Tallahassee on the High Seas

The USS Tallahassee was the only U.S. Navy ship named for Florida’s capital city

Tallahassee on the High SeasShips Named for Florida’s Capital City Were Few, But They Played Their Roles Well in Peace and War 

By Jason Dehart

In the lobby of the Museum of Florida History, there is a glass-encased model of the USS Florida, representing a 21,825-ton juggernaut of a battleship commissioned in 1911. The sixth U.S. vessel to be so named, the Florida was one of the largest battleships in the world, and carried an impressive armament of 10 12-inch main guns mounted on five twin turrets. The ship crewed 1,000 men and served in World War I. Never defeated in war, the old battlewagon was destined nevertheless for oblivion in the wake of the London Naval Treaty of 1930, which limited military shipbuilding. The Florida was scrapped in the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1932.

In the old days of the early 20th-century Navy, battleships were named after states. But the battleship Florida actually got its name from an old “Arkansas”-class vessel (known as a “monitor”) that was commissioned in 1903. In 1908, the former Florida would be renamed the Tallahassee.

The monitor class originated during the Civil War with the USS Monitor, the Union’s first ironclad warship. It displaced 987 tons and was 172 feet long. It had a crew of 47 and was armed with two 11-inch, smoothbore, muzzle-loading cannon housed within an innovative rotating turret. The ship had no masts, no sails and no smokestacks. Its flat profile was interrupted only by a small box-like pilothouse and the huge round turret, placed amidships.

The Monitor was the shape of things to come, and its low-profile design would be reflected in the Florida some 40 years later. Unlike its 1860s predecessor, however, the 252-foot monitor Florida displaced 3,225 tons, carried a pair of 12-inch, breech-loading guns in a single turret forward the bridge, and had a crew of 220.

A New Monitor Ships Out
According to the Naval Historical Center, the hull for Monitor No. 9 was laid down in January 1899 at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, N.J., by the Lewis Nixon ship works company. It was launched in 1901 and commissioned the USS Florida in June 1903.

Once assigned to the Coast Squadron, the Florida left the New York Navy Yard in February 1904. That spring, it got in some target practice time in Pensacola before heading back east to South Carolina, Virginia and finally Annapolis, Md., where the Florida arrived in May to embark on its first midshipman training cruise.

The Florida conducted other training cruises in 1905 and 1906. It was viewed by President Theodore Roosevelt during the 1906 Presidential Naval Review on Long Island’s Oyster Bay.

Shortly after that, the Florida was placed in reserve at the Naval Academy as a practice ship for young sailors and officers. That duty ended in December 1906, and it was next assigned to ordnance testing off Hampton Roads, Va., in March 1907.

During this time, the first “all-big-gun” battleships with stepped gun turrets were being built. Navy officials were curious as to how a gun crew in a lower turret would be affected when the big guns in the turret above them were fired. In two tests carried out in Hampton Roads, a 12-inch gun was fired over the Florida’s turret.

The tests proved that it was a crew-safe configuration.

The Name Changes
The Florida was placed back on full commission status in June 1907 at the Naval Academy and completed its fourth midshipman cruise that summer. The old monitor went in and out of active commission but continued to conduct training cruises and ordnance testing until June 1908, at which point the Florida was renamed the USS Tallahassee. The old name would be given to a new battleship, now shown in the model at the Museum of Florida History.

After receiving its new name, the Tallahassee continued its job of testing ordnance and gunnery practice off the Virginia and Maryland coasts. In 1914 it was sent to the navy yard at Norfolk, where it was converted into a submarine tender. In 1915 the Tallahassee was assigned to Division 1, Submarine Flotilla, Atlantic Fleet, and was stationed off Panama and the Panama Canal Zone, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In 1917 it was assigned defense duties at the Panama Canal. In World War I, it tended submarines in the canal zone, the Virgin Islands and Bermuda. It went through a period of decommissioning and recommissioning before receiving its final decommission in March 1922. The Tallahassee subsequently was sold to the Ammunition Products Corporation of Washington, D.C.

The USS Tallahassee was the only ship in the U.S. Navy to carry that name. One other ship, a light cruiser, was temporarily given the name in 1941 before being reconfigured into a light aircraft carrier and given a new name, USS Princeton, in 1942. The hull of another Tallahassee was laid in 1944, but its contract was canceled and the hull scrapped with the coming end of World War II.

A Tallahassee Raider
As warships go, the USS Tallahassee had a rather prosaic career in the Navy. But during the Civil War, the Confederate commerce raider CSS Tallahassee struck terror in the heart of the U.S. merchant marine fleet.

Built in England and used initially as a ferry, the CSS Tallahassee was a sleek, coal-powered, twin-screw, metal-hulled cruiser that could make upwards of 20 knots – one of the fastest ships of its day.

Right after war broke out in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln decided to force the South into submission by blockading its ports, with the objective of preventing war supplies and other necessities from reaching the Southern people.

To counter this stranglehold, the South employed fast blockade runners to carry cargo, and commerce raiders to attack Union shipping (while avoiding warships as much as possible).

Notable Confederate commerce raiders included the CSS Alabama and the CSS Florida. The CSS Tallahassee entered service as a Confederate commerce raider in the summer of 1864 after having had a successful private career as a blockade runner under the name Atlanta. It was 200 feet long, and its great speed was due to two 100-horsepower engines.

Commander John Taylor Wood captained the Tallahassee on its inaugural cruise as a commerce raider. Wood was a Naval Academy graduate and nephew of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He had previously served onboard the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia during its historic fight with the Union’s ironclad, USS Monitor, off Hampton Roads in 1862. The two heavily armored ships, the first of their kind, fought to a draw and proved that wooden-hulled warships were a thing of the past.

Although named after a Florida city, the Confederate raider Tallahassee was not berthed anywhere in Florida. Its homeport was Wilmington, N.C., one of only two ports left open to the South in the late war years. After it was purchased from private owners while under the name Atlanta, it was armed with three cannon, renamed the Tallahassee and set out to sea on Aug. 6, 1864.

After escaping pursuit by four Union ships, Commander Wood and his crew set their sights on Union merchant ships plying the waters of the Atlantic Coast. In a daring 19-day raid that took the ship as far north as Maine, the Tallahassee destroyed 26 vessels and captured seven others.

The Tallahassee seemed to have a knack for escaping from Union gunboats. During a coaling and repair stop at George’s Island near Halifax, Nova Scotia, several Union ships arrived and lay in wait outside the neutral harbor where the Confederate raider was holed up. Once the Tallahassee was refueled, a local harbor pilot helped guide the big ship through a dangerously narrow and meandering channel called the East Passage. The Tallahassee slipped past the waiting Union ships in the dead of night and safely returned to Wilmington, where it was refitted and renamed the Olustee, in honor of Florida’s biggest land battle of the Civil War. It made one more cruise – this time under the command of one of Wood’s junior officers – that resulted in the destruction of six more U.S. vessels.

Today, no Navy ships are named after Florida’s capital city, but the state name carries on under the waves in the guise of the modern guided missile submarine USS Florida, stationed just north of Amelia Island in Kings Bay, Ga.

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