One hundred and fifty-seven years ago this week, the first U.S. Navy ship to bear the name of America’s first settlement was commissioned at the Pensacola Navy Yard.
Workers at the yard had spent more than a year building the first-ever USS Pensacola, a steam sloop whose keel was laid down in March 1858. After first launching on August 15, 1859, the ship was commissioned on December 5 and headed to the Washington Navy Yard in the nation’s capital to be outfitted with machinery and equipment.
By the time Pensacola was ready to leave Washington in January 1862, the Civil War was raging. Pensacola headed to the Gulf of Mexico to join Admiral David Farragut’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron, tasked with blocking ships from reaching Confederate-held Southern ports. Over the course of the war, the Union’s four blockading squadrons intercepted or destroyed around 1,500 ships which unsuccessfully tried to run the blockade.
In April 1862, the Pensacola took part in Farragut’s capture of Confederate-held New Orleans. Farragut’s fleet slipped past the two rebel forts guarding the Mississippi River south of New Orleans in the early morning hours of April 24 and engaged the Confederate ships defending the city.
After a fierce but lopsided river battle in which the Union fleet destroyed twelve rebel ships, Farragut’s forces raised the Stars and Stripes over the city on April 26. Four of the Pensacola‘s sailors — Thomas Flood, Thomas Lyons, James McLeod, and Louis Richards — were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle.
The Pensacola remained in the area after the capture of New Orleans, spending the better part of the next two years patrolling the lower Mississippi.
In 1864, Pensacola headed for the New York Navy Yard for the installation of new and improved machinery, including the engines intended for the sloop-of-war USS Wanaloset, which was cancelled. Recommissioned in August 1866, Pensacola sailed around Cape Horn to join the Navy’s Pacific Squadron, and remained on duty in the Pacific for the next 17 years.
In June 1883, Pensacola detached from the Pacific Squadron and began a year-long journey around the world back to the United States. The trip took Pensacola from Callao, Peru across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, up the coast of Africa and through the Suez Canal, through the Mediterranean Sea, and across the Atlantic Ocean to Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Rejoining the fleet in April 1885, Pensacola spent the next five years cruising through European waters and along the Atlantic and African coasts before heading back to New York in 1890. The following year, Pensacola returned to the Pacific, visiting Hawaii before heading to Mare Island, California, where she was decommissioned in April 1892.
Six years later, in 1898, Pensacola was recommissioned as a training ship, and later served as a receiving ship — basically a floating barracks — at Yerba Buena Naval Station in California. Pensacola’s more than five decades of service finally came to an end in 1911, when she was decommissioned for the final time on December 6. Struck from the Navy Register on December 23, Pensacola was burned and sunk by the Navy in San Francisco Bay near Hunters Point in May 1912.
The first Pensacola wouldn’t be the last ship to bear the name, however. Five years after the original 1859 ship was decommissioned, as the First World War raged, the Navy seized the German steamer Nicaria, renaming it the Pensacola (AK-7) and pressing it into service as a cargo ship. The second Pensacola was decommissioned in 1925, but the name was passed onto a new ship commissioned the following year. The cruiser Pensacola (CA-24) — arguably the most famous of the four ships to carry the name — served throughout World War II, earning 13 battle stars and the nickname “Grey Ghost.”
The last ship named Pensacola was a LSD-38, a landing ship commissioned in 1971. Decommissioned in 1999, the ship was sold to Taiwan, where it lives on in active service as the ROCS Hsu Hai. There hasn’t been a U.S. Navy ship named Pensacola since.