Putting the Navy to the Test: Chapters From the Diary of John D. Long

EDITED BY LAWRENCE SHAW MAYO

[WHEN we look back upon the Spanish War and recall that uninterrupted series of victories on sea and on land, it is difficult to realize that, in the late winter and early spring of 1898, the prospect of a war presented disquieting possibilities. Secretary Long was not one to be made apprehensive easily, yet one aspect of the situation gave him not a little concern. Was this new navy, which had been constructed during the previous fifteen years, a practical navy? In time of peace it was decidedly ornamental; but what would become of these highly organized steel ships when put to the test of war? Would they drive the Spanish fleets off the seas, or would more than one share the fate of the Maine, and go to the bottom as the result of a single explosion? As Mr. Long afterward wrote, ’The New Navy of the United States was launched in the waters of uncertainty.’ The days of certainty were fast approaching.

War did not come until April; but war was in the air from the moment the American people learned of the blowingup of the Maine. On the twenty-fourth of February, Governor Long recorded in his diary the state of the public mind as it appeared to him.]

Everything is under suspense. Public sentiment is very intense. While it is to the great credit of the country that it is so deliberative and prudent, yet underneath there is an intense excitement. The slightest spark is liable to result in war with Spain. While we shall undoubtedly overrun Cuba with our troops, and prevail easily at sea in naval combat, the horrors and costs and miseries of war are incalculable; so much, too, especially in naval warfare, now depends upon chance and accident. Our great battleships are experiments which have never yet been tried, and in the friction of a fight have almost as much to fear from some disarrangement of their own delicate machinery, or some explosion of their own tremendous ammunition, as from the foe.

[The possibilities of international conflict oppressed Mr. Long day and night. Being a sensible man, he decided to take a day off, and consequently, on February 25, he appointed Mr. Roosevelt Acting-Secretary of the Navy and left the Department early. How the experiment succeeded is best told in his journal for that day and the next.]

These are trying times. In the evening Roosevelt, whom I had left as Acting-Secretary during the afternoon, came around. He is so enthusiastic and loyal that he is in certain respects invaluable; yet I lack confidence in his good judgment and discretion. He goes off very impulsively, and if I have a good night to-night I shall feel that I ought to be back in the Department rather than take a day’s vacation.

[On the following day]: —

I had a splendid night last night, and return to the office both because I feel so much better and because I find that Roosevelt, in his precipitate way, has come very near causing more of an explosion than happened to the Maine. His wife is very ill, and his little boy is just recovering from a long and dangerous illness; so his natural nervousness is so much accentuated that I really think he is hardly fit to be entrusted with the responsibility of the Department at this critical time. He is full of suggestions, many of which are of great value to me, and his spirited and forceful habit is a good tonic for one who is disposed to be as conservative and careful as I am. He seems to be thoroughly loyal, but the very devil seemed to possess him yesterday afternoon.

Having the authority for that time of Acting-Secretary, he immediately began to launch peremptory orders: distributing ships, ordering ammunition, which there is no means to move, to places where there is no means to store it; sending for Captain Barker to come on about the guns of the Vesuvius, which is a matter that might have been perfectly arranged by correspondence; sending messages to Congress for immediate legislation; authorizing the enlistment of an unlimited number of seamen; and ordering guns from the Navy Yard at Washington to New York, with a view to arming auxiliary cruisers which are now in peaceful commercial pursuit. The only effect of this last order would be to take guns which are now carefully stored, ready for shipment any moment, and which could be shipped in ample time to be put on any vessel, and dump them in the open weather in the New York Navy Yard, where they would be only in the way and under no proper care.

He has gone at things like a bull in a china-shop, and with the best purposes in the world has really taken what, if he could have thought, he would not for a moment have taken; and that is the one course which is most discourteous to me, because it suggests that there had been a lack of attention which he was supplying. It shows how the best fellow in the world — and with splendid capacities — is worse than no use, if he lack a cool head and careful discretion.

[Irrelevant to the approaching conflict, but illuminating in their own way, are our occasional glimpses of life in the White House. In 1898 Sunday was still the Sabbath, and was observed accordingly.]

