What’s In A Name?

There are the names of certain American warships that even the minimally-versed will immediately recognize – Arizona, Maine, Intrepid, Missouri, Bonhomme Richard. And when you find a good name, you stick with it, right? A number of vessels have been christened with these monikers more than once since the U.S. Navy was founded in the late 18th century.

One source maintains that there are over 1400 ships’ names that our nation has used at least twice in the past two centuries; 470 used at least three times; 182 used at least four times; 83 used at least five times; and 30 used at least six times. The titles Enterprise, Hornet, Niagara, and Washington have each been used eight times. Wasp has been used nine times, and Ranger comes in at ten.

What about Chesapeake? It’s a rather all-American name. There’s a reason, though, that you won’t be seeing that nomenclature employed very often or anytime soon.

President Washington asked that the first six frigates of our embryonic navy be named patriotically but generically, in ways that wouldn’t inflame any regional rivalries. His directive resulted in USS Constitution, USS United States, USS President, USS Congress, and USS Constellation. Leave it to Sec’y of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert, though, to stir the bucket and name the sixth frigate, once Washington was out of office, USS Chesapeake (for my foreign readers, that is the name of this country’s largest estuary, located entirely within the boundaries of Virginia and Maryland, the latter being Stoddert’s home state).

Going against the wishes of the Father of the Country proved an inauspicious start; the ship was saddled with bad luck almost from its launch.

Chesapeake was a 40-gun heavy frigate. She was supposed to have 44-guns, but material shortages and budget overruns necessitated last minute changes. After some initial success – capturing in 1801 the privateer La Jeune Creole during the undeclared war with the French being the most significant – she was decommissioned and put into reserve because of a shortage of crew. Once tempers flared with the Barbary Pirates, though, she was re-commissioned and sent to the Mediterranean, arriving off Gibraltar just as her main mast split and her bowsprit was noted to be rotting. The ship remained laid-up in Malta for months while repairs were undertaken. Seeing no action against the pirates, Chesapeake returned to the U.S. in 1803 and was once more put into mothballs. The ship’s captain, Richard Morris, was then court-martialed for his relative inactivity; it seems he brought his wife along on the voyage – derisively referenced as ‘the Commodoress’ by the crew – and allegations that the ship remained at Malta far longer than necessary for repairs while the couple conceived another of their growing brood onboard were never satisfactorily explained to the subsequent board of inquiry.

In 1807, the ship was re-re-commissioned but needed lengthy repairs because of her long period of inactivity. Sailing finally from Norfolk VA in June of that year, she was almost immediately intercepted by HMS Leopard, which demanded to search onboard for Royal Navy deserters. The captain, James Barron, refused, the British let loose a devastating broadside, and Chesapeake struck her colors after only a single harmless retaliatory shot. The Royal Navy was apparently unimpressed with the vanquished, refusing to even take her as a prize, and instead carting off four suspected deserters and leaving behind three dead and eighteen wounded Americans.

Barron was court martialed for this embarrassing outcome, the second of Chesapeake’s commanding officers to suffer the indignity in less than four years.

The ignominy of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair contributed to the United States’ decision to declare war on Britain five years later. Chesapeake set sail for the Mediterranean, and during the first few months of 1813, did in fact capture six British merchantmen. But the crew became restive, wanting prize money, and mutiny was whispered. The captain paid cash out of his own pocket to keep everyone happy.

Shortly thereafter, off Boston, Chesapeake was confronted by the similarly-sized HMS Shannon. The battle-hardened crew of Shannon, however, was vastly superior to the disgruntled hodgepodge on board the American ship. Broadsides were exchanged, riggings, masts, and gun crews were decimated, and when the smoked cleared, the American captain lay mortally wounded, uttering his now-famous words, “Don’t Give Up The Ship!” That was not to be; the British this time did take the frigate as a prize, heading to Halifax in Nova Scotia and imprisoning the surviving Americans until the War of 1812 was over.

The hapless warship was repaired and became HMS Chesapeake. But before she could rejoin the fight against her country-of-origin, the war ended and the British, still unimpressed with her design and construction, decided to put the colonists’ frigate up for sale. A Portsmouth UK timber broker purchased her for £500, totally dismantling her and making a tidy profit when he resold her timbers to a Hampshire merchant, one Joshua Holmes, for £3,450. Chesapeake’s blood stained and bullet-ridden flag, kept by descendants of the British captain, was eventually sold at auction in London in 1908 and now resides at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. And several of Chesapeake’s cannons now guard Province House, that of the legislature of Nova Scotia.

