You Gotta Know These American Warships
The following list of nine American warships includes eight of the most important or interesting ships in the U.S. Navy, as well as one from the navy of the Confederate States of America. Though there are some ships that were more involved in battle, these mark significant advancements in naval technology or turning points in U.S. history; most importantly, they are the ships that come up most frequently in quiz bowl.
- USS Constitution Better known as “Old Ironsides,” the Constitution was one of the first six ships commissioned by the U.S. Navy after the American Revolution. Launched from Boston in 1797, the Constitution first saw action as the squadron flagship in the Quasi-War with France from 1799–1801 and also fought in the Barbary War and the War of 1812. She later served many years as the nation’s flagship in the Mediterranean. Retired from active duty in 1846, the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides” saved her from the scrap yard—she became the training ship of the U.S. Naval Academy until the mid-1880s. She became the symbolic flagship of the U.S. Navy in 1940 and is now a floating museum in Boston.
- USS Chesapeake The USS Chesapeake was built at what is now the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, between 1798 and 1799. The Chesapeake was attacked by the British Leopard off Cape Henry in 1807 (which led to the duel between Commodores James Barron and Stephen Decatur), one of the causes of the War of 1812. She was captured off Boston in 1813 by the British frigate Shannon, on which occasion her commander, Captain James Lawrence, uttered his celebrated dying words, “Don’t give up the ship,” which have become a tradition in the U.S. Navy.
- USS Lawrence/USS Niagara Oliver Hazard Perry’s decisive victory over the British fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813 ensured American control of the Great Lakes during the War of 1812. In the battle, Perry’s flagship, the USS Lawrence, was severely damaged and four-fifths of her crew killed or wounded. Commodore Perry and a small contingent rowed a half-mile through heavy gunfire to another American ship, the USS Niagara. Boarding and taking command, he brought her into battle and soundly defeated the British fleet. Perry summarized the fight in a now-famous message to General William Henry Harrison: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
- USS Monitor/CSS Virginia, also known as the USS Merrimack After departing Union forces burned the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk in April 1861, yard workers salvaged the USS Merrimack and converted her into the ironclad CSS Virginia. On March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia left the shipyard and sank two Union warships in Hampton Roads. The South’s ironclad rammed and sank the USS Cumberland and set fire to and sank the USS Congress. The Monitor was sent to end its rampage and the two ironclads battled for 3½ hours before the Virginia ran aground in its attempt to ram the USS Minnesota. Visibly damaged, the Virginia retreated and the Monitor withdrew to protect the Minnesota. The Confederates destroyed the Virginia soon after to prevent her capture by Union forces. The Monitor, victorious in her first battle, sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The shipwreck is a national underwater sanctuary under the purview of the NOAA.
- USS Maine (ACR–1) [Second class] The first Maine, a second-class armored battleship, was launched in 1889. A part of the “Great White Fleet,” in 1897 the Maine sailed for Havana to show the flag and protect American citizens. Shortly after 9:40 pm on February 15, 1898, the battleship was torn apart by a tremendous explosion. The court of inquiry convened in March was unable to obtain evidence associating the blast with any person or persons, but public opinion—inflamed by “yellow journalism”—was such that the Maine disaster led to the declaration of war on Spain on April 21, 1898.
- USS Arizona (BB–39) [Pennsylvania class] A lead ship of the honor escort for President Wilson’s trip to France in 1918, she was on Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor when Japanese aircraft appeared just before 8:00 am on Sunday, December 7, 1941. The Arizona came under attack almost immediately, and at about 8:10 was hit by an 800-kilogram bomb just forward of turret two on the starboard side. Within a few seconds the forward powder magazines exploded, killing 1,177 of the crew, and the ship sank to the bottom of the harbor. In 1962 the USS Arizona memorial opened and is now administered by the National Park Service.
- USS Missouri (BB–63) [Iowa class] The fourth USS Missouri was the last battleship completed by the United States; she was laid down January 6, 1941 by New York Naval Shipyard. The Missouri was launched on January 29, 1944 and received her sponsorship from Miss Margaret Truman, daughter of the then-Missouri Senator, Harry S. Truman. Commissioned on June 11, 1944, the “Mighty Mo,” as she became known, sailed for the Pacific and quickly became the flagship of Admiral Halsey, which is why she was chosen as the site of the formal surrender of the Empire of Japan on the morning of September 1, 1945.
- USS Nautilus (SSN–571) [Nautilus class] In 1951 Congress authorized construction of the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. On December 12 of that year, the Navy Department announced that she would be the sixth ship of the fleet to bear the name Nautilus. She was launched on January 21, 1954. Eight months later, on September 30, 1954, the Nautilus became the first commissioned nuclear-powered ship in the U.S. Navy. On the morning of January 17, 1955, Nautilus’ Commander Wilkinson signaled “Underway on Nuclear Power.” In 1958 she departed Pearl Harbor under top-secret orders to conduct “Operation Sunshine,” the first crossing of the North Pole by a ship.