In the evening, went with Charley Allen and his wife to dine with the President and Mrs. McKinley at the White House, en famille. After dinner Mrs. Hiestand sang psalm-tunes at the piano, in a melancholy voice, and the rest of us grumbled a faint accompaniment.

[While the country awaited the decision of the naval court which had been appointed to inquire into the destruction of the Maine, the Administration received a conjectural explanation of the disaster. It probably approximated the truth as nearly as any we shall ever hear. Mr. Long heard it on the evening of the last day of February, when he was called to the White House.]

Judge Day and the President are in session over a message from Havana, giving some probable explanation of the explosion. I send for Commodore O’Neil, who is familiar with explosives, being the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance. General Lee [the American Consul-General at Havana] is very clearly of the opinion that the Spanish Government had no connection with, or participation in, the disaster. It is possible that some individual may have sunk a mine, which means a barrel or cask or two filled with gun-cotton, - of which only some hundred pounds would be necessary, — at a point where, in the course of her swinging, the hull of the Maine would hit it; and the explosion of this communicated with the magazine in which the saluting powder was kept, and blew that up. However, everything is still more or less a matter of speculation; but I believe war will be averted, for I am satisfied that the Spanish Government is not responsible for the disaster.

[Hoping for peace, Mr. Long nevertheless prepared for war. Congress appropriated $50,000,000 as an emergency fund for national defense, and the President placed more than half of this money at the disposal of the Secretary of the Navy.]

It is marvelous what a quieting effect this has had. To-day, Tuesday [March 8], it passed the House by an absolutely unanimous vote, with no division of parties; nothing but a universal acclaim in behalf of the maintenance of the national honor, although really the measure may be called a peace measure. Anticipating its passage, I have, for the last two or three days, been overwhelmingly busy in making every arrangement for the most effectual efficiency of our naval force. Have ordered work to run night and day in the completion of our guns and gun-carriages, and have given unlimited authority for the purchase and supply of powder and projectiles and other ammunition. Have arranged for the most abundant supply of coal, and have arranged for Commander Brownson to go at once to Europe, with a view to preliminary negotiations for ships and naval supplies.

Half a dozen people who scent the opportunity to sell these things in behalf of foreign owners have been in to see me, and taken my time and that of my bureau chiefs. The dealers are shrewd enough to circulate the rumor that Spain is buying ships and supplies, although on investigation this turns out to be rather unlikely, as her credit is poor and her bonds are worth only about fifty cents on the dollar, and she neither has nor seems able to obtain money. But everything, of course, has the stir of war. And yet, during the day advices from Madrid have been much more peaceful.

I cannot help thinking that this rather sublime exhibition of a nation rising in its might, not for the purpose of aggression, but in preparation for the national defense, and the appreciation of what it would be to come in conflict with such a power as ours, will have a mollifying influence on Spanish public sentiment. If that can be mollified, everything else is all right. The Queen, a good woman, mother, and ruler, is anxious for peace; a liberal Spanish Ministry is evidently desirous for peace and has made every concession that we have asked; and if we can only allay the excitement of the Spanish public, a quiet result is to be hoped for.

[It is interesting to note how Mr. bong prevented waste in the spending of the funds provided for the national defense.]

There is naturally an inclination to use the Emergency Appropriation of $50,000,000 for other than emergency purposes, and to improve the opportunity to increase the number of ships, supplies, etc., on the grounds of general expediency. To prevent this, issue an order to all the bureaus, prohibiting any expenditure or incurring any liability except upon written statement and estimate, and approval of the President and myself.

[If one thinks that the life of a Secretary of the Navy, with an approaching war on his hands, is enviable, he will be speedily disillusioned by this Secretary’s journal for March 15.]

Busy day; of the same tenor as several days past. Incessant activity, constant conversation, pressure from the reporters, interviews about auxiliary ships, building new ships, passage of the Personnel Bill, and more things than I can remember to mention. Since the war-scare began, my mail is three or four times as great as it was. It is filled with tenders of services, applications for places, suggestions of new inventions, and advices of all sorts — songs from patriotic poets, advice as to official administration and even personal conduct.

[Not until the last two weeks of March did Governor Long’s expectations of a peaceful settlement begin to weaken. The cause of the change in his outlook during that fortnight appears under the date of April 2.]

