The months succeeding the close of the Civil War were the beginning of a new era in the history of the United States. It was an era marked by great national growth by land and decline by sea. It is unnecessary here to review the familiar events. We need only remember that the Confederate commerce raiders and the fear they inspired, acted as a tremendously effective catalyst in hastening the decline of the American merchant marine. That decline had already begun some years before the guns at Charleston awoke Fort Sumter and the Union with their belated announcement of the birth of the Confederacy. Various reasons have been given: the unwillingness of American shipowners and builders to turn to iron ships, their failure to see that the dazzling speed of the clippers was comparable only to the rapidity with which those wonderful ships sailed across the horizon which separates reality from memory, and probably most important, the United States was "turning its back on the sea" in order to develop the vast and little-known territory included within its borders. A loss of interest in the sea was almost certain to be reflected in the nation's naval policy. It resulted badly for the United States Navy, and also for the Pacific Squadron.
But before the new outlook toward the Navy had time to develop, the Pacific Squadron received its first important reinforcement since before the Civil War. Preoccupation with that conflict had been largely responsible for American failure to invoke the Monroe Doctrine against European ambitions in Mexico. As soon as peace was restored, official interest in the Mexican situation became apparent. However, there is no conclusive evidence that the inferiority of the Pacific Squadron to the French naval forces on the Pacific coast caused the dispatch of the Special Service Squadron commanded by Commodore John Rodgers.1
p125 At any rate, the squadron was formed around the double-turret monitor Monadnock, generally considered to be one of the most powerful fighting ships in the world, but one whose ability to make a long ocean voyage was seriously questioned. To accompany the ironclad, Secretary Welles chose the wooden side-wheelers Vanderbilt and Powhatan and the wooden screw-sloop Tuscarora. Commodore Rodgers, a firm believer in the monitors, but no stranger to their discomforts, broke his broad pennant in the Vanderbilt.
The Special Service Squadron left Hampton Roads early in November 1865, and plodded to the southward at a leisurely pace, its speed limited to that of the sluggish Monadnock. The monitor came up to Rodgers' expectations as to seaworthiness and exceeded them with regard to the heat of her fireroom as she entered tropical waters. The sails set on a jury mast stepped forward of her fore turret helped to give her hard-pressed stokers, collapsing from the heat, some slight surcease. The squadron passed on through the Strait of Magellan and thence to Valparaiso.
At the Chilean port, Rodgers' squadron met the Spanish force of Admiral Méndez Núñez. Some four years earlier, Spain had launched one final attempt to regain her lost colonies on the west coast of South America. The immediate cause of the war was Peruvian failure to pay debts supposedly owed to the Spanish government. A Spanish expedition had seized the guano-rich Chincha Islands in 1864 and engaged in sporadic blockading operations without fear of American intervention. Chile had allied itself with Peru, so the Spanish fleet stood to the southward, threatening to bombard the undefended port of Valparaiso.
At this point, Major General Judson Kilpatrick, American minister to Chile, expressed his desire that the newly arrived Special Service Squadron intervene. For a time it seemed that Rodgers would do so, and seamen looked forward eagerly to a duel between the Monadnock and the Spanish broadside ironclad Numancia. But Rodgers made British co‑operation a condition of his action, and Rear Admiral the Honorable Joseph Denman, RN, refused to intervene after verbal efforts to dissuade the Spaniard had failed. Rodgers also stood aside, with Kilpatrick's grudging approval, and the bombardment took place. Few lives were lost, as the negotiations had given time for removal of most of the civilians. A similar attack on Callao was p126 repulsed, and Núñez returned to Spain with his squadron not long thereafter.
The Special Service Squadron made its way on to San Francisco and was incorporated into the Pacific Squadron. The Monadnock, having proved her ability to reach the west coast, joined the Camanche in ignominious reserve to rust away in peace. The threat of trouble with France, already lessening, faded even more rapidly before the diplomacy of Secretary of State William H. Seward, backed by the potential of the victorious Union armies.
Hostilities ended and difficulties with foreign powers no longer threatening, Secretary Welles was able to turn his attention to the peacetime disposition of the Navy. He seemed to have grasped the principle that a navy had to be concentrated to act effectively, but this was not carried out by his orders after the war. Once again the old distant-station policy was revived, this time with much less justification than before. Not only was the American merchant marine much smaller, but its relative importance to American prosperity was greatly diminished. The once-valuable whaling fleet had virtually disappeared in the fires lighted by boarding parties from the CSS Shenandoah, and years were to pass before the industry was revived on a much smaller scale. American interests abroad still remained, to be sure, and Welles could find some support for his belief that "one or more of our naval vessels ought annually to display the flag . . . in every port where our ships may trade."2 But with diminished American shipping and greatly improved means of communication, the soundest arguments for the traditional policy had disappeared.
