Dec 16

December 16, 1907: The Great White Fleet departs Hampton Roads for Circumnavigation

Sunday, December 16, 2012 1:00 AM

This selection comes from The Great White Fleet: Its Voyage Arund the World, 1907-1909 by Robert A. Hart, published in 1965.

By late November most of the battleships were at New York, taking in supplies before moving on to Hampton Roads, Virginia, the port of embarkation. Hundreds of young officers came ashore to look at the new Metropolitan Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the notorious suffragette who smoked a cigar each day at noon in Washington Square. New Yorkers gawked, too, gathering around the men in blue, pounding their backs, paying their bills in restaurants, and taking them to the Metropolitan Opera House to hear Enrico Caruso in Rigoletto. They were national heroes and required no fancies from Roosevelt’s publicists to help them look and act the part. Naval popularity since the victory over Spain had drawn some of America’s best men to Annapolis. The United States Navy’s most valuable asset, Britain’s Spectator asserted, was its young officers – keen, ambitious, intellgent, and handsome. Society pages reported their successes in lower Fifth Avenue, where the daughters of the “best families” clustered around them in a lively competion for signatures in velvet-covered dance programs.

Most of the officers took trains to Philadelphia on November 30 for the Army-Navy football game. The crowd of thirty thousand at Franklin Field was loud in its cheers for Admiral Evans and a Navy halfback’s twisting run for a touchdown. The middies won, 6-0, over the heavily favored men from West Point. “Like good soldiers, they fought the sailors hard,” the AP story read, “but it was no use, for it was the Navy’s day.” Fleet personnel returned to New York in a jubilant mood. The next night at a farewell banquet they shouted hip-hip-hurrahs when Admiral Evans announced that his men and ships were ready for anything, “a feast, a frolic or a fight.”

Evans himself was not ready for any one of these possibilities. Nor were the other ancient mariners on whose shoulders would fall the heaviest burdens of the mission.

Aside from the now-inactive George Dewey, Evans was the nation’s best-known naval figure. He had been wounded in an attack on Fort Fisher in the Civil War. He had earned the nickname “Fighting Bob” at Valparaiso, Chile, in 1891, by threatening to destroy the local navy unless Chile agreed to stop her impudent behavior toward the United States. As captain of the Iowa in the battle off Santiago, Cuba, he was credited with sinking the Spanish flagship.

Elated by victory in 1898, Congress had created for Dewey a special rank called Admiral of the Navy, worth at least five stars as far as international protocol was concerned. Later regretting such extravagance, Congress allowed no man more than the two stars of a rear admiral. Exalted titles were not good for democracy. Roosevelt was far more worried by the prospect that Evans would be humiliated in every port he visited. Commanding the world’s most imposing fleet, he nonetheless would be outranked by the assorted vice admirals, admirals and admirals of the fleet who abounded even in paltry, one-battleship nations. Protocol would keep him at the wrong end of banquet tables and assign too few guns to his salutes. As the voyage approached, Roosevelt asked several times that Evans be promoted, but Congress remained stubborn.

The rebuffs pained Evans, but not nearly so much as did a gouty left foot. Doctors advised him not to make the cruise. Nevertheless, a Tribune man was certain that the admiral could make it. He was in the best of health, the reporter wrote, and “a single glance at his weather-tanned face and his keen eye” was enough to prove it. Wrinkled, scowling, and heavy-jawed, “Fighting Bob” still looked aggressive. A worried French journalist called him “the ruthless Exterminator.”

Second in command was Rear Admiral Charles M. Thomas, who hardly touched his food at the farewell banquet and hurrahed the speechmaking with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. Overweight and suffering heart trouble, Thomas too had been warned doctor that he should cancel plans to sail with the fleet. Surely, it had been suggested, the admiral could apply for some less strenuous duty during the eight months remaining before his retirement. Thomas ingored the advice, mentioning that it was his duty to do all he to make the voyage a success.

Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry, third in line, cut a fine figure at banquet tables and on ballroom floors. Unlike some of the more fragile-looking officers, he was erect, broad-shouldered, and never appeared to be sinking under the enormous epaulettes, the golden gondola of a cocked hat, the belt, braid, and buttons, the long sword and scabbard, and other trappings of the brass bound uniform. His mustache was frosty and precisely clipped and his expression coldly correct, except for an uncontrollable eyelid, caused by a minor nerve ailment, which sometimes proved embarrassing in mixed company. Despite this tendency to leer, Sperry was an accomplished diplomat and would be an asset to the cruise if only he could stand the strain of it. During most of 1907 he had been a delegate to the Second Hague Peace Conference, where an unnamed illness had made a “half-invalid” of him. Physicians did not think he could complete the voyage.

