The Great White Fleet


Next the Army tried to drive Cervera out. In the second half of June some 17,000 troops were landed at Daiquiri, about halfway between Santiago and the recently captured base at Guantanamo Bay. Fighting not only a well-entrenched, though hungry, enemy but heat and tropical disease, the outnumbered American army also failed. The commanding general called upon Admiral Sampson to dash through the enemy’s minefields and collar the Spaniards; he refused. But Sampson was willing to talk the matter over. He was on his way to a conference with the general on Sunday, July 3, when Pasqual Cervera abruptly solved the matter.

Prodded from Madrid, the reluctant Spanish admiral headed out to sea—and provided the American Navy with another great morning. The Americans, led by Sampson’s second-in-command, Commodore Schley, destroyed all of Cervera’s ships without losing a single ship of their own; only one man was killed, a yeoman on the Brooklyn . When Admiral Sampson heard the gunfire, he turned the swift New York around and crowded on all speed, but he arrived too late. His report to Washington, “The fleet under my command offers the nation as a Fourth of July present the whole of Cervera’s fleet … ,” precipitated a bitter wrangle with Schley that went on for years.

Nonetheless there was glory enough for all. Everyone was gallant, officers shouted heroic phrases (“Don’t cheer, boys, the poor devils are dying,” cried Captain Jack Philip of the Texas ), and the scene was bright with flying flags and flaming guns. After the battle the victors risked their lives to rescue their recent enemies from exploding ships, sharks, and Cuban guerrillas on the beach; captured Spanish officers were taken to Annapolis, where they were treated as gentlemen-heroes.

“A splendid little war,” wrote an exultant John Hay from London, and most would agree. Cuba was free after four centuries of Spanish rule and now we had colonies of our own: Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The Navy had become immensely popular. Congress provided for so many new ships that the nation’s shipyards were clogged for years.

Not everyone, however, was as self-satisfied as Hay. Within the Navy serious questions arose about American strategy (splitting the Flying Squadron from the rest of the fleet), tactics (Santiago was a captains’ battle with no direction from Commodore Schley), and gunnery (firing at ranges of a mile or two, only 1.3 per cent of the shots hit home). Perhaps the performance was no worse than anyone else’s might have been. In any event it was better than the Spaniards’, and that was enough for that war.

In September, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, a political nonconformist whom Republican chieftains had tried to bury in the Vice Presidency, unexpectedly became President when William McKinley was assassinated. For the seven and a half years that Roosevelt was in the White House, the Navy toiled and prospered. Roosevelt was a zestful player at world power politics. He believed not only that “a great country must have a foreign policy,” but also that “there is some nobler ideal for a great nation than being an assemblage of prosperous hucksters.” The Navy became his chief means for executing his views on foreign policy.

Tiny gunboats commanded by officers fresh from Annapolis cruised, ready for battle, up and down the Philippines and far up the pirateridden rivers of China. Others roamed the Caribbean, prepared to land marines and seamen on turbulent tropic shores.