- Historic Sites
The Great White Fleet
After the Civil War, American sea power became a pitiful joke. Then an aroused nation set out to build a first-class, modern navy, and in 1907 proudly sent it off around the world
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
The S.S. Virginius of New York, Captain Charles Fry, darted up from the Jamaica coast, bound for Cuba, which lay blue in the distance. It was November, 1873. As the ship crossed the brilliant Caribbean, the Spanish gunboat Tornado took chase and closed quickly. When the Spaniards boarded, they found the Virginius stacked high with arms for Cuba’s rebels, then engaged in another of their apparently endless insurrections against the mother country.
The captured ship was taken to Santiago, on Cuba’s southern shore. Forty-three of the passengers and crew were bound, lined up against a wall, and shot. The rest were saved only by the arrival of H.M.S. Niobe , whose captain insisted that the Spanish governor “stop that filthy slaughter.” For a time, war between the United States and Spain seemed unavoidable. President Grant ordered the fleet mobilized at Key West.
A marvelous collection of naval museum pieces gathered there. Eleven old wooden steam frigates and steam sloops, their decks lined with muzzle-loading smoothbores, their masts laden with canvas, made up the cruising force. Five iron monitors, hastily recommissioned, were towed down from the James and the Delaware, where they had been rusting since the Civil War. The fleet, which coidd maneuver only as fast as its slowest member, the steam sloop Shenandoah , puffed along at four and a half knots. (Spain had four modern seagoing ironclads which could make nearly three times that speed.) In the end, perhaps, it was well that the President turned the Virginius affair over to the State Department for settlement.
There were few who would have guessed that twentyfive years later an American fleet would litter the beaches of Cuba with the burned and blasted wrecks of Spanish warships; that another American squadron would do the same thing in the distant Philippines; or that a decade after those victories, the most powerful fleet of battleships ever to circumnavigate the world would fly American colors.
Two then-obscure young men were to play major roles in this transformation. One, the only midshipman ever to skip plebe year at Annapolis—who, ironically, was to write of his naval career, “I believe I should have done better elsewhere”—was in 1873 a quiet, austere, and unhappy officer in command of the U.S.S. Wasp , a captured Civil War blockade-runner performing odd jobs for the ramshackle fleet of the South Atlantic Station. The other was the asthmatic son of a wealthy New York City family, just back from a sojourn in Germany and preparing for a gentleman’s career at Harvard. Their names were Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt. It was Mahan whose writings on the role of sea power in history would one day have such a far-reaching influence both at home and abroad. And it was his enthusiastic supporter, Roosevelt, who, first as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and then as President, would put the theories of that officer-scholar into practice.
Meanwhile the nation soon forgot its Caribbean misadventure: there was much more urgent business at hand. The problems of Reconstruction, the surge of population toward the West, the burgeoning of new industries, the tips and downs of the stock market, labor troubles, the social upheavals of immigration, and the scandals of the Grant administration seemed to leave little time for overseas affairs—or for the needs of a neglected navy.
While the navies of the major European powers relied increasingly on armored ships driven by steam, the American Navy, which had pioneered in both fields and which had more recent battle experience than all the rest put together, cruised under sail, in wooden ships. (There was even a move afoot to make all navy captains pay out of their own pockets for whatever coal their ships burned.) The promotion process stagnated; an Annapolis graduate might still be a lieutenant at the age of fifty. To make matters worse, the office of Secretary of the Navy was filled throughout the 1870’s by political hacks. Grant’s appointee, George M. Robeson, apparently managed to feather his nest with some $320,000 of Navy Department funds; a few years later, Richard W. Thompson of Indiana, who served under Hayes, visited a warship and exclaimed with some amazement, “The damn thing is hollow!”
“By the year 1880 the navy had fallen to a pitifully low ebb,” noted Frank M. Bennett, the historian of the nineteenth-century American steam navy. “Repairs were no longer possible, for space for more patches was lacking upon almost every ship of ours then afloat.… A sense of humiliation dogged the American naval officer as he went about his duty in foreign lands; in the Far East, in the lesser countries along the Mediterranean Sea, and even in the sea ports of South America, people smiled patronizingly upon him and from a sense of politeness avoided speaking of naval subjects in his presence.” That year there were thirty-eight admirals on the active list (with commands afloat for but six) and only thirty-nine ships. It was a situation that openly invited ridicule. In an Oscar Wilde comedy written at the time, an American lady who despaired of her country because it had neither curiosities nor ruins was consoled with heavy irony because “you have your manners and your navy.”