The arrival of the twentieth century brought with it one of the greatest naval arms races the world had ever seen. New battle ships were produced incredibly rapidly by all major maritime powers, and countries vied for influence in the Pacific. Recognizing the many implications of what was going on geopolitically around the world, President Theodore Roosevelt sent the United States Atlantic Fleet in a monumental 43,000 mile cruise around the world, a bold statement of the new naval capability of the U.S., and a logistical feat that remains of the greatest accomplishments ever of the U.S. Navy. Today’s object helps us understand some of the ramifications of the voyage, and the strategic impact it had.
The 19th century concluded with the construction of a whole new generation of ships – in fact it was a whole new navy. In the wake of the explosion of the USS Maine, the United States declared war on Spain in 1898. Facing off against an aging, under-gunned Spanish fleet, the modernized U.S. Navy won two spectacular victories over the Spanish, firmly establishing itself as a navy equal to the other global maritime powers. Our objects today belonged to the leader of the first American victory, Commodore (later Admiral of the Fleet) George Dewey.
Although sails and wind power had dominated naval propulsion for the previous five hundred years, it took less than fifty during the 19th century for every major navy to completely transition to steam power. Steam power opened the door to electricity generation, and the first American ships to have electricity had to be retrofitted to receive electrical systems. Our object today comes from the USS Maine, sunk in Havana, Cuba in 1898, and one of the first ships to be designed from the beginning with electrical power included.
In WWII, the Battle of Midway between the main Japanese and U.S. fleets was fought over a tiny air strip located on the Midway Atoll, halfway between the U.S. and Asia. The battle for the island was a decisive victory for U.S. forces, and helped even the odds between the U.S. and Japanese navies. But how did the U.S. come to control this island in the first place? Our object today helps tell the story of how Midway Island and dozens of small islands like it became U.S. territories just after the Civil War, thus setting the stage for some of the largest naval battles of World War II.
Polar exploration has been a hallmark of the U.S. Navy’s many accomplishments. Tales of bravery during legendary polar exploration missions have captivated the American people for nearly two hundred years. Today we look at a monument to one of those early polar expeditions, and at the same time examine the timeline of the polar exploration mission set that the Navy has been engaged in almost continuously since 1839.
The Civil War ended, and when it did, the Navy returned to its roots of exploration and expansion, particularly in Asia. And, where Navy ships sailed, so did Marines. When sailors went into combat on land, Marines often led the charge. Our object today is a Medal of Honor awarded to a Marine during the little-known Corean Incident of 1871.
Today’s object helps us understand how the disciplinary and military justice system of the Navy has developed from the middle part of the 19th century until now. JAG and NCIS are not just TV shows – they are important parts of the naval justice system. The institution of formalized disciplinary codes and personnel began during this time, in addition to all of the other developments that we have already discussed in previous episodes. Although flogging is long gone in the Navy today, we go back and take a look at early navy punishments, and see how they compare with the Navy today.
The Navy evolved in all aspects from the War of 1812 to the Civil War. However, something often overlooked is how the personnel structure evolved and became standardized. The development of standard uniforms and insignia is one small way to look at this process, and today’s object, a pair of officer’s epaulettes, belonged to the Father of American Naval Gunnery, John Dahlgren.
Early submarines are often associated with Jules Verne’s famous book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. However, in the American Navy submarines had been in development for nearly a century prior to Verne’s writing. In fact, it was early American submarine designs that served as a guide for Verne’s book. Today, we take a look at the birth of the submarine in the U.S. Navy, and we do this through the lens of the actual pay documents issued by the State of Connecticut to the designer of the first American submarine during the Revolutionary War.
The Civil War split the country, and the Navy, into two. The Union and Confederate navies adapted to the conflict differently. Today we look specifically at how the Confederate Navy turned to commerce warfare and innovation to try to survive. Many of the key technologies essential to modern navies saw their first use in the Civil War, including the iron-clad warship, the submarine, and the torpedo boat. We look at all of this using today’s object, a small wooden letter opener made from the wood of the CSS Shenandoah.