Last of the rear admirals who would command the four fleet divisions was William H. Emory. With his impressive girth and jolly personality, “Big Bill” was in contrast to his dog, Little Bill, a savage beast destined to commit diplomatic atrocities from Trinidad to China. Officers hoped Little Bill would die, but were just as outspoken in their concern for the health of his master. Several ailments bothered Emory but, characteristically, he made light of them. He looked forward to the cruise, in fact, and judged that his talent for entertaining the ladies­ – he was vain about his black hair and the springy curl in his gray mustache – would be of some benefit at balls and receptions. Retirement was only seven months away, and the cruise would be a grand way to end a career. He was sure that the responsibility of fleet command would never come to him.

The four rear admirals averaged sixty years of age, and the sixteen captains fifty-six. They were from seven to ten years older than men of the same ranks in the British, German, French, and Japanese navies. When the cruise ended in 1909, the Secretary of the Navy would be ready to admit that “senior officers…are too old for the responsibilities and arduous duty” of diplomatic missions. They were products of a seniority system wherein patience, rather than talent and initiative, was rewarded by promotion. Moving step by step through the ranks, one could reach the top only a year or two before retirement at sixty-two, giving the Navy small use of a lifetime’s training for command.

These were the men who would, as a senator put it, “go dancing around the world.” Like officers of European navies, they secretly detested the battleship parades as ordeals all the more grueling for their seeming uselessness. They had been through this sort of thing before and knew what to expect. Diplomatic duty required keen brains and convincing smiles, no matter how exhausted and bored officers became. During a week of pageantry they seldom escaped from their most heavily ornamented uniforms, gave half a dozen speeches each day, and almost as many meals. Each evening they might risk ruining their careers by drinking too many toasts with potentates or dancing too infrequently with the official wives. Rather frighteningly, the mission ahead would not a week, but fourteen months.

All sixteen battleships had entered Hampton Roads by December 12 and anchored in neat rows near where, on a night forty-five years before, a wooden United States Navy had awaited almost certain destruction by a crude iron ancestor known as the Merrimac.

Ships, trains, carriages, and automobiles brought thousands of people into the towns near the Roads. From wharves and hotel verandas they watched barges ferry the last of the supplies to the warships. Some supplies provided clues for onlookers who wondered whether the fleet would engage in a feast, a frolic, or a fight. Red danger flags had been raised, showing that ammunition was being loaded, but into other holds went pumpkin pies, plum puddings, sacks of walnuts, and fifteen thousand pounds of chocolate bonbons. About five dozen pianos were hoisted aboard. If the destination was merely San Francisco, as Roosevelt kept saying it was, why did the ships need navigation charts of the Philip­pines and the Suez Canal? If they were going to teach Japan a lesson, why should cargoes include large portraits of the Emperor and other Japanese leaders?

One look at the gleaming fleet was enough to convince an intelligent spectator that there would be no war. Two years before, a group of gray, dirty-looking Japanese ships, poor targets in the smoke and mist, had wiped out Russia’s gaudily painted fleet. This part of the Tsushima lesson was reluctantly learned, but by late 1907 practically all of the major navies had been painted gray. America’s was the only exception, Roosevelt having rejected all advice on the matter. The fleet must stay in fancy dress until after the world cruise.

The winter fogs of Hampton Roads collected soot from the stacks and laid it against the ships. Painting the white hulls “never seems to cease,” a reporter noted. From suspended scaffolds crewmen touched up the shields, the eagles, the fancy curlicues, and other bas-reliefs which adorned the prows. The Connecticut and other late models had more of this golden frosting than did the older ships. Anchors were raised every day to be hosed clean of mud and weeds. Hardwood decks, polished steel of the twelve-inch guns, the elegant brass and walnut decor of the bridge, the slim smoke funnels and fat ventilator hoods, and white lifeboats with their cranes or davits – all came in for daily scrutiny by men with mops, brushes, emery cloths, and holystones.

The sixteen were identically decorated but varied in their statistics. Souvenir programs, listing these statistics, the roster of admirals and captains, and the order of march, were on sale in the lobbies of Hampton Roads hotels:

FIRST DIVISION
Connecticut (Hugo Osterhaus, captain; flagship of Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans, fleet commander) completed early 1907; 16,000 tons; four 12″ guns, eight 8″ and twelve 7″; maximum speed 18 knots.
Kansas (Charles E. Vreeland) completed 1906; other details same as Connecticut.
Louisiana (Richard Wainwright) same as Kansas.
Vermont (William P. Potter) same as Kansas.

