Hard Aground

The Wreck of the USS Tennessee and the Rise of the U.S. Navy

Hard Aground brings together three intertwined stories documenting the US Navy’s strategic and matériel evolution from the end of Civil War through the First World War. These incidents had lasting consequences for how the navy would modernize itself throughout the rest of the twentieth century.

The first story focuses on the reconstruction of the US Navy following the swift and near-total dismantling of the Union Navy infrastructure after the Civil War. This reconstruction began with barely enough time for the navy’s campaigns in the Spanish-American War, and for its role in the First World War. Jampoler argues that the federal government discovered that the fleet requested by the navy, and paid for by Congress, was the wrong fleet. Focus was on battleships and cruisers rather than destroyers and other small combat vessels needed to hunt submarines and serve as convoy escorts.

The second story relates the short, tragic life of the USS Tennessee (later renamed Memphis), one of the steel-hulled ships of the new Armored Cruiser Squadron that was a centerpiece of the navy’s modernization effort. The USS Tennessee was ordered on two unusual missions in the early months of the First World War, long before the United States formally entered the war. These little-known missions and the ship’s shocking destruction in a storm surge in the Caribbean serve as the centerpiece of the story. Threaded through the narrative are biographical sketches of the principal players in the drama that unfolded following the ship’s demise, including two of Tennessee’s commanding officers: Vice Admiral Sims, who commanded the US Navy squadrons deployed to Europe in support of the Royal Navy; Rear Admiral William Caperton, who commanded the Caribbean squadron before the Memphis (formerly the Tennessee) was lost; Charles Pond, squadron commander during the wreck; and the American ambassador to the Ottoman court, President Wilson’s enthusiastic supporter, Henry Morgenthau.

Jampoler rounds out this fascinating account with the story of how the USS Tennessee’s destruction prompted fierce deliberations about the US Navy’s operations and chains of command for the remainder of the First World War and the high-level political wrangling inside the Department of the Navy immediately after the war, as civilian appointees and senior officers wrestled to reshape the department in their image.