The Rise of the American Navy 1775 - 1914 | HistoryNet MENU

The Rise of the American Navy 1775 – 1914

By Charles Race
9/7/2016 • HistoryNet

On a warm August day in 1785, at the Merchants’ Coffee House in Philadelphia, an eight-year-old Continental Navy 32-gun frigate named Alliance was auctioned off for $26,000.  When the auctioneer’s gavel came down, the Continental Navy ceased to exist.

Today, the United States Navy stands unchallenged as the world’s most powerful maritime force.  The Navy’s ability to project force above, on, and beneath the waves, control shipping lanes, and dominate airspace over the world’s hotspots is without parallel in history.  Its early American leaders would be astonished to see that their fledgling navy has become the world’s dominant naval force.  This article examines the founding and remarkable if uneven growth of the US Navy from 1776 to 1914.  While its early history is rich with naval heroes such as John Paul Jones, Edward Preble, Stephen Decatur, David Farragut, and George Dewey, the evolving navy also demonstrated a willingness to embrace emerging naval technologies in times of war in an effort to achieve parity with, and ultimately superiority over, other naval powers.

A Seafaring Tradition

The fledging Continental Navy created at the outset of the American Revolution had its roots in early colonial America.  Early English settlers to the 13 colonies were as much drawn to the sea as to the land.  The sea was a principal means of transportation and colonists looked to the sea to provide their living; the sea was a barrier to their enemies and a marine highway to their mother country.  Shipbuilding and the timber business formed the principal industries of colonial America, supplying both local and home country maritime needs.   The largest American towns- Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore- were all Atlantic seaports which developed professional seamen and the necessary ingredients for shipbuilding: warehouses, ropewalks, boat builder’s sheds, sail lofts, and counting houses.  All up and down the coast, new ships slid down the stocks almost on a daily basis.

The Revolution

In late 1775, the Continental Congress of the rebelling colonies appointed a Marine Committee consisting of 7 members, and gave it the mandate to organize a navy.  Meeting each evening in a Philadelphia tavern, the committee struggled to agree on the most basic strategic and tactical questions.  Facing alone the naval might of Britain, the strategic options open to its members was to: (1) defend the nation’s coastlines; (2) protect convoys; (3) prey on enemy commerce; or (4) all of the above.  The Committee audaciously chose all of the above.  In practice, the new navy was virtually powerless to do anything other than prey on enemy commerce.  Constructing a fleet of 64 and 74 gun ships of the line to face the main battle fleet of Great Britain was out of the question (see Table 1).  That it had limited financial resources, no administrators, few experienced officers and not least of all, the absence of fighting ships did not dissuade the Committee.  During the first three years of war, the committee’s work was carried out entirely by financier Robert Morris who sometimes for expediency advanced his own funds, often without recompense.  A small squadron of merchantmen were converted into warships and placed under the command of Eseks Hopkins, a merchant skipper with no naval experience.  In December, 1775, the committee authorized the construction of 13 light frigates rated between 24 to 32 guns each.

Building, arming and fitting out the frigates was an enormous challenge for thirteen colonies that had no naval yards, no factories to produce ordnance (Britain had forbade the manufacture of heavy cannon in the colonies), or supplies like hemp and sailcloth.  Even deciding which colonies were to receive contracts provided an early glimpse of pork barrel politics.  Those frigates that managed to get to sea were often so poorly equipped that they were forced to return to port for repairs.   But despite these defects, their design provided a valuable apprenticeship for a naval architect of future distinction, Joshua Humphrey.  Several frigates such as the Confederacy (36) were notable designs, heavier than comparable enemy frigates and much admired by the British.

In a protracted conflict between vastly unequal forces, the Continental Navy inevitably succumbed: of the 13 frigates ordered, 2 were never completed, 2 were scuttled (when the British captured Philadelphia), 1 was set afire by its crew, 1 blew up in battle, and the remaining 7 were captured and taken into the British navy.   Despite its record, the Continental Navy produced several naval heroes, the most famous being John Paul Jones, and several promising young officers, including Thomas Truxtun and Edward Preble.  At war’s end, only 2 major Continental warships remained, the frigate Alliance and the first American ship of the line, America (74).  But ship losses were only one measure of the Continental Navy’s performance: fighting the Revolution forced Britain to commit major fleet assets to North America to battle the French navy, while its merchant marine suffered considerable losses and escalating insurance rates from the depredations caused by American privateers and navy ships.