SECOND DIVISION
Georgia (Henry McCrea, captain; flagship of Rear Admiral William P. Emory, division commander) completed 1906; 16,094 tons; four 12″ guns, eight 8″ and twelve 6″; 19 knots.
Virginia (Seaton Schroeder) same as Georgia.
New Jersey (William Southerland) same as Georgia.
Rhode Island (Joseph B. Murdock) same as Georgia.

THIRD DIVISION
Minnesota (John Hubbard, captain; flagship of Rear Admiral Charles M. Thomas, division commander), same as Kansas.
Ohio (Charles W. Bartlett) completed 1904; 12,500 tons; four 12″ guns and sixteen 6″; 17 knots.
Missouri (Greenlief A. Merriam) completed 1903; same as Ohio.
Maine (Giles B. Harber) completed 1902; same as Ohio.

FOURTH DIVISION
Alabama (Ten Eyck De Witt Veeder, captain; flagship of Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry, division commander) completed 1900; 11,552 tons; four 13″ guns and fourteen 6″; 17.4 knots.
Illinois (John W. Bowyer) 16.2 knots, same as Alabama.
Kentucky (Walter C. Cowles) completed 1900; 11,500 tons; four 13″ guns, four 8″, and fourteen 5″; 16.5 knots.
Kearsarge (Hamilton Hutchins) same as Kentucky.

The fleet cost $96,606,000, ranging from $4,621,000 for the Illinois to $7,677,000 for the new Connecticut. Crews totaled about fourteen thousand from Kentucky’s six hundred seventy-nine to Connecticut‘s eight hundred forty-six. Four auxiliaries would attend the fleet-supply ship Culgoa, refrigerator ship Glacier, repair ship Panther, and the Yankton, a small yacht needed for ceremonial occasions. A torpedo boat flotilla (Whipple, Truxton, Lawrence, Stewart, Hopkins, and Hull) was to cruise about a week ahead of the main fleet and observe any signs of enemy ambush.

Riding at anchor, the battleships looked powerful as well as beautiful. “This fleet could make short work of a force representing the combined fleets of Dewey and Sampson and Togo and Rozhestvensky and Cervera.” A Miss Samantha Shoup was moved to poetry: “O fleets that fought at Salamis, Lepanto, Trafalgar, / What were ye all to one of these in the deadly grip of war!” “Awesome,” “formidable,” “intrepid,” “indomitable,” “invincible”-newspapers fired mighty salvos at the world.

The fleet was “one huge bluff … of little service in battle.” The appearance of a few such discordant notes brought bursts of indignation from the patriotic majority. A critic was a traitor, a saboteur, planting a kind of that could destroy a quest for glory.

Henry Reuterdahl, the muckraker in disguise, had slipped through Roosevelt’s elaborate precautions. Rowing his artist’s gear out to the Louisiana, he peered through his spectacles at the towering walls of the vessels around him. He saw that his earlier research had been correct. There were no comforting bulges, no sign of the belts of Krupp armor which should have been visible at two feet above the waterlines. The belts were beneath the surface, giving ships no protection against shell hits in their vulnerable regions. This flaw did not escape Evans, but he preferred to look on the bright side, pointing out that America had provided her sailors with so many comforts and conveniences, which foreign navies lacked, that the extra weight was bound to make the fleet lie a bit low in the water. Reuterdahl was pessimistic. In case of surprise attack there would be no time to throw the pianos overboard.

The ships were vulnerable to a more sensational type of abuse. Six had cracked boiler tubes, a kind of defect which had caused the deaths of sixty men on the Bennington in 1905. Equally dangerous were the ammunition hoists, housed in straight, open shafts with nothing to prevent burning refuse from gun breeches from falling down to the powder rooms. Explosions, generally blamed on the hoist design, had killed twenty-three on the Missouri in 1904, ten on the Massachusetts in 1905, ten on the Kearsarge in 1906, and ten on the Georgia in July of 1907.

For years there had been sporadic investigations of cracked armor plate, defective boiler tubes, and other faulty equipment, as well as of the bribes, counterfeited government inspection stamps, and other tricks used by manufacturers to hide profitable shortcuts they had taken in building the vessels. Newspapers claimed Roosevelt was at the mercy of the steel trust, that he wanted battleships so badly that he would not risk offending Pittsburgh with one of his antitrust actions. Protected by high tariffs and the absence of domestic competition, the bust forced the United States Navy to accept shoddy merchandise and pay considerably more than it charged foreign customers for battleships.

