[In early May, with the lockdown closing in around us a bit, my sons and I took a daytrip up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where we walked around the historic waterfront area (masked and at a social distance from fellow visitors, natch). This week I’ll highlight a handful of histories from this multi-layered New England community, leading up to a special post on other NE historic daytrips!]
On two famous products of a historic, still operational naval construction facility, and one darker history present there.
1) USS Kearsage: The Portsmouth Navy Yard (officially located in the neighboring town of Kittery, Maine, but visible from the historic waterfront) went into operation in 1800, but it was with the Civil War, and specifically the 1861 emergency shipbuilding program, that the yard became a center of US naval production. Without question its most famous product during that intense period was the Kearsage, a warship named for New Hampshire’s Mount Kearsage and launched on September 11th, 1861. For the next couple years the Kearsage hunted for Confederate ships across the Atlantic, with a particular focus on the CSS Alabama, one of the Confederacy’s most successful raiders; in June 1864 the Kearsage finally found the Alabama at the French port of Cherbourg, and on June 19th the two ships fought one of the Civil War’s most brutal and famous naval battles (captured there in a painting by Portsmouth’s own Thomas P. Moses, on whom more see tomorrow’s post). The Kearsage’s eventual victory marked a naval counterpoint to other 1864 Union triumphs and turning points in the war.
2) The L-8: The Civil War saw the first use of military submarines in the US, but it was in the early 20th century that these vessels became more fully part of the US Navy. The first submarine built at a government navy yard was the L-8, which was constructed from 1915 to 1917 and launched from the Portsmouth yard in April 1917. As this article traces, although the L-8 never fired a shot during World War I, it served an important role in safe-guarding shipping from German U-boats, embodying this new side to 20th century naval warfare. During World War II, the Portsmouth yard constructed 79 submarines, with a record four launched on January 27th, 1944 alone; it would also construct a number of nuclear submarines between Swordfish in 1957 and Sand Lance in 1969. But all that, and indeed the central role of submarines in 20th century US naval operations, began with the L-8.
3) The Prison: The Portsmouth Navy Yard became particularly prominent in 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt hosted there the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War (and garnered Roosevelt the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize). But significant as that treaty may have been, it was another 1905 event that would have long-lasting effects for the US navy and armed forces: the start of construction on the Portsmouth Naval Prison (or “the Castle,” as it was often known). Also called the “Alcatraz of the East” due to its remote location and (especially) its harsh conditions, the prison became the principal detention facility for the US Navy and Marine Corps, and reached its peak during World War II, when it housed over 3000 German sailors and marines. The prison was closed in 1974, after a commission deemed it “wholly inadequate by modern standards of incarceration.” But the site remains, a testimony to a very different side to this historically productive military facility.
Next Portsmouth post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other historic sites or daytrips you’d highlight?
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