In its 14 September 1881 issue, Puck, the acerbic weekly political humor magazine, unkindly described the U.S. Navy, then at its nadir after the Civil War, as comprising “three mud scows supplemented by a superannuated canal boat.” Sixteen years later, Secretary of the Navy John Long stated in his end-of-year report to President William McKinley that the Navy’s “effective fighting force” in November 1897 numbered fully 54 ships, with another 22 under construction. Approaching the end of the 19th century, the revitalization Long was boasting about had been under way ever since the first U.S. steel combatant ships (the protected cruisers Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago and the dispatch boat Dolphin) were put under contract in July 1883.
Reflecting its New York City readers’ interest in the Navy, Puck’s covers often featured ships and sailors, the incumbent secretary of the Navy, and his cronies in Congress and industry. The magazine’s 27 April 1898 issue—dated just two days after the United States declared war on Spain and four before the American triumph at Manila Bay—had cautiously described the Navy’s new, heavily armed, steel-hulled warships as “an unknown quantity in modern warfare.” Five weeks later, with its cover now showing an American cruiser steaming triumphantly through waters artistically littered with Spanish wreckage, Puck acknowledged that any earlier uncertainty had been decisively dispelled.
Harper’s Weekly agreed. A 19 June 1897 article by the prolific author Navy Lieutenant Commander J. D. Jerrold Kelley concluded that the U.S. Navy then ranked fifth in the world in combat power, behind only the navies of Great Britain, France, Russia, and Italy. In a single generation the U.S. Navy had gone from being inferior to Chile’s to superior to Germany’s.
America’s naval expansion in the wake of the U.S. Navy’s crushing Spanish-American War victories in Manila Bay and off Santiago, Cuba, featured the construction of armored cruisers that rivaled battleships in size and power. Seven shipyards representing seven states tendered bids on 6 January 1903 for the USS Tennessee (ACR-10) and Washington (ACR-11), the first two of four Tennessee-class armored cruisers. On 9 February, William Cramp & Sons Ship and Engine Building Company of Philadelphia won the tight competition, promising delivery of the class leader in 39 months for $4.2 million.
By December 1904, when the Tennessee’s bare hull slid down one of Cramp’s eight shipbuilding slips into the Delaware River, Cramp & Sons had already built about 300 cargo vessels, passenger liners, and combatant ships, including the armored cruisers Pennsylvania (ACR-4) and Colorado (ACR-7). During the next 20 years, Cramp’s would build another 70 or so ships for the Navy, most of them flush-deck destroyers.
A short, anonymous article in Scientific American’s 17 March 1906 issue, which featured the Tennessee on its cover, compared the armored cruiser favorably to the nine-year-old battleship Iowa (BB-4), also built at Cramp & Sons. The Tennessee was, however, arguably already obsolete when she was commissioned: In 1906 the Royal Navy put into service the first of its Dreadnought-class of battleships, powered by steam turbines and armed with an all-big-gun battery—10 12-inch guns. (The Tennessee featured a mixture of 10- and 6-inchers.) Both innovations immediately set the standard for modern capital ships.
Her ten years of service afloat saw the Tennessee often in Caribbean and South American waters. The cruiser’s more distant operations spanned half the globe, as far west as Shanghai, China, during her assignment as flagship of the Pacific Fleet’s Second Division (late 1907 to early 1910) and twice as far east as off the coast of the Ottoman Empire. She later circumnavigated South America and became the largest ship until then to pass through the Panama Canal.
In October 1913, the Tennessee returned home from observing the First Balkan War, her glory days apparently behind her. Seven months later, she became the receiving ship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an undermanned floating barracks for housing and training recruits. Her usual complement of more than 800 men was drawn down to what one newspaper later described as a “skeleton crew.”
U.S. Navy Captain Benton Decker stood on the Tennessee’s bridge on 6 August 1914—the day after he took command and just two days after the Great War began—as the lights of New York fell behind. It was the start of what became an unusual cruise that first saw his reactivated ship arrive in England to deliver $5,876,000 in gold to anxious London bankers. The armored cruiser then ferried hundreds of the thousands of American tourists and expatriates suddenly stranded by the war from Le Havre and Rotterdam to the United Kingdom, from where they could sail for home.
Finished with her English Channel shuttle, the Tennessee steamed from Rotterdam to Brindisi, Italy, and then to Beirut, the latter move prompted by diplomatic reporting from the American ambassador in Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau. In the decades after the Crimean War, the Ottoman Empire seemingly had been abandoned by its traditional European allies, Great Britain and France. The empire’s new leadership eventually turned to Germany for political, military, and financial support, reflecting the reality that both had good reasons to fear the ambitions and armies of czarist Russia. On 10 November 1914, Turkey, bolstered by German money and Imperial German Navy ships flying Turkish colors, declared war on Russia, France, Great Britain, Belgium, Serbia, and tiny Montenegro.
