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Chapter 8

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

W. D. Puleston

published by
D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc.
New York • London

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

The Period of Naval Stagnation

In September, 1865, after serving longer and under greater difficulties than any other Superintendent, Commodore George Blake was relieved by Rear Admiral David D. Porter, who came to the Academy with all the prestige of his victory at Fort Fisher. Admiral Porter had received the formal thanks of Congress on four occasions during the Civil War, and had influential friends in the executive and congressional branches of the Government who assisted him to carry out the many plans he had conceived for the development of the Academy. During the next four years he needed all his own energy and courage and the assistance of his friends, for he and his successors faced a different but scarcely less formidable situation than Commodore Blake. There was no agency in the Navy Department to make plans for peace and war, or even for demobilization and mobilization. The Union Navy was stronger than the Confederate States Navy, which commenced with no organization and few naval resources. Under the leader­ship of Secretary Welles and Assistant Secretary Gustavus Fox, a former naval officer and a capable executive, the Department took vigorous measures during the first year of war which enabled the Union Navy to meet its responsibilities by drawing freely upon northern industries and merchant marine.

The collapse of the Confederacy found the Navy with no plan for demobilization. Assistant Secretary Fox resigned  p103 and his office was quietly abandoned. The country lost all interest in the Navy, and Congress naturally wished to reduce naval expenditures. Some naval officers on their own initiative had studied naval warfare and could have explained to Congress the reasons for maintaining and training a navy in peace time; but there was no agency in the Department charged with this duty. No program of demobilization was submitted by the Navy to Congress. The ironclads and steam frigates were laid up, shore establishments were curtailed or abandoned, and the ships retained in commission were distributed on foreign stations to protect American trade. No particular group of naval officers was at fault for not providing a demobilization plan; the Navy had evolved from certain manifest necessities and had not created an agency to make long-range plans or to prepare a program to offer Congress. If a well-considered plan had been offered, it would have received little support. After four years of civil war, the American people were eager to return to peaceful pursuits. These conditions in the Navy and the nation influenced the history of the Academy between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. Congress should not be blamed for failing to educate and commission ensigns for a navy which did not have enough ships in commission to provide duty at sea for the officers already commissioned.

Doubling the number of appointees in 1862 steadily increased the number of graduates, although less than half (418) of those entering during the Civil War (858) succeeded in graduating. Among those dropped was a son of Admiral Porter. The act of July, 1866, fixing the Peace Establishment, provided for 857 line officers, almost twice the number of regular officers then in the Navy. Provision was made to retain 150 volunteer officers who had served at least two years and who could qualify by examination.  p104 The remaining vacancies were filled by promotion from the lower grades. Some midshipmen became lieutenant-commanders within three years. With no thought of the future consequences, the line was filled with officers of practically the same age. The class of 1868, on the tail end of this wave of promotion, became lieutenants in 1872 and marked time in that grade for twenty‑one years.

In 1867 Congress reduced the appointees to one for each district, but the number graduating was not reduced until 1871, and in 1870 the congestion was increased by reducing the lieutenant-commanders from 180 to 80, increasing the lieutenants from 180 to 280, and decreasing the number of masters and of ensigns from 160 to 100. The cumulative effect of the reduction fell upon midshipmen at the Academy, whose chances of future promotion became steadily worse. The engineer officers suffered as badly; practically all the volunteer officers were honorably discharged, and of 474 regular engineer officers in the Navy in January, 1865, 155 resigned within four years on account of the dismal prospect of promotion.

Admiral Porter was able to obtain appropriations to rehabilitate the Academy after its service as an army base and hospital and to construct new buildings, including a chapel, an armory, a midshipman's hospital, a building for the new department of steam engineering, marine barracks, and new quarters for midshipmen and officers; to purchase additional land and the residence of the Governor of Maryland, which lay almost inside the Academy grounds. All Porter's buildings and those which preceded them, except two small brick buildings used as guard houses near Gate Number Three, have been demolished to make way for the present buildings.

