Friday, August 21, 2020

Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence


Celebrate the centennial of women's suffrage in the U.S. with "Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence!" The story of women's suffrage is a story of voting rights, of inclusion in and exclusion from the franchise, and of our civic development as a nation. "Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence," a poster exhibit from the Smithsonian, celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment and explores the complexity of the women's suffrage movement and the relevance of this history to Americans' lives today. "Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence" is organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery. The project received support from the Smithsonian American History Initiative.

Friday, August 7, 2020

"I Christen Thee...." The History and Traditions of Ship Launching

Currently on exhibit in the Saginaw Gallery

A ship launching ceremony is a naval tradition dating back thousands of years. It is both a public celebration and a solemn blessing. Many ancient seafaring societies had rituals for launching a new ship. The Greeks poured water on the new vessel to bless it. The Babylonians sacrificed oxen and the Vikings offered up human blood. In the Middle Ages, monks would board ships before their maiden voyage to pray, lay their hands on the masts and sprinkle holy water on the deck and bow. 

After the Reformation in Europe a secular ceremony of drinking wine from a goblet, usually made of precious metal, and solemnly calling the ship by her name became the norm. The presiding official would then pour what was left on the deck and bow and then toss the cup over the side of the vessel.

 Ship christening in the United States borrowed from the English tradition. The launch of USS Constitution in 1797 included the captain breaking a bottle of Madeira wine on its bow. Other spirits also have been used, the USS Princeton, Raritan and Shamrock were all launched with whiskey. 

One of the first known instances of champagne being used to christen a ship was in 1890 with the launching of the USS Maine. In 1891 when Queen Victoria launched HMS Royal Arthur she also smashed a bottle of champagne against its bow and a long standing tradition was born. 

The battleship  California  launched from Mare Island appropriately received her name with a bottle of California wine in 1919. However, during Prohibition, water was often used to launch a ship – usually water from the sea the vessel was to be launched into. After the passage of the 21st amendment and repeal of Prohibition, champagne once again became the beverage of choice to toast a new vessel. 

USS Trepang Christening Bottle. The silver case that holds the traditional champagne bottle is perforated with small stars, allowing the champagne to spray out while keeping the broken glass inside.

Wet or Dry? Launching a Ship during Prohibition

In September 1920 Mare Island laid the keel of its second battleship, to be named USS Montana. At that time, Prohibition had become the law of the land. But how to launch a ship without a bottle of champagne? Some shipyards adopted the practice of smashing a bottle of water across the bow. “Not so fast!” declared the Governor of Montana. Any ship named for his state would be christened in the traditional way. To guarantee that would happen, the Governor sent a bottle of champagne to Mare Island from his private cellar.

Meanwhile, disarmament treaties following WWI brought a halt to construction of USS Montana. The partially-built ship was scrapped but the unused christening bottle remains intact a century later.

  Unused christening bottle from USS Montana

Christening Bottle from USS Colhoun and Pin from the Society of Sponsors

This christening bottle was a “back-up’ provided to the ship’s sponsor in case anything happened to the main christening bottle. The pin was given to all ship’s sponsors. USS Colhoun was launched in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1918 and was named for Commodore Edmund Ross Colhoun, shipyard commander at Mare Island from 1877 to 1881. 

Christening of the USS Mariano G. Vallejo in 1965. The sponsor was Patricia Vallejo McGettigan, General Vallejo's great-great granddaughter