Without further ado, the following stations were re‑established: European (former Mediterranean and African), North Atlantic (former Home), South Atlantic (former Brazil), and Asiatic (former East India). The Pacific Station had remained in existence throughout the Civil War, but now it came up for consideration also.
In a sense, the Pacific Station was not a distant station at all. The squadron in the area was based principally on Mare Island, and the whole region from Cape Flattery to San Diego was as much a part of the United States as was the Atlantic coast. The telegraph had ended much of the isolation of the Pacific coast, and the soon-to‑be-completed transcontinental railroad would provide an even closer tie. However, the waters south and west of California were still remote, p127 and the problems likely to be encountered in the southeastern Pacific differed widely from those in waters contiguous to the continental coastline of the United States. As early as 1856, Secretary of the Navy James C. Dobbin had recommended that the eastern Pacific be divided into two distinct stations, and Welles took advantage of the general reorganization to put the recommendation into effect.
Accordingly, on 6 August 1866, Rear Admiral Henry K. Thatcher broke his flag in the USS Vanderbilt at San Francisco and assumed command of the North Pacific Squadron. His force consisted of the screw-sloops Pensacola, Lackawanna, and Mohican; the side-wheelers Vanderbilt and Saranac; the screw gunboat Resaca; the side-wheel gunboats Suwanee, Mohongo, and Saginaw; and the sailing sloop Jamestown. The North Pacific Station encompassed the area from the west coasts of North and Central America westward to the 180th meridian of longitude and southward to the latitude of Panama.
Rear Admiral Pearson, formerly commanding the Pacific Station, took command of the South Pacific Squadron which included the side-wheel sloop Powhatan (flagship), the screw-sloop Tuscarora, the side-wheel gunboat Wateree, the screw gunboats Nyack and Dacotah, and the sailing storeships Farallones and Fredonia. These vessels cruised on a station south of the latitude of Panama, bounded on the east by the western coast of South America, and extending far enough to the westward to include Australia.
It will be noted that the South Pacific Station was much larger than its northern counterpart, but that the latter received a more powerful squadron. This seeming discrepancy may be explained by the fact that the North Pacific Station contained the important Hawaiian Islands in addition to the west coast of the United States. With the exception of the Callao-Valparaiso area, the South Pacific Station had no regions of particular importance. Panama, in many ways still the focal point of American interest in the eastern Pacific, was the joint responsibility of both squadrons, although the Commander in Chief, North Pacific, was primarily charged with maintaining its tranquillity. Naturally enough, the Mare Island Navy Yard was home base for both squadrons. One of the storeships was moored at Callao or Valparaiso, but shore depots came into more frequent use as time passed.
p128 The separation of North and South Pacific Stations lasted for only two years. On 13 Mar 18669, the Navy Department directed that the two be combined to form the Pacific Station. A rear admiral would serve as commander in chief, while the warships were to be divided into North and South Pacific Squadrons, each commanded by a commodore. It took some time for this order to be put into full effect. Nearly two years later, the commodore commanding the South Pacific Squadron still had his flag flying in the storeship Onward, a former sailing merchantman, and the commander in chief of the Pacific Station had no vessel suitable to carry his flag on the visits to his squadrons, although he had been ordered to make such visits every three months. This shortage was remedied as ships completed refits at Mare Island, but again the combined station proved too large for one officer to oversee.
Accordingly, the eastern Pacific Ocean was again divided in 1872, the two stations having the same geographical limits as before. A few months later, the North Pacific Station was extended southward to the Equator, while its western limit was moved eastward to 170° West longitude. The Pacific Station was re‑established once more in 1878, and was not divided again during the period considered by this study. Its limits were those customary in years past.
The reasons for this confusing policy cannot be ascertained. It is obvious that the Pacific Station was divided because it was too large for one command, but it did not grow smaller on those occasions when it was reunited, nor had any new developments occurred which might have facilitated communications over long distances at sea. One is tempted to attribute the re‑establishment of a single command to a desire for economy — one station would require only a single flag officer and his staff — but this is only conjecture. Two squadrons usually did not receive a corresponding increase in force over one, nor did a change in the number of squadrons have any discernible effect as regards the types of warships comprising the forces in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
Nor did the classes of vessels assigned to the Pacific Station, or Stations, differ from those serving on other stations. Ships sent to the Pacific were apt to stay there, occasionally crossing the 180th meridian for duty with the Asiatic Squadron, until they were stricken from the Navy Register, usually after rotting in reserve at Mare p129 Island for some years. Most of them were not well fitted for service anywhere, but this describes most of the warships of the United States Navy after the Civil War. The prewar ships were excellent representatives of their kind, but they had seen hard service during the war; furthermore, repairs had been hastily and, too often, poorly done. The war‑built ships had been rushed to completion, and the green timbers used in their construction shortened their effective lives considerably. Economy-minded Congresses and Navy Department postponed overhauls as long as possible, and sometimes there was a very real danger that a vessel might not weather storms encountered on the passage to Mare Island when her commanding officer's oft‑repeated request was finally granted.
