Posted by: Sand Squiggles -- Richard Modlin's Blog | June 11, 2010

Huntsville in Naval History

USS Huntsville 1859  click for photo


             Four hundred miles from the nearest seashore and a city made famous by America’s space program, Huntsville is an unlikely place to be found in the annals of naval history.  The entries are a result of two naval vessels that were christened USS Huntsville

            Launched in 1857, the first Huntsville, a 196-foot wooden screw steamer with a displacement of 860 tons sailed along the Atlantic coastline as a cargo ship for the H. B Cromwell & Company.  At the beginning of the War Between the States the Huntsville was charted to the U. S. Navy, renovated to carry a crew of 64 sailors and armed with two 32-pounders and 164 smaller deck guns.  In May 1861 the vessel was commissioned as the USS Huntsville and placed under the command of Commander Cicero Price.  Almost immediately the USS Huntsville sailed for the Gulf of Mexico to join the Gulf Blockading Squadron.  The navy purchased the vessel in August 1861.

            The USS Huntsville remained on blockade duty for approximately five months before returning to New York.  During this interval she captured two schooners off Alabama and became engaged in a short battle with the blockade-runner Florida, which was seaward bound, causing it to turn and return to Mobile.

            In June 1862 Lt. Howard Rogers took command of the USS Huntsville in New York and returned the vessel to blockade duty along the east coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  Before 1862 ended, the USS Huntsville captured five vessels:  the Confederate steamers Adela and Reliance; two schooners, Courier and Ariel, trying to run the blockade; and the British schooner Agnes.  A variety of prize cargoes—cotton, coffee, lead, tin, wine and medicine—were confiscated from these captured vessels. 

            Blockade duty during 1863 became even more lucrative for the USS Huntsville.  She captured two Confederate cargo ships, the Minnie and A. J. Hodge, two British schooners, Surprise and Ascension, and a Spanish steamer named Union.  Also, the USS Huntsville was given credit for aiding in the capture of three other vessels:  the Cuba, Eugenia, and a Confederate sloop named Last Trial.  Besides the important commodities and supplies these ships carried to the besieged Confederate states, the most valuable prizes taken were five hundred bales of cotton destined for sale in the West Indies.  Money from this sale would have gone to finance the South’s war efforts.  

            The USS Huntsville remained an obstacle to shipping in the western Gulf of Mexico and the waters off Cuba into 1864.  But during a mission to Tampa Bay in May of that year, to support the landing of Union troop, the crew of the USS Huntsville fell victim to a yellow fever outbreak that occurred that spring.  This disease plagued most of the sailors stationed aboard Union vessels.  More than half the crew of the USS Huntsville was stricken.  Ordered back to New York, the Huntsville was placed in quarantine until August and then decommissioned.

            Recommissioned in March 1865, the USS Huntsville steamed for New Orleans under the command of Lt. Comdr. Edward F. Devens and took on passengers and prisoners.  The vessel returned to the Brooklyn Naval Yard on the first of May.  After a short stay, she proceeded to Baltimore and embarked one hundred and fifty men bound for Panama.  While passing Roncador Island (a small island on treacherous Roncador Bank, roughly midway between Costa Rica and Jamaica) on the return voyage, the Huntsville’s crew found the survivors of the wrecked steamship Golden Rule.  With the aid of another vessel, the State of Georgia, the passengers and crew of the Golden Rule were rescued and transported back to Panama.  Near the end of June 1865 the USS Huntsville returned to New York with eighty-five crewmen from the Golden Rule

            After two short trips to Boston, the USS Huntsville escorted the monitor Nausset from the Brooklyn Naval Yard to Philadelphia.  This was her last duty as a naval vessel.

            The USS Huntsville was decommissioned at the end of August and sold in November 1865.  Again a civilian steamship and without the USS prefix, the Huntsville returned to the sea as a commercial vessel.  She continued in this mission until destroyed by fire in December of 1877.

*      *      *

The second USS Huntsville, a recommissioned vessel with maritime duties more attuned to the City of Huntsville, Alabama’s reputation in the research and development of America’s Space Program.

 On March 2, 1945 the Maritime Commission contracted for a Victory class tanker to be built.  The Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation of Portland laid the keel.  The finished vessel was christened the Knox Victory and launched in April 1945.  Delivered to the War Shipping Administration in May, the Knox Victory finished the remainder of World War II as a merchant tanker under charter to the Olympic Steamship Company.  After the war the Knox Victory continued in merchant service under a variety of bareboat charters (charters issued for a vessel without the crew or provisions) until 1958 when the vessel was placed into the National Defense Reserve Fleet.

The U. S. Navy took possession of the Knox Victory in 1960 and assigned it to the Military Sea Transportation Service.  In November 1960 the Knox Victory was renamed USS Huntsville and given the designation T-AGM-7, the seventh in a line of missile-range instrumentation ships.  She was converted to a vessel capable for this function by the Triple “A” Machine Shop, Inc., of San Francisco, California and placed into service as a missile-range tracking ship in 1961. 

This second USS Huntsville was 455 feet long, had a beam of 62 feet, a draft of 29 feet, and a displacement of 5,498 loaded tons.  It had no armament and carried a compliment of 49 civilian crewmen.   From its homeports of Port Hueneme, California and Honolulu, Hawaii, the USS Huntsville operated throughout the central Pacific Ocean for the next four years, making intermittent on station patrols from Mexico to Wake Island and the Marshall Islands.  These patrols provided the fledgling American Space Program with considerable data and information. 

In the spring of 1965 the Navy ordered the USS Huntsville to the Avondale Shipyards in Westwego, Louisiana to drastically overhaul her technical and electronic capabilities.  These conversions and upgrades took almost two years, but provided the vessel with improved satellite-linked communication.  The USS Huntsville now had the capability of uninterrupted contact with the mainland and spacecraft.  The satellite link also provided the vessel with an improved aid to navigation; the technology installed was the forerunner to today’s Global Positioning System (GPS).  With this system, the ship’s navigators were able to fix the ship’s position to within 600 feet and flight controllers could more precisely locate and track spacecraft.

With these improvements the USS Huntsville was reassigned to the Pacific Ocean in 1967, where she joined the four other missile-range instrument vessels to track and provide links in communication with spacecrafts during the NASA Apollo Man-to-the-Moon Program.  One other of these ships had, because of its name, a link to the City of Huntsville.  It was the USS Redstone (T-AGM-20), a converted tanker of the Mission Buenaventura Class.

Because of technological improvements made to land-based tracking stations, the AGM ships used to monitor the Apollo missions were decommissioned and struck from the naval roster.  Some were sent to scrape yards and others were sunk as artificial reefs off America’s seacoast.  The final destiny and fate of the second USS Huntsville and USS Redstone is unknown.


© Richard Modlin, June, 2010

Click for Photo of USS Huntsville (T-AGM-7)  T-AGM-7

Missile Range Instrumentation Vessel, USS Range Sentinel (T-AGM-22), which is similar in design to the USS Huntsville (T-AGM-7), was used to track missiles in the Pacific Ocean during the early days of the Space Program.  Click below for photo.

USS Range Sentinel 1960


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  9. Tried to get a look at the photo of the USS Huntsville (1860s) you have and I couldn’t get it to work. I now it has to be my computer.

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