At the end of the Civil War, the United States had the second largest navy in the world after the Royal Navy of Great Britain, a result of the Union’s attempt to blockade Southern ports. By 1880, however, the US Navy had dropped to 12th place as Congress became increasingly preoccupied with westward expansion and was unwilling to fund a navy for which it saw little need or purpose. A change of perception brought about in part by German, British, and Spanish encroachments in the Americas, a violation of our self-proclaimed Monroe Doctrine, encouraged new spending to begin to modernize the fleet, to introduce a new steel and steam navy to replace the old wooden one.
Funding for three new steel cruisers was authorized in 1883 reflecting US naval doctrine at the time: in the event of war, the primary purpose of the navy would be to protect US seaborne trade while disrupting the trade of the enemy. Cruisers were therefore the ideal type of warship: comparatively lightly armored and gunned, but able to cruise alone at long distances in search of enemy cargo ships. By the end of the 1880s, the first generation of steel cruisers were in the water (USS Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago), all of which carried a complement of auxiliary sails to extend range, followed by a second and then third generation of sail-less cruisers, USS New York and Brooklyn, and together these ships represented the US Navy’s reemergence from its decades-long slumber (Fig. 1), which soon ignited an arms race with Germany to build the second most powerful navy after the undisputed leader, the Royal Navy.
Although Congress was now funding new ships nearly every year, including the first-generation battleships, the Indiana-class, launched in the mid-1890s, there was still considerable push-back on the expenditure, resulting in ships that were not always up to European par. By the turn of the century, however, that was to change as the US Navy became the darling of the public eye having starred in several magnificent naval parades in New York harbor.
The first took place on April 27, 1893 in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. In order to show off its new ships and nascent fleet maneuvering abilities, Congress authorized funds for a naval review similar to those sometimes hosted by the Royal Navy to be held at both Hamptons Roads and in New York harbor, and sent out invitations to the world’s navies. While the response was mixed, those that truly counted, the British, the Germans, the French, and the Spanish, responded by sending their latest cruisers to parade up the Hudson River to the newly built Grant’s Tomb alongside the new cruisers of the US Navy (Fig. 2).
No such international parade of ships had ever taken place in the US before and this certainly caught the eye of many illustrators and artists. Fred Cozzens, for example, a Staten Island-based artist, produced chromolithographic views of the naval review that were part of a larger set that appear in 1893 featuring nearly two dozen new US ships, including many still under construction (Figs. 3–4).
Cozzens’ set of 24 high quality prints were issued in a volume entitled Our Navy: Its Growth and Achievements, with commentary by a Lt. J. D. Jerrold Kelly, clearly meant to drum up support for naval expansion. In a similar vein, the US Navy sponsored the construction of the faux battleship USS Illinois, a full-sized replica made of staff, not steel, of one of the Indiana-class ships then under construction that was set alongside a pier at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (Fig. 5). It proved to be a popular exhibit.
Not long after the closing of the Exposition, growing tensions between the US and Spain over Cuban independence finally erupted in the spring of 1898 when the USS Maine, an armored cruiser reclassified as a 2nd class battleship soon after launching, blew up in Havana harbor with great loss of life, where it had gone to show the flag for American business interests in Cuba (Figs. 6–7).
At the time the cause of the explosion was determined to be a Spanish mine, just cause for Congress to declare war, although it may well have been an internal explosion as later naval historians have suggested. By the end of the summer, the New Navy had scored two remarkable and crushing victories over the Spanish navy, one under Commodore George Dewey leading the Asiatic Squadron in Manila harbor in the Philippines (May 1, 1898), and the other under Commodore William T. Sampson leading the North Atlantic Squadron near Santiago in Cuba (July 3, 1898). Both naval battles set the United States on its course to become an 20th century imperial power. At the Treaty of Paris (December 10, 1898), Spain ceded the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the US; both warring parties agreed to let the Cubans have their independence.
In August 1898, the squadron under Sampson aboard his flagship USS New York with his second in command Commodore Winifred Scott Schley aboard USS Brooklyn returned to New York harbor, home to the Brooklyn Naval Yard and the Tompkinsville Naval Station (Staten Island). Still in their wartime grey paint, the ships paraded up the Hudson again as far as Grant’s Tomb to the cheers of great crowds in boats and along the waterfront (August 26, 1898) (Fig. 8).
An even bigger turnout, however, came little over a year later (September 29–30, 1899), when Dewey returned to New York from the Philippines aboard his flagship, the cruiser USS Olympia (today a museum ship at the Independence Seaport in Philadelphia), where he led both squadrons, now in peacetime white paint, in a momentous naval parade again to Grant’s Tomb (Figs. 9–11), an event that was also recorded in moving pictures by Thomas Edison.
Dewey had already become the hero of the war, completely eclipsing Sampson and Schley, who were involved in a bitter, public dispute over which of the two had actually won the Battle of Santiago (Figs. 12–13).
In Dewey’s honor, a temporary triumphal arch was also erected near Madison Square Park (Fig. 14).
Such naval parades in New York harbor became more commonplace in the decades to follow and have continued to the present day with New York Fleet Week coinciding with Memorial Day, although this year, sadly, the events, like so much else, will be virtual.