Now Ambassador Morgenthau was warning of Turkish persecution of Armenians and potentially of now-stateless Jews. The Americans’ mission in the Mediterranean was to move these and other refugees from Ottoman Syria to Egypt, a British protectorate after 17 December 1914.
By mid-January 1915, The New York Times estimated that some 6,000 refugees had been relocated. According to passenger manifests attached to her deck log, the Tennessee transported seven shiploads of stricken refugees between December 1914 and June 1915. (Others were evacuated to safety by the U.S. cruisers North Carolina [ACR-12] and Des Moines [CL-17].)
Her humanitarian mission completed at the end of June 1915, the Tennessee left Jaffa (part of present-day Tel Aviv–Yafo, Israel) for the United States. Out of Barcelona on 15 July and through the Azores not long after, the armored cruiser entered the port of New York on the last day of July 1915, flying a 610-foot-long pennant to mark her homecoming. On 8 August, The New York Times described it as “the longest that ever trailed astern a modern man of war.”
On 28 May 1916, after overhaul and several deployments to Haiti, the Tennessee was rechristened the Memphis to permit the state’s name to be reassigned to a new battleship, BB-43. By that time the armored cruiser was under the command of Captain Edward L. Beach Sr. And one year after her return from the Mediterranean, she and the gunboat Castine (PG-6) were among the U.S. Navy ships patrolling off Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, where Marine Corps units battled rebel forces during that volatile summer. The night of 28 August, the Memphis and Castine were both anchored in about six fathoms of water on the shallow-water ledge directly below the old city, south of the lighthouse and west of Torricella Point.
The 1913 edition of The West Indies Pilot, published by the U.S. Hydrographic Office, sounded cautious about Santo Domingo Harbor’s shallow roadstead, which it warned, “offers a very indifferent anchorage.” The Pilot continued: “In threatening weather, it would be advisable to put to sea. A very heavy sea is likely to cause a vessel to drag [her anchor], especially when anchored westward of the lighthouse.”
The Castine had spent most of August running errands along the south coast of Hispaniola. The small ship was a junior member and ugly duckling of the U.S. forces at sea and ashore, implementing and enforcing the writ of the three-month-old American military government during the second American intervention to force aside Dominican political leadership in little more than a decade.
The gunboat’s deck log for the midnight to 0400 watch for 29 August has her dropping anchor at 0320 due south of the Santo Domingo light, with Torrecilla Point, the rocky bluff marking the eastern entrance to Santo Domingo Harbor, lying slightly south of east some seven-tenths of a mile distant. Tuesday, 29 August at Santo Domingo was a typical Caribbean summer’s day: blue skies, pleasant temperatures, light winds, and barometer readings fluttering around 30 inches. But in mid-afternoon a series of threatening swells rose dramatically on the seaward horizon.
The lines of big breakers that the watch on both the Memphis and Castine saw rising in the south came seemingly from nowhere. While the waves ran up the shelving foreshore of the Dominican coast, they grew to towering heights, soon endangering the cruiser and her much smaller consort, both at anchor and at first slow to realize their peril.
The Castine managed to escape destruction. She got under way at 1604 on one boiler and because of casualties to her steering gear, steering with her engines. Not until 1730 did the Castine—her boats swept from her decks and with seawater pouring below through the poop hatches—pass entirely through the breaking seas that behind her were battering the Memphis to death.
To conserve coal while at anchor, the Memphis had fires lit in only two boilers (six were usually required to get under way), with four more furnaces ready to light. The cruiser’s deck log describes her fatal crisis, beginning just after 1600, when
gigantic swells . . . came rolling in. . . . At 4:10 p.m. the seas were breaking across our decks. . . . At about 4:20 p.m. the ship began to drag her anchor. . . . Closed water tight doors. . . . Waves broke across our boat deck and water, shipped through the ventilators, flooded the dynamo room and all lights went out at about 4:45 p.m. . . . At 5:00 p.m. the ship had been thrown within 100 feet of the rocky shore. . . . By 5:12 p.m. men were being sent ashore by means of a Boatswain’s chair. . . . By 8:15 p.m. the only persons left aboard were the Commanding Officer, the Navigator, the Boatswain, and Chief Electrician.