New Quarters deserves mention; it was an architectural eyesore but, compared with Old Quarters, it was commodious,  p105 well planned and well equipped. It was five stories high, with offices, reception rooms, recitation rooms, and the mess hall on the first floor. In one end of the basement were real porcelain bath tubs for midshipmen, and in the other the kitchen, pantry, and tailor shop. About thirty‑two classes of the ninety‑six that have graduated lived in these quarters. Rear Admirals J. M. Bowyer, the twentieth Superintendent, and Russell Willson, the thirty-first, both occupied rooms in New Quarters, along with about 1,800 other graduates.

Admiral Porter brought a distinguished group of officers, many of whom had served with him at sea, to replace the civilian instructors who had relieved officers needed for active service during the war.1

The admiral emphasized the military side of the organization; he submerged the gun crews, the distinctive unit of the Academy, into four divisions, modeled after naval gun divisions. He changed the adjutant into the cadet lieutenant commander, and even altered the sea‑going uniforms and caps of midshipmen into blue coats with stiff standing collars and stiffer caps that could not be kept on the head in a breeze. The new coats of cadet officers were covered with gold chevrons like those worn at West Point. He reorganized the midshipman band, designed a gorgeous uniform for the bandsmen, accentuated infantry and artillery drills, and held a dress parade every afternoon the  p106 weather permitted. The admiral did not neglect seaman­ship drills; the midshipmen could march aboard the Marion with all her sail bent, her rigging rove, top gallant and royal yards across, and strip her to her tops, stow and label all the gear within eighty minutes.

It was fortunate that the admiral introduced organized athletics. Until the Civil War, the regular exercise obtained in sailing drills was enough to keep the midshipmen agile and hard as nails, but they were entering a period when the increasing number of steamers deprived them of the natural exercise of all seamen. The Superintendent equipped a gymnasium in Fort Severn and endeavored to remove the bleakness which he thought had existed at the Naval Academy. He encouraged midshipman "hops," and the afternoon dress parades were turned into garden parties by the ladies of Annapolis and the academy, who attended in large numbers. Admiral Porter was free in his criticism of his predecessor, which drew the stinging retort from Commodore Blake that he thought that midshipmen were sent to the Academy to have their heads educated, while Porter apparently thought it was to have their heels trained. Admiral Porter did as he liked with the Academy and made some mistakes, but his contributions for good exceeded the harm he wrought. He went to extremes in uniforms and dress parades, but he corrected the previous overemphasis on sailoring.

Commodore M. C. Perry had established the engineering corps in 1842 by hiring a certain number of chief and assistant engineers for each steam vessel commissioned in the Navy. Lieutenant Ward had started an elementary course in engineering for midshipmen in 1845. Perry's system worked fairly well, and the engineering officers of the Navy in 1860 were usually efficient. Many resigned and  p107 some were dismissed when the Civil War broke out, and the increasing number of steam vessels added to the Navy made it necessary to increase the number of engineering officers without sufficient opportunity to ascertain their qualifications. In 1863 Secretary Welles reported that "many of our most efficient vessels have been disabled . . . in consequence of the incapacity of the engineers." It should be emphasized, however, that on numerous occasions during the Civil War, engineer officers displayed skill, courage, and resourcefulness. Two third assistant engineers, William Stotsbury and C. L. Steever, accompanied Cushing when he sank the Albemarle. Secretary Welles also recommended that midshipmen be taught "steam engineering as applied to running the engines"; he expressly excluded "the art of designing and constructing engines", asserting that his plan would give the Navy a homogeneous corps "of officers who will be masters of the motive power of their ships in the future, as they have been of seaman­ship in the past."

The senior line officers of the Navy bitterly resented what they considered excessive claims of engineers to Navy rank and title, but they did not obstruct the education and training of cadet engineers or acting assistant engineers. Their experience during the Civil War had convinced them that they could not depend upon engineers obtained from the merchant marine.

Admiral Porter, aware of the need for naval engineers, put all his energy behind the department of engineering, but in spite of its new building, equipped with models of engines and boilers, and the constant support of the Superintendent, the first attempt failed and the engineering department was abandoned in 1868 with only two graduates to show for all the outlay of energy and money.

