By the end of 1865 the United States had perhaps become the world’s foremost naval power with its unmatched fleet of armored monitors, but after the Civil War had ceased to maintain it. By 1874 the US had sold, dismantled, or retired nearly the entire fleet. Some lamented that hardly enough ships remained to defend the coast, let alone America’s growing interests abroad ‑ the US finally came to rank somewhere behind Chile and China. In 1874, the first step was taken (by Secretary of the Navy, G. Robeson) to correct the problem. A reconstruction program was begun on the best five Civil War monitors. Officially termed “repair,” the program was partly funded by selling other monitors as scrap. Later, a great scandal developed when Congress discovered that the actual purpose of the program was unauthorized new construction. The US was not quite ready to return to sea.
During the 1870s Britain and France were the prominent naval powers. Both had world‑wide empires, and for a while they competed ship for ship. Soon, however, French naval thought became dominated by the jeune e’cole (the Young School) which believed the battleship’s usefulness had passed. This school favored heavy gunboats and torpedo boats for coast defense and cruisers for commerce raiding, a defensive attitude that probably was derived from the perception that nearly all major naval actions took place within sight of land. Interestingly, Britain was not regarded as likely an enemy as Germany, Russia or Italy. War with the latter countries would be in coastal seas. The greatest appeal of the jeune e’cole was that its fleet and strategy were inexpensive and not technologically vulnerable.
The 1870s and 80s brought rapid technological change. Construction switched from armor covering an entire ship, which had proved too heavy, to an armor belt covering only the ship’s vitals (for example, the engine room and magazines). When armor piercing ammunition was developed, designers answered with improved metals and thicker belts. International arms manufacturers profited immensely and, if the case of Krupp is typical, improved their profits by simultaneously developing the gun that would defeat the new armor they were then selling. Governments probably knew they were being drawn into successive rounds of buying but they emptied their treasuries anyway. In 1898, the best armor used in the US fleet was nickel‑steel hardened by the “Harvey” process.
Another technical improvement of the mid‑1880s was the development of triple and quadruple expansion reciprocating engines which dramatically improved steaming efficiency. This allowed ship designers to dispense with full sail rigging. Thus, by the 1890s, warships began to display recognizably modern lines.
The year 1883 saw pro‑Navy forces finally prevail in Congress and the first US steel warships were approved. These were known as the “ABCD” ships: cruisers Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago and the dispatch boat Dolphin. They formed the White Squadron and showed the flag around the world. The “New Navy” was born. Whereas Americans once led the world in ship design, the design for the New Navy came from Europe. With European technology came the theories of France’s jeune e’cole and these directed the new construction for the fleet.
The first two battleships, Maine and Texas, were intended as armored cruisers but were upgraded to “second‑class” battleships when heavier guns were installed. The next three battleships (Indiana class) were “seagoing coast‑line battleships designed to carry the heaviest armor and most powerful ordinance.” The cruisers Columbia, Minneapolis, and Olympia were of a class termed “protected” cruisers and designed for “commerce destroying” as were the armored cruisers Brooklyn and New York. Essentially, none of the American ships at the outbreak of the war was designed for a general fleet engagement except in confined coastal waters.
At war’s outbreak the US had four good battleships, one second‑line battleship (having lost Maine), six harbor defense monitors, two armored cruisers, fourteen protected cruisers and about 30 other armed vessels. Anticipating war, the Navy acquired or chartered about 123 other ships. These included former private yachts, harbor tugs, US Coast Guard cutters, hospital ships, and a large miscellany of converted freighters. Eleven of the best freighters and liners were armed and given a scouting role as auxiliary cruisers.
Many ships from the merchant marine came complete with crews for temporary federal service. Fortunately, the US had a good reserve of naval manpower. By war’s end the number of seamen in uniform had about doubled to 24,242 officers and men. American crews were efficient, sturdy, well trained, and had high morale. They were not the “300 Swedish sailors” of dubious quality alluded to in one European journal nor the inefficient, polyglot crews referred to in Spanish newspapers, where it was assumed US gun crews would desert at the first shot.
