The Naval Rendezvous of 1893 by Joseph C. Mosier
“This is to be the great week in Norfolk’s history. It will be ever known as Rendezvous Week, and the events that will transpire will always occupy a prominent place in the history of this section.” So the Norfolk Virginian described the opening of the now largely forgotten Hampton Roads Naval Rendezvous of April 17-24, 1893. Thirty-eight warships from ten countries were to gather in the spacious harbor as the first of a chain of celebrations leading to the Chicago Colombian Exhibition. A smaller naval gathering had been held in New York the previous fall closer to the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. It had been less than imposing, what one ship’s captain called “a lame affair.” The Hampton Roads Rendezvous and the follow-on New York Review, however, were expected to be the greatest international accumulation of warships since Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887. The idea for the Review came from Col. Alexander A. Anderson who had first suggested a World’s Fair in honor of Columbus. Originally planned for Washington, technical considerations had changed the site of the fair to Chicago and that of the review to New York. Congress passed an enabling act on April 25, 1890 stating “the President is hereby empowered and directed to hold a naval review in New York harbor in April 1893, and to extend to foreign nations an invitation to send ships of war to join the U.S. Navy in rendezvous at Hampton Roads and proceed thence to said review.” Helpful Virginia legislators had amended the original bill to include the Chesapeake Bay gathering. At least 20 nations were invited. Some such as China, Turkey and Uruguay declined as no vessels were available. Haiti was forced to refuse by the fact that it had no navy. For those countries that did accept, the selection of which warships to send became a delicate diplomatic juggling act. When Russia announced it would send five vessels, England promptly added HMS Australia from the Mediterranean station to bring its representation to the same number.
The Naval Rendezvous Association, headed by Col. George W. Johnston and former Norfolk Mayor Barton Myers, organized the festivities ashore. In a wistfully remembered show of regionalism, the cities surrounding Hampton Roads each contributed at least $2500 to pay for maps, fireworks, boat races, military drills and band concerts. To house the expected throng of visitors the call went out that “every person who can accommodate any of these visitors should notify the secretary of the Business Men’s Association at once.” “White companies comprising the National Guard (or militia) of any state in the Union” received invitations to a competitive military drill as part of the show. Renowned companies such as the First Virginia, Fifth Maryland and National Fencibles of Washington, DC attended. The owners of the four-decked excursion steamer Columbia offered her for a free trip for Norfolk school children to view the fleet. Over one hundred businesses from cigar makers to oyster packers entered floats in the Trades Parade. Bicycle races were held on the grounds of the Norfolk Company. The Consolidated Fireworks Company of New York put on a “magnificent pyrotechnic display.” The International Naval Ball held on April 26 at Armory Hall was declared “a scene of decorative loveliness unequaled by anything ever shown in Virginia.” The Norfolk Virginian devoted two full columns to the description of “Norfolk’s beautiful daughters [who] never looked lovelier or appeared to greater advantage.” All in all, the newspaper asserted that “despite predictions to the contrary, from opposing elements in other cities, and the crop of croakers at home” the Naval Rendezvous Week activities were a huge success. The largest contingent of ships present was the American group of thirteen vessels. Although there had been fierce infighting to see who would command, the position ultimately went to 61-year old Rear Admiral Bancroft Gherardi. The senior officer in the US Navy, Gherardi had served on active duty for better than 47 years. Although born in Louisiana, during the Civil War he had helped capture New Orleans as part of Farragut’s squadron. Prior to assuming command of the US warships at the Naval Rendezvous, Gherardi had served at the head of the North Atlantic Squadron. His flagship was the cruiser Philadelphia. The ships under him were divided into two squadrons under Rear Admirals Benham and Walker. The first ship to arrive at Hampton Roads did so on 28 March. It was the Newark returning from Spain with relics of the explorer Columbus. The bulk of the American fleet arrived 1 April from New York. For the next two weeks the vessels were in and out of the Roads conducting maneuvering drills in the vicinity of Cape Henry. The earliest arrivals among the foreign ships were the Russian vessels General Admiral and Rynda. As they passed Fort Monroe on the morning of 10 April, the Russians fired the required 21-gun salute, but the gunners at the fort had apparently failed to read the program as it took almost an hour for them to return the honor. As the newspapers reported, “Admiral Benham went ashore shortly after noon and paid an official visit to the commandant of Fortress Monroe, Lieutenant-Colonel Frank, of the Second Artillery.” While the content of their conversation is unreported, no such delays were noted for the rest of the Rendezvous.
By the 17th, Hampton Roads began to fill as the British squadron of five ships were joined that afternoon by Dutch and French vessels. Warships would continue to trickle in over the next week. Some that were expected did not show. Three Russian cruisers were prevented from attending by ice in the Baltic. The Argentine protected cruiser Nueve de Julio simply bypassed the Virginia affair and headed straight for New York. But to the immense crowds of onlookers these absentees were unimportant. The population of the cities surrounding the Roads swelled by 50,000. Prices soared. “It costs 30 cents to get shaved, and only the wealthiest are able to afford a hair-cut,” lamented the Virginian. Local watermen made small fortunes charging $5 an hour to ferry sight-seers amongst the anchored warships. The Hygeia Hotel at Old Point Comfort turned away enough people to have doubled its occupancy daily. Even bad weather in mid-week could not dampen the crowd’s spirits. In the face of high winds, ladies simply sewed lead shot in the hems of their skirts to prevent “an undue display of ankles as they clambered up the steep landing steps of the ships.” The Naval Rendezvous Association had given thought to the needs of the sailors serving in this armada. Special events were organized for their entertainment. Ship’s bands joined in concert. Marine detachments held a competitive drill. The crews of the San Francisco won every boat race held on the 19th. After noting the prize money was only $50, the Virginian’s reporter allowed that “a considerable amount changed hands” in side bets. “The San Francisco’s men have more money than they can spend in a week’s liberty.” Early fears were that so many sailors ashore would fill the jails and turn “this gay resort into a howling bedlam.” The paper was pleased to report, “With men from six nationalities, it is somewhat remarkable that there have been no disturbance, but all the men seem to be on their good behavior. There has been no restraint upon liberty and the privilege has not been abused.” The good times came to end at 9 o’clock on the morning of Monday, 24 April. Excursion steamers from as far away as Baltimore and Washington filled with onlookers to watch the departure of the Rendezvous fleet on its way to New York. Thousands lined Sewell’s Point, Ocean View and Old Point Comfort. The warships pulled out in two columns with American vessels to the left. Following in the rear was a clump of three Brazilian ships which had arrived only the night before. After the fleet cleared the Capes, the excursion steamers returned to port. “The beautiful bunting which has bedecked the most imposing buildings in Norfolk has been removed, and Norfolk’s holiday celebration is over.” But the Norfolk Virginian rhapsodically predicted that “the future of Norfolk is safe, and that growth and prosperity will be developed in a more marked manner than ever before in her history.”