Today’s Navy and the Civil War

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2004, 2007, All Rights Reserved

The United States Navy, steeped in tradition and history, honors its remarkable service in the Civil War through the names of many of its ships today.

First and foremost is the USS Abraham Lincoln, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier commissioned in 1989. One of the largest warships in the world, the “Abe” is named after the sixteenth President, during whose administration the Navy grew to unprecedented size and played a vital role in the Union war effort. Returning to her homeport of San Diego after a lengthy deployment to the Middle East, the super-carrier was the scene of President Bush’s controversial “Mission Accomplished” photo-op on May 1, 2003.

The USS Abraham Lincoln

Most Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers are named after great battles of American history. Quite a few bear proud names from the Civil War, including the USS Mobile Bay, the Antietam (which historian Shelby Foote once toured, remarking afterwards, “Anyone who takes on the U.S. Navy has got to be crazy”), as well as the Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Port Royal. The Ticonderoga-class ships have the sophisticated AEGIS sensor system and are often components of carrier battle groups, providing surface-to-air defenses against enemy attack. Many of these ships display blue and gray in their insignia, commemorating the Civil War history behind their names.

The Spruance-class destroyer USS Cushing honors William Barker Cushing, one of the great naval heroes of the Civil War, celebrated for leading the daring mission which sank the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle on October 28, 1864. The Cushing, commissioned in 1979, has been in the news in recent years for her patrol duties in the Persian Gulf, enforcing UN Security Council sanctions against Iraq before Gulf War II. The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS David Glasgow Farragut, named after the first admiral of the U.S. Navy and the hero of Mobile Bay, is now being built and is expected to be commissioned in 2006. She will be the fifth Navy ship to bear the name.

Nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) of the Los Angeles class are usually named after prominent American cities. Several bear the names of cities with Civil War significance, although not necessarily for that reason. Among them are the USS Memphis, Norfolk, Louisville, Alexandria, Asheville, Annapolis, Hampton, and Columbia. The USS Hartford, commissioned in 1994, honors both the Connecticut state capital and Admiral Farragut’s flagship.

Strategic missile submarines (SSBNs) of the Ohio class carry Trident or Trident II ballistic missiles and are usually named, as traditionally were battleships, after American states. Perhaps most notable among these for its Civil War significance (after Ohio, of course!) is the USS Alabama, commissioned in 1985. The CSS Alabama was one of the Confederacy’s most celebrated (or hated, depending on your allegiance) commerce raiders. She preyed on Union shipping for almost two years under the command of the flamboyant Capt. Raphael Semmes, before being sunk by the steam sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge in a dramatic naval duel off the coast of Cherbourg, France, on June 19, 1864. (Semmes himself was honored with a destroyer during World War II, as was his opponent, Capt. John A. Winslow of the Kearsarge). Movie buffs will remember the submarine USS Alabama from the 1995 Gene Hackman-Denzel Washington thriller Crimson Tide.

The legacy of the USS Kearsarge lives on as a Wasp-class amphibious warfare carrier; she is the fifth Navy warship to bear the name. Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell spoke at her 1992 launching in Pascagoula, Miss., deep in the heart of Dixie. Gen. Powell honored her namesake’s Civil War service while tactfully omitting any mention that she’d sunk one of the Confederacy’s most famous ships. The modern Kearsarge is perhaps best known for her role in rescuing U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Scott O’Grady, downed over Bosnia in June 1995. Her AV-8B Harrier II fighter jets are flown by Marine aviators, echoing the role played by Marine gunners aboard the original Kearsarge.

The USS Virginia, first of a new class of attack submarines, is to be commissioned this June (2004). Other planned ships in the class are the Texas, Hawaii, and North Carolina (two of which have a Civil War story behind them). It’s a little odd that these subs will be named after states when the Ohio-class Trident submarines already hold that distinction, but the Navy in recent years has unfortunately departed from its longstanding custom of naming all ships in a class after the same subject (i.e., states, battles, cities, noted admirals, etc.) Since there is to be a USS Virginia, commemorating the most famous Confederate ironclad, I thought it only appropriate that one of the ships in the class (30 are planned) be named the USS Monitor. I’ve written some letters, but must admit that I haven’t made much headway in persuading either Congress or the Navy to honor the “cheesebox on a raft” which so famously fought the CSS Virginia to a draw at Hampton Roads, Va. on March 9, 1862. The last USS Monitor was a transport ship that served in the Pacific during and just after World War II.

The battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia off Hampton Roads, VA, March 9, 1862

The Whidbey Island-class cargo dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry, commissioned in 1995, honors the Virginia town (now in West Virginia) where John Brown’s abortive October 1859 anti-slavery raid set the stage for the Civil War. The names of two amphibious transport dock ships recall important Civil War sites. The Austin-class USS Nashville honors both the Tennessee state capital and the December 15-16, 1864 battle which shattered Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee. The San Antonio-class USS New Orleans’s name serves three purposes: recalling the great Crescent City of Louisiana, Andrew Jackson’s great 1815 victory over the British, and Admiral Farragut’s 1862 capture of the Confederacy’s largest city.

President Lincoln fully recognized the Navy’s vital role in securing a Union victory during the Civil War. He sent a letter to political supporters in Illinois in August 1863, noting the recent victorious efforts of the Federal armies at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. But he went on to write, “Nor must Uncle Sam’s web-feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins [the Navy’s men and ships] have been present. Not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, and the rapid river, but also up the narrow muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been, and made their tracks. Thanks to all.”

As a nation, we remain grateful still.