Despite brave and desperate efforts to bring additional boilers on the line, rolling precariously at anchor with huge waves breaking over her decks and perhaps funneling torrents of salt water down her four stacks, the Memphis had been unable to get under way. After she first touched ground at 1623 her destruction was certain.
And so, just about one year after triumphantly returning home from the Mediterranean and following cruises to Haiti and Uruguay and around South America, the Memphis was aground off Santo Domingo with her bottom torn out, 43 of her crew drowned, and more than 200 others injured.
The Navy court of inquiry that convened on board the USS Prairie (AD-5) in early September 1916 to investigate the deaths days earlier of nearly 50 Memphis and Castine sailors was followed three months later by a general court-martial of the Memphis’ Captain Beach, held on board the battleship Connecticut (BB-18) at Philadelphia.
Over three days just before Christmas, Beach’s court-martial heard charges alleging that he had improperly hazarded his ship “in consequence of which she was cast upon the shore,” had “through inattention and negligence” suffered a vessel of the Navy to be stranded, and had been “culpably inefficient in the performance of his duty.” Found guilty of two of the three charges, Beach was sentenced to lose 20 places on the captains’ seniority list. In a decision that may seems incomprehensible today, on review in February 1917, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels reduced that loss to five places.
The view then was that the Memphis had been the victim of an unpredictable “act of God,” a tsunami suddenly coughed up by a submarine earthquake nearby. Such extraordinary groundings had happened before. A tsunami lifted the U.S. screw sloop-of-war Monongahela high atop Frederickstadt, St. Croix, in November 1867, and in August that same year, the U.S. storeship Fredonia and gunboat Wateree were destroyed by another such “tidal wave” off Arica, Peru. Considered, but discounted by Beach’s supporters then and by his son much later, was an explanation that the killer waves had come instead from a Category 1 hurricane, which, between 27 August and 3 September, rose in the Lesser Antilles and tracked south of Hispaniola.
The general court-martial conviction meant that Captain Beach would never be promoted to flag rank, but his seagoing career had yet another highlight coming. On 25 November 1917, Battleship Division 9 of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet sailed for Scapa Flow, the first of nine American battleships eventually to join the British Grand Fleet in its war against the German High Seas Fleet. The division commander flew his flag in the New York (BB-34), commanded by Captain Beach. Ship and commanding officer were both present when the Germans delivered their near-mutinous fleet for internment almost exactly one year later. Captain Edward Beach Sr. retired in 1921 and died on 20 December 1943.
Little is left of the armored cruiser that began her service as the Tennessee and ended it tragically and abruptly a decade later as the Memphis. Her bell hangs above the Inglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, one of Santo Domingo’s most historic churches; the armored cruiser’s 48-star flag was presented to the battleship Tennessee in July 1920 and later seemingly was misplaced; souvenir-hunting divers have collected some miscellaneous small bits and pieces of the ship from the bottom; her deck logs are held by the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.; and some of the Tennessee’s original wardroom silver service is on display at the Tennessee State Museum.
The armored cruiser’s elegant bow scroll was probably removed from the ship before 1910, soon after her glitzy white-and-buff paint job was replaced by a more utilitarian gray. An elaborate tracery of vines and leaves surrounds an oval centered on the bow, inside of which a simplified version of the great seal of the United States stands in relief. Acquired by the City of Nashville in March 1910, this scroll decorates a 25-foot cement replica of the cruiser’s bow that stands unidentified and unexplained near the southeastern gate of the city’s lovely Centennial Park. Newspaper stories in 1910 said the scroll on exhibition is the original master pattern from which the Tennessee’s bow decoration was later cast.
Edward L. Beach Jr., The Wreck of the Memphis (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998).
Circular defining chief characteristics of two armored cruisers authorized by Act of Congress; Approved July 1, 1902, CIS U.S. Executive Branch Documents 1789–1909.
Gail E. Farr and Brett F. Bostwick, Shipbuilding at Cramp and Sons . . . (Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1991).
Logs of U.S. Naval Ships, 1801–1915, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel (RG 24), National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereafter NARA).
U.S. Naval Vessels OS-Memphis to Menhaden, Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library 1911–1927 (RG 45), NARA.
Proceedings of General Courts-Martial 1866–1942, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Navy) (RG 125), NARA.
Frank E. Ridgely and Gershom Bradford, The West Indies Pilot, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1913).
USS Tennessee (ACR-10)
Length: 502 feet
Beam: 62 feet, 10 inches
Mean draft: 25 feet
Displacement: 14,500 tons
Main battery: 4 10-inch guns in turrets; 16 6-inch guns in broadside
Complement: 40 officers, 789 enlisted men
Launched: 3 December 1904
Commissioned: 17 July 1906