What do a Battleship, 1950, mud, high tides, a Hudson River Ferry, a T-shirt, and a UFO all have in common?
To find out how they interconnect, let’s start with the Battleship USS MISSOURI (BB-63). In 1950, the ship was already famous for her participation in WWII, and because the surrender that ended the war was signed on her deck. MISSOURI was nicknamed the “Mighty Mo” by her crew, but she was also known as the “Big Mo” to the public and in news reports. She would soon live up to them both names when she managed to get into a mighty big mess.
It all began on January 17, 1950. MISSOURI left Norfolk Naval Base and headed towards the Atlantic Ocean to begin a routine training cruise to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Her Captain, William D. Brown, was new to the battleship, having just joined the crew in December. While he was an experienced naval officer, his previous commands had been submarines and destroyers and he had been on shore duty since the end of World War II. Although Captain Brown had taken MISSOURI on a few short trips off the coast of Virginia after he took command, he was essentially unfamiliar with the battleship and this would be his first time taking her out for a cruise.
The Navy had set up an acoustic range to capture the signature sounds made by ships and it was close to MISSOURI’s departure point. Captain Brown had been asked to take a previously unplanned trip through the range on his way out, and he was told that buoys had been set up to mark the area. This was important since the range was very close to shallow water.
Things started to go wrong pretty quickly. It turned out that some of the buoys had been removed and the navigational charts hadn’t been updated with that information. Not all the ship’s officers knew about the plan to take MISSOURI through the range, and some of them only heard about it just before the battleship headed in that direction. Another complication was that the range area was close to a fishing channel that was also marked with buoys.
Brown spotted what he thought was the marker for the right edge of the acoustic range and ordered the battleship to the left of the buoy. He ignored warnings by the navigator and the executive officer’s attempts to alert him, not realizing until much too late that he had made a mistake. Even though the tide was unusually high that day, MISSOURI was heading into the fishing channel and shallow water.
At 8:17 am, the “Mighty Mo” hit a sandbank in the Chesapeake Bay, about a mile and a half from Thimble Shoal Light and a mile off Old Point Comfort. The battleship, traveling at 12.5 knots, plowed 2,500 feet into the sandbar, bottoming out the ship and lifting her out of the water about seven feet above the waterline. Now the ship was stuck just off the Army base at Fort Monroe, close to Thimble Shoals Lighthouse, the shipping channel, and within sight of the Naval Base.
Within a couple days, articles would start appearing in newspapers all across the country that “Mighty Mo” or “Big Mo” had grounded. These articles were quickly followed by reports of multiple failed attempts to free the battleship over the next two weeks. Bringing not only amusement to the onlookers and readers, but also quite a bit of humiliation to the Navy. Army personnel, finding the entire situation hilarious, discovered a new hobby. Partaking in the amenities of the Fort Monroe Officer’s Club while writing letters and composing telegrams containing suggestions on how to free the battleship. The public also got involved and sent suggestions too. The Navy was inundated with ideas, including one from a five-year-old boy in Indiana who told them they just needed to fix the bottom of the ship so she could float again.
After numerous failed attempts using a large number of tugboats, military vessels, small explosive charges, dredging, large cables, and other methods, MISSOURI was finally refloated on February 1, 1950, during another unusually high tide. Even after the ship was freed, the jokes continued. For most of 1950, anytime an accident involved a large amount of mud, the nickname “Mo” surfaced again. A situation was a “Big Mo,” like a plane that slid off an icy runway into the mud. A car that imitated the “Big Mo” or two boats that went aground in mud off New Jersey on the same day and the efforts to free them was named “Operation Big Mo”.
So now on to April 1950, the ferryboat and a point on the Hudson River in New York. There, two cities are located across from each other on the river. Newburgh, located in Orange County, and just one and a half miles away, Beacon in Dutchess County. Both cities are about 55 miles from the New York metropolitan area. The Newburgh-Beacon Ferry system provided transport between the two cities with three commuter ferries named ORANGE, DUTCHESS, and BEACON. Usually, two of the three boats were in service at the same time, each moored at the opposite side of the river and they passed each other in the middle during their runs. The first run of the day began around 7am and it took about 15 minutes to reach the other side of the river.Read more
When Matthew Calbraith Perry joined the U.S. Navy in 1809, he entered a service of sailing ships and smoothbore cannon. Yet, by the time of his death on March 4, 1858 — from rheumatism, complicated by gout and alcoholism — Perry was known as the “Father of the Steam Navy.”
