Texas ran aground off Newport, Rhode Island.  After being freed she was sent to a shipyard in New York for repairs, where she sank due to a broken valve yoke.  Three months later, in February 1897, while anchored in Galveston, Texas, the tide pushed the battleship aground in a mud flat.  It took a tug at high tide the next day to get her free.
A Whitehead Torpedo, designed in Britain, made in Germany, and carried aboard the ill-fated Spanish cruiser Vizcaya during the Spanish-American War, dominates the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's Steel Navy gallery.  The original builder's model of the battleship Maine, with her actual ensign as a backdrop, rests at the end of the gallery.  Her mysterious, violent destruction in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, helped precipitate the Spanish-American war (Photo by Jerome Kirkland).  
This apparent hex would be dispelled by her service in the Spanish-American War.  At the start of the war there was fear that the Spanish fleet might attack the east coast of the United States.  This resulted in the formation of the “Flying Squadron,” based out of Hampton Roads, which would be able to respond if the Spanish fleet showed up.  When it became apparent that the Spanish fleet was in Cuban waters, USS Texas--along with the rest of the Flying Squadron--was dispatched to Cuba.  Here the battleship played a key role in defeating the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba.  Engaging several Spanish ships, including the armored cruiser Vizcaya, she did much damage while taking only one hit from a 6-inch gun.

An enterprising yet unidentified Sailor poses aboard USS Texas after the Battle of Santiago de Cuba with a signal light salvaged from the Spanish cruiser Vizcaya, replacing the one destroyed during the battle. (Photo by Edward H. Hart/ Detroit Publishing Company. Library of Congress image via Naval History and Heritage Command/ Flickr)
 After the war several attempts to modernize her were made, but by 1911 USS Texas was simply too outdated.  She was renamed the San Marcos in order to free up the name Texas for a new modern battleship under construction.  In 1911, now named the San Marcos, she was towed to shallow waters in the Chesapeake Bay for use as a target to test the effectiveness of newer guns.  USS New Hampshire (BB-25), a Connecticut-class battleship commissioned in 1908, made several passes even after San Marcos settled on the muddy bottom with her deck still above the waves.  The results from this test helped the Navy understand the relationship between armor and modern guns.  San Marcos continued to be used as target practice through the post-WWII years.
Inspecting damage to the San Marcos armor after gunnery tests (Historic Ships blog).
After being sunk in the Chesapeake, San Marcos/Texas continued to rack up the “hits,” with at least seven ships damaged and at least three confirmed sinkings.  This post-service record far exceeded her wartime record.  Unfortunately, these were all commercial and private vessels that ran into her because she was not visible beneath the surface.  This prompted the Navy to use explosives to force her down into the mud at least 30’ below the surface in 1959.
Although USS Texas was outdated by the time she was launched, she was vital to the development of our modern steel Navy. The lessons learned in her construction and from her sinking supplied vital information in developing steel battleships.  Her service in war and as a target gave many lessons in effective combat skills.

For more about the sinking of San Marcos, please see Norfolk Naval Shipyard's History Matters blog post on the subject. 

This post was written by Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator Jerome Kirkland.

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