Rhode Island (and especially East Greenwich, RI) is justifiably proud of its reputation as the birthplace of the American Navy. On June 12, 1772, the General Assembly created the first formal colonial navy by authorizing two vessels, the flagship Katy and the gunboat Washington and placed them under the command of Captain (later Commodore) Abraham Whipple. On June 15, 1775, Whipple and the men of the Katy captured the tender to the notorious HMS Rose off Jamestown, RI. The Katy would be taken into the Continental Navy when it was established in 1775 and renamed Providence. But it was not until the American Civil War, that the Ocean State would have a warship named in its honor. The tradition has continued into the 21st century… and maybe beyond.
The first ship to bear the name Rhode Island was a side-wheeler, built in New York as the commercial steamship John P. King. She was launched in 1860 and soon after was serious damaged by fire. Rebuilt and renamed Eagle, she was purchased by the Navy in June of 1861 and commissioned USS Rhode Island. She served primarily as a supply ship operating out of various ports on the East Coast (she also called in her namesake state visiting Newport, RI). She did engage and capture the Confederate blockade runner Venus and later caused a British contraband carrier ashore in 1862.
But, Rhode Island entered the history books in December of 1862. She had been ordered to tow the USS Monitor from Virginia to North Carolina. On the night of December 31, the two ships ran into stormy seas. The low-freeboard Monitor quickly began to take on water. The crew could not control the flooding with pumps and the vessel foundered and sank, taking 12 sailors and four officers to their deaths. The crew of the Rhode Island was credited with saving 47 men including the Monitor’s captain, John Bankhead, the last man off the sinking warship. The Monitor lay in her watery grave until August of 1973 when she was found. Over the next decades, a combination of government and private organizations worked to recover artifacts. Portions of the ship have undergone extensive conservation efforts, which continue. The remains of several of the crew were interred at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors in 2013. But what of the Rhode Island?
Several of the Rhode Island’s crew were awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor in the incident. After the loss of the Monitor, the 236-foot Rhode Island was converted to an auxiliary cruiser and armed with one 11-inch and eight 8-inch guns, a 30-pound Parrot rifle and a 12-pounder rifle. She went on to serve out the war along the Atlantic Coast, capturing another blockade runner in 1864 and taking part in the naval assault on Fort Fisher in 1865. In 1867, she was decommissioned and returned to commercial service as the SS Charleston and was finally abandoned in 1885.
The second warship to bear the name USS Rhode Island (BB-17), was a state-of-the-art battleship launched at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1904. At her launching, she ran aground in a mud bank and it took two days to free her. She was commissioned on February 19, 1906 in time to participate in the round-the-world cruise of the Great White Fleet. The 16-thousand ton Rhode Island, manned by a crew of 812, carried four 12-inch guns in twin fore and aft turrets and eight 8-inch guns. She also carried a number of smaller caliber guns for close-in defense and, typical of battleship design of the times, carried four 21-inch submerged torpedo tubes. She could achieve a top speed of 19 knots from her twin, triple expansion steam engines that generated 19-thousand horsepower to her twin screws. Although she was launched with heavy masts, these were replaced with the familiar cage masts of the pre-World War II battleships.
She spent the bulk of her service life in the Atlantic Fleet in training activities and was sent to the Caribbean on two occasions between 1914 and 1916 to show the flag during the Mexican Revolution. Rhode Island served in anti-submarine patrols along the Atlantic coastline during World War I. At the end of hostilities, she brought home more than five thousand American troops in five crossings from Europe. She was briefly transferred to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet in 1919, before being decommissioned a year later. Rhode Island fell victim to the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1923 and was sold for scrap on November of that year. Her ship’s bell remains on display at the Rhode Island State House.
No capital ship bore the name of the Ocean State in World War II, and it was not until July 9, 1994 that the Navy commissioned an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine as USS Rhode Island (SSBN-740). At 16-thousand tons and built at Electric Boat, she displaces as much as her early 20th century battleship namesake and 560 feet in length is over a hundred feet longer. She carries Mk48 torpedoes and is armed with 24 Trident II ballistic missiles. Also, Stephen Colbert made the submarine the official vessel of his satirical television show back in 2007 after the crew sent him photos of a “Colbert Nation” poster taken in various (unclassified) areas of the sub (one of the ship’s crew was engaged to Colbert’s cousin).
During her service, Rhode Island has earned a coveted Battle “E” for Submarine Squadron 20 and the Omaha Trophy for superior performance and Fleet standards in strategic deterrence. She underwent nuclear refueling and modernization in 2018. In 2019, she launched an unarmed Trident II off Cape Canaveral, marking the 172nd consecutive successful submarine-launching of a ballistic (SBLM) test flight. Rhode Island is currently home-ported at the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia.
But what will the future hold? Here, imagination takes over. Now that the United States military has a Space Force, maybe there will be a futuristic vessel named in our state’s honor. At least, that was the thinking of creative minds in Hollywood.
Meet the starship USS Rhode Island NCC-72701. Back in 2001, in the 7th season of the series “Star Trek: Voyager” titled “Endgame” (the series finale), viewers were introduced to the Nova-class science ship Rhode Island. According to her fictional biography, she entered service in the year 2409 and was armed with phasers and photon torpedoes (even though she was a science ship, things were wild and wooly in outer space).
She was also the first of her class to be equipped with a photonic displacer module, capable of generating a holographic sensor decoy to fool enemy craft. Rhode Island was also capable of modifying its hull appearance to further stymie opponents. All of that seems to question where her role as a science vessel ended and as a warcraft began. But, that is up to the imagination of science fiction writers, and besides, one really doesn’t have to be concerned for another four centuries or so.
Join the Varnum Continentals for $50!
At only $50 per person annually, membership keeps you in the Varnum loop and supports our efforts to preserve U.S. history and educate the public. Members get a monthly newsletter and can also attend our monthly dinner programs that feature authoritative and engaging speakers on historic and military topics. CLICK HERE TO JOIN NOW!