The bad condition of the warships was not improved by the postwar Navy Department's attitude toward the use of steam. This attitude has been described in many places; it will suffice to remark here that the foolish economy of forcing the ships to cruise under sail worked a particular hardship in the eastern Pacific with its large expanses of calms or baffling winds. These had been annoying enough during the era of sail. With the advent of steam, it became peculiarly frustrating to possess the means to circumvent natural conditions, only to have its use forbidden. The circumstances were aggravated by the fact that the sail power of most of the ships in commission had been reduced during the Civil War to enable them to operate more efficiently under steam.
The Department met these objections by ordering that all vessels on Pacific Station be sent to Mare Island to receive full sail rig as soon as possible. The four-bladed screws were replaced by two‑bladed propellers, less efficient for steaming, but causing less drag when the ships were under sail. In response to repeated complaints by succeeding commanders in chief, permission was granted in 1871 for ships of the Pacific Stations to use half steam power to cross areas of calm when "ordered on urgent duty."3
That the Navy Department's aversion to the use of steam was not based on an appreciation of the technical points of seamanship was demonstrated by Secretary George M. Robeson's comments on a minor collision. The USS Mohican was standing out under steam when she touched the merchant vessel Ocean Express, causing some slight damage to the latter's spars. Robeson thought that the Mohican p130 could have avoided the collision had she been under sail, and pointed out that if the use of steam was necessary, it would have been preferable to hire a tug. The Mohican should have been much more manageable under her own steam than under sail, but Robeson was thinking only of the expense incurred by raising steam and thereby consuming coal.
If the warships were poor, the personnel often were no better. Most of the officers were those who had made fine reputations during the Civil War, but slow promotion and the political manipulations of their seniors often turned them into mere time-servers. Even those who did wish to keep abreast of new naval developments could hardly do so because the United States Navy contained virtually nothing that was new.
The enlisted men were of a different type. Native Americans had declined to serve in the merchant marine even before the war, and conditions in the postwar Navy were not calculated to make the service attractive to young men of ability and ambition. As a result, foreigners made their way into the forecastles of American warships in ever larger numbers. Officers found it necessary to give orders in several languages if they were to be understood by all. While there is no record that any of the warships serving on Pacific Station ever surpassed the Asiatic Squadron's Monocacy with her crew from nineteen nations, the same general condition existed throughout the United States Navy.
Such men could not be expected to feel a strong attachment for the flag under which they served, and must have been a very uncertain factor in time of emergency. They were even more to desertion than were their predecessors, and rare indeed was the small boat which returned its full crew to a ship. Desertion became so prevalent in the Pacific Station that the Department ordered all warships to stay away from San Francisco unless it became absolutely necessary to touch there. This did not cure the evil, and desertions plagued the Pacific Squadron throughout the period of naval decline. When the conditions of service and the pay and food are considered, it is very difficult to condemn the enlisted men for seeking to better themselves by flight.
In addition to the perennial task of protecting American commerce and interests in the eastern Pacific, the North and South Pacific p131 Squadrons were assigned the duty of increasing knowledge of the waters wherein they cruised. All vessels were equipped to make hydrographic surveys in 1866 and received orders to confirm or correct their charts at every opportunity. The value of this function cannot be denied, but the order made it apparent once again that the vessels comprising each squadron were to be dispersed within the limits of their stations. No mention of tactical maneuvers was made; the Pacific Squadrons were still police forces.
Mindful of Department orders, the warships cruised actively during the immediate postwar period. At least one vessel was almost always present in the Hawaiian waters where American interests clearly were supreme. Friendly relations there were strained in 1867, when the Hawaiian government became suspicious of an unusually long visit by the USS Lackawanna. An intemperate letter inquiring as to her intentions received no answer from the American chargé or from Captain William Reynolds. More letters failed to elicit a satisfactory explanation and the attorney general of the kingdom was asked for an opinion on the legality of closing Hawaiian ports to American vessels. Reynolds informed the United States government of the proceedings and asked that all American warships refrain from rendering the customary salutes in Hawaiian harbors. However, Admiral Thatcher disapproved this request, and the tense situation was resolved amicably when the Lackawanna conspicuously rendered passing honors to the King on the occasion of his visit to a foreign man-o'‑war anchored nearby.
