By Natalia Pajor
The figurehead of the USS Hartford is a carved figure that was once fitted at the prow of the ship. This wood figure with gold embellishments pointed onward as her ship fought one of the most decisive battles in Union-Confederate naval history, the Battle of Mobile Bay. It is now a relic that bears the name Hartford, the place that it has called home for 100-plus years. The figurehead’s significance began in 1859 during the christening of the ship. As local news coverage reported, “Miss Lizzie Stringham, daughter of the Commandant of the Yard, broke a bottle of Connecticut River water across her figure head; Miss Carrie Downs, a bottle of Hartford spring water and Lieut. George H. Preble, a bottle of salt water, and thus she was nobly christened the Hartford.”
The USS Hartford was a sloop-of-war launched on November 22, 1858, at the Boston Naval Yard. During her commission, she served in many prominent campaigns, most notably as the flagship of David G. Farragut. The Hartford was decommissioned on January 14, 1887, at Mare Island, California, for apprentice sea training use. On October 2, 1899, she was re-commissioned and then transferred to be used for training midshipmen until October of 1912 when she was transferred to Charleston for use as a station ship. In October of 1945, she was placed in the Norfolk Naval Yard where she began to deteriorate. Before she could be restored, she sank on November 20, 1956.
The figurehead was one of the relics saved from the USS Hartford. Detached and reconstructed by Commodore Philip Hichborn, Chief Constructor of the Navy, the figurehead was presented to the city of Hartford. Joseph R. Hawley, a United States senator, and former Hartford Mayor Mike B. Prestons are documented discussing the shipment and delivery of the figurehead to the city of Hartford:
It was detached during recent repairs and reconstructions, and the Commodore, into whose possession it came, has had it thoroughly cleaned, painted, and in part, gilded.
The outside dimensions of the box containing it are: length, six feet, nine and three-fourths inches; width, three feet, four inches; depth, three feet, five inches. The weight of the figure-head, or “billet-head” is three hundred and sixty-nine pounds; of the box, three hundred and fifty-nine pounds; total, seven hundred and twenty-eight pounds.
Upon the city’s acceptance of the gift, addressed to Commodore Hichborn, it will become and remain subject to the City’s order, to be addressed to the Commandment of the Navy Yard, Washington, DC. The charges for transportation will fall upon the City.
Very respectfully yours,
J. R. Hawley
To commemorate Admiral David G. Farragut’s extraordinary career throughout the American Civil War, the city of Hartford designated October 19, 1897, as “Farragut Day.” The day remembered David Glasgow Farragut, commander of the USS Hartford, and also became the day officials placed the figurehead in the north corridor of the Connecticut State Capitol.
To enhance the legacy of the USS Hartford, H. M. Andrews, former president of the Hartford Board of Alderman, requested that Theodore Roosevelt provide a detailed history of the flagship. Committees formed to organize details and invite honored guests and military commands, such as Naval Battalion, C.N.G., 1st Section Brigade Signal Corps, C.N.G., 1st Regiment C.N.G., 1st Section Machine Gun Battery, Hartford, 1st Company Governor’s Foot Guard, 1st Company Governor’s Horse Guard, 2nd Company Governor’s Foot Guard, New Haven, 2nd Company Governor’s Horse Guard, New Haven, Putnam Phalanx, and Gideon Welles Naval Veteran Association No. 3 of Connecticut, New Haven.
Although the USS Hartford’s glory days are behind her, her legacy lives on. The relics she left behind (such as the figurehead in the Connecticut State Capitol) and the following poem, once captured in the Hartford Courant, help ensure her story is not forgotten:
Child of the forest and child of the sea.
The winds and the billows have striven in vain,
Triumphant thy march o’er the storm and the main.
Now rest thee in peace thy voyaging o’er.
The winds and the billows will know thee no more.
Natalia Pajor is a recent graduate from Mount Saint Mary College, New York, and is currently working on her master’s in history at Central Connecticut State University.
This article was published as part of a semester-long graduate student project at Central Connecticut State University that examined Civil War monuments and their histories in and around the State Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut.