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Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Great White Fleet Departs Hampton Roads ~ 106 Years Ago, December 16, 1907

Blog # 27. December 15, 2013 By Marcus W. Robbins

This coming Monday shall mark the 106th anniversary of the greatest show of naval strength our nation had assembled from since declaring its independence from England 131 years prior.  Sixteen of the nation’s finest warships would depart on December 16, 1907 and circumnavigate the globe, a voyage of nearly 44,000 nautical miles covering twenty port calls on six continents that spanned over fourteen months of time before returning back to Hampton Roads on February 22, 1909.

 The port of Hampton Roads has always been considered central to the settlement and advancement of our nation.  This fact is not lost on its military importance also.

 Beginning with Jamestown in 1607 this area was strategically recognized as important because of its many natural advantages; deep calm water, mild climate and abundance of harvest to support the new colony.

 The roadstead also served as a natural divide for Union and Confederate forces becoming central to each side during the earliest part of Civil War in 1861 and later in March of 1862 as it bore witness to the end of wood and sail warships with an event that would ever tie “The Battle of Hampton Roads” into naval conversation as a milestone event.

 Now in 1907 Hampton Roads would again become the focal point to bear witness to President Theodore Roosevelt's vision of the largest naval deployment of steam and steel warships assembled in order to project America's strength as a global naval power.

 Roosevelt was a firm believer that America’s interests abroad could only be protected with the ability to project naval power to anywhere around the globe.  In 1907 it was general knowledge that the fleet departing Hampton Roads left under peaceful terms; a simple training mission to the West Coast.  While held close with only a few knowing of Roosevelt’s real intention till the end of the first day of sailing the secret then became factual; that after the West Coast arrival that the fleet would then cross the Pacific, transit the Suez Canal, sail through the Mediterranean Sea, cross the Atlantic and again arrive back at Hampton Roads.  Nations lined up offering to become ports of call and the America’s ability to project its influence through naval diplomacy began.  Roosevelt later reflected about this cruise “the most important service that I rendered for peace”.

USS Connecticut leading the Atlantic Fleet's Battleships, 1907
(Naval History & Heritage Command image NH 59537)
It is important to recognize that this undertaking was supported by the nation’s East Coast public yards; those principally being located at Norfolk, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Each location was tasked with taking various specific ships and performing repairs to place them into top shape in very short order.  The common thing that each ship received at the conclusion of their individual availabilities was an entire fresh coat of white paint with the only exception being their bows, painted gilded gold.  

The shear amount of planning and final preparations for such a venture was monumental.  As extracted from the Naval History and Heritage Command the following summary is offered:

            During September and October 1907 all sixteen of Atlantic Fleet's modern battleships steamed to East Coast Navy Yards for repairs and alterations. Boston worked on four: Vermont, New Jersey, Missouri and Illinois. New York did five: Connecticut, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Ohio and Alabama. Four (Kansas, Georgia, Maine and Kearsarge) received the attentions of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, while the Norfolk Navy Yard performed work on Virginia, Minnesota and Kentucky. The three Norfolk ships had to go north to New York (first two) and Boston (Kentucky) for the drydock phases of their overhauls. This shipyard work was finished by early December and the battleships gathered in Hampton Roads, Virginia, to complete preparations for their forthcoming cruise around South America to the Pacific Coast.

The Norfolk Navy Yard, being the home of the Atlantic Squadron from the early 1800’s well before the modern day Naval Station was established in 1917 no doubt provided untold last minute supplies, coal and various final logistical support to the bulk of these sixteen warships in the final days leading up to 1907 departure.

U.S. battleships steaming out to sea.  Hampton Roads Va.
1907 Underwood & Underwood Stereoview #S145  (courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Teddy Roosevelt reviewing off of Old Point Comfort on the northern side of Hampton Roads upon the presidential yacht Mayflower observed that day the crews of sixteen warships manning the rails with “bully” pride.  Their passing in a long single formation while keeping 400 yards apart produced an almost 4 mile long armada that would later be nicknamed “The Great White Fleet”.

The cruise also became a proving ground of sorts to determine both physical and tactical conditions of the warships after such a long voyage because as Roosevelt stated “I want all failures, blunders and shortcomings to be made apparent in time of peace and not war”.  Although the cruise produced no major breakdowns it served as to bring technical changes with ship design concerning hull design and gunnery arrangement.  It underscored the dependence upon foreign coaling stations and the need to convert warships into oil as a primary fuel.   Also improvements were made below decks concerning ventilation and crew living spaces

1909 Postcard (courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
Finally, shown above is a look at some of the crew members in Norfolk Virginia after their return to Hampton Roads as part of the largest battle fleet to ever circumnavigate the globe.  They, some 14,000 strong represented from their naval service over the prior 14 months a renewed sense of national pride and a positive upturn for the United States Navy in order to firmly establish itself as a global force for good because – “history matters”.

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