It has been a period of incessant activity and pressure. The report of the Court of Inquiry on the Maine disaster has come in, to the effect that the explosion was from the outside and therefore willful and malicious. The report, however, is unable to fix the responsibility upon any person or persons. The result is intense feeling in Congress. It looks very much as if war might be precipitated without sufficient previous deliberation, and, perhaps, without exhausting all means of peaceable settlement. The President is under a weight which is almost more than man can bear, and for the last few days has shown a good deal of weariness and nervous strain.

[For McKinley’s overwrought condition there was, indeed, sufficient reason. On March 27 he proposed to the Spanish Government that it declare an armistice with the Cuban insurgents, to continue until October 1, during which period peace might be negotiated through the good offices of the President of the United States. The reply of the Spanish Cabinet was received on the night of the 31st. It declined McKinley’s proposal, but offered to leave the preparation of Cuban peace to the insular parliament, which was to meet early in May, and to agree to an armistice in the meantime, if asked for by the insurgents. Apparently McKinley’s patience was exhausted by this ‘disappointing reception’ of his overture for an immediate peace, and he decided to turn the matter over to Congress forthwith. A long message, elucidating the situation and asking for power to intervene by force, if necessary, was sent to the Capitol on April 11. It is an interesting document, but quite as interesting is the light Mr. Long’s journal throws upon its preparation.]

Monday, April 4, 1898. — This evening at 8 o’clock there is a Cabinet meeting at the White House. The President reads us his message on the Cuban situation. I suppose it is the best he can do; yet it seems to me the narrative which he makes the basis of his conclusion leads to a very different result from that which he reaches. He is in a very trying situation. He has been robbed of sleep, overworked; and I fancy that I can see that his mind does not work as clearly and directly and as self-reliantly as it otherwise would. Tuesday, April 5. — Cabinet meeting, at which the President goes over the Cuban situation. We are waiting to have the clerks copy the message which he is to send to Congress to-morrow. Meanwhile, with war imminent, the Americans in Cuba are very anxious about their safety, and Consul-General Lee is anxious that no message which might lead to war should go in until there has been an opportunity for American citizens to leave the island. In this extremity it is always a matter of shying between Scylla and Charybdis. The country is so clamorous for action that the President cannot delay longer.

In the evening the President sends for me to meet him and Judge Day, the Attorney-General, and the Secretary of the Interior, with reference to telegrams received from our Minister to Spain, General Woodford, that suggest a possible new phase of the situation. I do not yet despair of getting through the business without war. There is a great division of opinion. Most of the letters I get are very earnestly in favor of peace.

Wednesday, April 6. — At half-past ten, go to the White House. The President just ready to send in his message, when word comes from General Lee, our Consul at Havana, that if the message goes in suggesting intervention, with the possibility of war, American lives will be in danger in Cuba, and asking that the transmission of the message may be delayed until Monday next. Senators and Representatives are sent for and the matter explained to them, and it is agreed that the delay must be had. By this time it is halfpast one, and I lunch with the President. . . .

Congressman Lovering calls in the evening, and reports the intense excitement, which is hardly suppressed, among the members of the House and Senate, who, in their turn, are violently pressed by their constituents for some positive action. Just what action, nobody seems to know.

Friday, April 8. — An unusually quiet Cabinet meeting. The fact is, everything is practically settled, and we are all in a condition of waiting for Monday next, when the President’s message is to go in.

Monday, April 11. — This morning we gathered informally at the President’s, where he completes his message, preparing to send it to Congress. I have had a little feeling that its conclusion was somewhat indefinite, and hardly a sequitur from the argument which precedes it. Its transmission, however, transfers the excitement and tension from the Executive end of the government to the Legislative, and Congress must now deal with the subject.

[When he wrote that McKinley’s conclusion was a non sequitur, Governor Long expressed an opinion that was shared by not a few of his fellow countrymen. The President traced the course of his negotiations with Spain, and showed encouraging progress. Then, at the very point where one would have expected him to say, ‘Soon we may look for a satisfactory termination of the disturbances in Cuba without armed intervention on our part,’ McKinley suddenly announced: ‘The issue is now with the Congress. It is a solemn responsibility. I have exhausted every effort to relieve the intolerable condition of affairs which is at our doors. Prepared to execute every obligation imposed upon me by the Constitution and the law, I await your action.’

