The U.S. New Navy came of age as the year 1900 approached, with cruisers, gunboats, and finally battleships aplenty, all of them requiring large crews to operate. With the decline of the U.S. merchant fleet, the government found it easy to attract qualified seafaring men for its officers' corps with modest but much appreciated pay and benefits. At the head of our page, Captain Dewey, who siezed the moment offered to him by T.R. in 1898, winning the Battle of Manila Bay and vaulting himself to a lifelong appointment as Admiral of the Fleet -- an object of officially sanctioned hero-worship in the service and, indeed, the nation. Dewey used his prominence to solidify support for a big-gun, battleship-centered navy through his death in 1917.
But inspiring as battle-hardened leadership could be, it took the brawn of the ordinary jack-tar to operate the rapidly growing U.S. fleet. To lure men to enlist, very modest benefits were dangled; in an age of ruthless exploitation of workers, when the first social legislation was being ventured, a bit of security sufficed; at left, fresh recruits take the oath of induction on the deck of a warship. Old Navy recruiting posters bearing the slogan "Join the Navy and See the World" allured many, although Jack's view of the world would too often be through a porthole or engine-room scuttle, particularly if he had a record of drunkenness and brawling when ashore. On the worldwide voyage of the Great White Fleet, such sailors were denied shore leave and had to be satisfied with viewing Fuji-san or Mt. Vesuvius from the quarterdeck after the day's work was done. Nevertheless, the use of deceptive or, at the least, misleading come-ons to spur enlistments was common, with posters that made Navy life seem like a tourist junket: no mention of the hours spent shoveling coal or holystoning the decks. If they had had iPod apps in 1900, they would have used them too. Nor was the soft sell unique to U.S. recruiters.
By the standards of the British and Continental navies, the U.S. operation was relaxed, even a bit slack. American gunnery, in particular, was below the standards expected in the Royal Navy and the period literature is peppered with condescending references to the Yanks' efforts. (This is damning, since the British standards in the period were not that high either. American publications of the time touted infallible gunnery aided by ingenious mechanical devices.) One must remember that the rôle of the navy was largely symbolic in this time; to parade immaculately polished weapons of war with precision maneuvers and smartly rendered honors; a ritual, if you will. On this level, the smart new warships of the New Navy performed well. The goodwill activities of the Great White Fleet's voyage around the world undoubtedly impressed foreign citizens, and to some degree foreign governments, with the new maritime muscle of the United States.
Enjoy our rare photos of the men whose labor and devotion made the U.S. Navy run. A related page on our site shows warship interiors and life aboard.
The "Old Navy" of Civil War and pre-Civil War vintage -- depicted here by Rufus Zogbaum -- passed out of existence, replaced by steel and steamships. Certain naval traditions -- innate conservatism and a mania for tidiness and order -- persisted.
The "New Navy" as depicted in a 1909 recruiting poster. Youth is emphasized, as are generous pay and benefits. And the South Carolina class dreadnought is a far cry from the wooden sailing ship shown in the painting above. Enlarge
Chief Bo'sun's Mate George Sanderson of the armored cruiser California, c. 1907. In a handwritten note on the back of this photo, future Vice Adm. Newton A. McCully commented, "A Character, and a tough one. Never found any good in anyone or in anything, but in an emergency he would always be on hand." Military Rootsweb
First officer of the Nebraska on watch in his sou'wester and foul weather gear, peeled back to show his rank insignia for the camera.
An "inconvenient truth" of New Navy times was the absorption of engineering and boiler-room personnel into the shipboard community. In general, the officer corps shunned the engineers and refused to accept them as equals, while the stokers were similarly shunned by the deck crews. Reciprocating engine rooms were hot and dirty places, the air damp with steam and flying oil droplets; this was considered antithetical to traditional naval spit and polish. Here is one of Nebraska's engineer officers in his boiler suit.
An historic photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston shows the enlisted men's mess aboard the cruiser Olympia, with crewmen seated at temporary mess tables suspended from the deck girders. The arrangement is well seen in sequences of Battleship Potemkin concerning the serving of the maggoty meat. This incident resulted from incompetence and/or corruption; thanks to modern refrigeration, episodes of spoiled food were completely unnecessary and almost unheard-of in big power navies by this period; although they had been quite common in sailing-ship days.
