The Great White Fleet


The completion of the Indiana -class battleships, each weighing over ten thousand tons and armed with four 13-inchers, eight 8-inchers, and a variety of smaller guns, would signal a break with the past that was, in its own way, as revolutionary as the building of the first ironclads in the Civil War. Until now, Americans had imagined naval combat in terms of the heavyfooted, short-legged monitors guarding the home shores while swift cruisers like the newly commissioned Columbia and Olympia shot out of the mist to burn enemy—which naturally still meant English—merchant shipping. This was the formula that had worked to a degree in the special circumstances of 1812, when most of England’s great navy had been occupied fighting the French. Under more normal conditions of war, however, it was likely to fail, as it had failed the Confederates in 1861. History showed that the chief business of a navy at war is to destroy or at least lock up the enemy’s fleet. But big ships had always been needed to accomplish this end, and in 1890 that meant steel battleships.

Such was the persuasive argument of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, the sea-going intellectual who had been elevated from the humdrum of routine duty to head the newly established Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1886, his first year in the post, Mahan had delivered a series of lectures which, four years later, appeared as a book, The Influence of Seapower upon History, 1660–1783 . Though it was essentially a historical work, its implications were much broader, and it had a widespread influence both here and abroad. As the historian Louis M. Hacker has written:

…it was translated into all the important modern languages; it was read eagerly and studied closely by every great chancellory and admiralty; it shaped the imperial policies of Germany and Japan; it supported the position of Britain that its greatness lay in its far-flung empire; and it once more turned America toward those seas where it had been a power up to 1860 but which it had abandoned to seek its destiny in the conquest of its own continent.

Mahan’s message—which in his day seemed revolutionary—was that a strong navy was the key to national power and security. And yet, only with the greatest reluctance did the Navy accept the formulations of this unsociable officer with the scholarly mind. (“It is not the business of a naval officer to write books,” one hard-shell admiral once reminded Mahan when he asked that his next sea tour be put off until he had completed the volume he was then working on.) Gradually, however—and Mahan’s influence is undeniable—the Navy underwent a fundamental transformation: an essentially provincial organization would one day become a sophisticated professional service which knew how to think in terms of war waged across the oceans and around the globe.∗∗ Even in World War II Mahan’s studies were influential in American naval thought, as Secretary of War Henry Stimson discovered when he frequently found himself confronted by that “dim religious world, in which Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true Church.”

If the Indiana -class battleships were models of advanced design, many of the ships which entered service in the nineties were obsolescent curiosities. Hardly any two were alike. There was the bizarre Brooklyn , with her huge beaked bow, tumble-home sides, and three slender smokestacks soaring a hundred feet above the furnace grates. There was the long, narrow Vesuvius , which fired shells filled with dynamite from three 15inch pneumatic guns angling out of her fo’c’sle deck, and the Katahdin , armed with a formidable ram upon which she was to impale the foe. So that she might be invisible against her sea background she was painted green, and she could submerge till the deck was awash. Alas! She was too slow to catch any vessel with the wit to get out of the way.

Then there were the low, flat monitors—”about the shape of a sweet potato which has split in the boiling,” wrote a future admiral, William S. Sims, who served for a time in one of them. Six in number, they had raftlike hulls little different from that of John Ericsson’s original Monitor of 1862. If one can accept the faintly cannibalistic idea of one ship absorbing another and quietly assuming her victim’s identity, he can trace the history of most of these craft back to the Civil War.

The old Monadnock , for example, which shortly after the Civil War had smashed her way from east coast to west via the Horn in eight months, was found badly decayed and unseaworthy after a few years. “Repairs” at a private shipyard in San Francisco Bay were authorized in 1873, though work did not actually begin for another three years. By 1883, with the job still not done, the Navy seized the ship, towed her to the nearby Mare Island Navy Yard, and completed her—thirteen years later. When she poked her broad nose out of San Francisco Bay for the first time, in 1898, the only trace of the original Monadnock was the name; all the rest—hull, engines, boilers, and guns—was new. Unfortunately, a design that was good in 1873 had little to recommend it a quarter of a century later.