American purchase of Alaska in 1867 added to the responsibilities of the Pacific Squadron briefly. The USS Ossipee was detailed to convey Russian and American dignitaries to Sitka for ceremonies transferring the territory in the summer of 1867. She was joined by the sailing sloop Jamestown; the latter's crew had contracted yellow fever at Panama, and they had been ordered to a more temperate climate to recuperate. Soon afterward, the gunboat Resaca, the Jamestown's relief at Panama, was sent to Alaska for the same reason. "Seward's icebox" seemed well on its way to becoming the convalescent ward for the Pacific Station. Although administration of Alaska was entrusted to the Army, warships were directed to cruise in its waters whenever convenient.
The Cyane followed the Jamestown and Resaca as station ship at p132 Panama. She did good service during political disturbances on the Isthmus, but after a time yellow fever appeared among her men, and she too was sent to Alaska. Thereafter, no station ship was kept at Panama, but cruising vessels were ordered to touch there frequently.
Shipwreck took a heavy toll of the Pacific Squadrons in the immediate postwar years. First to go was the double-ender Suwanee. She was bound for Sitka on 9 Jul 1868 when she struck an uncharted rock in Shadwell Passage. The swiftly ebbing tide left her hanging on the obstruction, and she broke up some forty minutes after stranding. Officers and men saved such gear as they could in small boats, and all reached the shore safely.
Little more than a month later, the South Pacific Squadron suffered a heavier loss. The storeship Fredonia had been moved to Arica, Chile, to escape a cholera epidemic raging at Valparaiso. On 13 August, she was riding at anchor in company with the double-ender Wateree when a huge tidal wave engulfed the harbor. The storeship filled and sank with the twenty-seven officers and men on board. The luckier Wateree was deposited well above the high-water mark on the beach, losing only one man who had been in a small boat at the time. The Wateree's crew and five men from the Fredonia who had been on the beach exercised themselves to succor distressed civilians in the wake of the disaster. The gunboat's hull was badly strained, and it was impracticable to refloat her, so she was sold at public auction some time later. Meanwhile, she remained in commission, carrying out normal warship routine, except that the small boats normally made fast to her boat booms had been replaced by mules.
USS Wateree deposited above the high-water mark by a tidal wave at Arica, Chile, in August 1868.
Eighteen sixty-nine passed without loss, but the ocean claimed another victim in 1870. The little side-wheeler Saginaw was returning from Midway Island when Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Sicard made a slight deviation from his course to check the coral reef known as Ocean Island for castaways. Not desiring to arrive during hours of darkness, Sicard ordered the engines slowed until the paddle wheels were barely turning, and the ship ghosted along under her fore topsail. But a defective compass and unknown currents had set the Saginaw much closer to her goal than Sicard realized. At 0300 on 29 October, lookouts reported breakers ahead. The engines were reversed immediately, but steam pressure was too low to give her p133 sternway with the topsail set. The Saginaw struck just as the sail was clewed up. Within ten minutes, her hold was flooded, and she broke up in less than an hour. Officers and men made their way to the very island from which they had intended to rescue distressed seamen, and the Saginaw's gig, manned by five volunteers, set out to bring assistance from Hawaii. The •1800‑mile passage to Kauai Island was completed in thirty days; then, after one of the epic small boat voyages of maritime history, the gig capsized in the surf, and Coxswain William Halford alone survived. The Hawaiian government immediately sent a relief ship, and Sicard and his men were returned to the United States.a
Last in this series of losses was the Saranac. The veteran side-wheeler was on passage to Sitka when, on 18 June 1875, she stood into the treacherous Seymour Narrows. Captain Walter W. Queen soon found his ship caught in a whirlpool too strong for her feeble engines, and she was thrown violently against Ripple Rock. Queen immediately headed her for the nearest shore; he and his ship's company managed to save themselves, but the Saranac sank in deep water.b With this sacrifice, the gods of the sea seemed content — for a time.
Commander George Dewey's Narragansett undertook a survey of the major steamship routes along the Mexican and Central American coasts in 1873. While engaged in this useful work, the vessel was also available to protect American interests in adjacent regions. In the same year, the Cuban ship Virginius, fraudulently registered in the United States and flying American colors, was captured by a Spanish cruiser while she was running arms to Cuban insurgents. The Virginius was taken to Havana, and the Spanish authorities executed a number of her passengers. News of the tension between Spain and the United States over the Virginius affair reached Dewey in Mexican waters, and later he stated that he had planned to capture Manila with the Narragansett in event of war. What his seniors would think of so foolhardy a scheme, he seems not to have considered. One can only assume that the future "Hero of Manila Bay" gained a more balanced and mature judgment in later years.