A Navy is Born 1783-1803

With the end of the Revolution, American political leaders and merchants looked for the resumption of shipping and trade in England’s West Indian colonies and expansion into new world markets.  However, England, still smarting from defeat and desirous of rebuilding its own merchant fleet, passed a measure in 1783 barring American ships from entering any West Indian port.  The closing of this market, which had prior to the Revolution consumed two thirds of American food exports, had devastating results for the economy of the young Republic.  But England’s trade restrictions had a deeper undertone beyond revenge.  They were based on a fundamental understanding that sea power ensured the prosperity and security of England’s remaining dominions.

Quasi War with France

Ironically, it was revolutionary France, America’s former ally a few short years earlier, that posed the first test for the new Federal navy.  While the democratic American public initially approved of the reforms taking place in Paris, opinion turned when reports filtered back of wholesale killings of men, women, and children simply because they belonged to the clergy or aristocracy, or were supporters of those classes.

In March, 1794, Congress by a narrow vote authorized the country’s first naval act, directing the construction of six frigates, four 44-gun, 24 pounder frigates and two smaller 36-gun frigates for the then-colossal sum of $688,888, an amount equal to nearly 8% of government revenues.  But a Republican Party-sponsored codicil in the act required that construction be halted in the event of peace with Algiers, the most militant of the Barbary States.

By 1797, President John Adams faced an intolerable situation with Revolutionary France.  French warships and privateers were preying on British and American merchantman and by mid year, had taken 300 American ships.  Congress, under pressure from Adams, finally voted to finish 3 of the 6 frigates closest to completion, and then established a Navy Department.  By 1798, the final bill to complete the 6 frigates totaled $2.5 million, but the savings in insurance costs to American merchants that year was estimated at $8.6 million- a strong financial argument for the new navy!   Adams, always a shrewd judge of character, appointed Benjamin Stoddert, a Revolutionary cavalry major, as the first Secretary of the Navy.  Stoddert proved to be an able Secretary who quickly increased the navy to a fleet of 54 ships that within three years captured 94 French ships.   During this so-called Quasi War, the frigate Constellation under Thomas Truxtun earned the first laurels of the Federal navy by defeating 2 French National frigates.

Barbary Pirates

While peace with England removed the threat to American merchant ships, it also left them without the protection provided by the Royal Navy prior to the war.  General opinion held that the army, together with the French navy, had won the war with England.   In retrospect, the uselessness of the Continental navy and the enormous expense of maintaining a fleet dissuaded the Republic’s leaders from investing in a new navy.  At the same time, though, the early problems afflicting President George Washington’s administration were the piratical depredations by a collection of Ottoman states known as the Barbary States.  Situated on the North African coast, the Barbary states- Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli- had for centuries preyed on merchantmen, especially from “infidel” (i.e. Christian) nations lacking the will to pay sufficient tribute or a navy to protect its maritime trade.  Without the protection of the Royal Navy, the Barbary States began to seize American ships, and enslave or kill their crews.  The protests raised by American shipping interests gradually prodded President Washington to realize he must somehow replace the protective umbrella of the Royal Navy.

Under Thomas Jefferson’s succeeding administration, the Barbary Pirates continued to be an issue that the new Republic could no longer avoid or afford.  The first squadron sent by Jefferson in 1801 was commanded by an unimaginative Richard Dale and accomplished nothing.  The second command, initially offered to Thomas Truxtun, was commanded by an unaggressive Richard Morris, who achieved little, and was dismissed from the service.  For the third squadron, Jefferson finally found his man: Edward Preble.  Mentored under Truxtun, Preble immediately sought to take the conflict to the Barbary States, and in the process provided leadership and inspiration to the navy’s future commanders Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, Charles Stewart and William Bainbridge.   When Bainbridge’s command, the 36 gun ‘subscription’ (paid for by the citizens of that city) frigate Philadelphia grounded on an uncharted reef under the guns of Tripoli harbor and was captured by the Tripolitans, it was Preble who authorized the daring scheme to cut out the Philadelphia.  Under the command of Lt. Decatur, a captured ketch Intrepid  manned by an all-volunteer crew, boarded and burned the frigate and made good their escape without loss of life.   In June, 1805, with the pirate menace subdued by the emerging American navy, a treaty advantageous to the United States was signed with the Bashaw of Tripoli.