There were limited opportunities for nonwhite servicemen in the New Navy, most of them a bit demeaning. African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Filipinos all served. Here is a squad of Japanese-American mess stewards from the USS Brooklyn, c. 1900. USNHC
From the earliest days of the USS Monitor, problems with ventilation and excessive heat below decks plagued ironclads. One solution was to sling one's hammock topside, as seen here on the Brooklyn.
Olympia crewmen lighting their pipes at the smoking lamp. The expression "The smoking lamp is lit" would would endure far into the era of safety matches and Bic lighters. George Grantham
An Olympia gun crew huddles around their battle station, one of the 5-inch 50 cal. Mk. II secondary guns that studded the ship's superstructure in casemate mounts. Because of a defect in the training gear on the ship's 8-inch turrets, she did most of her fighting with these 5-inch guns. (Metric: 5"= 127 mm/50, 8"= 203 mm/40)
Our archives are bursting with huge group shots of uniformed ranks of men, usually arranged formally across the foredeck of their ship. Here an informal grouping of sailors from the battleship Wisconsin exudes youth, pride, and good humor. The big 13"/35 guns with their starred tompions make a terrific prop.
Jack at rest: It's Sunday afternoon aboard USS Rhode Island, and the sailors are seeking out a soft plank for napping. Note 3-inch/14 pdr. gunport opened at left for ventilation. At sea it would be hinged shut and dogged down tightly except during action or target practice. Wing 8-inch/45 twin turret at back right.
Jack at play: Seamen aboard the Wisconsin welcomed King Neptune and his court aboard for the traditional ceremony of "Crossing the Line" during the voyage of the Great White Fleet. "Pollywogs" -- those who had never before transited the Equator -- were initiated by having their bellies shaved with a rusty razor, being half-drowned in a canvas pool rigged on board, and made to run the "hothouse" gauntlet of their more experienced mates. Extra grog was served out and a jolly time was had by all. The merriment was more subdued after 1914 when Josephus Daniels, a strict Temperance man, was appointed Secretary of the Navy by Presbyterian President Woodrow Wilson; somewhat resentfully, the service went dry until the end of Prohibition, some 20 years later.
The ship's theatre is rigged in port aboard Wisconsin's sister, the USS Illinois. Amateur theatricals reflected the wider American culture, including musical and novelty acts, jokes, burlesque and vaudeville styled sketches, magic tricks, poetry recitals, and dance.
Jack at work: Crewmen aboard a coal-burning U.S. pre-dreadnought greet the post-coaling cleanup with a smile. The biweekly ordeal of refueling is nearly over; they are hosing the heavy coating of coal dust off the deck before restoring their battleship's rightful spit and polish.
The Minnie Apples (crewmen of the protected cruiser Minneapolis) lounge about in a charming semi-candid photo, awaiting shore leave. Liberty was granted at least once every three months, although many a sailor spent most of his time cooped up aboard ship in harbor. Men with bad records for disturbances and drunkenness ashore were limited to the bare minimum of leave and could have even that revoked for a major infraction. This 1898 shot shows the ship's original bridge works, with wooden pilothouse surmounting the armored conning station one deck below. A modern steel bridge and pilothouse replaced this setup just before WWI broke out.
Shore leave could be quite a lark. This detachment from the crew of the USS Rainbow is off to explore Moji, Japan in a rented steam car and tandem bike this summer day in 1906.
In a playful variation on the Wisconsin scene above, sailors of the dreadnought Texas balance on the ship's mammoth 14-inch guns. With the maturing of the dreadnought fleet during the WWI years, the "new Navy" phase of the service's history came to an end. The Great War put the seal on America's meteoric rise to world power status -- indeed, to first-among-equals status among the Great Powers. The youthful vigor and buoyant morale of American servicemen -- added to Wall Street's financial clout and America's industrial might -- rescued a bloody, 3-year stalemate and turned the tide for Allied victory. With the demise of the German battle fleet in the Great Scuttle of 1919, the USN became the world's second greatest navy, after Britain's Royal Navy. The battleship fleet remained a part of America's military establishment through the end of WWII; and the four Iowa-class dreadnoughts did active service off and on through the mid-1990s.