Other vessels also were employed in hydrographic work. The Tuscarora ran lines of soundings from San Francisco to Honolulu and from San Francisco to Australia. The Nyack co‑operated with the Navy's Selfridge Expedition which surveyed the Isthmus of p134 Panama, and her small boats explored rivers of the vicinity. At one time or another, almost every warship on Pacific Station was employed on work of this nature, tedious and wearing in the extreme because of the climate and hard work. Only occasionally was the boredom relieved by some novel incident.
One such occurrence placed an officer of the gunboat Ranger in a precarious position. He had been using a red flag to signal a companion while surveying a Central American beach. The color had the traditional effect on a nearby bull, and the officer took refuge in the surf where he had "difficulty in determining the safety line between the sharks, which were swarming in the bay, and the irate animal, pawing sand and bellowing on the beach."4 One of the ship's launches opportunely passed and picked him up before he had to decide which was the lesser of the two evils.
While unsettled conditions in Central America and Mexico were competing with surveying duties for the attention of the North Pacific Squadron, much the same conditions prevailed in the southeastern Pacific. Political uncertainties in the South America and the small number of warships assigned to that region made it impossible for the South Pacific Squadron to visit the islands for long periods, and Australia, westernmost point of the station, was virtually ignored.
By 1875, the South Pacific Squadron had become almost non‑existent. Rear Admiral Reed Werden, ordered to assume the command left vacant by the death of Rear Admiral Napoleon Collins, found that his squadron included only the screw-sloops Richmond and Omaha and the storeship Onward. All were badly in need of overhaul, and their obsolescence was only too apparent when they met the modern warships maintained in that area by Great Britain, France, Prussia, and even some of the Latin American countries. In vain, Werden repeated the requests of his predecessors that his squadron be reinforced, or at least that Richmond receive essential repairs.
So matters stood when, on 2 May 1876, Werden received orders to proceed to the South Atlantic in his flagship to assume command of that station. By trans-Andean telegraph, he acknowledged receipt of the orders, and added that he could not obey until the Richmond's hull, machinery, and sails had been renewed sufficiently to enable her to undertake the mid‑winter passage around Cape Horn. If no p135 orders to the contrary were sent, the necessary repairs would be made at Callao.
The work proceeded, and Werden expected to sail within three weeks when, to his surprise, Commodore Charles H. B. Caldwell arrived on 12 July to relieve him. Protesting bitterly at this summary relief, Werden returned to Washington. Secretary Robeson and Admiral David Dixon Porter, senior officer of the Navy, were deaf to his plea that a general court-martial be convened to investigate his conduct. Their refusal was not surprising; a court-martial would reveal their responsibility for the Richmond's poor condition. Rear Admiral Werden realized that his position was hopeless, so he requested, and received, retirement on the ground of ill‑health. He was never employed again.
But conditions were not improved on either of the stations. Rear Admiral Alexander Murray's North Pacific Squadron consisted of the screw-sloops Pensacola and Lackawanna in 1876, while Captain Edward B. Simpson, senior officer in the South Pacific, had only the storeship Onward besides his own command, Omaha. Rear Admiral George Henry Preble broke his flag in the latter during 1877, but neither squadron was reinforced.
Disturbances reminiscent of the gold rush days and Vigilante activity broke out in San Francisco in 1877. Some Chinese laundries were burned, and a "citizens' protective association" was hurriedly formed to stop the rioting. At the same time, telegraphic appeal for naval aid reached President Rutherford B. Hayes, and soon the North Pacific Squadron (Pensacola and Lackawanna) was anchored off the city. Its presence was enough; order was restored, and the Governor of California expressed his appreciation to Admiral Murray, together with the opinion that the proximity of the warships was in large part responsible for the tranquillity of hitherto turbulent San Francisco.
A single Pacific Station was re‑established in 1878, and Rear Admiral Christopher R. P. Rodgers assumed command of the screw-sloops Pensacola, Alaska, and Lackawanna, the gunboat Adams, and the storeship Onward. None of these vessels possessed armor, modern rifled guns, efficient steam engines, or any of the various other improvements introduced since the Civil War. All were built of wood, and none was in good condition. Commander in chief and p136 Navy Department alike were reluctant to order ships to Mare Island for overhaul, as that yard had a reputation for making such work last as long as possible, and the ship which entered the yard for minor repairs was lost to the squadron for months.5
The small force under his command did not prevent Rodgers from carrying out a policy of active cruising. During 1878, vessels of the Pacific Squadron "visited all points along the coast from Puget Sound to Valparaiso as well as Honolulu and Apia, Samoa."6 Warships sent to assist the wrecked American merchantman H. N. Carlton at Molokai found that she had some fifty Chinese passengers in excess of the number certified to have been on board at her port of departure. Obviously she was participating in the illegal trade in Chinese coolies, so orders went out for Asiatic and Pacific Squadrons to intercept American vessels involved in this traffic.