Perry guided the US Navy’s transition from sail to steam and shot to shell. It was he who recognized how these new tools would ensure the Navy’s ability to project American trade and power throughout the world. His creations became a symbol of America’s industrialization and the Manifest Destiny.
The term “Manifest Destiny” was developed in the 1840s as the United States endeavored to move westward. This movement had its roots in the Louisiana Purchase, the annexation of Florida in 1819, and the Monroe Doctrine which warned European powers against creating new colonies in the Western Hemisphere. When Texas was annexed into the US by President
John Tyler, the next president, James Polk, sought to solve two nagging issues in the way of this westward movement: the Oregon Territory and the Texas Boundary Line Dispute.
In 1846, Polk had settled the disputed line via diplomatic action with Great Britain. A new line was established along the 49th parallel. In comparison, Polk took a heavy handed approach in dealing with the disputed line between Mexico and Texas. General Zachary Taylor was sent to the Rio Grande River to protect this boundary. Consequently, the Mexican War erupted which enabled the US to annex former Mexican lands known as California, New Mexico, and Utah territories (eventually becoming six states).
Believers in the Manifest Destiny theory thought that expansion toward the Pacific Ocean was the United States’ duty based on American exceptionalism. It was based upon: the virtue of the American people and their concepts of freedom and democracy; the mission to spread these institutions throughout North America; and the destiny under God to do this work.
While sounding rather lofty, Manifest Destiny suggested that westward expansion was intended for only those of European descent. It also meant the removal of Native Americans who might block such expansion. While many southern expansionists took their slaves with them, others opposed the spread of “slave power. ” These disparate beliefsresulted in clashes such as Bleeding Kansas. Hispanics were to be integrated into the Anglo-Saxon culture or simply overwhelmed. The westward expansion movement brought notable advancements to the United States; however, like so many other parts of history, Manifest Destiny also had a very dark side.
USS Mississippi and Manifest Destiny
The construction of USS Mississippi was the beginning of the naval aspects of the Manifest Destiny movement. This steam-powered warship was an excellent example of American ingenuity, industrial growth, and mercantile expansion and exceptionalism. The ship’s stellar service during the Mexican War brought on the Mexican Cession. Furthermore, the vessel’s major role in the opening of Japan to American trade was the first step in the United States becoming a world power.
“Father of the Steam Navy”
Matthew Perry seemed an unlikely candidate for guiding such technological advances. The younger brother of the hero of Lake Erie, Oliver Hazard Perry, he fought during the War of 1812, afterwards commanding several sailing vessels. However, by 1830, Matthew Perry began to see the need for greater training and the construction of the most up-to-date warships. Accordingly, Perry was detailed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1833; his primary duty was to construct the steam-powered USS Fulton. A side-wheel steamer designed for coastal defense, it was commissioned on December 13, 1837, with the newly promoted Captain M.C. Perry in command.
Perry, promoted commodore in June 1840, personally supervised the construction of the sister side-wheel frigates, USS Missouri and Mississippi. The USS Mississippi was constructed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, whereas Missouri was built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Both vessels were 229-feet long with 40-foot beams and 20-foot, 6-inch drafts. Perry intended these paddlers to be the models for the future of the all steam-powered, ocean-going Navy. Both ships were laid down in 1839. The Mississippi was launched on May 5, 1841, and commissioned on December 22, 1841.
USS Mississippi – Vital Statistics
The Navy’s most modern warship was assigned to the Home Squadron during which time it was used to conduct numerous tests. The paddles on the frigates Missouri and Mississippi were powered by side lever engines with cylinders 75-inches in diameter with a 7-foot stroke.
Both capital ships were an unusual arrangement as their smokestacks were located aft of the paddlewheels, unlike most paddlers where the stacks were fore of the engines. Since the Navy was unsure of the reliability of steam power and the availability of coal, Mississippi was a barkentine-rigged vessel which could raise 19,000 square feet of canvas.
The Mississippi and several ships modeled after it, such as the USS Susquehanna, were driven by paddle wheels; however, the invention of the screw propeller in 1839 made paddlers virtually obsolete for naval use. The large paddle boxes interfered with the placement of guns. Naval tactics, despite the development of shell guns, were still based on broadside to broadside combat.
Mississippi could only carry 10 guns: two X-inch and eight VIII-inch Paixhans shell guns. The screw propeller allowed for all the machinery built below the water line, freeing the deck for more guns; therefore, shot proof. Whereas the machinery, particularly the paddle wheels themselves, were vulnerable to enemy shot.
Nevertheless, Mississippi would prove to be a successful, efficient ship. Its sister ship, USS Missouri, was destroyed by an accidental fire at Gibraltar on August 26, 1843, and Mississippi would become Commodore Perry’s flagship when he took command of the West Indian Squadron in 1845.
When war broke out with Mexico, USS Mississippi, under Commodore Perry, was assigned to conduct blockading duties along the Mexican coast. During the siege of Veracruz, Mississippi, with the aid of engineer Captain Robert E. Lee, used heavy guns and their crews to erect a battery to bombard the port city into submission.
When the Mexican-American War concluded, Mississippi returned to Gosport Navy Yard, Virginia, for a re-fit. In 1848, the paddler was detailed to the Mediterranean Squadron under Commander Sydney Smith Lee. Following the failure of the Revolution of 1848 throughout Europe, an Act of Congress empowered the ship, while cruising the Mediterranean, to rescue the famous Hungarian revolutionary, Lajos Kossuth, on September 1, 1851. Mississippi then returned to Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Service in the Far East
USS Mississippi was named flagship of the diplomatic mission known as the Christo Expedition, to open Japan to American trade. Commodore M.C. Perry assumed command of the expedition which left Hampton Roads on November 24, 1852.
The side-wheeler rendezvoused with three other American ships: the sloops USS Saratoga and Plymouth, as well as the new paddler USS Susquehanna in Shanghai. Perry’s squadron then visited Tokyo (Edo) Bay on July 8, 1853, to deliver a letter from President Millard Fillmore. Perry left on July 17 with the promise to return.
Perry came back to Tokyo Bay a few months later with a squadron of nine ships, prompting the Japanese to sign the Convention of Kanagawa. The steamer Mississippi was later detailed to the East India Squadron as flagship of Commodore Josiah Tattnall during the Second Opium War.
Mississippi then returned to Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston, Massachusetts, where the steamer was placed in ordinary. The frigate was soon reactivated when Abraham Lincoln was elected President in November 1860. The US Navy clearly needed the old side-wheeler in service. Out of 93 ships on the Navy List in 1860, only 28 were steam-powered. Steamers like Mississippi were needed everywhere to enforce the Union blockade of the Confederacy’s coastline.
Accordingly, the paddler, under the command of Commodore Melanchton Smith, was assigned to the Gulf Blockading Squadron. While stationed off Key West, Florida, Mississippi captured the blockade runner Forest King, loaded with coffee, on June 13, 1861. Detailed to the blockade of the Mississippi Delta, USS Mississippi along with USS Vincennes, captured the British bark Empress off the Northwest Pass of the Mississippi.
Capture of New Orleans
Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut intended to use his ocean-going, steam-powered warships to make a run up the river from the Head of Passes to capture New Orleans. Farragut’s squadron would have its hands full reaching the Crescent City as the flag officer had to pass forts St. Philip and Jackson (both strong masonry fortifications), as well as Confederate ironclads, wooden “cotton clad” gunboats, and fire rafts.
As Farragut began his attack in the early morning of April 24, he placed one of his favorite ships, USS Mississippi, 1st Division (Red) to help guide the 17- ship squadron past the forts and through the Confederate naval forces. The battle quickly erupted in all its fury as Farragut remembered it was “as if the artillery of heaven were playing upon the earth.”
The ironclad CSS Manassas tried to ram several vessels. While it missed those warships, Lieutenant Alexander Warley, commander of Manassas, took a course at Mississippi’s port paddle wheel which if successful, would have disabled the frigate.
