By Capt. Scott Rye, Commanding Officer, NR Navy Public Affairs Support Element
As third lieutenant aboard HMS CRESCENT, my kinsman Peter Jekyll Rye saw action against the French off the coast of Cherbourg and was heralded for his “cool and steady behaviour” in a duel with the frigate REUNION. Following his commanding officer, Captain James Saumarez, when he assumed command of HMS ORION, Rye would go on to earn a second clasp for his Naval General Service Medal for his actions during the Battle of Groix. As he gained seniority and commanded ships of his own, Rye spent the bulk of his career at sea and far from the shores of England before retiring as a rear admiral. During his time at sea as a commanding officer, he was cited for the capture of the Dutch schooner L’HONNEUR, carrying arms and supplies for 1,000 men, and for fighting off five Danish gunboats while situated off Jutland on another occasion. England depended on the Royal Navy to keep the enemy at bay: Far better to fight the enemy abroad than at home.
My great-great-great uncle Jack Sharp was assigned to what was believed to be the most advanced warship at the time, the CSS VIRGINIA (ex-MERRIMACK). Its anticipated appearance caused dread in the Hampton Roads area, and when the VIRGINIA finally came out to fight on March 8, 1862, the ironclad wreaked havoc on the fleet. Cannon balls and shells literally bounced off her hull as the warship methodically went about sinking the frigate USS CUMBERLAND, destroying the frigate USS CONGRESS and grounding the frigate USS MINNESOTA. National Geographic would later describe the results of that day’s battle as “the worst defeat [the U.S. Navy] would suffer until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor 80 years later.” Following the first day’s fighting, U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said in a hurriedly called conference that he feared the VIRGINIA would steam up the Potomac and destroy Washington.
The Confederate ironclad met her match the very next day, however, when USS MONITOR steamed into Hampton Roads. As a gunner in the VIRGINIA, Sharp saw that the guns of his ship were just as ineffective against the MONITOR as the fleet’s had been against the VIRGINIA. And while the VIRGINIA featured an “ironclad” hide, the MONITOR offered an even better design. Her turreted guns gave her greater flexibility in firing: with the majority of her guns mounted in broadside, the VIRGINIA had to yaw to port or starboard to fire at the enemy. The MONITOR could fire from practically any position by simply rotating its turret. While the duel itself was inconclusive, the VIRGINIA had clearly demonstrated the psychological advantage of a forward presence and the ability to project power.
Most of the men in my family have served in the armed forces in some capacity during wartime—mostly in the infantry and cavalry. More recently, though, both of my parents chose the Sea Service. My father enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1949 and served at MCAS Cherry Point before being assigned to Marine Corps Headquarters, where he was a communications officer on the Commandant’s staff. According to my mother’s hometown newspaper, she was the first woman from Hammond, Ind., to enlist in the Marines following World War II. She, too, served at Cherry Point before being assigned to a Navy Intelligence billet in the capital. From my parents, I learned an appreciation for the military, discipline, and hard work.
Much has changed since Peter Rye and Jack Sharp went to sea. Much has changed since I raised my hand more than 22 years ago, but the essentials have remained the same: nations depend upon their navies not only to defend their coasts but to keep the sea lanes clear and to deploy abroad to establish a forward presence wherever and whenever needed and to project power afloat and ashore. The Royal Navy of the 18th and 19th centuries took the fight to the enemy, blockading French ports, fighting Napoleon’s fleets in the Mediterranean and waging battle in the Baltic Sea. Technological advances made in screw propulsion, armor, and turreted guns gave the navies of the American Civil War the ability to project power as no previous navy ever had, and it made wooden warships obsolete overnight.
Today, we own the sea, and we operate on, above and below the sea every single day of the year, ensuring the freedom of navigation in international sea lanes. Currently, some 40% of our ships are deployed around the world, showing the flag, conducting exercises and are prepared to respond at a moment’s notice if called upon to deter conflict or to engage the enemy. The Navy’s warfighting capabilities have never been greater. Innovations like the Afloat Forward Staging Bases, multi-purpose Littoral Combat Ships and Fire Scout drones provide the Navy with more offshore options than ever before to deter, influence and win in today’s era of uncertainty. Warfighting is our number one mission, and it must remain our number one mission.