Spain, too, was influenced by the jeune e’cole, perhaps more so than the US, as necessitated by a tighter naval budget. Despite their common frontier, Spain and France did not consider themselves rivals; indeed, a number of Spanish ships were French‑built. The most important of these was Pelayo, Spain’s only battleship. Launched in 1887, she closely followed French naval thought in sacrificing sea endurance for greater armor protection, much like the various classes of French armored coast defense ships, although it had lighter guns. In the early 1890s, Spain launched its first three armored cruisers, these being patterned after the British Aurora class. In them, Spain had a good, efficient force, but sacrificed firepower and some armor for greater speed and endurance, a classic pattern for commerce raiders.
The Depression of 1893 stopped launchings of all types, but as it waned two more armored cruisers were launched in 1895/96 and another begun. Lack of naval funds prevented these and two protected cruisers (launched 1890/91) from being completed in time for war. However, Spain did complete many units of two important combat classes: torpedo boats and destroyers. France’s recognition of the torpedo’s importance (France built 240 torpedo boats from 1890 to 1907) influenced Spain to build torpedo boats (19, but only 7 were of value in 1898) and arm with torpedoes virtually all its important gunboats and lighter cruisers. Spain took an important lead by building destroyers, a recent British invention for dealing with torpedo boats. She built seven in 1896/1897 and included torpedoes with their armament. The US had constructed no destroyers and only eight torpedo boats.
The Spanish Navy in 1897 had about 15,000 officers and men, of whom about 1,500 were in Cuba and another 1500 in the Far East manning the small gunboats and cruisers on station. The Spanish presumed they could mobilize more from the merchant marine to fill out ship’s crews, yet they nearly failed at this. In addition, those personnel present lacked sea experience and gunnery practice.
This inefficiency in personnel was also reflected in the state of its fleet. In January 1898, only four armored cruisers, three destroyers, three torpedo boats, and a handful of gunboats were combat ready. Refitting would add one battleship, one armored cruiser, one old ironclad, four destroyers, and a number of merchant ships converted to auxiliary cruisers. Spain had quite a fleet besides these: 6 protected cruisers, 9 small cruisers (more properly classified as gunboats), 16 gunboats and torpedo gunboats, and 70 very small gunboats (38 being in Cuba and 21 in the Philippines). In all, there were some 140 armed vessels excluding armed merchant ships. In sheer numbers of armed vessels, excluding armed merchant ships, Spain could claim to be nearly the equal to the US.
Realizing that war was fast approaching, both navies scrambled to augment their fleets. Spain faced a major problem as so many of its ships required overhauling. In the US, the big monitors required extensive repair and, additionally, it was decided to refit the old Jason class Civil War monitors. These measures added some units to both fleets, but the most important pre‑war preparation was the purchase of surplus ships. For both countries, the best market was their domestic merchant marine, but as Spain’s smaller merchant fleet was critical to her economy, she deferred efforts until after the war began.
In the international market, the best source seemed to be Britain. There Spain tried to buy two well‑armed cruisers under construction for Brazil. When the US learned of these negotiations, a special appropriation was hurried through Congress for a competitive bid, which won. In April, the completed cruiser Amazonas was brought home. Renamed New Orleans, it joined the fleet armed and ready on May 8th. The second cruiser was still incomplete and did not join the fleet until well after the war. The US also bought a gunboat from Britain (named Topeka), a torpedo boat from Germany, and, during the war, a number of British merchantmen as colliers and supply vessels. Spain bought three merchant ships from Germany and converted them to well‑armed auxiliary cruisers.
Spain and the US also competed for several months to buy the efficient, British built armored cruiser O’Higgins from Chile. Spain won the bidding but not until June 25th, well after the Cape Verde Squadron had been trapped, and too late to participate in the war.
As war drew closer, both fleets were assembled. Spain sent Vizcaya to New York on a good‑will tour to offset the Maine at Havana, but her arrival three days after Maine’s destruction only inflamed the US public. Simultaneously, Oquendo arrived in Havana to bolster Spanish morale. She was later joined by Vizcaya, and on April 8th both left to rendezvous with a flotilla of torpedo boats and destroyers from the Canaries well out in the Atlantic. The unseaworthiness of the fight flotilla obliged the combined force to make for the Cape Verde Islands, the closest port, where they were joined by Colon and Teresa from Spain. Thus, the Spanish fleet was assembled. The US recalled its South American Squadron (Cincinnati and two gunboats), two gunboats intended for China, one gunboat each from Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and Oregon from San Francisco. The voyage of Oregon around South America is an epic of the US Navy and was later cited as an argument in favor of digging the Panama Canal.