Military forces had been withdrawn from Alaska in 1876, leaving a few customs officials as the only representatives of the United States government in the territory. An occasional visit by a revenue cutter was the only support these gentlemen had; by 1879, "Alaska was absolutely without any form of local government, and was in a condition almost as far from the operation of civil law as the interior of Africa."7 Quite obviously, something had to be done, and a threatened Indian outbreak in 1879 brought action. No vessel of the Pacific Squadron was immediately available, so HMS Osprey was dispatched from the British naval base at Esquimault on Vancouver Island. The sailing sloop Jamestown was hurriedly fitted out and recommissioned at Mare Island, and Commander Lester A. Beardslee took her to Sitka to relieve the Osprey. As soon as the situation there was under control, Beardslee sent out parties to bring order to more remote areas. The Jamestown's lack of power was an insuperable handicap; consequently, the tortuous channels and sounds of southeastern Alaska were traversed by the steam launches which she carried.
The screw-sloop Wachusett relieved the Jamestown in 1881, and a warship was stationed at Sitka continuously until the close of the century. Ships of the Revenue Cutter Service did most of the cruising in western Alaskan and Aleutian waters, but administration of the more populous southeastern region was the responsibility of the warship's commanding officer. Personnel of the Revenue Cutter Service p137 lacked the training and discipline essential for that duty. As before, the ship stationed at Sitka was attached to the Pacific Squadron, but the commander in chief exercised no real control over the station ship, whose commanding officer reported directly to the Navy Department.
Several vessels took their turns at Sitka until 1886 when the iron seagoing tug Pinta arrived on the scene. This little ship remained the law in southeastern Alaska for the next eleven years, cruising the inland waters during summer months and spending the period from September to March moored to eight anchors in the inner harbor of Sitka. Officers and men enjoyed the winter sports and took an active part in the simple social life. Duty in the Pinta was not wildly exciting, but it had its recompenses.
USS Pinta in Juneau Harbor, 1889.
While threatened violence in Alaska was calling for attention, the always delicate situation in South America had exploded into open warfare. This was the War of the Pacific between Chile, on one hand, and Peru and Bolivia, on the other. No more than the usual interest was shown by the United States Navy until 1881, when Rear Admiral George B. Balch was ordered to take his Pacific Squadron on a round of visits to the ports of the three combatant states. At each port, officers were directed to observe carefully conditions and developments and to make full reports to the Navy Department. No trouble was expected, but it was thought desirable to have a respectable force patrolling the South American coast.
The four old screw-sloops and gunboats with which Balch sailed comprised a force respectable by the standards of the United States Navy at the time, but no foreign naval officer could conceal his scorn for such museum pieces. This fact was borne out by a story, probably apocryphal, current at the time. Kindly old Admiral Balch was attempting to mediate between Chile and Peru, whereupon a senior Chilean naval officer asserted that as soon as he had finished with the Peruvians, he would destroy the American Pacific Squadron and after it the whole United States Navy if necessary. In fact, the Chilean Navy did possess several modern warships which were far superior to the most formidable vessel flying the American flag.
American warships continued their patrol of the South American coast for the rest of the decade, although events elsewhere on the Pacific Station required the attention of the commander in chief as p138 well. The flagship visited other waters after the war of the Pacific ended in 1884, but American interests from Panama to Valparaiso were given somewhat questionable protection by the continued presence of several of the old men-o'‑war. The Wachusett's Commander Alfred T. Mahan, who spent two years on this duty, found it extremely dull, and made no complaint when he received orders to take his ship to Mare Island for decommissioning before he joined the faculty of Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce's new Naval War College.
Events in the Hawaiian Islands eclipsed the South American situation, and Rear Admiral Lewis A. Kimberly hastened there in the flagship Vandalia in July 1887, leaving the Alert, Iroquois, and Mohican to watch Latin American affairs. The immediate cause for concern in Hawaii was a political quarrel between the conservative government and the pro‑American faction; the latter was trying to force the adoption of a liberal constitution. American interests had been clearly dominant in Hawaii since ratification of a reciprocity treaty in 1875. This had been renewed in 1884, but the United States Senate held it up until Hawaii granted exclusive use of Pearl Harbor in 1887.
Through the rest of that year, Admiral Kimberly remained at Honolulu with several ships, whose presence probably helped to preserve the peace while the political situation was being resolved by acceptance of the pro‑American faction's constitution. Officers from the Vandalia put their time to good use in making surveys which enabled the admiral to report on Pearl Harbor's value as a naval base site.
