USS Maine. Second-class battleship (originally classified as armored cruiser). The first U.S. Navy battleship —if indeed it might be termed a battleship.
Sea power had suddenly acquired a cachet it had not enjoyed since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. “Ten years ago,” a young writer named Fred T. Jane remarked in October of that year, “even in England, where the navy has a peculiarly vital importance, comparatively few people had more than the barest acquaintance with the units of their fleet; in France, the next naval Power, the warships were then scarcely known to the civilian; in the United States, memories of naval actions in the [Civil] War lingered feebly.” Now the industrial world had fallen prey to an “all-pervading naval mania.” Such mania, of course, would naturally lead to war at some point, but Jane admitted that “we are still blindly groping when we dream of the naval warfare of to-day or to-morrow.” The past was of little help. “In history, as I read it, ‘strategy’ so often seems to have been, at the best, only on very broad and general lines.” The young observer who would go on to found the most authoritative annual guide to the world’s fighting fleets ever published added that “a vague desire to get at the enemy, and beat him, without much thought to subsequent issues seems rather to have been the dominant idea. The strategical advantages would seem to have been first noted and made use of after the victory.” Groping in an admitted fog of ignorance about the new navies, Jane concluded that the “naval battle of to-morrow may be a terrible thing; but there is reason to believe that it will be far less dreadful than people are so fond of imagining.” The new warfare between “ironclads” might “not be very sanguinary” since it precluded the kind of bloody, close-in fighting that characterized the Age of Sail, while science and technology had yet to solve the problem of “how to hit at long range—except at target practice.” Quick-firing four- to six-inch naval guns were effective since they did not have to be relaid after every discharge, and thus sighted themselves, as it were. But shells from such comparatively small guns “cannot reach a ship’s vitals.”
Within a year the U.S. victory over Spain began to clarify if not resolve the issues that Jane raised, while reconfirming the primacy of ironclad warfare in the Western mind. Americans had been slow to grasp the geopolitical implications of the post-1870 revolution in world naval power. For many years, evidence from the War of 1812 notwithstanding, a majority chose to believe that the vast oceans lapping the shores of North America constituted an unbridgeable moat that no foreign invader would try to cross. Not until 1883 did Congress, “tired of being embarrassed by a nonfunctional, decrepit, wooden navy,” authorize funds for “our first four steel warships,” three modest-size “unarmored cruisers”— Boston, Chicago, and Atlanta, together with the “dispatch boat” Dolphin.15 However, these strange, handsome vessels with their two tall brown funnels, brilliant white hulls and upper works, and high masts still rigged for sails did not reach the fleet for years. When they did, they were commonly referred to as “the White Fleet.” In the meantime, young Edward L. Beach, who graduated from Annapolis in 1888 with only thirty-four other young men, discovered that his beloved service anticipated having room for no more than half that number because of a personnel system so backward and chaotic that its books carried the names of officers who had not been on active duty for years, many of whom had died or acquired criminal records. Beach’s first ship was the “wooden Civil War sloop-of-war” Richmond, an “old and thoroughly rotten” vessel whose crew was frankly ashamed of the “decrepit engineering plant” and “feeble smooth bore guns.” The vessel “was a laughingstock for all who observed her.” The men writhed in agony every time they encountered foreign sailors who served in brand-new “modern warships built of steel, with good engines and high powered guns.” The navy, “superannuated” in every way, was filled with comparatively elderly time servers who clogged the promotion ladder.
Even in the new steel and steam vessels that appeared in increasing numbers after 1890, eight to ten junior officers were crammed into tiny dark holes near the coal bunkers or in the fo’c’sle at the bow of the vessel. The crew’s quarters could be only imagined. Everyone slept in curved, uncomfortable, and closely slung hammocks (which remained standard issue for enlisted men to the very eve of World War II) or on thin mattresses on the steel decks beneath easily stowed tables. The officers—who enjoyed the status of wearing pajamas—were “forced to sleep, if at all,” with their garments “tied tightly about our ankles and sleeve ends about our wrists, and with the further protection of gloves, socks and head guards. The bedbug is a mighty beast.” Air-conditioning was, of course, unknown, and all suffered day and night during frequent cruises to the Caribbean. “Every meal was a torment,” and uniforms were ludicrously elaborate, dreadfully tight, and always hot and uncomfortable.
Captains and commanders “went by the book.” Even then the strain of command or the fear occasioned by capricious orders from Washington could overwhelm the most confident skipper, leading him to bizarre behavior, nervous breakdowns, and relief from command. “The enlisted man of those days was magnificent as a fighter and a seaman,” Beach recalled, “but tough and hard to control.” Because naval life was so unappetizing, citizenship could never be a requirement for enlistment, and many a brawling drunk from the depths of the immigrant population found his way on board Uncle Sam’s warships. The abolition of flogging in 1851, though clearly mandatory on humanitarian grounds, nonetheless made disciplining the recalcitrant exceedingly difficult. When Lieutenant George Dewey, who would later gain immortality at Manila Bay, went aboard the ancient steam-driven side-wheeler Mississippi as executive officer in 1861, “he found over a hundred men in chains between the guns and rioters in possession of part of the lower decks.”
But change was on the way. When Benjamin Harrison came to the presidency in March 1889 he brought with him the dedicated imperialist Benjamin F. Tracy who proved to be a superb administrator of the Navy Department and a formidable politician who could sustain and build upon the modest momentum already generated in and beyond Congress for a modern sea service. In the late eighties legislators had loosened the purse strings further, and between the spring and late autumn of 1889 the last of the three original unprotected cruisers was joined by four larger armored sisters, three gunboats, and a bizarre “dynamite ship.” One of Tracy’s first acts was to create a policy board that Mahan (then completing his magnum opus) advised but could not dominate. The board submitted a report at the end of 1889 calling for the creation of two fleets—one a coastal-defense force, the other “for long range offensive action.” Under Tracy’s lash, the first two seagoing but coastal-defense battleships, Texas and Maine, were afloat by 1891, with a half-dozen more battleships and armored cruisers being built in national and private shipyards from New York City to San Francisco. The later battleships, starting with Iowa, were conceived and designed to fulfill the long-range offensive role. When Beach returned to sea duty in 1890, he thus found the brand-new cruiser Philadelphia to be a “splendid ship,” possessing “a magnificent assemblage of modern machinery” that included triple expansion and ten thousand–horsepower engines “with wonderful air pumps, circulating pumps, condensers, [and] Marshall valve gear.” Ten years later, the authoritative Jane’s Fighting Ships placed the new U.S. steel navy behind only Great Britain’s mammoth imperial fleet.
Great forces, some scarcely understandable to the American people themselves, were shaping these developments. The United States of America was not only the first new nation of modern times but also the only one that rested on no large indigenous population. More than nine out of ten Americans of whatever racial or cultural stock were either immigrants or at best second- or third-generation native born. A sense of nationhood thus had to be forged out of common experience, and only one such experience was available either as something personally lived or as romantically conceived—westward expansion and the frontier. The year Mahan burst on the scene, with the nation rapidly transforming into an urban-industrial giant, a young historian named Frederick Jackson Turner wrote that “our early history is the study of European germs developing in an American environment. . . . The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization.” But Turner proceeded to emphasize the recent conclusions of the superintendent of the federal census. By 1890, a clear “frontier of settlement” was no more. For the first time ever, and forever more, “Americans would be forced to live within a closed space.” There was only one way out of this admittedly vast continental confine, and Mahan had shown the way.
The captain’s genius lay not only in showing his people the way to a seemingly endless frontier out on the world ocean and on the far distant coasts of the earth but also in stimulating their fears of continued vulnerability from predatory European nation-states. A powerful, often overlooked, element in Mahan’s work was his insistence that the balance of global military and naval power in 1890 had swung decisively against the United States. There was abundant evidence to support the supposition. France coveted Central America and during the American Civil War had established a brief puppet government in Mexico under Maximilian. In 1881, Count Ferdinand-Marie de Lesseps began what would prove to be a failed effort to dig an Isthmian canal in Panama. Germany’s rising interest in establishing colonies in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific was well known. Britain’s enmity toward its former North American colonies had flared anew when Whitehall supported the Confederate cause for as long as it appeared promising; in their hearts Britons had never yet accepted the United States of America, and there was no reason to suggest that they ever would. Even Spain, weary and dispirited, its ancient New World empire crumbling under native insurrection, seemed able to defy the Americans with impunity. In 1873 a Spanish warship seized Virginius, almost starting a war, even though it quickly became apparent that the gunrunner was flying the American flag illegally. If Europe could so consistently and humiliatingly dismiss or ignore American hemispheric interests, where did that leave the venerable Monroe Doctrine? Finally, the United States could not even impose its will upon fractious hemispheric neighbors. As late as 1879 the U.S. fleet was so inferior to that of Chile that Washington could not intervene on behalf of friendly Peru when the two Latin countries went to war.