The Historic Harbors

A couple of weeks ago I attended a leadership retreat where a speaker touted the longtime importance of Hampton Roads as a harbor and host to very important events in American history. This got me thinking: what are the most historic harbors in the history of the United States?

After considerable deliberation, here is my list of the top harbors in American history. The focus is on the body of water, not on the port city. Harbors were judged by longevity of importance, critical events they hosted, and general importance to the U.S. today.

Here goes.

Honorable mention II: Tokyo Bay. Two key events regarding U.S. involvement in Asia occurred here. Matthew Perry’s mission to Japan 1853-54 altered Asian history and was an important moment for the U.S. Navy as a global force. In 1945 the Japanese surrender occurred on the deck of the USS Missouri anchored in the harbor, which helped forge a partnership between Japan and the United States that endures to this day.

Honorable mention I: The South and West English Coast – Portsmouth to Liverpool. These harbors merit collective mention because for so many years they were (and are) departure points between Britain and Europe to the Americas. One end of the 1700s Iron Triangle located here, and since 1607 immigrants have left this area for the U.S. The commerce is not one way, as these are transshipment points from the Americas to Europe. Most notably in the World Wars, convoys from North America came in to Liverpool and Bristol. The south coast harbors also were the departure points of millions of U.S. troops to France from D-Day on 6 June 1944 to the German surrender in May 1945. Lastly, Liverpool hosted the surrender of CSS Shenandoah, last Confederate force on Earth, on 6 November 1865.

5. Manila. One of the finest harbors in Asia, Manila and its bay hosted three major American battles. The U.S. victory here on 1 May 1898 made the U.S. a world power and an Asian colonial power. During U.S. rule of the Philippines, Manila’s harbor became one of the busiest in all Asia. The Battles of Bataan and Corregidor in 1941 and 1942 resulted in a terrible defeat, but the gallant stand inspired the Allied world and helped define Filipino national identity. The horrifically destructive Battle of Manila in 1945 still scars the city today and reduced the port’s importance relative to other places less damaged by the war (like Hong Kong). Until 1973 the U.S. Navy maintained an important base at Sangley Point, and even today uses Manila and Subic Bay as a key visiting port.

4. Charleston. Gateway to the southeastern United States and one of the most important colonial ports, Charleston Harbor has long been a key location along the Atlantic Seaboard. It hosted several clashes during the War for Independence. The Civil War started in Charleston Harbor, it hosted several battles throughout virtually the entire war, and the first successful submarine operated out of there.

3. Pearl Harbor. The events of 7 December 1941 loom large in this ranking, but are not the entire story. Ever since the U.S. began interacting with Hawaii, Pearl Harbor has been the key connection point. Since annexation, it has been an essential outpost of American power in the Pacific, a status it fully maintains today.

2. Hampton Roads. This body of water in southeastern Virginia is one of the finest natural harbors in the world. Since 1607 and Jamestown it has been an active harbor, making it one of the oldest in North America. It hosted important events in the War for Independence, War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War II. Hampton Roads was a key port of embarkation from both World Wars, including 1942’s Operation Torch. Since 1917 it is home to the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk. The first clash of ironclad warships occurred here in 1862, along with the arrival of the first permanent English settlers, the first slaves, and the first bridge-tunnel complex constructed in the world. It is today the second-busiest port on the East Coast.

1. New York. For most of U.S. history, New York was the busiest and most important port in the world; it remains the busiest port in on the East Coast. It is a key connection point with the world and arguably the most famous U.S. harbor. New York Harbor is part of American culture, from Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to countless movies filmed there, to 9/11.

I welcome your reactions in the comments below.

Illustration: Convoy routes in the Western Atlantic, 1942-43.