It was in the crucible of war with the Barbary states and the quasi-war with France that the fledgling American navy was shaped into a fighting force through the efforts and leadership of Truxtun and Preble.

Free Trade and Sailors Rights

In the decade leading up to the War of 1812, 3rd President Thomas Jefferson pursued a controversial naval policy known as the ”gunboat navy”, more notable for its austerity than its usefulness.   No aspect of Jefferson’s naval policy has received as much attention or controversy as his decision to favor building a fleet of small gunboats to patrol harbor entrances, as opposed to ocean going warships.   This policy, which was defensive in nature and reflective of anti-navy politics, was poorly conceived and hampered the development of the American blue-water navy.   Understanding the difference in the two types of naval concepts is necessary.  A gunboat was a shallow-draft coastal vessel typically 55-75 feet in length, and armed with a single cannon mounted in the bow or amidships.  The cost to build a gunboat during Jefferson’s term in office was around $9,000 .  Jefferson’s concept was that gunboats could be cheaply built, quickly prepared for action, and manned from locally conscripted landsmen to guard the entrances to major harbors.   Opponents of the gunboats argued that the government’s limited naval budget would be better spent on more expensive sloops and frigates capable of sailing on the high seas.  The missions for these 2 and 3-masted warships would be to prey on enemy shipping or protect American shipping from enemy attacks.  The cost to build a 1,575 ton, 44-gun frigate such as the USS Constitution in 1797 dollars was $300,000 and required a further $125,000 per year to maintain on active service .  As the new century began, tensions between the United States and Britain increased. America had declared herself a neutral country in the conflict between Britain and France.  Britain’s blockade of France, her impressments of American sailors, and her confiscation of American ships had pitted the new nation against one of the most powerful maritime nations in the world. The British blockade of continental Europe prompted American merchants to adopt an indirect approach by shipping goods to French West Indies ports for re-export to Europe, resulting in a boost to American business.   After the Franco-Spanish defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, Britain’s dominance at sea was unchallenged, and indignities to American merchant shipping increased to a disastrous level. From 1800 to 1805, 59 American merchant ships had fallen captive to Britain; from 1805 through 1807, 469 ships, or approximately half the merchant fleet, fell into British hands.

The ugly step sister to loss of American merchant shipping was the impressment of its sailors.  By 1807, more than six thousand seafaring Americans had been taken into British service against their will and contrary to American law.   Most of these incidents victimized defenseless merchant ships, but American national honor was outraged when its new frigate Chesapeake (38), was fired upon by the British fifth rate? Leopard (50) just inside the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.  The Chesapeake, commanded by James Barron, manned with a green crew, crowded with extra passengers and enough unstowed gear that its main battery was rendered unusable, received four broadsides in quick succession.  Four sailors were killed and seventeen wounded.   After Barron fired a lone gun and hauled down his colors, the British boarded the Chesapeake and pressed four sailors (three of them claimed as deserters).   The incident emboldened Jefferson and his cabinet to issue a proclamation ordering all British naval vessels to leave American ports, and also persuaded the penurious Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin to side with the growing war party.   Three years later, the United States got its revenge when the frigate President (44), Commodore John Rodgers, overhauled a British warship in the twilight. The two traded broadsides for nearly an hour, when fired ceased.  Upon boarding the battered Little Belt, Rodgers discovered that the ship was the sloop Little Belt (18), and resisted the temptation to press its sailors.

In order to deflect Britain’s naval threats to American merchant shipping many merchants and politicians, especially in New England, argued that an ocean going navy was necessary to protect mercantile interests.  There were historical examples prior to the War of 1812, where a stronger military power has been humiliated by a hard fighting and intelligent weaker power that compensated for its numerical inferiority by efficiency.  The defeat of the Spanish armada is an early example where the British navy led by Drake and Hawkins led a small, efficient fleet against overpowering numbers.  Jefferson, backed by Gallatin who was intent on reducing the national debt, had no intentions of building such a navy.  Jefferson’s naval policy greatly retarded the development of a coherent naval policy appropriate to meet foreign threats.  When this misguided policy ended, 177 gunboats had been constructed .

