One of Theodore Roosevelt’s biggest accomplishments as president was the complete transformation and buildup of the US Navy. The culmination of his efforts led to the famed round the world cruise of the ships of “The Great White Fleet” from 1907-1909.
The fleet of 16 battleships was meant to display newfound American power and show the world that the US was ready to step into global affairs. Over the past century and dating back to its founding, the United States had favored more of an isolationist policy and kept out of European affairs.
George Washington’s farewell address and the Monroe Doctrine were very influential in early American policy. These aimed for the country to avoid entanglements with foreign nations and warned European nations of encroaching and meddling in the affairs on the American continents.
With the outbreak of the Civil War and the following period of Reconstruction, the US was too occupied with its own internal strife to play any sort of role in global affairs. Upon the conclusion of the Spanish American War in 1898, the US suddenly found itself in possession of several overseas territories.
These territories spanned the globe, including the Pacific Islands of Guam and the Philippines. In order to maintain and protect these territories, the US needed to modernize its Navy. During the 1880s, the country began this process.
The relative strength of the US Navy was a major reason for the ease of victory in the Spanish-American War. After rising to the position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897, Theodore Roosevelt stressed even more the importance of a strong Navy.
The Ships of the Great White Fleet
Through Roosevelt’s efforts as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and then as President, Congress designated funds to completely modernize the US Navy and showcase US strength. Roosevelt believed that a strong navy was essential to American interests and important part of his Roosevelt Corollary doctrine. As he stated in a 1902 speech to Congress:
“A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace”
The United States began building battleships at a remarkable pace. Within two decades the US was relatively in line with the likes of the United Kingdom and Germany. In fact, by 1908 the United States navy was the second most powerful in the world, behind only the British Royal Navy.1
With their hulls painted a bright white, on December 16th, 1907, the ships of the “Great White Fleet” set off on a 14 month round the globe trip. The Navy divided the ships into two squadrons of eight ships each, and further divided within each squadron into two divisions of 4 ships each. The participating ships included:
- First Division:
- USS Connecticut (Connecticut class) – flagship
- USS Kansas (Connecticut class)
- USS Vermont (Connecticut class)
- USS Louisiana (Connecticut class)
- Second Division:
- USS Georgia (Virginia class)
- USS New Jersey (Virginia class)
- USS Rhode Island (Virginia class)
- USS Virginia (Virginia class)
- Third Division:
- USS Minnesota (Connecticut class)
- USS Maine (Maine class)
- USS Missouri (Maine class)
- USS Ohio (Maine class)
- Fourth Division:
- USS Alabama (Illinois class)
- USS Illinois (Illinois class)
- USS Kearsarge (Kearsarge class)
- USS Kentucky (Kearsarge class)
These were the capital ships of the US Navy at the time, with some being completed as recently as that same year (1907). In an ironic twist, these ships were all essentially obsolete by the time of their voyage meant to showcase American strength. The two ships of the oldest class (Kearsarge) were outdated and unfit for battle.
These battleships were all pre-dreadnoughts. With the rapidly advancing naval technology of the times, the British completed the HMS Dreadnought in 1906. It revolutionized ship design and its capabilities far outclassed any pre-dreadnought battleships.
At the time of the Great White Fleet’s voyage, the US itself had already begun construction of its own first dreadnoughts, following President Roosevelt’s massive push to continually invest in a modern and powerful navy.2
While technically obsolete, the ships of the Great White Fleet served its purpose. The world was put on notice for the burgeoning American power.
The Connecticut class was the penultimate class of pre-dreadnought US Navy ships. The Navy built six total ships between 1903-1908 with the first completed and commissioned in 1906.
Five of the six ships were among the Great White Fleet. Only the USS New Hampshire, which had not been commissioned yet, did not take part.
The Connecticut class ships were in commission from 1906-1923, though all decommissioned as part of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty.
The Virginia class was a class of pre-dreadnought US Navy ships. The Navy built five total ships between 1902-1907 with the first completed and commissioned in 1906. They were the first ships to incorporate design changes from lessons learned in the Spanish American War.
Four of the five ships were among the original ships of the Great White Fleet. The USS Nebraska joined the fleet after replacing the USS Maine in San Francisco. The USS Maine had been experiencing mechanical issues.
The Virginia class ships were in commission from 1906-1920, though all officially decommissioned as part of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty.
The Maine class was a class of pre-dreadnought US Navy ships. Congress commissioned three total ships for construction between 1899-1904 with the first completed and commissioned in 1902.
All three ships were among the original ships of the Great White Fleet. The USS Maine was replaced by the USS Nebraska in San Francisco after experiencing mechanical issues.
The Maine class ships were in commission from 1902-1920, though all withdrawn from service between 1919-1920 and later sold for scrap.
The Illinois class was a class of pre-dreadnought US Navy ships. The Navy built three total ships between 1896-1898 with the first completed and commissioned in 1900.
Two of the three ships were among the original ships of the Great White Fleet, though all three eventually took part. The USS Alabama was replaced by the USS Wisconsin (Illinois class) in San Francisco after experiencing mechanical issues.
The Illinois class ships were in commission from 1901-1920, though all withdrawn from service between 1919-1920 and later sold for scrap.
The Kearsarge class was a class of pre-dreadnought US Navy ships. The Navy built two total ships between 1896-1898 with the first completed and commissioned in 1900.
Both ships were among the original ships of the Great White Fleet. They were the oldest ships to sail in the fleet and not fit for battle due to their technological inferiority.
The Kearsarge class ships were in commission from 1900-1920, though both withdrawn from service between 1919-1920. Despite a last push for a ceremonial sinking in the sea, the Kearsarge class ships were later sold for scrap in 1923.3
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) McMahon, Christopher. “THE GREAT WHITE FLEET SAILS TODAY?: Twenty-First-Century Logistics Lessons from the 1907–1909 Voyage of the Great White Fleet.” Naval War College Review, vol. 71, no. 4, 2018, pp. 67–90. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26607090.
2) Foppiani, Oreste. “THE WORLD CRUISE OF THE US NAVY IN 1907-1909.” Il Politico, vol. 71, no. 1 (211), 2006, pp. 110–40. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24005543.
3) Gillig, John S. “The Predreadnought Battleship USS Kentucky.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 88, no. 1, 1990, pp. 45–81. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23381829.