Introduction: Commemoration Versus Historic Preservation
“History is serious business and we have an obligation to confront the complex and difficult chapters of our past.” Stephanie Meeks, President, National Trust for Historic Preservation
With the recent “Alt-Right” KKK, and neo-nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia there has been a flurry of removal of Confederate monuments across the United States and not only that, it has inspired similar movements across the world in the UK, Canada, and Australia. The biggest example being in Baltimore, Maryland where Confederate statues and that of Roger B. Taney (pronounced Tawnee) were removed in the dead of night on August 16, and 18, 2017. Rightly so, being that Maryland was never allied with the Confederacy during the Civil War and considering that some Confederate memorials went hand in hand with the enforcement of Jim Crow Laws. In light of all of these recent events, another piece of history preserved in Baltimore Harbor has been unfairly accused by a few as a monument to white supremacy (See link in sources) the Museum ship USCGC Taney (WHEC-37) (pronounced Taynee). Which was initially named for Roger B. Taney, who infamously presided over the Dred Scott V. Sanford case which decided that African Americans could not be considered US Citizens. Although the vessel has an infamous namesake, it was not built nor preserved to commemorate Roger B. Taney, white supremacy, or his landmark decision. What this blog is going to explore is why the ship received such a name and how this ship and its crew has overcome her namesake.
The Historical Taney
The roots of the modern US Coast Guard lie in the former US Revenue Cutter Service established in 1790. The Revenue Cutter Service was then the responsibility of the US Treasury Department and the Secretary of the Treasury. The mission of the Revenue Cutter Service had evolved through time but, similar to the Coast Guard of today, maritime law enforcement, interdiction of contraband cargo and protecting lives and property remained primary concerns. During the 1830s the Revenue Cutter Service had constructed thirteen revenue cutters of its own design named the “Morris Class” or “Morris-Taney Class” each of these vessels was named for either a former Secretary of the Treasury or a former President. Prior to his infamous decision with the Dred Scott case, Roger B. Taney was the Secretary of the Treasury under President Andrew Jackson from 1833-34 because he was essentially kicked out a year later. As that was the case, the USRC Roger B. Taney was constructed over 1833-34 at the Webb & Allen Shipyard in New York City. It was a wooden-hulled, topsail schooner, 71 feet long, with a 19-foot beam, 112 GT. It carried a crew of 20-24 and was armed with six 12-pound guns. It primarily patrolled the coasts, took surveys and soundings of various harbors for the safety of American shipping and in 1847 during the Mexican-American War was put under the command of the Navy to defend American shipping from Mexican privateers in the Mediterranean. The latter part the vessel’s life was filled with misfortune, the vessel capsized in New York Harbor in 1852, where it was later raised and repaired. The vessel continued patrols until it was struck by lightning and severely damaged off the coast of Tybee Island, Georgia in 1857. It was decommissioned and sold in 1858. The vessel’s final disposition is unknown.
The Coast Guard Cutter Taney
“The Secretary class cutters built primarily not to strike a blow at an enemy but to live through all foul conditions in rough northern waters…and there was no rest for them…They are considerably more roomy so that they can carry a large number of survivors. They are better sea boats than destroyers and lend themselves to boat operations and rescues. In connection with picking up people, their hospital accommodations are superior to those of destroyers.” Captain A.G. Shepard, US Navy.
During her fifty years of service, the Coast Guard Cutter Taney served with distinction, performing virtually all ocean-going duties for the US Coast Guard. In 1935, the keel for the Secretary class cutter Roger B. Taney was laid at the Philadelphia Naval Yard as the then next generation of Coast Guard Cutters. These vessels were built during the depression and the construction was carried out as part of the Works Progress Administration in order to give people work and keep shipyards operating. Although based on a Navy design, the Secretary class was a purely Coast Guard design much like the previous Morris Class Revenue Cutters. As the name of the class suggests, each of the seven Secretary class cutters constructed was named for former Secretaries of the Treasury, continuing the tradition from the Morris Class Revenue Cutters. It was simply to carry on the name from the original revenue cutters. By 1935 there were 52 secretaries of the Treasury to choose from to name these vessels, the seven names that were chosen because they were names of the seven previous cutters that served with distinction. The fact that the name Taney was chosen was not about the man but about the previous ship that carried that name. Not too far into each of their careers each of the Secretary Class Cutters had their names shortened from a full name to just the last name, so the vessel went from Roger B. Taney to just Taney. The Taney’s vital statistics are 327 long, 41-foot breadth, 2,252 Tons. It’s powered by two oil-fueled Babcock & Wilcox boilers attached to two Westinghouse geared steam turbines pushing two propellers capable of a speed of 20 knots.