War of 1812

When war was declared, President Madison’s administration was disposed to adopt Jefferson’s gunboat policy in order to defend America’s coastline from the expected British blockade.  However, Secretary of Navy Hamilton solicited his senior captains for recommendations for employing America’s small fleet.  Captains Rodgers, Decatur, Bainbridge, and Stewart argued persuasively that the frigates go to sea singly or in small squadrons of 2 or 3, on independent commerce missions. Years later, naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan would argue that this strategy was “the most consonant with sound military views.”  Yet, the odds were overwhelmingly in Great Britain’s favor.  Britain’s navy, the largest in the world, consisted of 600 ships including 175 ships of the line rated at 64 guns or more.  Despite its size, and commitment to defeat Napoleon, Great Britain was still able to detach a squadron to the Americas including 4 ships-of-the-line, twenty-three frigates, and 71 unrated ships, with more to arrive by September, 1812.

The early successes of the American heavy frigates are well-chronicled.  Victories by the USS Constitution (44) vs HMS Guerierre (38), and then over HMS Java (38), and the USS United States vs. HMS Macedonian (38) stunned the over-confident British naval establishment and public, long used to victory over French and Spanish navies.  Popular opinion in America rallied around its navy.  Yet a sober analysis of these ship-to-ship actions must conclude that these were not fair fights.  American heavy frigates (see inset) were newer, more heavily timbered, and carried a weight of broadside that was up to 38% heavier.

Federal Navy

As inconclusive as the War of 1812 was, it did mark the establishment of a permanent U.S. Navy.  For the first time in the country’s brief 40 year history, there was no political debate over a standing navy.  In 1816, Congress approved a navy bill calling for 6 ships of the line and 9 heavy frigates.  Although nominally rated as 74’s, the American ships of the line were more powerful than the standard European 74’s, possessing a single-caliber armament of 32-pound smoothbore cannons of varying lengths, numbering between 82-100 guns (fighting ships during this era often carried more guns than their rating: for example the Constitution was rated as a 44 gun frigate, but carried up to 52 guns).  The Ohio, rated at 74 guns but armed entirely with 32 pounder long guns and carronades, discharged a weight of broadside of 3,264 lbs, compared with 1,964 lbs for a typical British 74.   Rather than challenge for control of the seas, the American 74 was designed to break the British blockade at a specific port, and to cause havoc among the shipping lanes.   On the whole, the American ship of the line program was not a great success; too few in number, uneven in quality, expensive to maintain in a peacetime environment, and with the introduction of steam and shell-firing cannon, all but obsolete.  The Pennsylvania rated at 120 guns, enormously expensive to build and maintain for a country with a heavy national debt, made only one voyage from its shipyard in Philadelphia to its final berth in Norfolk, Virginia.

Transition to Steam and Iron

While post-war Congress now recognized the need for a standing navy, it nonetheless began to shrink the fleet: in the following 6 years naval personnel declined from 5,500 to 4,000 while annual appropriations dropped by $800,000 to $2.9 million during 1822-25.   The period of 1815 and 1860 was a time of complacency, as the naval heroes of 1812 rested on their laurels, or in several cases descended into dueling one another.  The most noteworthy such duel cost the dynamic Stephen Decatur his life at the hands of rival captain James Barron.  The period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War was marked both by technological innovation, and-as so often happens in a tradition-bound military service during peacetime- resistance to technological change.  At the end of 1812, there was one steamship on the navy rolls.  Designed by Robert Fulton, stoutly constructed and heavily armed, with a single paddlewheel mounted in the middle between two catamaran-like hulls, the Demologos steamed slowly and could not steer.    Early steamships were considered unsuitable in the wooden battle fleet, due to the vulnerability of paddlewheel boxes and the resultant loss of broadside power, the danger of fire in a ship with numerous fireboxes underneath her boilers, the dependence on coaling stations to replenish bunkers (a hated task in the steam navy), and- perhaps most damning in the eyes of veteran captains- the unseamanlike effect of smokestack soot on scrubbed decks and white canvas sails.  The risk of fire was tragically demonstrated when the steam frigate Missouri accidentally caught fire in Gibraltar harbor in 1843 and was totally destroyed, an event captured in numerous paintings and sketches.

