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The Only U. S. Battleship not Named for a State.


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USS Kearsarge (1862-1894)

 

USS Kearsarge (BB-5, later Crane Ship No.1), 1900-1955
 

When the Bethlehem Steel Company’s Patapsco Scrap Corporation reduced Crane Ship No. 1 to scrap in December 1956, the career of the oldest active ship in the U. S. Navy came to an end.

 

The ancient crane ship was authorized by Congress in 1895 as the battleship Kearsarge for the rapidly expanding Great White Fleet. The first Kearsarge, named after a mountain in New Hampshire, was a 1,000-ton craft launched by the Union Navy in 1861. In a desperately fierce, hour-long action off Cher­bourg, France, the gallant ship won lasting fame and a niche in history by sinking the ever-elusive Confederate raider Alabama—one of the most searched for, yet most dreaded ships afloat. When news of the victory reached the United States, there was great rejoicing. As a gesture of gratitude, the New York Chamber of Commerce gave the ship’s offi­cers and crew a reward of $25,000 for “send­ing this pest of the ocean to her merited doom.”

 

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In 1894, however, the life of the first USS Kearsarge came to an abrupt end on a reef in the Gulf of Mexico. So outstanding was the naval career of the ship that the Secretary of the Navy urged President Grover Cleveland to have the name “Kearsarge” assigned to one of the battleships then under construc­tion. Thus BB-5 became the first and only U. S. battleship ever named for anything other than a state of the Union.

 

In 1896 the construction contract for Kearsarge and her sister ship Kentucky was awarded, despite a storm of protest from older yards, to the young and struggling Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. Coming in the midst of the industrial panic that had the nation in its grip at the time, the contract for the two $2,250,000 battleships was the shot in the arm that probably saved the firm whose later work earned it the nick­name “The yard that built the Navy.”

 

The traditional champagne bottle was smashed on the bow of the “United States Ship Kearsarge” 24 March 1898 by the wife of Lieutenant Commander Herbert Winslow, the only surviving son of the famous captain of the first Kearsarge. On 20 February 1900 the proud new battleship was commissioned, making her debut with the North Atlantic Squadron in February. She incorporated sev­eral innovations in naval design. Foremost among these was the introduction of a new concept in turret placing. The ship’s main armament consisted of four 13-inch and four 8-inch guns in twin mounts. The 8-inch tur­rets were superimposed on the 13-inch ones, one group forward and one aft. Concerning this arrangement, which was repeated in sev­eral later classes, the Secretary of the Navy’s Report for the year 1900 states:

“As to the advisability of the system, it must be admitted that it possesses certain very attractive features, among which are an absolute noninter­ference of guns, a heavy and unobstructed bow and stern fire, and the fact that the 8-inch guns—being mounted on the line of the keel—are available for service on either side, resulting in a very consider­able saving of weight for equal efficacy.”

 

Rounding out Kearsarge's armament were fourteen 5-inch guns in individual broadside mountings.

 

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In December 1905 Herbert Winslow, then a captain, assumed command of the 11,500- ton battleship, and in September of the next year commanded her in a Presidential Naval Review at Oyster Bay, New York.

 

April 1907 found the ship taking part in the celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. Continuing such for­mal duties, Kearsarge was present in Au­gust at the unveiling of a monument com­memorating the landing of the Pilgrims at Provincetown, Massachusetts.

 

December 1907 marked the beginning of the U. S. Fleet’s one-year and two-month voyage around the world, terminating at Hampton Roads, Virginia, 22 February 1909, when the Fleet was reviewed by President Theodore Roosevelt.

 

Immediately after returning from this cele­brated cruise, Kearsarge was relegated to the reserve fleet at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. During 1909 and 1910 the ship under­went extensive modernization. During this period four 5-inch guns were added to her battery of fourteen, her bridge was modified, and her old pole masts gave way to the then- modern basket masts.

 

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Looking very different, USS Kearsarge was restored to full commission in June 1915 while World War I raged in Europe and threatened to engulf the United States. By this time Kearsarge was comparatively el­derly and was forced to leave the exciting as­signments to her younger sisters and reconcile herself throughout the war years to dull—though important—duty as a training ship for engineering personnel, the second career of her long life.

 

After the conflict the ship had ten of her eighteen 5-inch guns removed, and later served as summer cruise ship for the Naval Academy. On 18 May 1920, the career of USS Kearsarge as a man-of-war came to an end with her decommissioning at the Phila­delphia Navy Yard and with her subsequent conversion to a crane ship.

 

 

 

As AB-1 Kearsarge was stripped of the 10,000-horsepower triple expansion engines that had driven her at a top speed of 16.82 knots for twenty years, as well as all her super­structure, guns, and other reminders of her proud life as a battleship. However, on the plus side of the deal, she received an immense revolving crane with a rated lifting capacity of 250 tons, as well as a twenty-foot increase in her 72-foot beam. The 10,000-ton crane ship rendered valuable service for the next twenty years, her only exciting moment being the raising of the sunken submarine Squalus off the New Hampshire coast.

 

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With the clouds of war looming ominously on the horizon, the Navy began a vast pro­gram of shipbuilding, one of the priority or­ders being for aircraft carriers. In the quest for names to give the ships being constructed, the name Kearsarge was appropriated for an Essex-Class ship and the old Kearsarge was re­duced to merely Crane Ship No. 1. With the outbreak of World War II, the venerable craft still gave a full measure of service to her country and did her part toward winning the war. The building program that passed on her illustrious name also gave her further em­ployment. She handled the guns, turrets, ar­mor, and other heavy lifts on the new battle­ships Indiana and Alabama, turrets on the veteran cruisers Savannah and Chicago, and guns on the old battleship Pennsylvania.

 

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In 1945, after being towed to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, San Francisco, she did work on the Essex-Class carriers Hornet and Boxer, as well as the Saratoga. With peace finally secured, Crane Ship No. 1 was assigned to the Boston Naval Shipyard where she served until her sale to the Bethlehem Steel Company’s Patapsco Scrap Corporation in September 1955, thus putting an end to five and a half decades of faithful service to the U. S. Navy in three capacities—battleship, training ship, and crane ship.

 

 

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