Officers worried most about the ugly ducklings consigned to the rear of the parade. The Maine consumed coal so rapidly that Evans feared she would suffer the embarrassment of being towed into foreign ports. There were foreboding cracks in the Alabama‘s piston cylinders, and the Kearsarge still flaunted her make-believe armor of wood and canvas. “The Kentucky,” a disgusted officer said, “is not a battleship at all. She is the worst crime in naval construction ever perpetrated by the white race.”

What of the brand-new vessels at the head of the line? Was it true, as some experts claimed, that these battleships had been obsolete on the day of their completion? Their hulls bristled menacingly with rows of seven-and eight-inch guns, recalling an era when wooden frigates, separated by yards instead of miles, poured broadsides into one another. In 1907, however, the four twelve-­inchers of the main turrets, able to hit enemies over two miles away, could decide an action long before the smaller guns came into range. The Navy had decided to do away with the sevens and eights, thus making room more of the big artillery, but had not yet done so.

At least one navy had already acted. Throughout 1906 there had been rumors that England was building a battleship which would make all others obsolete. The Dreadnought was a carefully guarded secret until late 1907, when the world was informed of her eighteen tons, twenty-one-knot speed, and, most terrible of all, ten twelve-inch guns which gave her a calculated strength twice that of any existing warship. England’s sense of timing was infuriating. She was suspected of revealing her giant for the specific purpose of diminishing the impression to be made by America’s touring battleships.

Coaling arrangements provided another mortification. The Navy’s eight colliers were far from sufficient for the needs of the cruise, and the few private colliers under American registry were unavailable. The government hired one Austro-Hungarian, seven Norwegian, and forty-­one British ships to deliver coal to the fleet at various ports. As Senator Hale complained, “the greatest fleet of formidable ships that the whole world has ever seen” must depend “on the indulgence of foreign powers.” The scope of British participation in coaling the fleet was not revealed until after the voyage was over. Not until 1909 would the Germans, as well as those Americans who had hoped the fleet would attack Japan, understand how completely Japan’s ally could control the behavior of the United States Navy.

The fleet was not the best nor the worst on earth, but certainly it could never measure up to the advertising campaign that heralded its departure. Many Europeans realized this. British officers said that America wanted an impressive navy on paper and cared little about technical details which could win or lose battles. The Kaiser, having a tooth pulled by Berlin’s most fashionable American dentist, sat back in the chair and chatted happily about submerged armor belts and other flaws which enhanced the unpredictability of the cruise. Tirpitz, who already counted the United States as an ally, grumbled about the low value of her battleships.

With coal and supplies aboard, the Navy turned to entertaining the people who had come to see the fleet off. On Friday of the last weekend in port, there were football, baseball, and rowing matches between ships’ teams. Watching the spirited play, a captain said, “We won’t have a dozen deserters in the entire fleet.” Far more than a dozen of the newly enlisted farm boys, dismayed by their first look at the sea, slipped out of Hampton Roads during the weekend, but London papers were over­optimistic in claiming there were five hundred desertions.

Hands in fur muffs, the sweethearts and wives of officers impatiently watched the football games and thought ahead to the climax of the day’s festivities. That evening the Chamberlin Hotel’s grand ballroom, decorated with flags and bunting, was the scene of a spectacular gathering. High society from Norfolk, Richmond, Baltimore, and Washington mingled with Navy men “all a-glitter with gold lace and trappings” and Army artillery officers from Fortress Monroe in red dress uniforms. The mood was bittersweet. “Many a brave smile” was exchanged between the waltzers, but three days later the women would “be drenching their pillows with tears, and the one prayer will be ‘Bring him back safely.’”

There were few smiles when officers congregated the smoking rooms. They talked of news that had arrived from Washington. Congressmen once again refused to allow Evans’s promotion. Couldn’t they see that in nations “where titles and honors were still important,” a higher rank “would give him prestige”? Still the Japanese stewards had been discharged from the battleships. It was outrageous, the officers said, government could suspect these loyal servants, some of whom had held their jobs for twenty or thirty years, of being spies and saboteurs. Some of the “Jap boys” were weeping, for they were deeply attached to the men they served in the wardrooms. The Navy Department’s promise that new stewards would be taken on in a Chinese port was small solace, even though it ended any remaining doubts that the fleet would be going around the world. “We shall have to rely upon boys from the crew until we get the Chinese,” a lieutenant said. Negro volunteers, who had joined the Navy in good faith, were chosen to fill the gap. They resented their assignments as waiters and busboys, and, as the months went by, would sometimes become so “impudent” that they would have to be beaten.