The size of the navy between 1812-1860 remained small in relation to even second-rate naval powers.  Despite building 11 all-sail ships of the line and 10 improved-Constitution class frigates between 1816 and 1830, the navy never built steam-powered screw ships-of-the-line, preferring instead to build a handful of large steam frigates.  By the outbreak of the Civil War, the navy’s active principal warship fleet consisted of 7 screw frigates and 6 screw corvettes.  In contrast, the British navy in 1860 counted 56 screw ships-of-the-line.   Indeed, one British screw ship-of-the-line of the era, HMS Duke of Wellington (131)  likely could have handled the entire American fleet.  New advances in naval ordinance and ship design chiefly the rifled cannon further threatened the wooden battle fleet.

Civil War

When civil war broke out between the northern and southern states in December, 1860, the first decision was not what strategy for each side to adopt, but rather which side would key naval officers choose.  Captain David Glasgow Farragut’s decision illustrated the difficult choice for southern officers: born in Tennessee, and married in succession to two Virginia women, and risking being ostracized from his family, Farragut resolutely chose to remain loval to the Union.  Farragut’s loyalty was not typical however, as some 259 officers resigned or were dismissed from the navy.   In rapid succession, the challenges for the Union navy mounted.  Confederate President Jefferson Davis quickly announced letters of marque for any ship preying on Union merchantmen or warships.

Shortly after, on 19 April, 1861, President Lincoln (against the legal opinion of Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles whose refused to acknowledge the rebel states as a belligerent nation) declared a blockade on the southern coastline from South Carolina to Texas, a stretch of 3,500 miles, the largest ever attempted.  The Union blockade ran counter to accepted strategy for the stronger sea power, namely to keep the enemy’s ships in port and therefore ensure safe passage for its own commerce; instead the Union’s objective was to seal off Southern ports from trade.   The day after announcing the blockade, Virginia troops seized Norfolk naval yard virtually intact, as fleeing Union personnel left behind several half-burned ships including the Union frigate Merrimack, and 120 gun ship-of-the-line Pennsylvania.

Each side faced unique challenges.  The Union adopted retired General Winfield Scott’s so-called Anaconda Strategy, which envisioned not only a coastal blockade but also a stranglehold control of the major rivers especially the Mississippi, as well as interdiction of the southern cotton trade between Europe.  Welles started with only a dozen warships in American waters, and 17 steam warships.  Of the 19 steam frigates and sloops constructed since 1855 during a fleet expansion, only 2 steam sloops were operational in home waters, while 5 out of 6 steam frigates were laid up for repairs.   At the war’s outset, the US navy consisted of 7,600 enlisted men and 1,200 officers.  Welles wasted no time in building up the navy, purchasing 176 ships in 1861, while contracting to build 23 “ninety-day” 500-ton gunboats plus 26 other vessels.  Despite this rapid and impressive buildup, the blockade was porous during the first year: over ninety percent of all blockade runners leaving Confederate ports evaded Union warships.  Dependent on an agricultural economy with little industry, the Confederate states were heavily dependent on imports of European war materiel and the export of cotton to finance it.   The Confederate strategy, under the able leadership of Navy Secretary Steven Mallory, was the mirror opposite of the Union; deny the Northern navy control of the seas and rivers.  With no navy and little industrial base with which to build one, Mallory seized upon the emerging naval revolution and ordered that the salvageable Merrimack be converted to an ironclad.  The scare created by the Merrimack, rechristened CSS Virginia, accelerated Welles’ efforts to build an effective Union counterpart.  Turning finally to a mercurial but untested naval architect John Ericsson, a desperate Navy board awarded a contract to build the Monitor, provided it could be operational in 100 days.  Launched 30 January, 1862, 118 days after her keel was laid, she hastened down to Hampton Roads for her historic all-ironclad encounter with the Virginia.  The success of the Monitor gave Welles and the Navy a case of Monitor-fever, leading to the development of 21 ocean-going and seven river monitors by war’s-end.   The South, with its lack of industrial capacity and access to foreign aid, could not build a single monitor-type ironclad.