On the other hand, there were many people in the country, who, failing to make allowances for Spain’s characteristic aversion to action of any kind, blamed the President for dallying so long witn the Government at Madrid. To a Boston editor who represented this point of view, Mr. Long wrote a remarkable confidential letter, defending his chief’s policy. It is dated April 15, 1898. If the President’s message had been as logical and as direct, it is not impossible that war with Spain would have been avoided.]

I think the President has been very much misunderstood by the people to whom you refer, and, as I gather from the tone of your letter, by yourself. It seems to me that you can hardly have a better review of the situation than that which is contained in Senator Hoar’s most thorough, calm, and statesmanlike speech, delivered yesterday in the Senate. It seems to be forgotten that, if there is a patriotic, true man in the country, it is President McKinley; that if anybody is familiar with the situation through long and careful attention to it, and by diplomatic correspondence, it is he. And yet such is your haste, and that of others like you, sincere and patriotic as you are, that you seem to assume at once that he is all wrong, and that, if you only had the management of affairs, it would be a great deal better. Very pat, it seems to me, is the anecdote attributed this morning to President Harrison, who says that it reminds him of a pilot steering a ship through dangerous shoals, and every passenger shouting at him, insisting upon his following their direction rather than his own.

Do you realize that the President has succeeded in obtaining from Spain a concession upon every ground which he has asked; that Spain has yielded everything up to the present time except the last item of independence for Cuba; that she has released every American prisoner; recalled Weyler; recalled De Lome; changed her reconcentration order; agreed to furnish food, and ordered an armistice? It’s easy to say that all this means nothing; but evidently in the eyes of every power in Europe, at whose request some steps have been taken, it means a great deal. You cannot expect her to get up and get out in five minutes; but if the history of the last six months means anything, it means constant steps toward her retirement. In this direction the President has gone with the most thorough decision, persistence, and fidelity. I honestly believe that, if the country and Congress had been content to leave the matter in his hands, independence would have come without a drop of bloodshed, as naturally as an apple falls from a tree.

It is true that he has endeavored to accomplish this without war. The unutterable evils incident to war, — the loss of life, disease, wounds, debts, increased pension-rolls, interruption of business, possible entanglement with foreign nations, easy victory over the enemy’s battle-forces, but constant subjection to raids upon our coast and shipping by their cruisers and privateers, and the indefinite protraction of such conditions, — all these, while they are to be counted as nothing if the necessity exists, become very serious considerations if by any good management on the part of the President he could have avoided them, and yet have accomplished the result that would have been satisfactory to everybody. I wish you or the Journal could sustain him with your hearts and take this large view of the situation. Possibly events have now gone so far that nothing can be done but to have a fight.

It seems to me cruel to accuse the President of coolness in his treatment of the Maine. No man has felt the indignity more. But should we not think for a moment whether the time has come when he could recommend a declaration of war on that ground? Our own court of inquiry reports its inability to point to any persons who are responsible. Our Consul-General Lee emphatically states that the Governor-General of Cuba had no participation in the act; and he had previously telegraphed to the President that there was no participation in the matter officially on the part of the Spanish authorities. My own judgment is not only that, as the court found, she was blown up from an exterior explosion, but that it was done by some malignant Spaniards without the authority of their Government, and that Spain is responsible because of a lack of due care and diligence in not safeguarding our vessel. But this is very different from an act of the Spanish Government itself in blowing up our ship.

As to the matter of recognition of independence, there never has been a time when the President could do that. Even Consul-General Lee has given his opinion that there should be no recognition of Cuban independence. We can’t recognize independence on the part of a people who have no government, no capital, no civil organization, no place to which a representative of a foreign government could be sent. The President has, therefore, taken the next ground, which is the ground of intervention. He asked for the power to intervene with force, if that should be necessary. But he certainly ought to have time, meanwhile, before the final intervention with arms, — which everybody would justify, if necessary, — to see if the trend toward pacific settlement and final independence, which was going on and which foreign powers were evidently aiding, would not succeed.

