Thursday, September 20, 2007
Once upon a time he commanded a fearsome army against the armies of the United States
sending thousands of U. S. soldiers to their graves in a series of punishing battles. He led hostile forces within striking distance of Washington, and for a time, was the most feared enemy commander with whom the War Department, or the Commander-in-Chief, had ever contended.
Just under 100 years later, the United States named their newest nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine in his honor. I do wonder if there are any, or many, other instances in world history in which a nation so honored the leading commander of opposition forces in a civil war. Perhaps there's something comparable in the storied history of the United Kingdom—I'll rely upon a reader for any info along those lines.
Lord knows there have been lots of things named after Robert E. Lee, including a university, and innumerable high schools. But it is fascinating to see military assets and forts named for one-time adversaries. In contrast to the U. S. S. Robert E. Lee, some of the most prominent and vital United States army installations are named for some of the least successful and most inept enemy commanders—namely, generals Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood, to say nothing of the Right Reverend Bishop Polk.
As the kids say, "what's up with that"?
Back to the Robert E. Lee, who wouldn't want a submarine named after that guy? She was the first U. S. naval vessel to bear the name, and was launched on December 18, 1959, not too long after the last Confederate veteran died (it used to be accepted that Walter Williams, who died on December 19, 1959, was the last living C.S.A. vet, but this has since been discredited. However, the precise "last" Confederate veteran is likely one of a handful of men who died in the 1950s. William Marvel wrote about this for Blue & Gray magazine at some point).
The Marble Man's nuclear sub was the first U. S. Navy ship, but not the first vessel to carry the name. Here's a photo of the Giraffe, erstwhile steamer out of Glasgow that in 1862 became the blockade runner Robert E. Lee. After more than 20 successful runs through the Federal Blockading Squadron, she was eventually captured and converted for use in the blockade by the U. S. Navy as the U.S.S. Fort Donelson. Read more about that here.
Here's a link to some history of the Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601; later SSN 601) from the laying of her keel in 1958 to when she was decommissioned in 1983.
This photo shows the Robert E. Lee near Mare Island Shipyard, off San Francisco Bay. She would have had little trouble taking out the monitor Camanche, also pictured off Mare Island in one of my early blog entries.
The last one (below, click on for larger view) shows the Robert E. Lee's wardroom. Note the bust of famous enemy general next to the phone. What really caught my attention was the aquarium. Viewing this photo was the first time in my life I had considered the idea of miniature aquatic habitats aboard submarines. There's just something odd about it, like a bird in a birdcage, on an airplane.
But what of actual Confederate naval heroes? Were they honored by their former foes in the U.S. Navy? Indeed. Just five months after the Robert E. Lee joined the Cold War navy, the U.S.S. Semmes, a destroyer named for the pre-eminent Confederate sea captain, Raphael Semmes of the C.S.S. Alabama, set sail (heavily damaged ten years later by a clumsy Greek freighter in Naples Harbor). What about James Iredell Waddell, skipper of the legendary C.S.S. Shenandoah? Sure thing. The U.S.S. Waddell, another destroyer—launched in 1963—received 11 engagement stars for service in waters off Vietnam.
I've nothing else to say on this subject. There was no particular point to this entry, beyond the satisfaction of musing about endlessly interesting threads in American history. All this web searching for destroyers brought to mind one named for someone in my own distant bloodline—it took a turn too early and followed some other destroyers into the rocks.