I am a sucker for U.S. naval history. There, I said it. I love it all from John Paul Jones and the USS Ranger to the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the lead ship in the newest class of aircraft carriers, I can’t get enough. My tendencies and preferences seem to take me to more contextual aspects of naval history – anything to do with the geographical region of my birth holds my interests (unless, of course it is connected to the ships or commands where I served).
I seek out items that can be associated with ships named for geographic locations (city names, place names, etcetera), pieces that can be connected to the local naval installations or anything that originates with local naval figures, such as the Rear Admiral Robert Copeland group in this earlier post. To date, the majority of these items have been vintage photographs…until yesterday.
While searching online, I stumbled across a listing that contained a piece of history that made my jaw drop. To see the price was so much lower than it should have been made me giddier than a kid on Christmas morning. I placed my watch on the item and planned observe it for a few days to see if any bids were placed. A few days later, with no one bidding (that I knew of) I configured my bid snipe and hoped that all would work out.
Around the time of the auction close, I was out and about when I received an email that my sniped bid was the winner and that no other parties had bid against me, leaving the closing price the minimum amount. The item, a World War I cruise book from the USS Seattle (an armored cruiser of the Tennessee class) that was placed into commission in 1906, documents the ship’s WWI service during the war, serving as a convoy escort as she provided merchant vessels protection from German U-boats during trans-Atlantic crossings to the United Kingdom.
As cruise books were produced in small numbers (for the crew), they are quite rare typically driving the prices close to, and sometimes surpassing, $500. Like most vintage books, condition is a contributing factor in the value. My USS Seattle book was available at a fraction of these prices making it affordable when it would normally have been well out of my budget.
Good things come to those who wait…and who check at the right time. For me, the waiting continued right up until the time that I tore into the package moments after it was delivered by the letter carrier (yes, I can behave as a child, still).
When you have a specific area of collecting interest; a focus that keeps your eyes peeled for items that are beyond the realm of the obvious, you will eventually discover the oddities or atypical pieces that you wouldn’t have intentionally sought out. Collecting can be fun when these discoveries surface, prompting you to act quickly in order to secure the piece for your collection.
Since I started collecting militaria, I have progress from a somewhat broad stance; being very unfocused and undiscriminating about what I would acquire. Lacking in direction can be problematic in that your collection grows in such a manner that you have glaring vacancies that would have otherwise helped to convey the story that you want to tell with your collection. For example, one area (of militaria collecting) that has piqued my interest baseball within the armed forces (uniforms, equipment, photographs, ephemera). Because I remain diligent in keeping my attention on this particular sport, I have abstained from allowing myself to be distracted by other sports-related areas. I have passed on several very impressive pieces that are football-oriented and would be great for a military-sports themed collection. However, these items would have detracted from focus while diverting funds away from another piece that would have been a perfect fit.
Being geographically-centered on my home region, I have been seeking out naval militaria that relates to my home state. Again, what I have been interested in are pieces that have ties to any installation, operation, event, person and, in particular, naval vessels named for cities and geographic features located within my home state. This mini quest has yielded some interesting artifacts that are predominately of the ephemera and antique photographic variety. Two of the most recent pieces (that are not paper or pictures) are not artifacts derived from the ships or the men who served aboard (having a flat hat with a ship’s tally are like gold) but are, instead, commemorative items that may have been presented to crew members.
I am not at all interested in collecting souvenir spoons but I made an exception for these two examples from historic ships.
The first spoon that I found a few years ago was in an online auction. The ornate design combined with the silver content made it easier to pull the trigger on purchasing. That it was from a ship with a great history and was named form my hometown made the purchase a no-brainer. The USS Tacoma (Cruiser No. 18) is not only a veteran of five World War One convoys, she also escorted the (then) recently discovered remains of Revolutionary War naval hero, John Paul Jones to the United States from France.
The second spoon in my collection arrived just a few days ago – again, purchased from a seller in an online auction. This spoon, slightly longer and more broad than the USS Tacoma example, commemorates the Armored Cruiser, USS Washington (ACR-11). This spoon, along with the relief of the ship (in the spoon’s bowl) has “Christmas 1911” imprinted, indicating that the spoon may have been given to crew members for that year’s holiday. By 1916, the USS Washington was reclassified and renamed USS Seattle. She went on to serve as a flagship during Atlantic convoy operations during WWI. After the war, the Seattle would be relegated to training duties and then as a receiving ship before being scrapped during WWII.
I have had no success in my research attempts regarding either of these pieces beyond what is imprinted on either one. For now, I am content with having them as artistic enhancements to my collection.
In the decades following the American Civil War, the United states was busy dealing with the reconstruction of the South, expansion into the Western states and territories, adding new stars to the blue canton of the national ensign (i.e. the addition of states to the Union), the influx of the destitute of Europe seeking to benefit from the Land of Opportunity and all the trefoils of a growing nation. Few Americans set their eyes upon the instability of governments beyond the borders and shores as the nation surpassed her first century of existence. Life, though fraught with the many diverse challenges of the time, was good.