Saturday, July 14, 2018

FDR Visits Mare Island, 1938

   Eighty years ago today, on July 14, 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Vallejo and Mare Island. It was Roosevelt's first visit as President, though he had visited in 1914 and 1920, when he was still Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt's visit was part of a two-week whirlwind tour of West Coast military installations.
Roosevelt's motorcade crosses the causeway to Mare Island
   Roosevelt arrived by train in Crockett and traveled by car through Vallejo, where the streets were lined with thousands of well-wishers. During his visit to Mare Island, the President was accompanied by Congressman Frank Buck of Vacaville, California Governor Frank Merriam, and Senator William Gibbs McAdoo. Interestingly, the Vallejo Times Herald made scant mention of Governor Merriam, who was a Republican. The newspaper, and most of Vallejo, were staunchly Democratic at that time.
    Congressman Buck relayed Roosevelt's impressions of his visit in an interview with the Times Herald: "The President was visibly impressed with the reception given him at Vallejo and Mare Island and expressed keen pleasure and amazement at the growth of the yard that he has not visited since 1920" Congressman Buck said.
Roosevelt's car stopped at Alden Park on Mare Island. Congressman Frank Buck is seated to Roosevelt's left. Governor Frank Merriam and Senator William Gibbs McAdoo are in the seat behind Roosevelt.
    "He rated the causeway as a big improvement, remarking on the difference over the old wooden piling."
   "During the drive through the yard to the Administration Building President Roosevelt said that he recognized faces of several men hw had known as leadingmen and masters on former visits to Mare Island."
   "When we entered Vallejo the President was impressed with the growth of the city and wanted to know if 'this is really the city limits of Vallejo.' When I informed him that it was he pointed out that it has grown considerably since he last visited here."
   "The President told me," Buck said, "that he deeply appreciates the reception by Vallejoans and was glad that he had followed the suggestion for a visit to Mare Island and Vallejo."
    "Times-Herald publisher (and future state senator) Luther Gibson also accompanied the presidential party. "Yesterday I enjoyed the greatest experience of my entire lifetime," Gibson said. "It was one I will always remember; one I never dreamed would be mine. To be part of the caravan that escorted the President of the United States through Vallejo and Mare Island and on to Treasure Island and San Francisco - all this I never believed would happen to me."
   "Vallejo did great credit to herself," Gibson continued. "The great masses of our people lining our streets, cheering and waving American flags, surely convinced our President that we are solidly behind him in his efforts to make our country a better place to live in."
   "It was a great thrill to be in his caravan, with Congressman Buck and the other Vallejo representatives. To actually ride for many miles with the President, see the many crowded streets and cheering throngs, was an inspiring experience."
   Roosevelt would make one more visit to Mare Island in 1942.
FDR shares a smile with shipyard commander  RADM David Worth Bagley and an unidentified woman.

Friday, May 25, 2018

A Civil War Spy in Vallejo

The U.S. Civil War divided the loyalties of countless Americans, turning neighbor against neighbor and family member against family member. Actress Pauline Cushman refused to allow the War to keep her from practicing her profession on stages throughout the South, despite having lived much of her life in the North. Cushman publicly professed her loyalty to Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, while at the same time she was discreetly gathering information and intelligence that she turned over to Union military officials. In recognition of her clandestine efforts for the Union cause she was made a brevet major by General (later President) James A. Garfield. President Lincoln subsequently named her an honorary major. After the War, Cushman supported herself in part by embarking on a speaking tour, which brought her to Vallejo in January of 1873. The Vallejo Evening Chronicle of January 10, 1873 announced her lecture as follows:

LECTURE TONIGHT – “The lecture of Miss Major Pauline Cushman, at Farragut Hall, comes off this evening. The lecturess will give a history of her career during the war of the Rebellion; narrating the hardships and perils which she underwent in the service of her country. Miss Cushman although a Southron, born and bred, having been matured and educated in New Orleans, the hot-bed of secession, proclaimed her allegiance to the Old Flag at the outbreak of the war. In the capacity of a scout, combining with her woman’s wit, a masculine fearlessness and intrepidity, she rendered important assistance to the army of the Union. Miss Cushman has the reputation of being a fluent and pleasing speaker; her lecture tonight can hardly fail to draw a full house.”

