USS Olympia: The Ship that Made the US a World Power

By 1898, the US had expanded as far as it could within the continent of North America. The “Indian Wars” were over (the last major “battle”–the massacre at Wounded Knee–was in 1890), and the US had taken everything that was not already part of Canada or Mexico (indeed, in 1848 the US had taken literally half of Mexico).

If the US was to continue its relentless expansion, it would have to look overseas. And the aging Spanish Empire made a very tempting target . . .

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The USS Olympia as she appeared in 1898.

By 1889, the island of Cuba, under the colonial rule of the Spanish Empire, had been in rebellion, with a few brief truces, for almost 30 years. United in their most recent stage by the exiled rebel leader Jose Marti (who lived and wrote in New York City), the Cubans had been waging unrelenting guerrilla warfare for over three years, had driven the Spanish to retreat into the major cities, and were now preparing for the final push to win independence.

The United States looked on. Although the US had always been isolationist and had been distrustful of entanglement with foreign affairs, its national attitude had changed drastically in the last few years. With the end of the frontier, US industry and agriculture found itself in a dilemma–it could produce far more than its own population could absorb. It desperately needed new markets, and those could only come from overseas. This pressure meshed perfectly with a new ideology in Washington, one that had been only recently articulated by author Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Director of the US Naval War College, in his book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Mahan’s thesis was that no society, from Roman times right up to the British Empire, had ever become a major world player without using a powerful navy to establish a wide network of trading markets and raw-materials sources, and the naval bases necessary to protect them.  Mahan urged that the US Navy be strengthened to fulfill such a role. He advocated the US establishment of a canal in Central America to facilitate two-ocean commerce, and argued that the US should establish large naval stations in the Pacific, in South America, and in the Caribbean. “Americans must now begin to look outward,” he wrote. “The growing production of the country demands it.” Mahan’s book became enormously influential among US political and military figures. And everyone recognized that the best locations for US naval power were Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam–all parts of the Spanish Empire. It was a plum the US could not resist.  (Marti recognized the threat too–he desperately wrote to the Cuban rebels to beware of the US and its intentions, saying, “I have lived in the belly of the beast, and I know it.”)

Supported by a press campaign led by William Randolph Hearst, the US began building a case for intervention in Cuba, ostensibly to aid the rebels in their fight for independence. Newspapers were filled with lurid stories of Spanish oppression and atrocities. Shortly after his election, President William McKinley sent the US Navy battleship Maine to anchor in Havana Harbor, a silent but unmistakable illustration of American intentions. It was, literally, gunboat diplomacy.

On February 15, 1898, the Maine was suddenly destroyed by a massive explosion as she lay at anchor. Recent forensic studies of the wreckage have concluded that the explosion was caused by ignited dust in a coal bunker, but in the immediate aftermath of the sinking, the Navy’s study concluded what everyone already wanted to hear–the Maine was sunk by a Spanish mine. “Remember the Maine!” became the rallying cry for the Spanish-American War.

In Cuba, the rebels, far from being cheered by US intervention, opposed it immediately, fearing the American domination that Marti (who had been killed while fighting in Cuba) had so presciently warned of. The rebel leaders announced that they would fight against any US troops in Cuba as well as against the Spanish. To placate them, Congress passed the Teller Amendment, which called for Spain to withdraw from Cuba, called for free elections to establish an independent Cuban Republic, and renounced any US intention to annex Cuba. The rebels accepted the promise, and when American troops began landing in Cuba in June 1898, the Cuban rebels fought at their side.

At the war’s outset, though, the US realized that control of the seas would be the paramount key to winning the conflict. Most of the Spanish fleet was in faraway Manila Bay, in the Philippines, and the Navy promptly dispatched a fleet of its own, at anchor in Hong Kong, to destroy the Spanish ships. The US fleet was commanded by Commodore George Dewey, and his flagship was the USS Olympia.

Commissioned in 1895, the Olympia was an armored cruiser, 344 feet long and displacing about 6,000 tons. Her two steam engines could drive her at a top speed of 22 knots, and she was armed with the latest in naval gun technology–ten 5-inch guns in turrets mounted along her sides, and four 8-inch guns mounted in two turrets at bow and stern, firing armor-piercing shells weighing over 250 pounds. She also carried six new torpedo tubes.

The US fleet entered Manila Bay on May 1, and Dewey immediately closed in on the Spanish and gave the famous order to the Olympia’s captain: “You may fire when ready, Gridley.” By late afternoon, the Spanish fleet had been destroyed. The US promptly dispatched a force of Marines to invade and capture the Philippines. US troops also landed in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

By August 1898, the Spanish were unable to continue the war, and a cease-fire was arranged. Under the Treaty of Paris that ended the war, Spain agreed to withdraw from Cuba, ceded the islands of Guam and Puerto Rico to the US, and agreed to sell the Philippines to the US for $20 million. Within months, the US had written a constitution for Cuba which included the Platt Amendment, giving the US the unilateral right to intervene in Cuba at any time to “protect” the island. Cuba became a virtual US colony.

There was a further effect from the war. In 1893, the government of Hawaii, under Queen Liliuokalani, had been overthrown in a coup by a group of American businessmen, backed by US Marines sent in by the American Ambassador. The coup leaders asked immediately for American statehood, but were turned down by President Grover Cleveland, who viewed the coup as illegal. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, however, Hawaii (particularly its port at Pearl Harbor) was seen as an important strategic naval asset, vital to protecting the new US territories in the Pacific, and in 1898 President McKinley annexed Hawaii as a US Territory.

It was, as one US government official later remarked, “a splendid little war”, and it put the US in a global role for the first time.

After the end of the Spanish-American War, the Olympia served a few more years and was decommissioned in 1909 and used as a training ship before being briefly recommissioned in 1916 during the First World War. In 1922, she was decommissioned again and stored in the Philadelphia shipyard.

In 1957, the Olympia was sold to a private group, the Cruiser Olympia Association, who had her towed to Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, on the Delaware River, as part of the Independence Seaport Museum, along with the US WW2 submarine Becuna.

Ever since then, however, the Museum has had financial difficulties, and the fate of the Olympiais now in doubt. Although routine maintenance work is done on Olympia by naval ROTC students from two of Philadelphia’s universities, the ship is deteriorating rapidly and needs extensive drydock repairs estimated at over $10 million. In 2010, plans were made to tow the ship out to sea and sink her as an artificial reef, until a last-minute flood of private donations saved her. But the Independence Seaport Museum, still lacking the funds for necessary maintenance and repairs, announced in 2011 that it was willing to transfer ownership of the ship to some other suitable nonprofit group. The Mare Island Historic Park, in California, is currently raising money to purchase the ship, move it to California, and repair it for display.

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3 thoughts on “USS Olympia: The Ship that Made the US a World Power”

  1. This makes an interesting addendum to Ken Burns’s recent series on the Roosevelts — which naturally talked much about Teddy and FDR both being appointed to an assistant Navy secretaryship, but glossed over most of the Spanish-American War that didn’t involve TR directly.

  2. The Roosevelts were that weird hybrid strain of privileged 19th-century patrician and progressive. They seemed pretty egalitarian towards white Americans — maybe not so much toward everybody else. I’d not read all that much in detail about TR, but the Burns docu quoted plenty of his thoughts that sounded as imperial as any Roman emperor.

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