In the latter half of nineteenth century, the American navy commenced a dramatic technological transformation from wooden-hulled sailing sloops and frigates, followed by ironclads and paddle-wheels, to steel coal-fired steam warships. Naval gunnery was advancing and the U.S. leadership was following the advances being made by the British navy that had necessitated a radical departure from the ship design convention (of the time) in order to take full advantage of the new capabilities. The U.S. Navy, had been fully committed to the designs of the ironclad Monitor and many of the European navies adopted similar designs following the American’s success with them during the Civil War. With technology advancing at such a rapid pace and the need for a global naval reach, the Monitor was rendered obsolete, in favor of larger, more powerful ships with greater sailing range which would come to be known as pre-Dreadnoughts.
In the 1880s, the U.S. Navy began planning and designing their first pre-Dreadnought armored cruisers. By 1886, the Navy funded the first two ships of the new design, the lead ship, USS Maine and her (closely-related) sister, the USS Texas. The Maine’s keel was laid down on October 17, 1888 at the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard and wouldn’t be completed for nearly seven years. She was commissioned and placed into service on September 17, 1895 and following sea trials and fitting out, was assigned to the North Atlantic Squadron for service.
As the 1890s were drawing to a close, a spark in the tinderbox of the Cuban independence movement began to be fanned by U.S. financial influence. American capitalism and politics had been involved in Cuba for the past few decades investing heavily in the sugar cane and tobacco industries, driving economic transformation of the Spanish-owned island and fueling unrest among the citizens. American popular sentiment, led by a pro-liberation agenda that was propagandized throughout the newspapers of the day, was growing in favor of intervening against the Spanish government. In January of 1898, a pro-Spanish riot erupted in Havana which prompted the American Consul-General to request assistance to protect U.S. citizens and business interests.
Sailing into Havana Harbor at the end of January, the USS Maine provided a menacing reminder of the United States’ commitment to protect her interests. In addition, her presence could have appeared to the Spanish loyalists as a threat to their sovereignty. Perhaps the revolutionaries saw the ship as an opportunity to draw the United States into a conflict with Spain that could result in the ouster of their oppressive overseers. Regardless of the stance of the two opposing sides, the Maine’s presences added to the already increasing tension.
Aboard ship, the crew was going about settling down for the night on February 15, 1898. Twenty minutes before taps and lights out, the shipboard routines were winding down. Liberty boats had returned to the ship and had been secured for the night. Suddenly and without warning, a massive explosion rocked the forward part of the ship as 5.1 tons of gunpowder ignited. In a matter of seconds, the Maine was sitting on the bottom of the harbor and more than 260 of her crew (of 355 officers and men) were dead.
Following a formal investigation and inquiry into the cause of the explosion, the cause was determined to be the result of a mine (though no supporting evidence existed). The slogan of the day, “To hell with Spain! Remember the Maine” could be found in print and plastered across buttons and pins as the American public began to rally to the cause. Following the publication of the findings, a media blitz of inflaming editorials and exaggerated facts ultimately led to an April 21, 1898 formal declaration of war against Spain.
After resounding victories in Manila Bay (in the Philippines) and San Jaun Hill (Puerto Rico), the Spanish pursued peace with the United States by the middle of July, 1898. The peace treaties were signed in Paris on August 12, 1898, relinquishing all rights and claims to the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
With the guns now silent and the U.S. reverting to their isolationist stance, the rallying cry of “Remember the Maine” began to fade from the forefront of the U.S. populace. This was not so with Navy leadership who were still seeking definitive facts surrounding her sinking. In 1910, Navy engineers began constructing a cofferdam surrounding the shallow-water wreck of the ship. After the harbor waters receded from the wreck, investigators poured over every inch of the hulk. With no conclusive evidence uncovered and the bodies of the crewmen were removed for burial in the U.S. (at Arlington National Cemetery), the ship was refloated, towed out to sea and scuttled.
Several pieces of the ship were removed at the time of the 1910-1912 investigation including munitions, guns, pieces of her superstructure and mast and other items that would serve as central components of memorials that were being constructed around the country. Commemorative medallions were cast from metal retrieved from her screws as Americans renewed their commitment to remember the Maine.
Four years following the devastating loss of the cruiser, the U.S. Navy commissioned the USS Maine (BB-10), the lead ship of three-ship class of battleships which also included the USS Missouri (BB-11) and USS Ohio (BB-12). The second USS Maine would proudly carry the name and legacy in Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet and through World War I. Her 18-year career ended with her May, 1920 decommissioning. The Maine name wouldn’t sail again until 1994 when the Navy launched the 16th Ohio-class Trident submarine, USS Maine (SSBN-741) which is currently homeported in Bangor, Washington.
More than 110 years later, the stricken USS Maine resonates with a minute segment of collectors. While very few items or artifacts originating from the ship surface within the marketplace, memorial pieces are readily available.
Inscription on the Havana USS Maine monument:
“El Pueblo De La Isla De Cuba Es Y De Derecho Debe Ser Libre E Independiente.” Resolucion con junta del Congreso de los Estados Unidos de Norteamerica De 19 de April De 1898.
“The people of the island of Cuba are and of right ought to be free and independent.” Congressional joint resolution with the United States of America from April 19, 1898.