This week marks the 240th anniversary of one of the most revered political speeches in U.S. history.
Patrick Henry, widely recognized as a symbol of America's struggle for liberty and self-government, was a Virginia-born lawyer, patriot, and skilled orator who was unreservedly passionate about American freedom.
The outspoken Henry delivered his fiery “Liberty or Death” speech on March 23, 1775, famously concluding with a challenge: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
Henry’s unforgettable words would not only become his legacy, but would also go on to be forever associated with America’s War of Independence against Great Britain.
Less than a month after Henry’s powerful speech was given, the Revolutionary War officially began. Not surprisingly, Henry took an active role in the militia, rising to the rank of Colonel of the First Virginia Regiment and Commander-in-Chief of the Virginia Militia before stepping down to serve as the first governor of Virginia in 1776. He would serve five terms total, as both the first and the sixth governor. He had previously served as a member of the House of Burgesses and followed by a stint as a delegate to the first Continental Congress, bringing his length of public service to nearly 30 years.
Henry died in 1799, but countless people and places have borne his moniker — including several U.S. naval vessels.
A Country Divided
CSS Patrick Henry, which began life as the former side-wheel passenger and freight steamer Yorktown that ran between Virginia and New York, was seized by the state of Virginia for the Confederacy following its secession from the Union on April 17, 1861, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. Under Commander J. R. Tucker, CSN, who commanded the newly organized James River Squadron, the Yorktown was converted into a lightly protected ship-of-war and renamed Patrick Henry — also commonly known as Patrick.
Patrick came under fire many times during the Civil War, and the Battle of Hampton Roads proved especially damaging to the vessel. According to the NHHC, on March 8, 1862, Patrick had run aground and was flying a white flag, but was fired upon by Federal ships and shore batteries. A shot pierced her steam chest and killed four of her crew.
The ship was removed to a safe area, repaired, and back in the middle of the action the following day, during the famous first-ever battle between two ironclads — USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. Patrick took part in the historic battle, firing long range at Monitor while she was maneuvering against Virginia.
In May 1862, Patrick was designated as academy ship received the appropriate alterations, serving as the Confederate States Naval Academy from October 1863 until the April 3, 1865 evacuation of Richmond, when she was deliberately destroyed with fire by the Confederates.
Liberty — in the Form of a Ship
“Liberty” ships carried “lend-lease” supplies and war armament to allied countries before and after the war, and what name but Patrick Henry could be more fitting for the first-of-its-kind?
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was on hand to launch the SS Patrick Henry from Baltimore, Maryland on Sept. 27, 1941. Liberty ships were considered among the least attractive vessels, and FDR himself dubbed them “ugly ducklings,” according to NHHC.
Alongside Patrick Henry, numerous other ships were launched that day, known as "Liberty Fleet Day." NHHC said that more than 2,710 ships were built using a simple design at the cost of about $2 million dollars per vessel.
SS Patrick Henry survived World War II but was scrapped in 1960.
Patrick Henry Gets Stealthy
On September 22, 1959, the George Washington class nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarine USS Patrick Henry (SSBN-599), was launched. An April 9, 1960 commissioning followed.
Less than a year after commissioning, the submarine set a record for her type. Upon surfacing at Holy Loch, Scotland, March 8, 1961, Patrick Henry had been cruising submerged for a staggering 66 days and 22 hours, according to NHHC.
Operating from Holy Loch, the submarine conducted 17 deterrent patrols while remaining continuously deployed overseas between December 1960 and December 1964. That month, the submarine returned to the place whence she came — the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut — and spent 18 months at being repaired and completely overhauled to accommodate Polaris A-3 missiles.
Patrick Henry completed her 22nd patrol at Holy Loch on March 1, 1968, and remained part of the Atlantic Fleet until 1970. The submarine would eventually become part of the Pacific Fleet before being decommissioned in 1984.
Though there are currently no vessels named for this early American hero, Patrick Henry’s legacy lives on. Each day, the U.S. Navy proudly carries on the tradition that Henry called for so many years ago — protecting the freedom of U.S. citizens.
For More Information
Library of Congress
Naval History and Heritage Command