I had some fun writing this essay as it touches upon three states that I have recently resided in. Namely, Maine, Virginia, and California.
The Great White Fleet was the popular nickname for the group of United States Navy battleships and auxiliary vessels which completed a journey around the globe. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had ordered the fleet’s deployment, and throngs of onlookers gathered at Hampton Roads Virginia on December 16, 1907 to watch the departure of the fleet. All of the ships were painted white (save for gilded bows) - hence the fleet’s eventual informal designation as the Great White Fleet. The mission of the fleet’s voyage around the world was to make friendly courtesy visits to numerous countries while displaying new U.S. naval power to the world.” An early effort at what modern planners calling “projecting our power abroad.”
The fleet was composed of 16 battleships along with various escorts. Seven of the battleships were built by the Newport News Shipyard of Virginia. Also included in the fleet was the battleship Georgia that was a product of the Bath Iron Works in Maine. Some 14,000 sailors were involved in operating the vessels. Hoping to enforce treaties and protect overseas holdings, Congress had appropriated funds to build American naval power. Beginning in the 1880s with just 90 small ships, over one-third of them wooden and therefore obsolete, the navy quickly grew to include new steel fighting vessels. Although the many historians note that the fleet's so-called capital ships were already obsolete at the time of the mission's commencement, the mission was a success and influenced later American ship design.
The timing of the round-the-world mission related to the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907. This was a set of agreements between Japan and the United States. The fleet visit was intended as a friendly gesture to Japan, and was welcomed by Japan as such. Roosevelt saw the deployment as one that would encourage patriotism, and give the impression that he would teach Japan "a lesson in polite behavior", as historian Robert A. Hart phrased it. After the fleet had crossed the Pacific, Japanese statesmen realized that the balance of power in the East had changed since the Root – Takahira Agreement that defined relevant spheres of interest of the United States and Japan.
An extended stop on the West Coast of the United States, including ports of call in California, was part of the plan for the voyage. It was expected that the vessels would need overhaul and refurbishment in dry dock. In planning for the voyage, it became evident that there was a dearth of adequate facilities on that coast. The main sea channel of the Mare Island Navy Yard near San Francisco was too shallow for battleships, which left only the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington for refit and repair. The Hunter’s Point civilian yard, originally established in 1870 in San Francisco, could accommodate capital ships, but had been closed due to lack of use and was slated for demolition. President Roosevelt ordered that Hunter's Point be reopened, that the facilities be brought up to date, and directed that the Great White Fleet report to that location as part of the armada’s epic voyage.
Two months before the fleet sailed, Roosevelt ordered the Navy Department to contract 38 ships to supply the fleet with the 125,000 tons of coal it would need to steam from Hampton Roads, Virginia to San Francisco Only eight of these were American-registered; most of the other 30 were of British registry.
Congress threatened to cut the planned mission short prior to the ships departure. The concern revolved around that of funding. According to the Naval Historical Center, Maine Senator Eugene Hale made his intention known to withhold funding for the effort. Roosevelt would not be deterred. The President indicated that he already had the funds to send the Fleet out into the Pacific. If Congress wanted the fleet to return home, they would have to fund the other half of the trip. Faced with this ultimatum, Congress reluctantly complied.
The ships had to sail from all points of the compass to rendezvous points and proceed according to a carefully orchestrated, well-conceived plan. It involved almost the entire operational capability of the U.S. Navy. The U.S. effort benefited from a peaceful environment which aided the coordination of ship movements.
In port after port, citizens in the thousands turned out to see and greet the fleet. From May 1 to May 4, 1908, the Great White Fleet visited Monterey, California. The nearby Hotel Del Monte, built in 1880, hosted a grand ball for the officers of the fleet. The grand ball was attended by state and local dignitaries along with high ranking military officers from the Presidio of San Francisco (located some one hundred miles to the north) and from other points all over the United States. The hotel would one day become part of the Naval Postgraduate School, now still located in Monterey. That facility would become yet another part of the military industrial complex the web of which pulled California into the rest of the United States.
The fleet’s visit attracted over 30,000 spectators to Monterey. Hotel rooms in the Monterey area were overbooked and streets rendered impassible, but the baseball games, boxing matches, and other sporting events proved to be worth the inconveniences.
The fleets’ journey then stopped briefly, starting on May 6, 1908, in San Francisco to make a port call. There, some ships left the fleet for other duties, while others joined the armada for the next leg of its journey. The reorganized fleet then sailed again on July 7, 1908, and traveled to Hawaii, and then to points West of those islands.
The fleet arrived in Egypt on January 3, 1909. There, they learned that an earthquake had struck Sicily. This prompted the fleet to sail to help with the wreckage and recovery work. After rendering such assistance, the fleet traveled on to Naples, Italy. From there, the armada proceeded to Gibraltar.
Continuing from Gibraltar the fleet sailed forth to complete its round-the-world trek, arriving back in Hampton Roads, Virginia on February 22, 1909. Within two weeks of the fleet docking in Hampton Roads, Roosevelt left the presidency. The memory of the Great White Fleet’s successful completion of its mission served to further embellish Roosevelt’s legacy.