The Great White Fleet


This 1887 engraving from Harper’s Weekly , based on a drawing by Frederic Remington, is titled “The Last Aboard”—referring, of course, to the acrobatic fellow in the blue uniform and leg irons who is being gently assisted to the deck of a U.S. Navy man-of-war. Some siren song of the mainland has obviously smitten him—but a few days in the brig will cure all that. Commenting on this tableau, an anonymous Harper’s moralist spoke of the “certain human tendencies” in sailors “which, for all that one can see, will last to the end of things nautical … In the case of the sailor whose return is represented in the picture … the indisposition to resume the humdrum of a seafaring life is most marked.… His mates understand that he means no offence to them personally by being burdensome, and that his balky behavior is directed merely against the general system of ship discipline, which, on such an occasion particularly, seems very harsh and grinding to him.

“The types of sailors represented,” the writer concluded, “are taken from Uncle Sam’s navy, and may be seen in life just at present at the Brooklyn Navy-yard, where, though satisfactory results have attended the energetic temperance crusade conducted by the worthy chaplain of the Vermont , the backsliders are sufficiently numerous to supply many originals for the subject of our illustration.”

In November, 1903, negotiations with Colombia for a ship canal through the Isthmus of Panama failed. Not long after, that province flared into revolt. When loyal troops arrived at Colon they found the U.S. gunboat Nashville in the harbor and her landing party ashore, effectively blocking the restoration of Colombian authority. Roosevelt quickly recognized Panama as an independent state, and soon had his canal site.

The gunboats may have borne the White Man’s Burden, but they did so under cover of the big ships. Twice war seemed imminent: in 1901, with Germany, when it threatened to slice off a portion of Venezuela in payment for a bad debt, and again, in 1907, with Japan. Twice the President mobilized his battle fleet, and twice the war threat vanished.

During Roosevelt’s administration, the American Navy became, for a time, the second most powerful in the world, boasting more than forty big armored ships—compared with seven during the war with Spain. Only England had more heavy ships (ninety-eight in 1908), while France came third with thirty-three; Germany had thirty-two, and Japan twenty-two. (Russia, long in third place, had been humiliated by the Japanese in 1904–05 and for many years would no longer be counted among the great sea powers.) Germany, Japan, and the United States were on their way up; indeed, after Roosevelt left office in 1909, Germany passed the United States. France was steadily losing ground.

Moreover, from 1905 on, for the first time in peace, most of the American battleships worked together in a single group. And, by previous standards, they were beginning to shoot with marvelous accuracy. While the fleet maneuvered east of Norfolk and south of Cuba, selected officers took graduate courses in strategy, tactics, and international law at the Naval War College in Newport, which Mahan had presided over in its precarious early years.

Then, toward the end of his second term, Roosevelt, always the master showman, came up with the most dramatic stroke of all. With the Japanese war problem still before him, he announced that he would send sixteen of his best battleships from the Atlantic to the Pacific in a show of strength. Dazzling in its white paint, the fleet sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, in December, 1907, with Rear Admiral Robley (“Fighting Bob”) Evans leading in his flagship, the Connecticut . The first night out, Evans had a surprise for his 15,000 officers and men: ”… after a short stay on the Pacific Coast, it is the President’s intention to have the fleet return to the Atlantic Coast by way of the Mediterranean.” They were going to steam around the world. The voyage of the “Great White Fleet,” which was to take it 45,000 miles in fourteen months, had begun.

As the Panama Canal was far from finished, the ships made the long first leg of their voyage by way of Rio, the Strait of Magellan, and the west coast of South America. The fleet’s first foreign port was Port of Spain, Trinidad, where it was received with indifference, for the arrival of the Americans coincided with the opening of the horse-racing season. Their reception in Rio was much better. Officers and men alike had a good time. Perhaps the most noteworthy outcome of the occasion was the birth of the Shore Patrol. Evans was determined that his men, let loose in a glittering foreign capital, would be neither the cause nor the victims of trouble. The men did well by their admiral, and the city by the men. Even so, the Shore Patrol proved itself so effective that it has now become an institution, in evidence wherever a naval base is located or in whatever port a U.S. man-of-war may visit.