As Kimberly watched conditions in Hawaii, yet another trouble spot on his station was bubbling and threatening to boil over. This was Samoa, more or less considered to be the "Hawaii" of the South Pacific. In 1872, Commander Richard W. Meade of the USS Narragansett had concluded a treaty with the "Great Chief" at Pago Pago whereby the United States received the exclusive right to establish a coaling station at that harbor in return for "friendship and protection." Like Thomas ap Catesby Jones's earlier treaties with Tahiti and Hawaii, this died in the United States Senate. Nevertheless, a year later a State Department representative visited Samoa, so it was clear that American interest still existed. Another treaty of p139 1878 gained the coaling station at Pago Pago in return for a promise that the United States would act as mediator between Samoa and any third power. A shipload of coal was deposited at Pago Pago three years later for the use of the Pacific and Asiatic Squadrons.
Great Britain, whose interest in Samoa was nearly as old as that of the United States, and Germany, an eager newcomer to the Pacific, secured treaty rights in Samoa soon after 1878. The succeeding years witnessed growing tension as consular officials of the three powers conspired against one another, and political conditions approached anarchy. Admiral Kimberly sent the gunboat Adams to Samoa in October 1887, and in succeeding months a warship was kept there almost constantly. The admiral complained that Samoa actually required the services of two vessels, as Honolulu was the nearest port where supplies could be obtained. Nevertheless, a man-o'‑war was required in Samoan waters because there was no doubt as to German intentions. German forces had been present since August 1887 and were taking an active part in local affairs, having deposed King Malietoa in favor of the pro‑German Tamasese. Observers feared that the Germans would resort to force if the latter was not acceptable to the Samoans.
The Mohican relieved the Adams at Samoa, and Kimberly warned that December to March was the hurricane season; any vessel forced to ride out such a storm in the unprotected roadstead at Apia would be in grave danger. But no hurricane occurred in 1888. Spring, summer, and autumn passed with no more than the usual political disturbances. Kimberly was able to return to San Francisco to welcome a new flagship, the screw-frigate Trenton. One of the newest and most formidable American warships then in commission, the Trenton was still a ship of the "old" Navy, built of wood, armed with obsolete guns, and boasting full sail rig to supplement a steam engine that was hardly modern.
Figurehead of USS Trenton.
The flagship was at Panama early in January 1889 when Admiral Kimberly learned that Samoan affairs had flared into open violence. Commander Dennis W. Mullan sent an officer to Auckland, New Zealand, to telegraph the Navy Department that German landing parties had been defeated by Samoans, whereupon the German warships had shelled and burned several villages in retaliation. Mullan's gunboat Nipsic was the only American vessel at Samoa, and he p140 joined the American consul in urging that reinforcements be sent.
Kimberly was ordered to Apia to protect American citizens and interests, to assist in restoring peace, and to collect information by which his government could determine the extent of German responsibility for the violence. The storeship Monongahela was prepared to take coal and supplies to Apia, so that Kimberly could remain there as long as necessary.
By the time the Trenton and Vandalia had joined the Nipsic at Apia, it was known that Germany had declared war on Samoa, and the German warships Olga, Eber, and Adler were preparing to inflict drastic punishment on the Samoans. However, the German Government was not desirous of antagonizing the United States, and tension eased slightly as the three interested powers named delegates to attend a conference at Berlin. HMS Calliope arrived to represent the Royal Navy in any eventuality; thuss, the little anchorage of Apia was crowded with warships as February gave way to March. But February had warned of things to come; during that month, a gale had driven the American barkentine Constitution ashore, and her crew was rescued by a boat from the Nipsic.
There was still danger of hostilities, but a rising wind and other signs of approaching bad weather caused the various commanding officers to look to the safety of their ships on the afternoon of 15 March. All made preparations for weathering another storm at anchor. But this was no ordinary gale; a hurricane vented its fury on the poorly protected harbor the next day. For a time, the ships were able to steam up to their anchors and so prevent them from dragging, but feeble power plants were unequal to the task.
Whether the Trenton's engines could have saved her will never be known. Her rudder was disabled by heavy seas, and the continuous battering of the gigantic waves washed the stoppers from her hawse-pipes, which were placed below the main deck in order that her forward guns might be trained to fire nearly dead ahead. Tons of water entered her lower deck and soon reached a depth sufficient to extinguish her boiler fires. From that moment she was doomed. Slowly she dragged through the welter of spray and wreck, narrowly avoiding collision with other vessels, German and American, which were also dragging inexorably toward the shore.