The plan was modified, and eighteen acting third assistant  p108 engineers were appointed in 1866 and 1867; they lived in Annapolis and took a two years' course in engineering at the Academy. They had little intercourse with midshipmen. Practically all these engineers graduated, but over half resigned within five years. This second plan was abandoned.

In 1871 Chief Engineer King devised a new plan which immediately received the support of Admiral Worden, who had become Superintendent in 1869. Appointments as cadet engineers were offered to all young men of the United States between certain ages, subject to competitive examination. The Bureau of Steam Engineering advertised the examination throughout the country; it was known in engineering circles that the Academy was prepared to give an excellent course in marine engineering. Very soon, ambitious lads interested in marine engineering were eager to take the examinations. The Bureau of Steam Engineering and the authorities at the Academy gradually raised the entrance requirements and the scope of the course at Annapolis. In 1874 the course was lengthened from two to four years; in addition to the theoretical instruction each summer, cadet engineers took practice cruises (see Chapter 7), and in a few years it was generally recognized that the Navy had developed the best course of marine engineering in the nation. A demand for its graduates arose in universities which were beginning to organize marine-engineering departments, and Congress authorized special leave for graduates who could be spared from the Navy to serve at these universities. Three of these, Ira N. Hollis, H. W. Spangler, and Mortimer E. Cooley, had distinguished careers in the educational world. This nation-wide competition, opened to all American youths, regardless of anything but their native intelligence, previous training, and good character, produced some excellent engineers,  p109 among the most brilliant being W. F. Durand, class of 1880.

Although determined to improve the engineer corps, Admiral Porter who, after Admiral Farragut's death, was senior line officer of the Navy, was equally determined to protect the progressives of the line (command or executive branch) officers from what line officers considered the continual encroachments of the "non‑combatant or staff" corps. This Navy quarrel made a deplorable situation worse; a devoted band of brothers could not have removed the causes of naval stagnation and its bad effects on the Navy and the Naval Academy, but the family fight made matters worse.

In 1873 Congress extended the course for midshipmen from four to six years, which delayed the appointments of ensigns for two years, temporarily relieving the strain and automatically reducing the number of midshipmen at Annapolis, as vacancies were not filled until the end of the sixth year. No effort was made to relieve the situation by retiring additional officers in the upper grades and providing a slow flow of promotion. The whole brunt of the stagnation was imposed on the junior officers and midshipmen.

Admiral Porter was followed as Superintendent by four admirals in succession, all distinguished for their services in the Civil War: John L. Worden of the Monitor; C. R. P. Rodgers, chief of staff for Admiral Dupont; Foxhall Parker, a student of naval tactics; and George B. Balch, one of the finest seamen of the Navy. Admiral Rodgers was Superintendent when the cumulative effect of the stagnation in the Navy impinged hardest upon the Naval Academy. His own pride in the Navy, his belief in the Academy, his confidence in the quality of its graduates, and his own personal courage enabled him to maintain the morale of the Academy during its nadir. Admiral Rodgers  p110 insisted that the Secretary sustain the Academic Board and the Superintendent "in withdrawing from unworthy cadets, the privileges which the government has given them . . . to become officers of the Navy." The Superintendent did not win his fight at once, but within a year the Secretary announced that the Department would not interfere with the Academic Board except in extraordinary cases, and hoped the regulations would be enforced with strictness "which the Superintendent and Academic Board will be regarded as more competent than the Department to decide." This was a reaffirmation of Secretary Bancroft's promise to support Commander Buchanan, and in general it has been kept faithfully.

Admiral Rodgers served for a second time as Superintendent for a few months in 1881, just before Commander Francis M. Ramsay, the first graduate of the Academy, became Superintendent. Ramsay had been head of the Department of Ordnance under Porter and had not approved of many of the changes introduced at that time. He replaced Porter's military insignia with naval rating badges, which are still used. He systematized the practical instruction, placing it on a basis comparable with classroom instruction. He quartered midshipmen by divisions instead of by classes, and made a determined effort to break up class distinctions which had previously been encouraged as a means of accustoming midshipmen to gradations in naval rank. Ramsay had distinguished himself during the Civil War. He was, according to Mahan, with whom Ramsay was continuously at odds, a gentleman although a difficult one, and was an outstanding officer of his generation.

