Historical Backgound

The New Steel Navy

A Navy in Decline

During the Civil War the Navy had a fleet of 700 ships. In the years following the Civil War, the United States Navy fell into decline. That bloody conflict had seen stunning technical advances in naval design, but the nation was too exhausted from war, and too pre-occupied by Reconstruction and Westward expansion, to spend much money on naval technology. While other nations around the world continued to experiment with iron and steel hulled armored ships, and improved steam engine technology, the once powerful U.S. Navy was content with the undemanding mission of showing the flag in foreign ports. Very few new ships were constructed, and the soon antiquated Civil War fleet of gunboats and ironclads was held in reserve.

By the 1880’s, the United States Navy was outclassed by numerous other navies around the world. By November 1881, the Navy had only 32 ships in the fleet fit for service . None were modern, and they all had obsolete muzzle loading smooth bore cannons. The Naval Appropriations Act of 1883 authorised the construction of four modern ships: the cruisers Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and gunboat Dolphin. These became known as the “A, B, C, D ships”. These four ships were constructed in Chester, PA. Initially, construction was slow due to the manufacture of the steel armor. The Navy also lacked the ability to manufacture large rifled naval guns.The steel forgings for our 8 inch guns had to be imported from England. The USS DOLPHIN was commissioned in 1885 and followed by the ATLANTA in 1886, BOSTON in 1887, CHICAGO in 1889. All four ships were rigged for sails as a back up to their steam propulsion. The Naval Act of 3 March 1885 authorised the addition of protected cruisers CHARLESTON and NEWARK along with the gunboats YORKTOWN and PETREL. CHARLESTON and PETREL were commissioned in 1886, followed by YORKTOWN and NEWARK in 1887. USS CHARLESTON was the first ship in the new steel navy to abandon sail power as a back up system.  In 1889 the “Squadron of Evolution” consisting of ATLANTA, CHICAGO, BOSTON, and YORKTOWN was established and operating in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean in the 1890’s.


 Victory at Sea over Spain

The Navy’s modernization program was crucial to another enterprise —the overseas expansion of American territorial possessions. With most of the “new” regions of the world claimed and colonized by this point, world powers were desperately trying to take hold of what remained. Despite the dominant position of the British Empire, and previous hostilities between the nations, the United States found a new enemy – Spain. By 1898, Spanish crackdowns on Cuban revolutionaries had led to sympathetic feelings by Americans. The battleship USS Maine was sent to Havana to secure American interests. On the evening of February 15, 1898, while anchored in Havana’s harbor, she exploded. Nearly 260 sailors were killed, and the American media immediately blamed Spanish treachery.


In late April, war broke out in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Such a far-flung conflict across the seas required a powerful navy, and the new Steel Navy did not disappoint. Two naval battles, at Manila Bay and Santiago de Cuba, produced stunning American victories. Hundreds of Spanish sailors were killed, and all of their ships were sunk, grounded, or captured. The Americans had only one sailor killed between the two battles.


First Awkward Steps Towards Modernization

It was not until the United States Navy had fallen dangerously behind the other nations of the world that attention turned to modernization. Secretary of the Navy William Hunt wrote in 1881 that: [t]he condition of the Navy imperatively demands the prompt and earnest attention of Congress. Unless some action be had in its behalf it must soon dwindle into insignificance.

1. In 1883, legislation was at last passed providing for the construction of new steel warships. Known as the “A B C D Ships,” they were to be named Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Dolphin.

2. These new ships the first of which was commissioned in 1886 – were hybrids of old and new technology. They featured hulls constructed of steel, and relatively powerful steam engines, but were also capable of operating under sail. Some officers of this period were skeptical about coal power. They felt it was dirty and unreliable, and more importantly that it was too expensive. They also felt that it diminished the teamwork built through manning a rigged sailing ship. The masts and sails aboard these cruisers were eventually removed, giving way to their powered steam engines. By the 1890’s, the United States Navy had constructed a capable fleet of steel warships. Soon enough, the desire to retain sails on these steel ships was gone, and the Navy fully committed to a future with steam power.

