Elliott: The Short Life of the USS Chattanooga

An old photograph of the USS Chattanooga is displayed next to a bell from the ship, stamped with a date of 1904, on display at the National Medal of Honor Museum at Northgate Mall.

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March 8, 1903, was a gray day in the yards of the Crescent Shipbuilding Co. in Elizabethport, N.J.

But it was, in the words of the correspondent of The New York Times, "a Southern day," not as to its weather, but "a Southern day of sentiment, for there were not songs but the songs of the South, the women were of the Southern kind, and the accent was of the South."

The governor of Tennessee, Chattanooga's own James B. Frazier, Sens. William B. Bate and Edward Carmack, joined the mayor of Chattanooga, A. W. Chambliss, his wife Lillian, and their 12-year-old daughter, Lillian, to launch the U.S. Navy's latest cruiser, the USS Chattanooga (C-16). Young Lillian shattered a bottle of Mumm's champagne on the white bow of the cruiser, and pronounced its name. Then the Stars and Stripes were raised over the vessel to the incongruous strains of "Dixie."

According to the website Navalwarfare.blogspot.com, the Chattanooga was the third of six Denver class "protected cruisers," ships that possessed armor protection on their main decks but not on their sides. The ships were slow and lightly-armed and were never meant for fleet actions. They were used to establish a presence in distant waters with little support. Accordingly, they were actually furnished with sails to extend their cruising range and had large coal bunkers, which increased their range and endurance. Their steel hulls were sheathed with pine and coppered for long service in tropical climes and they had roomy, well-ventilated quarters for their crews to ease the discomfort of sailing in hot climates.

Like the other members of its class, the Chattanooga had a two-and-a-half-inch-thick armored deck and was armed with 10 five-inch rapid-fire guns. About 308 feet long and 44 feet wide, she had a top speed of 16 knots, a crew of 339 officers and men, and was constructed at a cost of a little more than $1 million.

The Chattanooga was placed into service the next year and was attached to the Atlantic Fleet. Initially going to the Caribbean, the ship was one of 11 U.S. Navy ships that escorted the body of John Paul Jones from France for reburial at Annapolis.

She had a role in the ending of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, when she transported the Russian envoys to the conference at Oyster Bay, N.Y. The next five years saw duty in the Far East with the Asiatic Fleet, but in 1910 the relatively new cruiser was posted to Bremerton, Wash., and placed in reserve.

In 1914, with war clouds in Europe and troubles in Mexico, the ship was placed back into service. It spent time in Mexican waters, and after the United States entered World War I, was primarily engaged in escorting convoys to European waters. The vessel remained in service until 1921, when it was again decommissioned. It was eventually scrapped in 1930.

Vestiges of the cruiser Chattanooga remain today. Recently the ship's bell was located in Shelbyville and brought here. Carved mahogany headboards from the ship are in the city's possession. The ship's flag was donated to the public library in January 1940, but currently cannot be found, nor can the logbook. The ship's silver service was presented by Chattanoogans of over 100 years ago and is apparently in a Navy archive.

The Navy's method for naming ships was first established by Theodore Roosevelt. A cruiser was named for Chattanooga because, as was the case until the latter decades of the 20th century, cruisers were named for American cities.

Now the new ships that are being built and named for American cities are the newly conceived littoral combat ships (LCS). The LCS is a fast, highly maneuverable surface combat ship, designed to satisfy the urgent requirement for shallow draft vessels to operate in the littoral (coastal waters) to counter growing potential 'asymmetric' threats of coastal mines, quiet diesel submarines and the potential to carry explosives and terrorists on small, fast, armed boats.

It has been appropriately suggested that a new Chattanooga be named to honor the five service members killed in the terrorist attack of July 16, 2015.

Sam D. Elliott is a member of the law firm of Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott and Cannon. A past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and the Chattanooga Bar Association, he is the author or editor of several books and articles on Tennessee in the Civil War era. For more For more, visit Chattahistoricaassoc.org.