Without a navy, the CSA was powerless to break the blockade, and resorted to a few coastal-built ironclads and even a man-powered submarine CSS Hunley for relief.  Yet while never airtight, the Union blockade accomplished its objective of crippling the cotton trade, reducing exports of the South’s “white gold”, and driving up the cost of goods sought by Richmond- marine engines, railroad machinery, rifled cannon, and modern breech-loading rifles.

Establishing and tightening the blockade was important, but the most effective means for crippling the Confederate economy was to capture key Southern ports.  Under Welles’ direction, the Union navy and army captured Hatteras Inlet, establishing a blueprint for employing combined arms against major enemy ports.  Under the direction of the ‘Blockade Board’ led by Samuel DuPont and Welles, the combined forces next captured Port Royal (November 1861), Roanoke Island (February, 1862), and Fort Pulaski/Savannah (April 1862), while being content for the time to blockade the major and more difficult ports of Charleston, Wilmington and Mobile.  Welles and the navy next turned their attention to New Orleans, the South’s largest city,  port, and gateway to the Mississippi River.  Guarded 70 miles downriver from the city by two strengthened forts, Jackson and St. Philip, New Orleans was difficult to assault from the sea or blockade.  Adding to its defense was the first operational river ironclad, the lightly armored, turtle-shaped CSS Manassas.   Facing the daunting task of capturing New Orleans was David Farragut, commander of the 22 ship West Gulf Squadron.  After getting his deeper draft warships over the sandbars at the entrance to the Mississippi delta, Farragut made the bold decision to run his fleet past forts  Jackson and St. Phillip in the early hours of 24 April, 1862.   Running the gauntlet, Farragut lost but one ship and 36 dead, leaving the undefended city prostrate to the combined Union forces.  The capture of New Orleans was one of the decisive campaigns of the war, which together with the subsequent capture of Vicksburg by a combined arms operation, prompted Lincoln to exult, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”
The remainder of the coastal war was marked by a steady tightening of the Union noose around the remaining southern ports- Mobile, Charleston and Wilmington.  When the army and navy cooperated, the result was attained, but if egos intervened as with the assault on Charleston, success came at greater delay and cost.

Conversely, the riverine war prosecuted by the Union along the Cumberland, Ohio, Tennessee,  and Mississippi Rivers succeeded due in large part to the combined arms efforts of the army led by U.S. Grant and the amorphous ‘brown water’ gunboats.  Because of the awkward organizational structure of the embryonic riverine navy (e.g. the Navy paid the salaries of the officers, but insisted that the Army pay the crew),  the Union victories at Forts Donelson and Henry, Island No. 10 and Vicksburg were led by the Army.  Both sides constructed ironclad gunboats (famously, James Eads’ “Pook’s Turtles” ironclads), but once again the Union’s industrial capacity outpaced Confederate efforts.

Privateering by Confederate captains, although outlawed by international convention in 1856, gradually gave way to commerce raiding by regular vessels of the Confederate navy.  Privateering proved less profitable than blockade running due to the risks of bringing prizes back to blockaded ports.  Through persistent and clandestine diplomatic efforts, the southern navy acquired commerce raiders from neutral but sympathetic Great Britain, chief among them the superb Alabama captained by the most famous Confederate skipper Rafael Semmes.

Iron to Steel

At end of Civil War, the United States possessed one of the world’s most powerful navies, led by 21 single and double-turret blue water ironclad monitors , but the nation and its treasury was exhausted from the effort.  Over the next 30 years the government drastically cut down the size of the navy, allowed the ironclads to rust in port, and let Britain, Germany, and Japan take the lead in ship design and tactics.  Many naval officers reverted to days of old, preferring the comfort and orderliness of sailing ships to cruising in a “stink pot” steamer.   The condition and rank of the Navy reached its nadir with the realization that either navy in the war between Bolivia, Peru and Chile fought between 1879 and 1883 was superior to that of the United States.   It was not until 1884-85 that the new navy began to emerge with the authorization of 3 steel cruisers Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, and 1 gunboat Dolphin, collectively known as the “ABCD” ships (ironically, despite the advancement in naval technology, these first all-steel ships were still fitted with a full suit of masts, spars and sails).