A fifty-mile gale struck the anchorage on Saturday. There could be no dancing on the Connecticut‘s rolling deek, and Evans called off the full-dress ball he had planned. It was just as well, for this was one of his bad days. The bandaged foot was propped up on a chair, and he howled in pain whenever someone brushed against it. By evening the storm was so furious that no man, however much he might yearn for the woman who waited at the Chamberlin, could risk the half-mile journey in a launch.

Goodbyes were saved for Sunday, when there was hardly time for them amidst the last-minute details. During a final inventory of supplies, someone discovered a missing item. A boat hurried ashore and returned before sundown with ten crates of Bibles. The oversight, though rectified, would bring stern comments from the pulpit.

The majority of Sunday’s sermons offered praise for the voyage. “It is the most momentous event in this country since the Civil War,” thundered a Baptist preacher in New York City. “God has led us into the Pacific… It drove me to prayer. I could see it in America’s assertion of her right to control the Pacific in the interest of civilization and humanity.” The Archbishop of St. Louis disagreed. The cruise was “hypocritical…carrying the palm of peace in one hand while the other holds the key to the holds wherein is stored the thirty-five million pounds of ammunition for ‘fight or frolic.’”

Monday, December 16, 1907, was like a national holiday, with ceremonies and celebrations throughout the land and flags displayed on front porches everywhere. By nine A.M. crowds were thick on the docks and shorelines of Old Point Comfort and the porches of the Chamberlin Hotel. The bright sun gave little warmth. Ranks soldiers stood at attention on the ramparts of Fortress Monroe. In the tradition of naval leavetakings, wives and fiancees remained in the Chamberlin and watched ceremonies from the windows of their rooms.

Battleship masts were circus tentpoles, holding strings of pennants that stretched from bow to stem. The ships lay in two rows, forming an aisle down which President’s yacht Mayflower moved in slow majesty. Marine guards presented arms, and crews waved hats and hurrahed. There were sixteen twenty-one-gun salutes and sixteen national anthems. It was a splendid cacophony, forcing Roosevelt to shout, “Did you such a fleet and such a day? By George, isn’t it magnificent?” He stood at attention on the Mayflower‘s deck, saluting with one hand, in the military manner, and supporting his top hat with the other to keep it from blowing away.

The yacht halted abeam of the Connecticut, and a launch brought Admiral Evans to the Mayflower‘s gangway. He climbed slowly and in evident pain, leaning on his cane and waving away aides who offered support, until at last he reached the deck. “Now then, Admiral, one word before you go,” the President said, drawing him aside and frowning at reporters who pressed too close. “Your cruise is a peaceful one, but you realize your responsibility if it should turn out otherwise.” As soon as the fleet was at sea, he said, crews could be told that they were going all the way around the world. “Best of luck, old fellow, goodbye.”

Evans returned to his ship and was ready to signal “up anchors” when he noticed that the ceremonies were not quite over. Now passing between the columns in the wake of the Mayflower was a small boat, the Dolphin, on whose deck were members of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee. Having denied Evans his promotion, they bad not been invited to Hampton Roads. They had come anyway and hired a boat and a band. Scornful officers remarked how unceremoniously the senators’ band played the national anthem over and over again.

Windlass engines drew the anchors, dripping slime down the bows, into their recesses. The circus rigging dropped to the decks and was stowed away. Engines throbbed, convulsing the water, and a sudden darkness fell on the fleet as smoke poured from the funnels. Ships’ bands struck up “Auld Lang Syne” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” The Mayflower led the column close to the Chamberlin, where handkerchiefs fluttered in the windows.

Not until it was several miles at sea did the Presidential yacht tum aside. On its deck Roosevelt stood alone, teeth bared against a hostile wind that bore smoke and cinders from the three-mile line of battleships filing past him. In the fleet’s wake bobbed a small boat, imprudently far from shore, decked with streamers and laden with sweethearts shouting their last goodbyes.

 
 
 
  • ErnestPayne

    As a collector of GWF mail I appreciate the column. I have a couple of books on the voyage and there are a couple of sites listing ships and some crew lists (helpful in identifying mail). It can be a real challenge to collect. BTW the first ship cancels come from the end of the voyage.