Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Sixty Years Ago: Third Polaris Submarine a First for Newport News Shipbuilding, and the Confederacy

By M.C. Farrington
HRNM Historian

The past is not set in stone.

Nothing epitomizes this as much as the ways in which the leading figures of the Confederacy have been interpreted in vastly different ways by the generations born after the Civil War.  Viewed as rebels and pirates during the war and handled with a deliberate policy of non-recognition by the War and Navy Departments of Abraham Lincoln's administration, by the mid-20th Century an aura of genteel respectability had somehow alighted upon Confederate leaders in American popular culture; the same leaders who had sought to carve their own nation out of American territory a century earlier.
On the rainy morning of December 18, 1959, shipyard workers prepare for the launching ceremony of USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601) at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. At left is the attack submarine Shark (SSN 591), which would be launched three months later.  The Polaris submarine program was such a high priority when Robert E. Lee was ordered in 1958 that Shark's original hull and reactor plant was snagged by shipyard engineers, renamed and lengthened from 252 to 381 feet to accommodate 16 of the solid-fueled tactical nuclear missiles. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
The revisionists of a century ago managed to rehabilitate those figures in the public imagination, foremost among them Colonel Robert Edward Lee, who resigned from the U.S. Army after his home state of Virginia seceded from the Union and was promoted to general by the Confederate authorities in Richmond who were impressed by his ability to lead their armed struggle against the U.S. Army.  Decades after his death in 1870, five years after he was indicted for treason by a federal grand jury in Norfolk, Lee was effectively recast as a great uniter by his many admirers.

Monuments to the man were erected throughout the former Confederate states and beyond, and his statue even joined those of other honored American luminaries in Statuary Hall within the United States Capitol in 1909 after the Virginia General Assembly picked him and George Washington to represent the Commonwealth there.

Today there is a movement afoot within the Virginia General Assembly to remove the statue.  Protests throughout the summer of 2017 in the wake of the Charlottesville City Council's initiative to remove another one of Lee's statues near the University of Virginia culminated in deadly riots that August, shocking the nation. 

Elected representatives within Virginia aren't the only ones taking a dim view of Lee and his legacy.  Those in the historical profession today such as Jonathan Horn, whose recent warts-and-all biography of Lee was entitled The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, have taken more of a originalist stance towards Lee.  Other up-and-comers in the field have shown much greater contempt for Lee, openly calling him a traitor.
The cover of the launching program for the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601). (Dale Hargrave via Navsource.org)
Sixty years ago, nothing could have been further removed from the sentiment of those launching USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601), especially the Polaris ballistic missile submarine's sponsor, Lee's granddaughter (and widow of WWI hero Lt. Gen. Hanson E. Ely) Anne Carter Lee-Ely.  The matron of honor was one of Lee's great granddaughters, and the maid of honor for the ceremony was one of Lee's great-great granddaughters. Robert E. Lee was the third of the George Washington-class to be launched, but the first constructed in a former state of the Confederacy.

The decision to name one of America's premier tools of strategic defense after someone who foreswore his allegiance to the nation would probably be met with vehement opposition today in Congress, which has historically set the rules regarding the naming of naval vessels.  However, it was not technically prohibited by Congress until just last week, when New York Congressman Gregory W. Meeks successfully attached an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting such namings. According to his press release, Meeks declared, "Those we’ve entrusted to defend the union should not be serving on ships named after those who fought to undo it."

Incidentally, Robert E. Lee wasn't even technically an American citizen for the first decade of the ballistic missile submarine's operational patrols. His citizenship was posthumously restored by an act of Congress in July 1975.
USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601) departs Newport News Shipbuilding past the mostly-complete aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) for sea trials in December 1960. She would conduct her first test launch of a Polaris missile that same month.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Robert E. Lee, commissioned on September 16, 1960, was the only U.S. naval vessel ever to carry that name, quietly avoiding detection on deterrent patrols under the waves (and the stars and bars) for over two decades until finally being decommissioned on December 1, 1983. 

Only one of the five U.S. naval vessels named either for Confederate leaders or Confederate military victories remains in service, the guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG 62), which was commissioned in 1989.

She was named for the greatest Civil War victory of Robert E. Lee.  

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