We are not able to hold Leslie Compton’s presentation about Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet on May 21st. Instead, I called Leslie to have a conversation about her book, Dearest Minnie: A Sailor’s Story and ask her some questions.
SBMM: What drew you to this story?
Leslie: When I was 10, I inherited a box of postcards from all over the world, which were in albums, from my grandfather’s cousin Minnie whom I had never met. I just think no one knew what to do with this collection, so they sent them to me.
Later in life, I became a collector of postcards and learned to remove the cards from the albums, to better protect them. When I put them in chronological order, I saw they all came from 1907-1910, and were signed with the same initials. This correspondence resulted in a proposal of marriage (You’ll need to read the book to see how that turns out).
I learned that the postcards were from the Great White Fleet tour, which I knew nothing about at the time. I spent the next six years researching the Great White Fleet, I visited the Library of Congress, Annapolis (home of the U.S. Naval Academy), and libraries in Boston and New York City. And I attended numerous postcard shows to add to my collection.
SBMM: What was the purpose of sending the Great White Fleet around the world?
Leslie: Teddy Roosevelt states that sending the Great White Fleet around the world was the most eventful act of his presidency. He was shaking the “Big Stick.” He once again wanted to show the world how powerful we were and to be the first to send a fleet of ships around the world. At the time, Japan had just won a war with Russia, and Roosevelt negotiated the peace between the two countries, in fact he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation efforts. But Japan was not happy with the results of that treaty; they wanted Russia to pay reparations.
When the fleet arrived in Japan, they had their guns ready, because they did not know how they would be received. Also, at this time Germany was beginning to rise as a power, and England was not yet considered an ally of the U.S.
Roosevelt believed that war was imminent. At that time ships did not go out on long voyages, because they needed to re-supply with coal every ten days. Roosevelt believed that a strong navy would be vital in a time of war, and that the best time to prepare for war was during peacetime. The fleet was painted white to signify that they came in peace (the fleet was re-painted battleship grey upon its return to Virginia).
SBMM: What was it like for sailors aboard the Great White Fleet?
Leslie: The “Dearest Minnie” story is told by Maurice, who was a musician in the U.S. Navy with a First-Class rank, so he was a bit privileged. He was among the first to go ashore at various ports, he had to perform every other night, for dances and dinners and during coaling to help speed up the process. He got to see the world as the recruiting posters promised. A Third-Class sailor sometimes did not receive shore leave depending on his deportment and his cleanliness, for weeks at a time.
SBMM: How do postcards help to tell this story?
Leslie: They are visual, so they give a great feel for the world and what was happening then. Many were photographs, depicting unique places all around the world: ports, parks, and people. Others were drawn by artists and can be quite colorful. Postcard collecting was very popular back then, people placed cards into albums, and they became status symbols. You weren’t likely to be traveling around the world in those days, but you had these images from strange lands to study. Often the cards came in series, like battleships. And all of America was following the voyage of the Great White Fleet at that time. Roosevelt made sure that the press coverage was all very positive, showing the dinners, parades, and the great times these visits created.
SBMM: The Santa Barbara port visit was not all positive, was it?
Leslie: There were vendors who followed the fleet from San Diego to Seattle, in an effort to make a profit. In Santa Barbara there was price gouging by the local restaurants, which resulted in the sailors doing damage to one of the establishments. The residents of Santa Barbara were asked to strip their gardens of all their flowers to create a beautiful Flower Parade, which other cities around the world tried to replicate.
SBMM: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Leslie: This was a very exciting project, I love doing research and at the same time I was able to find out a lot about my family. I enjoy giving talks about this subject. So few people know much about the Great White Fleet, or this period in history. And I am very thankful for Lt. Commander, USN, James R. Reckner, (Ret), for his review of the manuscript.
Leslie Compton’s next book, “The Forgotten Artist,” is about her great-aunt Evylena Nunn Miller, a Southern California artist who has artwork museums all over the world, including the Smithsonian and the Bowers Museum. It will be out later this year.