The Chesapeake Mill

The Chesapeake Mill

And the timbers? They were used by Holmes to build what he called the Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, a small town southwest of London. After a long and productive industrial life, the grainery went out of business in the 1970s, and is now an antique shop. It sells overpriced tchotchkes, mostly to American tourists, those likely clueless of the history of the heavy wooden beams overhead.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Reason Not To Travel With Kids #336

(today’s post is sponsored by renowned scholar and antiquarian Robert White, of Bristol TN; as this post involves lemon forks, Bob, I thought of you immediately)

This weekend past, I purchased the latest release from author Erik Larson. Entitled Dead Wake, it is the story of the final days of Lusitania, which was torpedoed and sent to the bottom one hundred years ago off the southern coast of Ireland. Larson is one of the very few non-fiction writers whose works I purchase in hardcover the minute they’re released, instead of waiting for the paperback version the following year. He can tell a story, and he hasn’t suffered a misfire yet. This newest work is no different, weaving the major players and events leading up to the Lusitania disaster with stories of unheralded and ordinary victims caught in global events over which they had no control.

While I’m not of the age that I can personally remember the biggest names in trans-Atlantic voyaging – Empress of Britain, United States, Normandie, the two Queens – as I have been reading Larson’s work, I am recalling my own experience with an elegant New York to Europe round trip before commercial jets sealed ocean liners’ fates.

And luckily, my passage didn’t turn out as tragically as did that of Lusitania – at least not for me, although it could have, had my conspirator and I been caught.

[Quick background: Italia di Navigazione SpA, founded in the early 1930s, was late to the trans-Atlantic game compared to competitors Cunard, White Star, Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, and North German Lloyd. The Italian Line, however, fielded some impressive ships in the few years up to, and immediately after, WWII – Andrea Doria, Conte di Savoia, Guilio Cesare, Rex, and Leonardo da Vinci all come to mind.

By the late 1950s, aircraft passenger travel had yet to exert a noticeable effect on the numbers of those in ocean transit between the United States and Europe. The Italian Line, therefore, ordered two new ships, the Michelangelo and Raffaello, amongst the very last vessels built primarily for liner service across the North Atlantic. And the company flouted the old sailors’ convention that naming ships after men is bad luck, later proven to be true.



Architect Gio Ponti wrote that an Italian ship is a movable piece of Italy, and it must represent the highest and most prestigious aspects of the homeland’s culture. In those showcase times, and as Rome partially subsidized the Line, the foyers, staircases, ballrooms, dining areas, corridors, and chapels were filled with works by Italy’s most important artists of that period, including Capogrossi, Ridolfi, Turcato, Fiume, Mascherini, and Luzzati. No Holiday Inn lobby schlock here.]

My father booked passage for the family from New York to Italy, and back, on the 46,000 ton Raffaello in the early 1970s. The entire trip was to take almost a month with stops.

Raffaello had 30 lounges, a two-level cinema, three night clubs, eighteen elevators, a garage with room for fifty automobiles, closed circuit TV, six pools, and an operating suite – not to mention that the fusion art deco-futuristic décor was entirely fireproof, a marvel for its day. And her two unique trellis-style funnels were instantly recognizable, even to the present.

But what was an eleven year old to do, trapped in a elegant prison?

High tea was then still a big deal. Each day, after the lunch seatings had finished and the dishes cleared, the wait staff would start to set places and prepare the Darjeeling and scones. The afternoon salon was located on one of the upper decks, and there was a sweeping semi-circular staircase just outside its entrance. Over the landing of the staircase were large paintings of famous Roman mythological deities and events – they were beautifully executed in the style of the Old Masters, in carved and gilded frames, and inarguably of considerable value.

It didn’t take long for me to find a bored co-conspirator, a fellow pre-teen hellion named Roland from the American Midwest whose dentist father had brought his family on vacation (Roland, if you’re reading this, please contact me). As the waiters were scurrying about, preparing for tea, Roland and I would sneak between the tables and pocket as many of the pre-cut lemon wedges and creampuffs as possible without being seen – but these were not to eat. Instead, we learned that garnishes and confections stuck quite well to canvas when flung from a distance, lemon forks and serving spoons being excellent catapults. So Roland and I spent our lazy afternoons at sea dodging the wait staff, requisitioning foodstuffs, and sitting on the balcony overlooking the master staircase while taking potshots at the Ridolfis and Turcatos over the railings. Hitting Mars or Venus in particularly private, er, places was uproariously funny when in 6th grade, as long as the peels of laughter didn’t somehow draw the attention of the stern purser who might be patrolling the area at any moment.

That we weren’t caught by angry staff, throttled, and thrown in the brig remains a miracle.

But this taught me two valuable lessons for adult life.

First, that vasectomies are good and sadly underutilized.

Second, that should you have offspring, do not travel with them anywhere nice before they have reached their mid twenties at the earliest.

And of the Raffaello? Despite huge financial losses, the Italian Line operated its trans-Atlantic route until the mid 1970s, when Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raffaello were all withdrawn from service, and the company turned instead to container freight shipping. In 1976, Raffaello was sold to the Shah of Iran and used as a floating barracks near Bushehr. Heavily damaged during the Islamic Revolution and later in the Iran-Iraq war, rammed by a cargo ship and then struck by at least one torpedo, Raffaello partially sank in shallow waters of the Persian Gulf, and she is barely visible from the surface today.

So I suppose what Roland and I did to her wasn’t so bad in comparison. RIP.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]