As the Trenton suffered through her last hours of life, one ship p141 was waging a more successful battle against the storm. HMS Calliope, the latest arrival, had been forced to moor farther inshore than the other ships, and she too was unable to ride out the hurricane at anchor. Finally Captain Henry C. Kane slipped his chains, and the Calliope stood out for the open sea under every pound of steam that could be coaxed from her straining boilers. It was barely enough. She edged past the helpless Trenton, avoiding collision by only a few yards and receiving a cheer from Admiral Kimberly and the undaunted men who could appreciate a good fight even when their own case seemed hopeless.c
The first morning light of 17 March 1889 revealed a scene of desolation in Apia Harbor. SMS Olga and the USS Nipsic had been beached in fair condition, SMS Adler was on her beam ends, the USS Trenton was on a reef from which she would never be floated, and nearby, masts and a smokestack revealed the last resting place of the USS Vandalia. HMS Calliope and SMS Eber had vanished; the former had won her fight for sea room, while the little German gunboat had carried most of her company to the bottom. American losses numbered fifty officers and men, among them the Vandalia's Captain Cornelius M. Schoonmaker. Heroic exertions by the Samoans and by the Trenton's men had saved most of the Vandalia's crew.
Apia Harbor, 17 March 1889, following the hurricane.
International rivalry had been forgotten in the battle against nature, and all hands turned to at the work of caring for survivors and refloating the Nipsic and Olga. Despite the opinion of Mullan and some of his men that their ship could not be made seaworthy, Kimberly persisted. Eventually, the battered gunboat, fitted with the Vandalia's stack (her own had been lost), sailed for Auckland in company with the Alert. But Mullan's doubts overcame his determination to save his ship, and the two returned to Apia. Kimberly removed the faint-hearted officer from his command, and the Nipsic and Alert sailed for Honolulu, too much time having elapsed to escape the season of storms in the vicinity of New Zealand. Although the Nipsic ran out of fuel and was forced to anchor at Johnston Island while her consort brought a deckload of coal from Honolulu, Hawaii was reached without further untoward event. The Nipsic returned to service after receiving extensive repairs.
The disaster at Apia left only the Alert, Mohican, and Monongahela available for service in the eastern Pacific, and two of these p142 vessels were employed in salvage work at Samoa. However, the commandant at Mare Island notified the Navy Department that he could have the gunboats Thetis and Adams ready by the end of April, and that the Iroquois could be commissioned a month later. So the Pacific Squadron was not completely destroyed at Apia, as has been stated so frequently. The ships commissioned to replace the storm victims were not formidable warships, to be sure, but they would suffice for the Pacific Station.
At Apia, Admiral Kimberly gained deserved respect for his handling of affairs, both diplomatic and naval. He was the senior officer present, and German and English officers alike deferred to his judgment. The decision of the Berlin Conference to leave Samoa in the hands of a three-power condominium, and the willingness of the Samoans to accept the restored King Malietoa, made it possible for Kimberly to depart for Honolulu on 13 September 1889. The admiral, whose best work was done after the disaster, took with him the affectionate wishes of Samoan and foreigner alike. Malietoa even expressed the wish that he could make Kimberly joint ruler of Samoa.
On 27 January 1890, Rear Admiral Kimberly broke his flag in the new cruiser Charleston at San Francisco, and later in the day, he was relieved by Acting Rear Admiral George Brown. The ritual of hauling down his flag marked more than the end of Kimberly's eventful cruise. His last flagship was much more akin to HMS Calliope than to the USS Trenton, and the change of command ceremonies in a modern warship ushered in the era of the "new" Navy on Pacific Station. Some of the obsolete wooden ships continued to serve on all of the stations maintained by the United States, but it is very nearly correct to say that the "old" Navy terminated in the hurricane which wrecked the Trenton and Vandalia.
1 Charles E. Clark, Rear Admiral, USN (Ret.), My Fifty Years in the Navy (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1917), pp123‑124, believes that the French threat brought about the reinforcement, but Rodgers' orders make no mention of this. Welles to Rodgers, 26 July 1865, "Area Nine File, 1814‑1910."
2 Harold and Margaret Sprout, The Rise of American Naval Power, 1776‑1918 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939), quoted on p166.
3 Robeson to Winslow, 21 March 1871, "Letters to Officers commanding Squadrons or Vessels, September 1861–May 1886," VII, 87.
5 See Sprout, op. cit., pp191‑192, for general discussion of inefficiency in navy yards.
6 Secretary of the Navy, Annual Report, 1878, p39.
7 Henry Glass, Comdr., USN, "Naval Administration in Alaska," U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, XVI (1890), 2.
a The story of the Saginaw and of the archaeological identification of the ship (and recovery of its bell) can be read, with several photos of the wreck under the sea, at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
b See R. E. Coontz, From the Mississippi to the Sea, p114 and my note there, with further links; in which it will be noted that "the crew managed to save themselves" is somewhat misleading. They did save themselves when they struck Ripple Rock, but were brought to safety on land by a Canadian ship.
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