When the navy reached its lowest ebb as the 20th century beckoned, a rising politician and a naval academy professor began to revolutionize naval thought and lead the navy out of its doldrums.  For his senior college thesis, young Theodore Roosevelt authored The Naval War of 1812, which focused the future President on subject that had long fascinated him: the sea and its impact on national power.  As he ascended into the political spotlight, Roosevelt developed a studied appreciation of the role of naval power in the broader spectrum of international relations.  Appointed as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897 serving under a largely absentee and apathetic Secretary John Long, Roosevelt continued a long running correspondence with Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan (see inset of Mahan) regarding the need for a larger navy and fleet infrastructure in the Atlantic and Pacific.  First as Assistant Secretary and then beginning in 1901 as President, Roosevelt viewed the navy as insurance for peace and defender of the Monroe Doctrine (which forbade European influence) in the Western Hemisphere.

Angered by what was seen as Spain’s deliberate destruction of the second class battleship Maine in Havana harbor, the United States declared war on Spain in April, 1898, and confidently dispatched its new navy to destroy the Spanish fleets in the Caribbean and Pacific.  Led by Admiral Dewey at Manila Bay, Philippines and Admiral Sampson at Santiago, Cuba, the new navy decisively defeated inferior Spanish fleets.  At the beginning of Roosevelt’s first term, the United States ranked among the top five naval powers of the pre-dreadnought era:

Great Britain France Germany USA Japan
Battleships 28 9 15 10 6
Cruisers 120 37 26 20 31

 

Under Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” leadership, the navy became the nation’s instrument in enforcing the Monroe Doctrine.  Between 1902 and1903, the navy was dispatched to deter German and British fleets from blockading Venezuelan harbors in prosecution of their financial claims.   The navy was next employed in aiding Panamanian revolutionaries against Colombia in 1903 as part of Roosevelt’s unswerving efforts to complete the Panama Canal.   As much as his role in the rise of the modern American navy, the Panama Canal stands in testament to Roosevelt’s strategic understanding and application of naval power.In contrast to the many tactical and technological innovations which spurred the navy during the Civil War, the United States trailed other nations in naval technology in the late 19th century.  The insurmountable barriers of two oceans, and the conquest of the vast American continent focused national priorities in different directions.  But upon assuming office, Roosevelt immersed himself in the smallest details of naval design, and inspired by Mahanian doctrine and several able naval officers, chiefly gunnery innovator William Sims, the Navy in 1906 jumped into the dreadnought battleship race, producing by 1914 what many contemporaries believed were some of the finest capital ships in the world, including the Arizona / Pennsylvania class (see Ship Summaries module).   Joining the naval arms race, however came at a cost: naval expenditures rose from 7 percent of total federal spending in 1890 to 21 percent in 1905.Eight years after the debut of Britain’s revolutionary Dreadnought battleship, on the eve of the great World War, the United States could rightly rank as the world’s third largest naval power :

Great Britain France Germany USA Japan
Battleships [1] 22 2 15 10 2
Battlecruisers 9 5 1
Cruisers [2] 87 28 33 34 27

[1] dreadnoughts  [2] armored and protected cruisers

Conclusion

In the short span of 140 years, the United States Navy evolved from a small makeshift fleet of converted merchantmen and a handful of frigates to the third largest maritime power in the world on the eve of World War I.  Turning inward and isolationist after gaining independence from Great Britain, the fledging coastal republic quickly recognized through undeclared wars with France and the Barbary states, and depredations by Great Britain’s Royal Navy, that America’s prosperity depended upon unfettered and unchallenged maritime commerce.   Strong political leadership, beginning with George Washington led to the development of a national, blue water navy.  The wartime exigency of the Civil War accelerated the growth and technical superiority of the navy to world power status for a short, critical period.  As the country expanded westward and its economy shifted from an agrarian to industrial base, the navy lapsed into neglect, but was restored to world prominence under the influence of Mahan’s theories coupled with President Theodore Roosevelt’s strategic and purposeful leadership.

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