The following day the Evening Chronicle recapped the highlights of her program:

Miss Major Cushman - Reminiscences of the War

Farragut Hall
“The lecture of Miss Major Cushman at Farragut Hall, Friday evening, was not as largely attended as might have been desired. The dull times and bad traveling were in a great measure responsible for the slimness of the audience. The lecturess is very prepossing [sic] in appearance, and is about thirty years of age. In her introductory remarks she explained the reasons which had induced her to enter the lecture field. She had purchased a piece of property in Chicago, after the close of the war, and it had been swept away by the great conflagration. She was thus left without any means of support, and necessity had dictated her action. The speaker then carried her audience back to the time when she was an actress upon the boards of a Nashville theatre. This was at the earlier portion of the war. The city was under martial law, and General Boyle was the commander of the Post. As her relations were all Secessionist, one of her brothers being a colonel in the Rebel army, Miss Cushman was from the first supposed by the Rebels to be a sympathizer with the Southern cause. She detailed the circumstances which lead to her entering the secret service of the Federal army, at the request of General Boyle. Of her drinking a toast, at a preconcerted arrangement with the General, to Jeff Davis and the Southern Confederacy, on the stage; of her mock arrest by General Boyle; of her release; of her discharge by the manager of the theatre, who although an excellent Rebel himself, had too much regard for his own interests to keep in his theatre, a person, who he thought, might bring him into difficulty with the authorities. The lecturess detailed the consummation of the plot between herself and the General. How she was expelled beyond the Union lines, and sought her friends in the South as a refugee. She spoke of visiting Hillsboro and Libby prisons, and the lecturess detailed with great pathos and feeling, the sufferings of the poor Boys in Blue in those loathsome and horrible places. Her final arrest on suspicion, by the Rebel authorities, and her long journey down to Hamilton, Georgia, under the custody of the noted guerilla Morgan, were spoken of. Miss Cushman speaks of Morgan as a man of much suavity of demeanor, and says that he treated her with the greatest courtesy while she was under his charge.

John Hunt Morgan

The “damning proofs” of Miss Cushman’s real character were soon discovered. The plans of Rebel fortifications which she had placed within the heel of her shoe, were discovered, and she was condemned to be hung. She asked to be shot instead. But the authorities were inexorable; she had been convicted of being a spy and must die a spy’s death. She was then in Nashville, Tenn. The hardships and privations which she had undergone during her captivity had had their effect upon her frame, and she was lying upon her bed, sick almost unto death. Even the cruelty of the Rebels could not permit the execution of a woman in such a condition, and so the enforcement of the death sentence was postponed. But the hour of her deliverance had now arrived. A forward movement was made by the Union Army, Bragg was sent flying from Nashville, and the gallant heroine was saved. The lecturess spoke of afterward seeing Morgan while confined in the Columbus penitentiary. How he recognized her and said that “the boot had been placed on the other foot” since they last met. “But,” said he, “I am only going to stay here a few days.” He told the truth, for a few days after, the daring and wonderful escape of the guerilla from prison was announced. Miss Cushman spoke for over an hour, and during that period enlisted the fullest attention and interest. She is a very prepossessing speaker and has a most pleasing address. The masculine boldness so disagreeably conspicuous in many lecturesses, is with her, lacking. She is a true woman having all the gentleness and modesty which characterizes true femininity. Miss Cushman, we understand, is a sister of the late Charlotte Cushman, the famous tragedienne. This is the first lecture which the speaker has delivered in this State and her second on this Slope, she having lectured at Virginia City shortly before her arrival in Vallejo.”

Cushman’s post-Civil War life was not an easy one. Married three times, she was widowed twice and divorced once. She also had three children, two of whom were raised by other family members. The third, an adopted daughter, died in childhood. In addition to lecturing, she briefly operated a hotel in Casa Grande, Arizona. Later, nearly destitute, she moved to San Francisco where she worked menial jobs. Ill health and arthritis brought on an addiction to morphine, and Cushman died of an overdose in San Francisco on December 2, 1893 at age 60. She is buried, under her married name Pauline Fryer, in the Presidio of San Francisco.