For the U.S. Navy, exponential growth in the size and number of ships created a critical need for additional men. In 1896, two years before the Spanish-American War, the total authorized strength of the American navy was 10,000 men, only 1,800 more than 10 years before. By the turn of the century it had increased to 20,000 men, and by the time President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet began its voyage around the world in 1907, the U.S. Navy had almost 37,000 men. Just seven years later, it had over 51,000.

The “new” U.S. Navy of the Wilson era established an ambitious and comprehensive recruiting system to attract only men “from the best walks of life,” in (Secretary of the Navy) Daniels’s words. It presented the 20th-century bluejacket not as a rakish adventurer with a girl in every port but as a sort of well-traveled, high-tech Boy Scout. “Only men of sound mind and clean life are acceptable,” Daniels wrote. “The Navy is no place of shiftless, purposeless men. No liquor is allowed aboard ships, no gambling, and profanity is a violation of the regulations.” Daniels told Congress: “We have changed the style of our recruiting literature. We burned a bushel of literature which showed young men going into tropical climates and associating with women half dressed [sic]. These posters promised if a man enlisted into the Navy or the Marine Corps he would have opportunities that appealed to the lowest. Instead, every piece of literature that now goes forth says that the young man who now comes into the Navy will have an opportunity to be educated.”

The navy found the high-quality recruits it was seeking. From 1905 to 1914 the U.S. Navy accepted only about one in four men who applied for enlistment. Then, as now, large numbers of the applicants were attracted by the possibility of foreign travel or the opportunity for technical training. Bored with civilian life, many (despite Daniels’s remonstrations) simply sought adventure, and the navy’s relatively stable and secure jobs held much allure during recessions or spells of unemployment.

Hand in hand with the need for more men came a demand for educated sailors. For example, when introduced on battleships in 1904, centralized fire control (the coordination in one spot of the computations and commands used to fire an entire ship’s weapons system) required teams of 20 to 50 to receive, record, and calculate range, course, and speed information and then convert the data for the big guns.

“I believe the time will shortly come when we will permit no man to serve in the Navy who has not had some little experience as a chauffeur or as a machinist or as a mechanic or as an electrician or has not begun to learn some of the trades and vocational occupations needed in the Navy,” Daniels told Congress in 1916.

Few were willing to raise the entry bar so high, but all agreed more formal education and technical training were necessary. By the first decade of the 20th century, all great navies had schools offering courses of up to a year for blacksmiths, engine room technicians, gunners, cooks, paymasters, and many other specialties. In 1906, the U.S. Navy had more than two dozen different specialists or “ratings” and nine specialized schools.

In 1916 Daniels declared that “every ship should be a school,” and issued a general order requiring two hours of instruction daily for sailors in all ships and stations. Many naval officers obliged to conduct the instruction were unenthusiastic, but the press praised Daniels’s commandment. Shipboard education, which quickly evolved into a system of correspondence courses, became a permanent feature of 20th-century navy life.

Unlike the Royal Navy, the U.S. Navy did not systematically encourage long-term enlistments. In 1910 more than 74 percent of the total enlisted force had served less than four years—one enlistment period. A substantial number of men quit before their time was up. Between 1900 and 1908, the U.S. Navy lost an average of slightly more than 15 percent of its enlisted force each year to desertion.

Secretary of the Navy Daniels concentrated on improving service conditions to discourage desertion and encourage re enlistments. He reduced the cost of uniforms, improved the quality of ship stores, and reformed discipline so that sailors found guilty of serious infractions could be sent to disciplinary barracks and then returned to duty rather than sentenced to prison.

Daniels also encouraged the installation of laundries aboard ship. By 1914, many navy ships had electric ice cream makers, a development applauded by paymaster George P. Dyer, who believed that the navy’s “clear-eyed, intelligent American youths…know what clean living and good fare are, and they have the usual American notion of the festive nature of ice cream.” To enhance the appeal of the “join the Navy and see the world” slogan, Daniels encouraged fleets and squadrons to make frequent visits to foreign ports.

National Overview

The Nation

By 1900 the American nation had established itself as a world power. The West was won. The frontier — the great fact of 300 years of American history — was no more. The continent was settled from coast to coast. Apache war chief Geronimo had surrendered in 1886. Defeat of the Sioux at the battle of Wounded Knee in 1891 had brought the Indian Wars to a close. By 1900 the Indians were on reservations and the buffalo were gone. Homesteading and the introduction of barbed wire in 1874 had brought an end to the open range. The McCormick reaper had made large-scale farming profitable and, in 1900, the U.S. was by far the world’s largest agricultural producer. The first transcontinental rail link had been completed in 1869. Three decades later, in 1900, the nation had 193,000 miles of track, with five railroad systems spanning the continent.

The world’s first oil well had been drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859. By 1900, major oil fields were being tapped in Kansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. The supply of American oil seemed limitless. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust dominated the world’s petroleum markets and controlled more than 90 percent of the nation’s refinery capacity.

At the turn of the century, the strength of a nation’s industrial capacity was measured by the number of tons of steel it produced. In the 1880s Andrew Carnegie had constructed the world’s largest steel mill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and by 1900, the United States was the largest steel producer in the world, turning out 10,000,000 tons a year.

Henry Ford had built his first gasoline engine car in 1892 and the world’s first auto race was held in Chicago in 1896. With the founding of the Ford Motor Company in 1903, the age of the automobile was underway.

By 1900, telephones were in wide use. Cities were being electrified. Moving pictures were a curiosity. Guglielmo Marconi was conducting experiments that would lead to the development of the radio, and the Wright brothers were at work on a heavier-than-air flying machine.

Cities were growing. New wealth and devastating fires produced a boom in urban construction. Architects Richardson, Hunt, McKim, Mead, and White flourished; Sullivan pioneered the skys craper and his protege, Frank Lloyd Wright, was beginning his career in Chicago.

 National Politics

Republican William McKinley of Ohio was elected president in 1896 and re-elected in 1900. He had been preceded by Democrat Grover Cleveland and would be followed — and overshadowed — by Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt, who was vice-president when McKinley was assassinated in 1901, but later elected president in his own right.

McKinley was the last of five Civil War veterans to serve in the White House, signaling the end of the post-war era. He was also the fifth of the six Ohio presidents to serve during the fifty-year period 1868-1908. The ascendancy of Ohio and the Midwest in national politics demonstrated that the United States was no longer a nation oriented to the Atlantic seaboard. It stretched, as Katharine Lee Bates’s 1895 anthem, America the Beautiful, put it, “from sea to shining sea.”

In this period of booming growth, the nation experienced a dramatic presidential election. The 1896 campaign was perhaps the most fiercely fought contest since Andrew Jackson’s time. Republican McKinley represented Eastern conservative mercantile and industrial interests; Democrat William Jennings Bryan stood for Western radical agrarian interests. McKinley was a staunch supporter of high tariffs and the Gold Standard, while Bryan favored easier credit and “free silver.” Thirty-six years old, Bryan was known as the “Boy Orator from the River Platte” and compared by some with the river itself — “a mile wide and an inch deep.” His “Cross of Gold” speech became famous: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” he thundered.

This was a time of both confidence and ferment. In the cities and the states, political “Progressives” were coming to power, experimenting with reforms such as women’s suffrage, direct election of United States senators, the initiative, recall, the Australian ballot, primary elections, and laws setting minimum wages, work standards, and regulated rates for common carriers and services. Followers of the Progressive movement believed in the perfectibility of man and his society. It was, said historian Samuel Eliot Morison, “an attempt through government action to curb the arrogance of organized wealth and the wretchedness of poverty amid plenty.” Although McKinley certainly was no Progressive, the movement was on the rise; two of the three presidents who followed him were Progressives: Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

McKinley looked every inch a president. Young reporter William Allen White said of him after an interview: “He was the statue in the park speaking.” A dignified, reserved man, McKinley was the last of the old-style, low-key presidents. McKinley is generally considered to have been a good but weak man. He was promoted into the White House by his friend, Ohio party boss Mark Hanna; he was bullied into a war with Spain in Cuba by the sensationalist New York press and a jingoist Congress; and he was trapped into acquiring the Philippines by his Assistant Secretary of the Navy, young Theodore Roosevelt.

Sources: US Navy, US History.com & Spanish American War.com

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