Friday, April 22, 2016

The Great White Fleet

The Great White Fleet
by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

On December 16, 1907, the Great White Fleet, a United States Naval battle group consisting of 18 ships manned by 14,000 sailors, set sail from Hampton Roads, Virginia to begin it’s nearly 2-year voyage to circumnavigate the globe.   One of those sailors was a 19-year-old Elmiran named Chauncey Lawrence (1888-1951) who was serving aboard the U.S.S. Wisconsin.  His personal papers including photographs and a scrapbook from the voyage were recently donated to CCHS and they are pretty darn neat.
Sailor Chauncey W. Lawrence, 1907

Ostensibly, the fleet was a goodwill gesture designed to augment America’s diplomatic efforts with friendly (or at least friendly-ish) nations around the world.  It was, after all, fairly common at the time for the navies of the various nations to visit each other’s ports, especially in conjunction important anniversaries or celebrations.  At the same time, the Great White Fleet was a clear demonstration of America’s naval power.  The defeat of the Russian Navy during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 had given rise to anxieties about an ambitious Japan, especially along the west coast.  By sending the fleet, President Roosevelt hoped to intimidate the Japanese enough to keep them in check.

Yokohama, Japan, during the Fleet's visit, October 18-25, 1908

The fleet’s voyage took nearly 2 years and included 17 extended stops in 14 countries.  The Panama Canal wasn’t in operation yet, so the fleet had to travel down the coast of South America and through the Strait of Magellan.  On the way home, they were able to bypass the Horn of Africa by taking the Suez Canal.  They arrived back in Hampton Roads on February 22, 1909. 

Commemorative medal given to sailors of the Great White Fleet during one of their stops in 1908.
Chauncey Lawrence’s collection from the voyage includes postcards from every port the fleet visited, as well as a smattering of photographs.  After the voyage, Lawrence married the sister of one of his fellow crewmen and lived for a while with her family in Colorado.  He re-enlisted in the Navy during World War I.  While he was unable to be accepted back during World War II, he served as a Naval Reservist in the Korean conflict and died while serving aboard the U.S.S. Howe.      
Chauncey Lawrence and fellow crewmen on leave in Korea, 1951.
 See if you can figure out which one is him.


  1. very interesting article because I too was in the military although never served during wartime, it is always neat to read other military members stories and see the pictures, it was very nice of his son to donate these incredible articles for everyone to see!

  2. What a great gift to the museum....another interesting Elmira native....