In 1882 the situation had become so bad that Congress passed legislation which limited the number of graduates taken into the Navy, giving those not accepted an honorable discharge and one year's pay. In the abstract, the contract  p111 was not a bad one for midshipmen. Congress had provided four years' education and a two‑year practice cruise at no expense to the graduate, who left the service better equipped to make a living than when he entered, but there was an implied obligation to provide a place in the naval establishment for graduates who had looked forward to a naval career. The classes in the eighties who suffered should place a large part of the blame upon the senior officers of the Navy, who knew exactly what would happen, for some of them had gone through just such a decline in the thirties and forties as a result of the War of 1812. The classes of the fifties and sixties were promoted excessively; those of the seventies and eighties marked time.

Ramsay's radical reforms would have engendered opposition if wisely and temperately introduced; he made no attempt to soften their impact on the naval cadets, who were already depressed by the prospect of slow promotion if they remained in the Navy, and a worse prospect of being dropped at the end of six years' service and having to seek a livelihood in civil life after anticipating a career in the Navy. The class of 1883 was the first to feel the rigors of Ramsay's many reforms. A series of breaches of discipline culminated in the nearest approach to organized insubordination in the history of the Academy. Almost the entire class of 1883 was eventually demoted and placed upon the Santee.

Acting hastily under a mistaken impression, Captain Ramsay marred the graduating exercises of the class of 1883. He had issued a last-minute order that there be no cheering when the diplomas were awarded. A group of midshipmen who had not learned of the order cheered the first graduate to receive his diploma. The captain immediately ordered those cheering to be placed under arrest and marched to the Santee, and curtailed the remainder of  p112 the exercises, to the great disappointment of the families and friends of the midshipmen. Captain Ramsay was extremely self-reliant: during his incumbency he never asked the Navy Department for advice or assistance; he made his own decisions and enforced them with the ample authority vested in the Superintendent.

When the morale of the Naval Academy was at its lowest point, in 1883, Stephen B. Luce, class of 1841, founded the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, where commissioned officers could be sent to study the theory of naval warfare. For his inspiration, Luce was indebted to General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sherman, who, after the capture of Savannah, twitted him about the Navy's inability to capture Charleston, prophesying that the city would fall like "a ripe pear" when the Union Army cut its communications with the interior. The fulfilment of Sherman's prophecy convinced Luce that war conformed to certain laws, and he commenced the study of war, only to discover that whereas there were many books treating of war on land, scarcely any serious studies had been of war at sea.

Luce, convinced that the proper study of naval officers is naval warfare, also believed that the change from sail to steam would permit the same certainty of movement of fleets at sea possible to armies ashore. Therefore, argued Luce, a study of the principles of land warfare would enable a naval student to deduce some analogous principles of warfare at sea and thus lift naval war from "the empirical stage to the dignity of a science." Admiral Porter gave Luce strong support, and, despite considerable opposition, Luce got the War College under way just as the class of 1881 was being legislated out of a Navy which did not possess one first‑class modern man-of‑war.

Luce summoned Commander A. T. Mahan to demonstrate  p113 his thesis, which Mahan did. Incidentally, Mahan discovered the causes and consequences of sea power, which overshadowed Luce's development of the science of naval warfare under steam. Luce, of 1841, and Mahan, of 1859, complemented each other: they had served together at sea and at the Academy during the Civil War; both had served as heads of departments at Annapolis, both were "Naval Academy" officers, and together they did more to systematize the study of naval warfare than generations of European naval officers had done. They were assisted by Admiral Porter, Rear Admiral John G. Walker, and Professor J. R. Soley, at one time head of the Department of English, who became Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Admiral Luce was a naval pioneer: he founded the apprentice system of training enlisted "boys" for the Navy and was a charter member of the Naval Institute, which since 1873 had offered any one from civil life as well as any officer an opportunity to express his views on naval affairs. The Institute has printed more criticism of the Navy and naval practices than all the newspapers in the United States. In affording the Navy a chance for self-criticism, the Institute has reduced the tendency of the service to become "ingrowing."

