Trainer to Cruiser
Designed from the keel up as a training ship for naval cadets, the USS Bancroft was to serve as a seagoing instructional platform for seamanship, gunnery, torpedoes, and steam engineering. Yet, later as a functional miniature cruiser, she had to pull her weight wherever the Navy needed her. The ship was named in honor of George Bancroft of Worcester, Massachusetts, an historian, statesman, and founder of the U.S. Naval Academy and was authorized on 7 September 1888.
The Navy signed a contract for the "steel practice vessel" Bancroft with Samuel L. Moore and Sons Company of Elizabethport, New Jersey, which laid her keel in February 1891. "As the wind tossed her blond hair and the long ribbons of her big hat," one observer of the christening wrote, Miss Mary Frances Moore, daughter of the Crescent Shipyard's treasurer and granddaughter of the firm's president, "cried in a clear voice, 'I name thee Bancroft,'" on 20 April 1892. She then smashed the beribboned bottle on the bow, after which "the ship slid away like a bird, her deck covered with cheering people, while every whistle tooted wildly and the great crowd sent up a shout."
The Navy had specified 12 knots for the Bancroft's speed, with a premium for the builder if she exceeded that figure. On her trials, she made 14.374 knots, earning the company $45,000. Delivered at the New York Navy Yard, she was commissioned on 3 March 1893. Following her final trials, she moved to Annapolis, Maryland, where the Naval Academy formally received her on 28 July 1893. "By order of the [Navy] Department," Captain Robert L. Phythian, the superintendent, noted, "she is kept in readiness for sea service, except that perishable stores have been transferred to the navy-yard at Norfolk."
Within a year of the ship's arrival at Annapolis, the Academy's Committee on Seamanship, Ordnance, and Navigation soon found "the target practice afloat in the Bancroft, with modern guns, was exceptionally accurate and the batteries handled with evident familiarity and efficiency." Additionally, the Committee on Drill, Discipline, Practical Exercises, Etc. wrote that she answered "admirably the demands for giving practice in the modern sense, as well as drills under steam." The Bancroft conducted practice cruises during 1894-96, ranging from Annapolis to Hampton Roads, Newport News, Philadelphia, and New York.
Ultimately, however, operational experience proved the Bancroft to be too small for her designed purpose. She was slated for squadron service in European waters in mid-1896. Ten days in the New York Navy Yard prepared her for the transatlantic run. Toiling almost round the clock, yard workmen replaced her three masts with two, altering her barkentine rig to schooner rig; modified her storeroom to provide additional bunker space for coal; as well as performed myriad other tasks in much less than a fortnight.
The Bancroft departed Tompkinsville on 15 September 1896 bound for the Azores and then Gibraltar, where she arrived on 4 October after bucking strong headwinds the latter part of the passage. Standing out two days later bound for Asia Minor, the ship ultimately reached Smyrna on 15 October, bringing to a close her 1,631-nautical-mile voyage. She logged an average speed of 8.25 knots, with a daily coal consumption of 10.3 tons.
From the autumn of 1896 into the late winter of 1897-98, the Bancroft operated in the eastern Mediterranean, since, as Rear Admiral Thomas O. Selfridge Jr., the commander in chief of the European Squadron, observed, "The Tendency of the Turks to persecute Armenians and Christians required the frequent presence of the Commander-in-Chief in that region." She got a taste of local tensions when Turkish soldiers fired on her as she stood in to Smyrna during the midwatch on 5 December 1896. The incident was quickly and diplomatically defused by the arrest and replacement of soldiers of the garrison deemed responsible. The remainder of the Bancroft's time in that region proved significantly less eventful, with the ship visiting a succession of ports from Egypt to Syria.
Tensions between the United States and Spain, however, prompted a gathering of U.S. naval vessels in home waters, and on 12 March 1898, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long directed Rear Admiral John C. Howell, commander-in-chief of the European Squadron, to send the Bancroft, then at Lisbon, to Norfolk "at once." The ship outfitted there, then steamed to Key West.
The Bancroft convoyed troop transports, patrolled in search of rumored Spanish torpedo boats, and shepherded the last troop-carrying ships to Santiago on 20 June 1898. Then, along with the gunboats Annapolis and Helena and the armed yacht Hornet, bombarded Daiquiri two days later, clearing the area of a company of Spanish soldiers and setting fire to the town. Shifted next to blockade the coast of Cuba in late July, off the Isle of Pines, the little cruiser launched a boat expedition on 2 August to capture a schooner at the small coastal town of Bailen. Spanish rifle shots crackled from the shore, answered by 1-pounder and rifle fire, but not before enemy fire cut down Coal Passer Emmanouil Koulouris, killing him instantly. He would be the ship's only battle casualty.
Following the conclusion of the "splendid little war," the Bancroft returned to Boston on 2 September 1898, where she was decommissioned at the end of the month. Returned to commission on 6 October 1902, she served as station ship at San Juan, Puerto Rico, then watched over American interests at Colon, Panama Canal Zone. She cruised up the Orinoco River in July 1903, where her crew witnessed the Battle of Ciudad Bolivar, which marked the end of the Liberating Revolution (1901-03), the bloodiest civil conflict in Venezuela since independence. "No better view of the whole battle could possibly have been obtained than that from our ship," wrote Lieutenant Mark St.Clair Ellis, "which was so close to the shore that individuals could be recognized through the [long] glass. The ship was frequently struck by bullets, which added the spice of personal danger to the picturesque tragedy we beheld." The following year, the Bancroft protected American interests during unrest in Santo Domingo.
Ultimately, the ship reached the end of her usefulness to the Navy, which directed that she be turned over to the Treasury Department effective 6 July 1906. The Bancroft was assigned to the Revenue Cutter Service and renamed Itasca later that month. Essentially rebuilt by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, she emerged from the yard "practically as good as new, and in many respects better than when she was originally designed." She was placed in commission on 17 July 1907 and made five practice cruises to European ports over the next four years before being assigned to duties principally along the eastern seaboard of the United States.
During the period of American neutrality between the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 and the spring of 1917, the Itasca continued practice cruises that ranged into the West Indies. Returning to Navy control again between 6 April 1917 and 28 August 1919, the Itasca was recommissioned on 1 June 1920, and made one last training cruise, visiting Punta Delgada and Brest and returning to New London for the last time on 3 October. Ultimately put up for sale, the Itasca and the cutter Androscoggin were acquired by Charles A. Jording of Baltimore, Maryland, for $8,250, and scrapped.
Although she enjoyed limited success as a training vessel, the Bancroft played her role in the U.S. Navy's coming of age and entrance onto the world stage. Naval cadets treading her decks included Thomas C. Hart, William D. Leahy, and Harry E. Yarnell. She participated in two wars and observed revolutions and unrest in far-flung climes, a unique bystander in troubled times. The Navy perpetuated her name on two destroyers, carrying the lineage through World War II.