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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
In spite of this lingering abundance of floating oddities and antiques, it was not a bad fleet, though hardly in a class with the navies of the major European powers. Nor did there seem any likelihood that it would be for years to come. As Admiral Bradley Fiske wrote, years later:
there was absolute conviction in the minds of everybody that the United States would never go to war again, and that our navy was maintained simply as a measure of precaution against the wholly improbable danger of our coast being attacked. It was not considered proper for a nation as great as ours not to have a fine navy; but the people regarded the navy very much as they regarded a beautiful building or fine natural scenery: a thing to be admired and to be proud of, but not to be used.
But a test of America’s new navy came sooner than anyone expected. Affairs in Cuba had not improved since the days of the Virginius incident. In February, 1898, while on a visit to Havana, the battleship Maine blew up, killing 262 men. Spain frantically disclaimed responsibility (the cause of the explosion has never been satisfactorily determined) but to no avail. Two months later, the United States declared war. The fleet went into dull gray paint and loaded ammunition—which had been provided by the foresight of the energetic young New Yorker who was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodcre Roosevelt. His duty done, Roosevelt resigned to get into the fight with his own mounted regiment of cowboys and college boys.
In Europe, only the British favored an American victory, but they were not hopeful. As Commodore George Dewey led the Asiatic Squadron out’of Hong Kong, the prevailing opinion of the Royal Navy officers was that the Americans were “a fine set of fellows, but unhappily we shall never see them again.”
It didn’t work out that way. Dewey, with four cruisers, two gunboats, a Coast Guard cutter, and two supply ships, entered Manila Bay late in the night of April 30, exchanged a few shots with the forts at Corregidor, and early the next morning encountered Rear Admiral Don Patricio Montojo’s squadron at Cavité, near the head of the bay. Montojo, backed by guns ashore, also had seven cruisers and gunboats, though his ships were older and smaller than Dewey’s. The latter, taking time out in the midst of the action to serve his men breakfast, sank all of Montojo’s ships without losing a man or a ship. Bradley Fiske, a veteran of the battle, noted that after Manila Bay, the British began to look upon the Americans as equals.
The Philippines, however, was a side show; Cuba remained at all times the chief theatre of war. By April, the Navy’s half-dozen big ships in the Atlantic had been concentrated at Key West, and the Pacific Station’s only battleship, the Oregon , was pounding up the east coast of South America at a steady eleven knots, en route to the Florida base.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the Atlantic, Rear Admiral Pasqual Cervera was at sea with the main Spanish squadron—four big armored cruisers accompanied by three torpedo boats. Panicking, the East Coast demanded naval protection. To give the appearance of a defense, Civil War monitors were hastily reconditioned and manned with naval militiamen. The public wanted more. So, despite Mahan’s dictum that the battle fleet should never be broken up, it was. One half of our big ships were formed into the so-called Flying Squadron under Commodore Winfield Scott Schley in the Brooklyn and ordered north to Norfolk, to catch Cervera if he should try to shell coastal cities or beach resorts. It was an unwise move, for both the Flying Squadron and the ships remaining at Key West under Rear Admiral William T. Sampson in the armored cruiser New York were now outnumbered by the Spaniards. Luckily, however, Cervera had neither fuel nor ammunition to waste on civilian targets.
In time the Spanish admiral and six of his ships reached Santiago, on Cuba’s southern coast, where they stopped for coal. After some hesitation, the North Atlantic Fleet, once again united under Sampson, gathered at the entrance to Santiago’s little harbor and dared the foe to venture out. When nothing happened, a naval constructor named Richmond P. Hobson and seven volunteers attempted to trap Cervera by sinking an old merchant ship in the middle of Santiago’s narrow channel. Running in at night under fire from the enemy’s ancient shore batteries, they sank the ship, but she went down lengthwise rather than athwart the channel, and the way remained open.