USS Robert E. Lee SSBN 601
Of all of the leaders in American Military History, very few reach the standard set by Robert E. Lee. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lee was one of the most sought after men on both sides of the coming conflict. It is to his credit that he felt such a strong devotion to his native state that he made what had to be a difficult decision.
I am writing this on the morning of July 3rd in Pennsylvania. The morning is humid and warm despite the early hour. It is similar to that morning in July of 1863 when Lee was about to commit his forces in one of the biggest gambles of the war. For two days, his forces had seen victories tempered with stalemates. Despite the spirit and fire of his troops, the Union forces had doggedly held onto their positions and more reinforcements were arriving with fresh arms and ammunition.
Lee had come north in an attempt to force the north into a bargaining position. The south had no shortage of brave men but the economics of the situation would be an ever present danger to the cause of the south. Potential allies from across the sea were waiting to see if the forces under Lee could make a strategic enough move to bring the union to a place of complete separation.
On this morning, a new assault would be mounted. Lee felt like his army had weakened the Yankees enough that if he massed his forces in the center, they would be successful in shoving the enemy off of the field. A frontal assault across what is a long and sloping field into the mouths of the Union cannon in the center.
This would be the high-water mark of the South’s fortunes. But despite Lee’s long record of beating the Union forces in one battle after another, on this day that ended. The Union center held and the back of Lee’s army was broken. Had it not been for a timid response by Union leaders as Lee retreated, the war may have ended that day.
I had often wondered as a young man why a nation would honor someone who had been part of a rebellion. Yet looking at the total list of the men who would end up being part of the 41 for Freedom family, it is impossible to imagine Lee would not have been one of the names chosen. All of the names represented bravery and skill. All were representative of leadership in a critical time in our history. All were strong enough in their beliefs to want to overcome enormous odds.
The name Robert E. Lee had to be a part of the Polaris program. The boat itself was a proud boat with many proud men serving on her. That alone carries the day. The words of Admiral Rickover truly capture the spirit of Lee. In his book Eminent American’s he wrote:
His basic principles of war were two: surprise and economy of force.
In the summer of 1862, he gave the Army of Northern Virginia its greatest heartening—victory. The army’s morale grew, so much so, that after Chancellorsville it considered itself unbeatable. Unfortunately, Lee also became victim of this delusion. After Gettysburg, he explained his defeat by saying: “I thought the Army was invincible; I expected too much of it. Well, it was not, it fell back!”
Gettysburg brought to light the inherent defect in the South’s ability to carry on the war. Although seasoned veterans retained spirit, their losses became irreplaceable; there was no replacement for Jackson; the brigade commanders had improved, but the number of experienced ones had been reduced. Longstreet as a corps commander was seriously wounded and out of the line. Ewell was barely able to stay active. Forced to use green corps commanders, Lee himself had to lead his army in 1864. This brought him into close personal contact with individual Southern soldiers and made him accessible to them. On several occasions he threatened to lead a charge, but his men seized his horse and led him to the rear.
In General Grant, Lee faced an opponent with stubbornness and willpower equal to his own, as demonstrated in the Wilder ness campaign. The Army of Northern Virginia showed the effects of Lee’s 2 years in command by their high morale in standing steady at Spotsylvania Court House, along North Anna, at Cold Harbor, and in the trenches at Petersburg and Richmond. His men continued to have faith in Lee because he called on them only when it was necessary, held them to a minimum of losses, and promised them success up to the last days of the war.
In the end, at Appomattox, Lee had but 8,000 men with muskets in hand, and two batteries Of artillery with only enough ammunition for 2 more hours, yet his ragged troops, unfed for 6 days, came running to Lee, saying: “General, is it true we have surrendered? . . . say the word and we will go at them again!” This was the ﬁnal tribute to a great leader.
If he did nothing else Lee proved to the world that once aroused and believing in a cause, the American soldier can be a tough ﬁghting man; in peace, the most forgiving.”
This is the spirit of the ship that was named for him and the men who sailed on her.
USS ROBERT E. LEE was the fourth GEORGE WASHINGTON – class nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarine and the first ship in the Navy to bear the name. The ROBERT E. LEE was built using components initially assembled for a SKIPJACK – class nuclear attack submarine.
In the early 1980s, the ROBERT E. LEE was redesignated as SSN 601 and her missile launch capability was disabled to comply with the SALT I treaty. The ROBERT E. LEE mainly conducted training exercises in her new role before she was decommissioned on December 1, 1983. The submarine spent the following years berthed at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard awaiting her turn in the Navy’s Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program. Recycling of the ROBERT E. LEE was finished on September 30, 1991.
General Characteristics: Awarded: July 30, 1958
Keel laid: August 25, 1958
Launched: December 18, 1959
Commissioned: September 16, 1960
Decommissioned: December 1, 1983
Builder: Newport News Shipbuilding, Newport News, Va.
Propulsion system: one S5W nuclear reactor
Length: 381.6 feet (116.3 meters)
Beam: 33.1 feet (10.1 meters)
Draft: 28.9 feet (8.8 meters)
Displacement: approx. 6,700 tons submerged
Speed: Surfaced: 15 knots, Submerged: 20 knots
Armament: 16 vertical tubes for Polaris missiles, six 21″ torpedo tubes
Crew: 12 Officers and 128 Enlisted (two crews)
Paul Harden is the artist that drew this picture. Here is a quick note from the SSBN 601 Page (See link below for the rest of the pictures)
“For some reason, I have always had an appreciation for history, growing up in southern Colorado with the remnants of the old gold mines, narrow gauge railroads, etc. Shortly after be assigned to the 601, during the shipyard in Bremerton in 1970, I somehow recognized that this great submarine would someday be history, and made an attempt over many patrols to document it. For years I have had this stuff, and always wished there was someway to share it … and finally, the Internet came along. So I am more than happy to share these sketches with my fellow shipmates, and others, to show a piece of American history that has largely been ignored (at least for the money and effort that went into it!). After browsing many other submarine web sites, I was disappointed to find that so little exists … there are few photos, sketches, memorabilia, or anything to account for millions of man-months and dollars expended on the Polaris program. It’s a shame the US Navy hasn’t done more about it. Until I first logged into the SSBN- 601’s web site, I did NOT know that the 601 made more patrols than any other boat, made nearly the first patrol, and made the very last. The Lee was a hell of a boat with a hell of a crew. We might have been about the oldest boat of them all, but no doubt now … it was the best. How fitting, then, that maybe the SSBN- 601 web site might become the de facto site to honor all the boomers and may end up being *the* tribute the entire Polaris program .”
Thanks to the crew for the amazing work they performed and for keeping the traditions alive