Lieutenant George Dewey, later of Manila Bay fame, was at Mississippi’s wheel and maneuvered the paddler so adroitly that Manassas glanced off the frigate’s port quarter. Dewey looked down the side of his vessel as the ram steamed away. He saw that Manassas had ripped off the planking, leaving gleaming ends of copper bolts exposed, “cut as clean as if they were hair under a razor’s edge.” Manassas attempted to ram Hartford. However, it missed.
Farragut then hailed Commander Melanchton Smith of Mississippi “to run down that rascally ram.” Dewey quickly backed one wheel and drove forward the other, turned on its axis and sped toward Manassas. The Confederate ram was forced onto the riverbank where Mississippi riddled Manassas, leaving it helpless with smoke pouring out of a row of fresh punctures which appeared to be portholes. The ram then floated down the river in flames, later exploding. The battle was over in two hours. The Union fleet had only lost one gunboat.
One of Mississippi’s crew members, Christopher Brennan, was later awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions. Brennan was originally a seaman aboard USS Colorado, a screw frigate that was unable to cross the sandbar at the channel’s entrance. Brennan rose to the occasion and volunteered to serve aboard USS Mississippi. According to Melanchton Smith, he “was the life and soul” of the pivot gun’s crew.
Once the squadron reached New Orleans and accepted that city’s surrender on April 26, 1862, Farragut ascended the Mississippi River toward Vicksburg. Mississippi could not go with the fleet as its draft was too great. The paddler would remain in the vicinity of New Orleans until the river rose again in Spring 1863.
Last Days of USS Mississippi
In March 1863, Farragut was ordered to ascend the river and cooperate with Major General Nathaniel Banks to capture or reduce the Confederate fortifications at Port Hudson, Louisiana; and then, blockade the Red River in support of the Vicksburg Campaign. Port Hudson was a critical citadel, defending the 150-mile section of the Mississippi River still controlled by the Confederacy.
General P.G.T. Beauregard had suggested the construction of river defenses at Port Hudson and eventually, three batteries were constructed atop an 80-foot bluff as well as two batteries 40 feet below the bluff’s crest and one water battery. These batteries were mounted over 20 heavy guns. Port Hudson was situated on the west bank of a hairpin turn in the Mississippi River, 14 miles north of Baton Rouge. Major General Franklin Gardiner, a West Point graduate, commanded the Port Hudson position.
The Union plan was to send Banks with 17,000 men from Baton Rouge to create a diversion against Port Hudson’s land face simultaneously with Farragut’s fleet, passing the batteries on the morning of March 15, 1863. Admiral Farragut, who was promoted to rear admiral for his victory at New Orleans, planned his passage very carefully.
He decided to leave his mortar schooners and the ironclad USS Essex below Port Hudson and to shell the Confederate position as he passed them. The admiral decided to use only seven steamers in this operation. Each capital ship had anchor chains laid down their sides and machinery protected by sandbags as Farragut anticipated a fierce run through the Confederate gauntlet. He paired smaller steamers with the three large sloops and had the gunboats lashed to the port side (away from the forts) of the capital ships.
The flagship Hartford was paired with Albatross; Richmond with Genessee; and Monongahela was attached to Kineo. This technique was employed to help power the ships together against the tide, especially if one ship became disabled, as well as to help the vessels maneuver through the river’s tight hairpin turn to escape by the batteries.
USS Mississippi did not have a smaller ship lashed to it due to the frigate’s large paddle boxes.
Despite all this planned cooperation, on the afternoon of March 14, 1863, Farragut changed his mind and decided not to pass the batteries simultaneously with Banks’s assault against Port Hudson’s land-faced defenses on the morning of March 15. The admiral ordered his squadron to navigate the river’s bend in darkness rather than risk facing the Confederate batteries in daylight. This would prove to be a fateful decision.
USS Hartford began its move upriver at 10:00 p.m. Immediately, the Confederates fired signal rockets and lit pine bonfires on the western side of the river. Gunfire added to the scene, mixing white smoke with the bonfires and black coal smoke, making it difficult to see what to aim toward. Blinded by the dense smoke, Hartford ran aground with its consort for 10 minutes; yet, somehow, the crew worked the ship off the sandbar, making it past the gun emplacements by 12:15 a.m.
Unfortunately, the other warships were not successful and suffered greatly from Confederate shot, shell, and hot shot. As Richmond passed the water batteries, a breeze picked up and cleared the smoke away from the sloop, thereby exposing it to the Confederate batteries. The sloop was riddled, and a 32-pounder shot plunged through the deck, striking off the boiler’s safety valve. Richmond stopped dead in the water and was filled with steam; and Genessee lacked the power to move the sloop forward. Both vessels drifted back down river.
Monongahela and Kineo were next to attempt to pass; however, they ran aground on the western shore. The impact broke the ships apart and Kineo’s rudder post was shot away. Monongahela’s bridge was destroyed and its hull heavily damaged by shot and shell. As the engineers tied down safety valves and used cotton waste to produce more power, the sloop was able to pull itself off the sand bar, with Kineo’s help. This caused Monongahela’s engines to overheat and stop. Yet another disabled sloop floated back down river.
Now it was USS Mississippi’s turn to run the Port Hudson gauntlet. In the heavy smoke-filled darkness, Commander Melanchton Smith saw Richmond drifting down river; however, he could not see the whereabouts of Monongahela. Believing that Monongahela had steamed ahead caused by Richmond leaving the line ahead formation, he ordered his paddler to “go ahead fast” to close the supposed gap.
Mississippi almost made it past the last Confederate battery and took its final turn in the channel when it ran aground. Commander Smith and executive officer Lt. George Dewey struggled to free the frigate from the shoal for more than 35 minutes, but the cannon fire from Port Hudson’s batteries began to take its toll.
Several fires had broken out from the shelling. Accordingly, Smith ordered the steamer to be abandoned. Dewey organized the removal of the wounded as well as spiking Mississippi’s guns, disabling its machinery and setting additional fires to ensure that the paddler was destroyed. Smith and Dewey were able to get everyone off the steamer; however, USS Mississippi had suffered heavy casualties: 64 men killed. Once all the men were off the paddler, it became engulfed in flames. The men watched it burn and then slowly slide off the shoal and drift downstream, exploding in a horrific manner. The explosion could be heard 80 miles away in New Orleans.
Despite the number of crew members who were killed, 223 men were saved, and three members of the crew were awarded Medals of Honor for their heroic actions that smoke-shrouded, shell-pierced night. Sergeant Pinkerton Vaughan, USMC, rendered valuable service during the abandonment of Mississippi. Melanchton Smith noted that Vaughan remained with the ship until all the crew had been removed. “Persistent until the last, and conspicuously cool under heavy shellfire,” Smith reported, Sgt. Vaughan was finally ordered “to save himself as he saw fit.”
Likewise, Seaman Andrew Brown remained on board the grounded vessel until all the abandoning crew had landed on shore. He then asked to be assigned another duty until ordered by Lt. Dewey “to leave the ship.” Boatswain’s Mate Peter Howard served courageously, keeping up Mississippi’s return fire against the Port Hudson batteries during the long and desperate efforts to free the grounded paddler. Howard’s gallantry earned him a promotion a few months later to the rank of acting ensign.
Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut lamented the loss of the old paddler; yet, he believed blockading the Red River was “worth to us the loss of the Mississippi.” USS Mississippi had been in service for more than two decades and its loss was yet another sad casualty of this conflict between the states. Nevertheless, Mississippi was the foundation of the modern steam-powered Navy.
An Outstanding Service Record
Constructed under the careful guidance of Matthew Calbraith Perry, the side-wheeler Mississippi was outdated almost as soon as it was launched; yet, it still achieved much on behalf of the nation. Mississippi’s laurels included: service during the Mexican War, opening Japan to American trade, and active support of Great Britain during the 2nd Opium War. These actions made the paddler famous and the frigate continued its outstanding service during the American Civil War. It was the first wooden warship to sink an ironclad, a distinction achieved during the capture of New Orleans when the paddler destroyed the ram CSS Manassas. Lost during a fierce engagement with Confederate shore batteries, Mississippi’s impressive 22-year service echoed the initial emergence of the United States as a world naval power.
Merk, Frederick, History of the Westward Expansion Movement. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.
Miller, Robert J. Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006.
Quarstein, John V. History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron Over Wood. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2006.
For more about the Capture of New Orleans, please visit John’s blog: