The Great White Fleet

PrintPrintEmailEmail

But a change was in the air, though it would be a long time before the officers and men of our patchwork naval forces would have tangible evidence of it. In 1880, when James Garfield was elected President, he chose William Hunt, a New Orleans Republican, as Secretary of the Navy. Hunt had long been friendly with two famous heroes of the Civil War, Admirals David Farragut and David Dixon Porter, and he had a lively interest in the service. He ordered a board, headed by Rear Admiral John Rodgers, to find out what was needed to rejuvenate the Navy.

The Rodgers board, apparently believing a serious question deserved a serious answer, urged that eighteen cruisers and fifty smaller ships be built at once—whereupon it was dismissed. Another board was appointed, which made recommendations that were less far-seeing but, for the moment, more practical. Following its suggestions, Congress provided for three steel cruisers and one dispatch boat, the latter a small ship useful for carrying messages.

Contracts for all four ships, the 4,500-ton Chicago, the 3,000-ton Atlanta and Boston, and the 1,500-ton Dolphin, were awarded to John Roach, a shipbuilder who was also a Republican wheel horse. In 1885 the first of the lot, the Dolphin , was completed; for months she lay alongside her pier, rakish in her standard navy black paint. But Congress and the Presidency had gone to the Democrats in 1884, and the Dolphin was rejected for an assortment of design and mechanical deficiencies. On the advice of friends in the Republican party, who perhaps thought they needed a martyr, Roach, instead of fighting the issue, went into bankruptcy. The Atlanta, Boston , and Chicago were taken over by the government half-built. Not until 1889 was the last of them completed and commissioned.

Eventually the Dolphin was accepted, and in 1888 she began a two-year cruise around the world. Men wilted inside her black steel hull as she passed through the tropics. Desperate for a remedy, her captain broke a century-old custom and painted his ship with white lead, thus cooling her interior by several degrees. The Navy Department copied his example; soon all new warships were coming out of their builders’ yards in white. They were quite dashing, with ram bows decorated by gilt scrollwork or American shields, and upper works painted yellow ochre, much like today’s Coast Guard cutters.

By the end of the decade the first of the Navy’s armored cruisers, Roach’s ships, were at sea, and more were being built. Gradually the old wooden fleet faded away. But American industry, though energetic and willing, had much to learn about building steel warships and supplying their needs. More important, no one in this country was yet competent to design a modem warship. The four ships that the unfortunate Roach built, for example, were all outfitted with a full set of sails in addition to reciprocating steam engines; the Atlanta and Boston were fitted with engines and boilers of a type already outmoded.

Disappointed with American plans, the Navy Department in the mid-eighties went to England and there obtained blueprints for the protected cruisers Charleston and Baltimore , and the second-class battleship Texas . The department was twice stung: the Baltimore proved satisfactory, but the blast from the Texas ’ two 12-inch guns, one on either side of the ship, tore away her upper works. The Charleston ’s, engines were an amalgam of those of four other ships and the parts didn’t fit; she never was made right. From then on, for better or worse, we depended almost exclusively on domestic talent for new designs.

Then, in 1890, Congress authorized the nation’s first real battleships. The appropriation called for “seagoing, coast-line battleships,” a grand contradiction, for a seagoing ship had to be a deep-draft, high-freeboard vessel with lots of room for coal, while a coast-line ship neither needed nor gained from any of these characteristics. At any event, the Navy took advantage of the confusion to build three of the finest warships of the age: Indiana, Massachusetts , and Oregon . Powerfully armed and heavily protected, they made only one concession to the “coast-line” part of the law: they were designed with a low freeboard.