After the post-Civil War doldrums, the United States Navy began to redefine itself. Aware of the rapid advances in naval technology, leadership struggled to modernize and keep pace with foreign navies and how ships were powered became a point of focus. The Navy graduated from sail-driven vessels to coal-fired engines (with, of course, a nod to the past with the retention of masts). Gradually modern warship became totally dependent on coal and used it to generate electricity and pressure to perform tasks as varied as rotating the gun turrets and flushing the toilets. “Warships of the new American navy built between 1890 and 1909 were of a strikingly novel form...they were steel hulled, purpose-built for steam power, and substantially more complicated than their predecessors.”
Anthracite coal was known for burning cleaner, longer, and without smoke, but bituminous, especially the Pocohantas variety from the mountains of West Virginia/Virginia, was favored by American ship commanders. It had quick-firing quality and burned hotter, generating faster speeds. One drawback to bituminous was that its volatility, especially after long storage. Many historians believe that Maine was exploded because coal stored aboard spontaneously combusted and the heat generated from the fire, which was unnoticed, caused ammunition in an adjoining magazine to explode. In a letter from Commo. Winfield S. Schley to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, the commander of the Flying Squadron reported a series of bunker fires filled with the same New River bituminous coal from the same coal station as that of Maine.
The widespread use of coal redefined naval tactics. The increase of speed and the ability to move against the wind provided greater mobility and a wider field of action. This was understood. Less well understood were the limitations of coal. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt’s famous order to Commo. George Dewey, commander of the Asiatic Station, to keep his bunkers full is emblematic of those limitations.
Indeed, the operations of every U.S. fleet, including such activities as supply, convoying, landing support, bombardment schedules, and even battles were based on a ship’s coal-carrying capacity. For the Spanish the lack of coal drastically narrowed their tactical options. A Spanish fleet in excellent shape required at least ten full colliers for a transatlantic crossing.
In addition to transforming the way naval wars were fought, coal impacted the lives of the ordinary seaman. The introduction of electricity improved life aboard ships by powering refrigeration systems and electrical appliances. However, not all improvements were for the best. Loading coal was an arduous and tedious work that required coal passers, who worked in shifts for many hours to fill the coal bunkers. To keep the fleet mobile the Navy introduced colliers. These ships carried coal to ships at sea, acting as portable coal stations. New inventions, particularly in loading and transferal techniques from colliers to warships on the high seas made the grueling work at least a little more efficient.
Tending the coal-driven machinery was hazardous for the men who worked in the engine rooms. Aboard Oregon men from the engineering staff had to be “carried from the fire rooms insensible,” because of the heat of the furnaces and the backbreaking work. In testimony to their dedication, “When restored to consciousness these men insisted on returning to the fire rooms.”
A significant factor driving American expansionism in the Caribbean and Pacific was not only the proposed isthmian canal and increase of commerce, but the coal needs of the United States Navy to support such activity. U.S. interests in overseas markets grew after the consolidation of the western states and with the expansion of industrial production. Capt. Alfred t. Mahan wrote that:
. . .economical facts largely brought about the separation of America from Great Britain; economical facts brought about the American Union and continue to bind it. . . Race, yes; territory—country—yes; the heart thrills, the eyes fill, sacrifice seems natural, the moral motive for the moment prevails; but in the long run the hard pressure of economical truth comes down upon these with the tyranny of a despot.
To protect these markets that United States Navy relied on coal after the 1870s and having well-placed coaling stations across the globe was perceived as a military imperative. American foreign policy, before the Spanish-American War and shortly thereafter was driven, in part, by these needs.
During and after the war, such issues led to an improvement in port facilities, the commissioning of the first colliers, and new studies devoted to improving the efficiency of coaling.