The USCG Taney had a long and varied career, serving in many roles and through many conflicts with many modifications for specific missions. One of the vessels first missions was assisting in the unsuccessful search for the missing pilot Amelia Earhart after she and her plane disappeared in 1937. It also evacuated US colonists on Pacific Islands that were fearful of a Japanese attack. Taney’s home port was Honolulu, Hawaii and the vessel was present during that fateful day, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It is the last floating survivor and combatant from that battle. During the attack, she was parked several miles away in Honolulu Harbor moored next to the Honolulu power plant. Without any formal orders, Taney opened fire on the Japanese attackers defending the power plant from destruction. Taney would later serve in both theaters during World War II. The vessel would escort convoys during the Solomon Islands campaign, it would also escort convoys during the US invasion of North Africa providing defense from both German Aircraft and U-boats and was there to rescue the survivors after the convoy ships were sunk. Taney would also have a pivotal role during the Battle of Okinawa where it was used as an amphibious force command ship, it protected the other vessels deployed at Okinawa from air attack with constant radar and air coverage.
Post-war, Taney returned to the varied duties of a Coast Guard Cutter with numerous maritime rescues of both planes and ships including a rescue during the height of the Cold War of a crew member of a Soviet trawler who had severe medical problems. Taney would later serve in the Vietnam conflict where in addition to its military duties, the vessel’s medical staff would provide medical aid and relief to 6,000 Vietnamese Citizens. Taney would spend much of her time at various ocean stations in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Before the advent of weather satellites, the Coast Guard would have vessels outfitted with massive weather radars patrol the mid-ocean in order to provide accurate weather reports for the navigation and safety of both airlines and shipping and to track hurricanes. Taney was the last cutter to serve in this role until the last station was closed in 1977. Taney was also there to support Cuban refugees fleeing Cuba during the Cuban boatlift crisis. Taney would also be responsible for many drug interdictions at sea, during its last drug interdiction where the vessel seized 160 tons of Marijuana, which still remains the record for the most drugs seized by a Coast Guard vessel, even with the advent of narco submarines. Taney was decommissioned in 1986 and brought to Baltimore, Maryland where it is on display today. The only thing connecting the vessel to Baltimore her namesake.
Conclusion: Overcoming Historical Stigma
“Taney was associated with events both historic and routine which made a significant contribution to the broad pattern of American history and Coast Guard History” Dr. Clifford Tobias, Historian
The USCGC Taney and her crew have done more good in the world during her time than her namesake ever did and because of it, has become displaced from him. Even though the vessel was named for a historical bigot, it never carried on the values and beliefs he espoused. As stated the name was a reflection of the service of the previous cutter rather than the man Roger B. Taney himself. Throughout her history, the Taney has carried a multi-ethnic crew and one of her former captains was a member of the Sioux nation. She was never created to commemorate white supremacy like some statues were. Renaming the vessel would be disingenuous and disrespectful to the ship, her crew who served aboard and her history. Especially with the recent loss of the last living crew member from the attack on Pearl Harbor, Howard Hayes. Taney is apart of the Pearl Harbor survivors association which means within the next decade she will be the only member of that association. In this case, renaming the vessel as some have suggested, would be erasing history in order to fit a more convenient narrative. Not in the same way the POTUS suggests either. History is inherently controversial and as the quote at the top of the post says we do have a responsibility to confront it. The Coast Guard is well aware of the infamy associated with the name Taney therefore when Taney was decommissioned, the name was retired from the Coast Guard rolls and will never be used on a Coast Guard vessel ever again. Unlike its sister ships the Spencer, Campbell, Hamilton and most recently the Ingham whose name is being carried on in a next-generation Heritage class cutter.
As stated Taney was named for the heritage of the previous revenue cutter and less for the man Roger B. Taney in much the same way the name Enterprise is carried on through different ships in the Star Trek universe. The vessel is both on the National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic Landmark, legally speaking you cannot re-designate a site and change the name especially in the case of a ship as that was the name it had when it made history. Statues aren’t history, they commemorate history locked in an interpretation that’s as solid as they are, history is much more fluid than that. Recent events have kicked open the door for a discussion of these monuments, what exactly they commemorate and the motives behind them. A ship and more importantly, its crew makes her own history and being a ship, a form of transportation, makes it part of the context of larger world history. The vessel is preserved because of her own history and not that of her namesake and continues to educate to this day. This ship is not something to condemn, its something to be proud of.
Sources & Resources
Historic Ships in Baltimore. USCGC Taney.
Meeks, Stephanie. After Charlottesville: How to Approach Confederate Memorials in Your Community. National Trust For Historic Preservation
Meeks, Stephanie. Statement on Confederate Memorials: Confronting Difficult History. Statement From National Trust For Historic Preservation President and CEO Stephanie Meeks. National Trust For Historic Preservation.
Mooney, James L. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships Volume 7 T-V.
National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: U.S.C.G.C Taney (WHEC-37)
National Park Service. Historic American Engineering Record: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney (WPG/WHEC-37)
Olusoga, David. Statues are not the issue. These are “history wars”, a battle over the past. The Guardian.
Szimanski, Ryan USCGC Taney: The Lucky Lady: A Selected Chronology unpublished manuscript.
US Coast Guard. Cutters of The Marine and Revenue Cutter Service 1790-1900.
US Coast Guard. United States Revenue Cutter Service.
US Coast Guard. USCGC Taney.
That is, if you can get the Coast Guard Website to actually work.
Yoes, Sean. White Supremacy Floats in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The AFRO