[But Congress was not so patient as the Secretary of the Navy. By a joint resolution, passed on April 19, it recognized the independence of the people of Cuba and authorized the President to compel Spain to withdraw from the Island. As Spain could hardly accept this edict and preserve her self-respect, war followed within a day or two. In the short interim the Navy Department and the White House were busy places.]

Wednesday, April 20, 1898. — An unusually busy morning. A great number of Senators and Congressmen calling. Parties coming in to sell ships, and an incessant drive.

At 3 o’clock, go with Admiral Sicard and Commodore Crowninshield to confer with the President, who has also the Secretary of War and General Miles. It reminds me of what must have been a similar scene in the early days of our Civil War, when President Lincoln was surrounded by military advisers who were all at sixes and sevens. At present it seems as if the Army were ready for nothing at all. They suggest that they will not be ready to act in Cuba for a couple of months, owing to a lack of proper drill and preparation. Then, too, General Miles advises against their going at all until the Spanish fleet is disposed of, as, if it should succeed in crippling our own, our soldiers on the Island would be cut off from means of returning home. It is much easier to suggest how not to do it than how to do it. At any event, the burden is likely to fall upon the Navy. I am inclined to think that, if war actually comes, the country will demand that our soldiers make a landing and do something.

[On the following day, April 21, war really began.]

One of the busiest days of the season. Appoint Captain Sampson an ActingAdmiral. Telegraph him to move at once to blockade Cuba, which of course is the beginning of the war.

Postmaster-General Gary resigns on account of ill health.

Am with the President and other officers of the Cabinet, determining on the opening movements of the scene.

My Naval War Board, consisting of Roosevelt, Crowninshield, Sicard, Barker, and Clover, meet to discuss the formulation of preliminary orders.

So busy that I get my lunch at the lunch-counter in the basement of the Department.

Half-past four, the President walks with me for an hour through the streets. Says it is the longest walk he has taken since he has been in Washington, and he feels better for it. He opens his heart to me, with reference to the struggle through which he has been and the anxiety it has involved.

[A week or so before hostilities commenced, the Secretary of the Navy had had a taste of the kind of pressure he was likely to experience repeatedly when war should become an actuality.]

This morning Congressman Brumm calls with a delegation of Pennsylvanians, to urge the use of anthracite, instead of bituminous, coal on board ships. It is interesting to note how every section of the country, although all are patriotic, has an eye on the main chance. Anthracite coal is found only in Pennsylvania. It would be impossible to provide our ships, when they were away from our own coast, with anthracite, because it could not be procured; while bituminous coal, which is found everywhere, is always accessible.

[Later in April there were other — many other — visitors with axes to grind. Three or four examples will suffice to evoke the reader’s sympathy — and to increase his respect — for Secretary Long.]

Am under heavy pressure from all sides, to assign vessels for the protection of different localities. Senator Frye, who has been a blazing Jingo, shouting for war, comes in with an appeal that a vessel be sent down to protect points along the coast which he represents. Senator Chandler, another Jingo, wants to have Portsmouth specially protected. People are learning that war is serious business.

[The last day of the month happened to be particularly trying in this respect.]

Office thronged with callers all forenoon; mostly Senators and Members, in behalf of candidates for acting appointments in the service. Vice-President Hobart comes in to tease me about an appointment; Senator Hanna to tease me about the purchase of a vessel belonging to his brother. It is a good vessel, and worthy of purchase — and yet I wish he could see the wisdom of not meddling with such matters while he is a Senator of the United States.

[In the meantime interesting changes in the personnel of the Administration took place, or were foreshadowed.]

Monday, April 25. — Rainy day. Special meeting of the Cabinet, with reference to the message of the President, recommending resolutions declaring the existence of war, in order to fix international status, etc.

Secretary Sherman resigns to-day. His age has rendered him too infirm for the discharge of his duties. It is rather a sad termination of one of the most useful careers of American statesmen. No man has deserved more of his country. He has been of little use in the Cabinet ; now and then a flash of his old strength, but generally quiet, retiring, and silent. Judge Day, who has been his First Assistant, and who has been doing the duties of the office, will succeed him.

