The past few years have seen a profusion of books and articles commemorating the 100th anniversary of the circumnavigation of the globe by Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet. What was it that compelled the President to send 16 battleships on a 46,000-mile cruise around the world from 1907-1909, and how was Maine involved?
The short answer to the first question is that Roosevelt wanted to impress the naval powers of the world, particularly England, Germany, and Japan, with the sea power of the United States. He especially wanted Japan to see that the United States Navy could shift a fleet from the Atlantic to the Pacific and sail around the world. At the same time he was anxious that the U.S. continue to play a dominant role in Western Hemisphere affairs — the so-called “Big Stick” policy.
To achieve these objectives, Roosevelt needed to gain popular support for the resumption of battleship construction, which had been suspended for the previous two years. It is interesting that Maine Sen. Eugene Hale, Chairman of the Naval Appropriations Committee, was an opponent of the big-ship program. This didn’t bother Roosevelt, who in his typically forthright fashion, replied that he already had the money and dared Congress to “try and get it back.” The irony is that even as plans were being made for the voyage, battleships of every navy were rendered obsolete with the launching in Britain of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, the first “All-Big Gun” battleship.
There are historians who feel that the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, February 1898, and the resulting Spanish American War (“Remember the Maine, To hell with Spain”) elevated the United States to the status of a great power. Critics point out, however, that the naval victories over the Spanish at Manila Bay and Santiago de Cuba were extremely one-sided and that the U.S. was not yet a major naval power. That began to change in 1901 when Roosevelt became president, following the assassination of William McKinley. Roosevelt, a former assistant secretary of the Navy, and a friend of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who authored the classic Influence of Sea Power on History, lost no time in beginning the construction of a world-class fleet of battleships.
The keel of one of the first battleships in Roosevelt’s fleet, the Georgia, was laid down in 1901 at Bath Iron Works on the Kennebec River. The yard had opened in 1884 by Bowdoin alumnus and Civil War General Thomas Hyde. By 1890, with an eye to entering the growing business of iron shipbuilding, Hyde had secured the contracts from the Navy for two iron gunboats, Machias and Castine. Both ships saw action in the Spanish American War and World War I.
The stage was now set for the construction of Georgia, a Virginia class battleship, and typical of the pre-dreadnought battleships in the Great White Fleet. Because of her length of 441 ft, and displacement of 14,950 tons, Georgia presented numerous challenges to the Bath shipyard. In fact, she is the only battleship ever constructed in Maine. In her sea trials to Rockland and back, Georgia averaged 19 knots, making her the fastest battleship in the fleet. Georgia was launched in 1904. With a crew of 40 officers and 772 enlisted men, she was not only the fastest but also one of the largest ships in the new fleet.
In December of 1907, Georgia, flagship of the Second Division, joined 15 other battleships at Hampton Roads, Virginia. In preparation for the historic voyage, each ship had been painted a vivid white with gold bow and stern fixtures. Roosevelt reviewed the armada and sent it on the first leg of the historic cruise. En route to San Francisco, the Fleet made frequent stops in South American ports to promote good will as well as to take on oft-needed coal. Naval historian James R. Reckner wrote, “Unprecedented in distance steamed, size of the fleet, and many other aspects, the voyage commanded the world’s attention. A million people lined the Golden Gate to watch the Fleet’s arrival in San Francisco. Indeed for most, the sight of 16 gleaming white, first-class battleships, was the dramatic event of a lifetime”.
After a two month layover in San Francisco, Georgia, in company with the other battleships and auxiliary vessels, departed in July 1908. The second leg of the cruise took them to the Philippines, Australia, China and Japan. In Sydney 500,000 people turned out to greet the ships, a remarkable number for a city whose total population was 600,000. While en route to Japan the Fleet ran into “the worst typhoon in 40 years.” Fortunately all the ships survived, as well as a sailor who was washed overboard by a huge wave, which then swept him to the deck of another ship!
In Japan, despite recent tensions with the United States, the visit was surprisingly successful. Following the Fleet’s departure, diplomats from the two powers negotiated the Root-Takahira Agreement. Many feel that this settlement delayed conflict between Japan and the U.S. for a generation.
The next stage of the cruise took the Fleet across the Indian Ocean and through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea. At a particularly narrow point in the canal, Georgia ran aground, a mistake that would shortly haunt her captain, Edward Qualtrough. Entering the Mediterranean, the Fleet split up because of requests for visits from virtually every country bordering the Mediterranean. A massive earthquake near Messina, Sicily, gave the Fleet an unusual opportunity to respond to a humanitarian crisis. Ships with supplies and medical personnel were dispatched to aid the stricken city.
Following a stop at Marseilles, Georgia was sent to Tangier to honor the anti-German sultan and reassure England and France that the United States stood with them against Germany in a dispute over Morocco. En route, Georgia ran into a storm, causing Captain Qualtrough to remain on the bridge throughout the night. On reaching Tangier, the exhausted captain apparently drank too much at a reception and was placed under arrest by his division commander, Admiral Wainwright, for “drunkenness on duty.” Qualtrough protested that he had only had “a glass of sherry and a cigar.” Already under a cloud for the Suez grounding, however, he was court-martialed and returned to the United States, a prisoner in the ship he had commanded.
Following a two-week stay in the Mediterranean, the Fleet crossed the Atlantic, entering Chesapeake Bay on February 22, 1909, coincidentally Washington’s Birthday. “Brilliant End of World Cruise” shouted the headlines. At Hampton Roads, the Fleet was again reviewed by Roosevelt, whose term was to expire in two weeks. The president saluted the crews by saying, “This is the first battle fleet that has ever circumnavigated the globe. Those who perform the feat again can but follow in your footsteps.”
Although there were a few negatives to the voyage, military historians consider the cruise a diplomatic and nautical success. In addition to enthusiastic receptions in 40 ports on six continents, Fleet Commander Rear Admiral Sperry reported, “the long hours of station-keeping have paid off. The 16 ships are jogging along as if they were tied together.” He added, “removing the Fleet from East Coast shipyards meant that the crews had to rely on their own skills for maintenance and repair.”
The Bath-built Georgia, along with the other battleships, was given an immediate and extensive overhaul and modernization. The top-heavy superstructure was reduced, lightweight guns were replaced by heavier pieces and new fire controls were added. The gold scrollwork was removed and every ship was painted what was to be known as “battleship gray.” Georgia remained on active duty until 1920, serving all over the world, including in World War I. She was decommissioned and in 1923 sold for scrap, under the terms of the Washington Naval Conference. As for Qualtrough, he was pardoned and retired from the navy in June of 1909 with the rank of commodore. q