Fortunately Ramsay was succeeded as Superintendent by Commander Sampson, who was as strict as Ramsay but with a better understanding of human nature; he gradually restored the morale of the midshipmen without lowering the discipline. The fundamental causes producing the unrest could not be eradicated by Sampson, but he lessened their effect on the naval cadets, and his efforts were helped by the coincident and gradual improvement of the conditions in the Navy, which soon made itself felt in the atmosphere of the Naval Academy. After two years as  p114 Superintendent, Commander Sampson, who had had more experience with scientific education than had any of his predecessors, secured a modification of the amalgamation plan which provided the same course for the first three years for line and engineering cadets. During the fourth year the line cadets concentrated on seaman­ship, ordnance, and navigation, while the engineers concentrated on marine engineering.

Captain Robert L. Phythian, Captain Philip H. Cooper, and Rear Admiral F. V. McNair presided over the Academy during the nineties. They continued in general the policies established by Commander Sampson until the amalgamation of the line and engineer corps in 1899. After that, the course given at the Academy was the same for all midshipmen throughout the four years' course. These Superintendents maintained the standards of the Academy, and were spared some of the difficulties of their predecessors because there was a gradual increase in the Navy, which, with the six years' course and the reduction in appointments to the Academy, provided commissions for all who completed the course.

The abilities of a Superintendent are not indicated by the innovations he makes at the Academy. From Buchanan onward, the daily, weekly, monthly, and annual program of the Academy has been limited only by the physical and mental endurance of the officers, professors, and midshipmen. The course has evolved with the Navy itself and has been geared to the technical developments in the fleet. An enlargement of one course can be made only at the expense of another or by an extension of the four-year term. A Superintendent with many new ideas could upset the delicate balance and do incalculable harm unless he carefully considered the far‑reaching consequences of any change.

 p115  Every Superintendent fixes the tone of the Academy and inspires the officers, professors, and midshipmen. Some Superintendents who have made fewest changes in the written rules or the courses have, by the example they set the personnel, had the largest influence on the midshipmen. The Navy Department has exercised extreme care in its choice of Superintendents, as the roster of their names reveals (see Appendix, page 235). Following the precedent set by Bancroft, the Secretaries support the Superintendents and Academic Boards in maintaining the discipline and scholar­ship of the Academy. The Navy Department will immediately detach from the Naval Academy any officer whose performance of duty is not satisfactory and whose conduct is not exemplary.

One ugly feature of Naval Academy discipline of early days persisted until comparatively recently; this was the custom of punishing a class, company, or even a whole battalion when the authorities could not catch the individual perpetrator of an offense. This unholy practice was applied even to such minor infractions as rolling a china slop‑jar down the stairs in the midshipman quarters after taps; an entire class of midshipmen would be turned out in the middle of the night and be made to stand at attention until some one confessed to the heinous (?) crime. If it were near the semi-annual examination, some prospective "bilger" would confess to an act he had not committed in order to get the battalion dismissed and become a ten‑day hero. Pressure was frequently put upon individual midshipmen who had not taken part in hazing but who had inadvertently witnessed it, or upon midshipmen who had been hazed, to testify against the offenders under penalty of being punished for deliberate disobedience to orders. This naval inquisition made perjurers or tale-bearers of otherwise  p116 upright midshipmen. Old Navy discipline was usually rigorous but fair; in a few particulars, however, Academy authorities stubbornly persisted in disciplinary methods which encouraged dishonesty among midshipmen. These pernicious customs have been discarded.

The Author's Note:

1 Lieutenant-Commander Stephen B. Luce became Commandant of Midshipmen. Other heads of departments included Lieutenant-Commander R. L. Phythian, Navigation; F. M. Ramsay, Ordnance; R. L. Miller, English; Professor of Mathematics W. M. Willcox; and Chief Engineer William W. W. Wood, the new Department of Engineering. Among the other officers who served under Porter at the Academy were Lieutenant-Commanders George Dewey, Breese, Selfridge, Sicard, Greene of the Monitor, Farquhar, Fitch, O'Kane, and John G. Walker. Professor Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Lockwood, who had served with distinction as a division commander in the Army, returned in 1865; he was the only member of the original Academic Board to serve with Admiral Porter.

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