Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Cushing Road’s Namesake

Is it not a sad state of affairs that the man described by Theodore Roosevelt as “next to Farragut on the hero roll of American naval history” is unknown to most naval personnel, let alone the wider public. We celebrate Farragut with his paraphrased quote “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” but who was Lieutenant William Cushing and what did he do to deserve Roosevelt’s admiration? Why is the road in front of the Naval War College named Cushing?

At this year’s inaugural Eight Bells Lecture held on September 10, Mr. Jamie Malanowski presented his book Commander Will Cushing: Daredevil Hero of the Civil War. The book has a depth that humanizes its main character. Cushing is described as youngster fond of practical jokes, unused to discipline, both academic and deportment. His large, extended family is described and there is an emphasis on his brothers, detailing the martial tradition and their service to the Union during the war. One brother, Alonzo, was a graduate of the Military Academy and would ultimately be awarded the Medal of Honor for his conduct during the Battle of Gettysburg where he lost his life in the defense of Cemetery Ridge. Another brother, Howard, would survive the Civil War only to be killed fighting the Apache chief Cochise in Arizona.

Will Cushing, for his part, was forced to resign from the U.S. Naval Academy. With the on-coming Civil War, however, he was able to get his commission. What followed was a meteoric rise in fame and rank. He became the youngest person to attain lieutenant, lieutenant commander, and commander. His exploits were legendary. He was one of the thirty army and navy officers to receive the “Thanks of Congress” for his exploits. Ultimately, he would be awarded $56,000 in prize money.

The lecture was held in the lounge on the first floor of Brett Hall, where all lectures will be held until the completion of the Naval War College Museum’s repairs. Once the museum re-opens, visitors will be able to see a model of the CSS Albemarle, the Confederate ironclad that Cushing sank using a spar torpedo. The unsung story of William Cushing is one that should be re-counted and passed along as a part of the Navy’s heritage. This book goes a long way to bringing the story back to the public’s consciousness.

Next, on September 22, the Eight Bells Lecture Series will have Naval Documents of the American Revolution Volume 12, American Theater: April 1, 1778-May 31, 1778; European Theater: April 1, 1778-May 31, 1778 presented by Dr. Dennis Conrad, one of the editors. For more information, contact the Naval War College Museum at 841-2101/4052.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Souvenirs from USS Niagara

Wooden fragment from USS Niagara
Gift of Mr. Robert J. Powel

Gavel made from USS Niagara wood
Gift to the Naval War College Foundation by Mrs. Verna Vtipil

If you took a vacation this summer, chances are you couldn’t resist at least a quick look in one of the gift shops you passed along the way. How many of us have boxes full of souvenirs from parks, museums, and historic sites? For many, the trip just isn’t complete until we find something to take home that will serve as a reminder of the famous places we’ve visited.

Before the modern historic preservation movement, attitudes about taking souvenirs from historic locations were much more relaxed than they are today. In the 1800s, visitors to Mt. Vernon were known to chip off a piece of wood to take home with them. Today, most historic sites have outlawed relic-hunting without a permit, but at the time it was considered perfectly acceptable for casual tourists.

This penchant for souvenir-taking also extended to the realm of naval history. Pictured above are a wood fragment and a gavel made of wood from USS Niagara, the ship to which Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry transferred his flag during the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. Niagara won fame for her role in the battle and became a receiving ship for the naval station at Presque Isle, Pennsylvania, after the war. When the station closed in 1820, nobody came forward with a plan to save the historic ship, and it was allowed to sink at its anchorage in Misery Bay. The centennial celebration of the battle brought about renewed interest in Perry’s ship, and it was finally decided to raise and restore Niagara in 1913. While her keel was sturdy enough to be rebuilt, the remaining parts could not be reused. They could, however, be turned into commemorative items and sold to a public that was eager to own an actual piece of the famous ship.

Stern view of USS Niagara after being raised from Misery Bay in 1913
"Perry's Victory Centennial Souvenir: The Niagara Keepsake," p. 18
Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command

Niagara was not the only warship to be partially cannibalized for souvenirs. Other famous vessels such as USS Constitution, USS Constellation, and USS Hartford had portions of their original structures taken for the souvenir market. Each time one of them underwent a restoration, collectors received a new supply of wood to be fashioned into canes, jewelry boxes, paperweights, and other decorative objects. In an era when museums were few in number, these mementos gave ordinary people a way to form a personal connection with their nation’s past.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum