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The Story of the New Steel Navy

A Navy in Decline

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. This cover cartoon from an 1882 edition of the newspaper “The Judge” mocks the relative size of the United States Navy in comparison to Britain's Royal Navy. On the side of Uncle Sam's raft, multi-million dollar patches can be seen, a statement on corruption in government during the period. Click on the image for additional information, and to see the full newspaper cover.

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.

In 1883, legislation was at last passed providing for the construction of new steel warships. Known as the “ABCD Ships,” they were to be named Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Dolphin. 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. This watercolor painting shows several of the ABCD ships at sea under sail. The masts and sails of 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.

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. This painting of the Battle of Manila Bay depicts the fighting from the deck of the cruiser USS Olympia, flagship of future Admiral of the Navy George Dewey. Dewey became a household name for leading the epic American victory at Manila. His famous quote “[y]ou may fire when you are ready, Gridley” became a symbol of the war.

Roosevelt's Navy

The stunning victory over Spain helped establish a new American overseas Empire. The Navy's role in protecting this empire was assured, as was its place on the front pages of the American media. Naval construction, technology, and achievements were front page news during this period. America was at last taking her place among the great nations of the world, and the Navy was the tangible proof. One man, more than any other, made his imprint on the Navy during this period — Theodore Roosevelt. Early in his life, he published definitive volumes on naval history. While serving as Undersecretary of the Navy, he had authorized — without permission — important preparations for Admiral Dewey's famous battle at Manila, days before war had even been declared. As president, he threw himself into the daily affairs of the Navy. He pushed for aggressive construction programs, and went through six Secretaries of the Navy during his tenure in president. He is seen here addressing the crew of the battleship USS Connecticut, during his final week in office. The occasion — the return of the Great White Fleet from its circumnavigation of the globe.

The Great White Fleet

At the dawn of the 20th century, naval power was the ultimate expression of national pride. Perhaps the single greatest expression of American naval power during this period was the world cruise of the Great White Fleet. Authorized by President Roosevelt, against the wishes of Congress, 16 battleships of the United States Navy, led by their flagship, the USS Connecticut, spent over a year circling the globe. In addition to its massive public relations value, it served the important purpose of allowing the fleet to train as a cohesive unit on extended operations at sea. As seen in this photo, they departed Hampton Roads on December 16, 1907, steaming past an exuberant Roosevelt on his presidential yacht, the USS Mayflower. As they made their way south around South America, enormous crowds gathered to welcome the visually striking white and buff painted ships of the American fleet. Soon, other port cities were clamoring for a stop. Over the next year, the Great White Fleet made its way through Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. It arrived home at Hampton Roads on Washington's Birthday 1909, where Roosevelt met them with great fanfare. They had steamed nearly 45,000 miles, and visited 6 continents. American naval prestige was soaring.

A World Naval Arms Race

The Great White Fleet was a magnificent public relations coup, but it also marked the end of an era. The proud white American battleships, only a few years old, were already obsolete. The world naval arms race shifted into high gear with the launch of Britain's HMS Dreadnought in 1906. This new warship was a stunning advance in naval technology. Her main feature was the implementation of main guns of a single caliber, as opposed to the mixed caliber used on previous classes of warships. This “all big gun” concept allowed for gunnery that was both more efficient at longer ranges, and more powerful. HMS Dreadnought also featured new steam turbine propulsion, making her exceptionally fast. Going forward, new battleships were referred to as “dreadnoughts.” But while Britain was the first to launch a dreadnought, other nations were already hard at work on their own versions. The United States Navy launched the first of its South Carolina class dreadnoughts, the USS Michigan (seen here) in 1908. Nations across the world — Britain, Germany, France, Japan, America — continued to build new dreadnoughts at a terrifying pace for the next few years. Arms limitation talks tried to mitigate the situation, but they could not prevent the outbreak of war in 1914.

Onwards to the World Wars

The foundation laid by Teddy Roosevelt and the forward thinking naval leaders of the United States Navy paid great dividends in what came to be known as “The American Century.” The Navy played an important role during World War I, and rose to world dominance during World War II. In this photo taken during that war, a seemingly endless Navy fleet, featuring aircraft carriers and battleships, fades off into the horizon. Well into the 21st century, the United States Navy has maintained its position as the dominant world power.

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