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Ship Building 1881 - James Garfield

President James Garfield was shot just four months into his presidency, succumbing to his assassin’s bullet Sept. 19, 1881. Navy Secretary William Henry Hunt rendered invaluable service by reporting that the Navy, grossly neglected after the Civil War, was no longer able to protect Americans abroad. he appointed the first Naval Advisory Board which undertook the work of rebuilding the Navy, emasculated by public apathy and lack of funds. After Vice President Arthur succeeded Garfield in the presidency, he retired Hunt from the cabinet by appointing him Minister to Russia 7 April 1882.

A Virginia congressman asserted that Gen. Wickham first declined the secretaryship of the navy. General Williams C. Wickham was a lawyer, planter, soldier, railroad president. Williams Carter Wickham was brigadier-general in the Confederate army, and one of the most stubborn fighters in the cavalry of the South. The plantation known as " Hickory Hill," home of the late Williams Carter Wickham, Brigadier-General of Cavalry, C. S. A., was originally an appanage to Shirley on the James, inherited by the General's mother (Anne). Williams Carter Wickham“ was a distinguished military officer in the Confederate Army and when peace was declared, devoted his best efforts towards the reconstruction of his native state. He was born at Richmond Va., Sept. 21, 1820 and died there July 23, 1888. He was a high-minded, earnest, faithful and devoted railroad president, who, when he laid by his sword at Appomattox, applied his great energies to the building up industrially of his and my native State, Virginia. His name was Williams Carter Wickham: a name as much honored in Virginia as that of any man of his time. When he died, in his railroad office, he died amid the lamentations of a city and was buried with the burial of a king, and the employees of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad united with other friends and erected in a public square in the city of Richmond, a monument to his memory.

Ex-Gov. Alexander Hamilton Rice, of Massachusetts was thought by others to be the coming man for ruler of Garfield’s navy. Rice was born in Newton Lower Falls, August 30, 1818, and was the son of Thomas Rice, a well-known paper manufacturer. He was educated in the public schools of his native town and academies at Needham and Newton. His first business experience was in a Boston dry goods store, and after an experience of about two years in that line he entered the employ of Wilkins & Carter, paper dealers, and after three years of service he decided to better his education. He entered Union College, Schenectady, N. Y., and was graduated in 1844 with the highest honors of his class. Returning to Boston he became a partner of his old employers, the firm style being Wilkins, Carter & Co., now the Rice-Kendall Company. He was for some years president of the Boston Board of Trade and of the National Sailors' Home. He was president of the Great Peace Jubilee held in Boston in 1869. Alexander H. Rice, of Massachusetts, the head of the well-known paper house the Rice-Kendall Company, died of a paralytic stroke at the Hotel Langwood, Melrose, MA on 22 July 1895.

Garfield's Navy Secretary, William H. Hunt, who served from March 7, 1881 to April 16, 1882, took a strong interest in rebuilding the navy, and surrounded himself with able advisers. On 07 November 1881 The Naval Advisory Board submit their report to Secretary of the Navy William H. Hunt recommended new ships in the U.S. Navy be constructed of steel instead of iron, resulting in the A, B, C, D ships.

He was Northern by birth, but Southern by choice. During the Civil War, while living in New Orleans, he was forced to serve in the Confederate Army, yet his sympathizes were against secession, and for the Union. He managed to avoid involvement in military operations until Admiral Farragut captured New Orleans, and rejoiced when New Orleans fell to the Union in 1864.

In March 1876, Hunt was appointed Attorney-General of Louisiana, and in July of that year he was the Republican candidate for this office. Both parties claimed victory in the election, but Hunt lost the position when President Hayes recognized the Democratic government of the State. As compensation, the President appointed him Associate Judge of the United States Court of Claims, 15 May 1878. He served in this capacity until he became President Garfield's Secretary of the Navy.

It was through that series of juxtapositions that defined William Henry Hunt; lawyer, professor, Confederate Army officer and in March 1881, the Secretary of Navy. Hunt had but a short tenure in that position, but during the time he was there, his legacy was rebuilding a Navy neglected by a country still recovering from a four-year Civil War. Hunt began with the creation of a Naval Advisory Board that on Nov. 7, 1881, dared to ask Congress for $30 million to build 21 armored ships, some with steel hulls rather than iron, and nearly 70 unarmored vessels.

Hunt faced more than a few hurdles in pushing his agenda through the bureaucracy. He was a Southerner in the North. President James Garfield, who appointed him, was shot just four months into his presidency, succumbing to his assassin’s bullet Sept. 19, 1881. Less than two months later, SECNAV Hunt would present his advisory board’s recommendation to Congress. “The condition of the Navy imperatively demands the prompt and earnest attention of Congress. Unless some action be had in its behalf it must soon dwindle into insignificance,” Hunt said.

About 18 months later, on March 3, 1883, Congress would approve the Naval Appropriations Act of 1883 that included only $1.3 million to build a fraction of the ships requested in 1881, but with steel rather than iron hulls. They authorized building three cruisers and a dispatch ship, most commonly known today as the ABCD ships – cruisers Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and dispatch ship Dolphin – the beginnings of a steel Navy.

William Hunt, the man who jump-started the Navy’s reconstruction in 13 months, would never see his dream come to fruition. He was replaced as SECNAV by President Chester A. Arthur in April 1882 with one of his own political choices: William Eaton Chandler. Despite his ill health, Hunt was appointed ambassador to Russia, and he died at Petersburg in Feb. 1884, just two months before USS Dolphin, the first of the steel-hulled Navy he helped formulate, was launched in April.

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Page last modified: 10-05-2019 11:48:36 ZULU