My Assistant-Secretary, Roosevelt, has determined upon resigning, in order to go into the army and take part in the war. He has been of great use; a man of unbounded energy and force, and thoroughly honest — which is the main thing. He has lost his head to this unutterable folly of deserting the post where he is of the most service and running off to ride a horse, and, probably, brush mosquitoes from his neck on the Florida sands. And yet how absurd all this will sound, if by some turn of fortune he should accomplish some great thing and strike a very high mark!

[At some later date Mr. Long wrote at the bottom of this page]: —

P. S.—Roosevelt was right, and we, his friends, were all wrong. His going into the army led straight to the Presidency.

[The Secretary of the Navy once described the activity of those April days as a ‘great mixture of patriotism and push,’and the continuous rush of work at the Department was beginning to wear upon him, when extraordinarily glad tidings reached Washington.]

Monday, May 2. — News comes of an attack by the Asiatic squadron upon Manila, capital of the Philippine Islands, the annihilation of the Spanish fleet, and the practical surrender of the city. This victory inspires great enthusiasm. It is true it is achieved by a vastly superior force; but the Spaniards showed pluck and fight; and as our fleet was obliged to take the enemy’s under the shelter of their fort, it was a gallant and splendid success. Everybody is rejoicing, and the President is gratified. We have as yet no official report, but look eagerly forward to it, in the hope that it will confirm the good news.

[Day after day passed, but the official report from Dewey came not. Meanwhile the suspense and excitement at Washington were tremendous, and officials sometimes got a little on each other’s nerves.]

Thursday, May 5. — Showers; April weather. Usual run of business. In the afternoon somebody comes on from New York, representing the Naval Militia, and has a discussion with Roosevelt, in my room, as to an amendment to be added to the Auxiliary Naval Bill.

Illustrates one of Roosevelt’s lacks. He shouts at the top of his voice, and wanders all over creation. The harangue fails to meet the exact point. His forte is his push. He lacks the serenity of discussion.

Friday, May 6. — Cabinet meeting this morning. To make the record of the Navy complete, I present a letter which I have written to the Secretary of War, stating that the Navy is ready to convoy any force of forty or fifty thousand men to Cuba, and urging the War Department to take active steps. Secretary Alger, Secretary of War, takes some offense, very naturally. He intimates that the War Department will take care of itself, without any interference from the Navy. I meet this with good nature, and simply suggest that my purpose is to show the readiness of the Navy, as I do not wish the impression to go abroad that there is any delay on our part.

Alger is a very generous and sanguine man. He has been the most active of all members of the Cabinet for war. For two months he has been saying that he would have his army ready in ten days — whereas, in fact, not a volunteer has left his state, and in my judgment there has been a striking lack of preparation and promptness. I have n’t the slightest doubt that, if the Army would put fifty thousand men across upon Cuban soil, we could have Havana and the Island of Cuba at once.

Quiet evening at home.

The new First Assistant-Secretary of State, Mr. Moore, who is admirably adapted to his duties and by all means the most accomplished man that has yet been connected with that Department, comes around about ten o’clock, to confer with regard to the release of the steamer Lafayette.

[Finally, on Saturday, May 7, word came from Dewey. Probably nothing Mr. Long ever wrote is more illustrative of his character than the reflections which appear in his journal for that day. To appreciate them fully, one should remember that after Manila Bay Secretary Long, as head of the Navy, was second to Dewey alone in national popularity.]

First thing this morning are two telegrams from Commodore Dewey, confirming the story of his overwhelming victory at Manila: the utter destruction of all the enemy’s vessels, eleven in number, and the suppression of the forts. He has the city at his command. The country is wild with enthusiasm over this victory. The President, of course, is delighted. We are actively engaged in preparing reënforcements of men, munitions of war, and supplies, for the Asiatic squadron.

In all such great events the praise or the blame, as the case may be, is very unequally distributed. This is a glorious achievement, redounding specially to his credit. No man could have done better, or deserved more. Had the enterprise failed, it would have been his ruin.

Yet, in either case, the responsibility runs out to an infinite number of others. Nobody now thinks of my four immediate predecessors, who have brought the Navy up to the condition it now is. Nobody thinks of the patience and thoroughness with which our ships have been equipped and armed, and our ordnance brought to the highest state of efficiency by officers here at home, men whose names will never be mentioned. Little thought even is given to the officers and men who, by their gallantry and skill, have won the immediate victory.