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Bill Thayer

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American Naval History

This section of my site — a specialized aspect of my much wider-ranging American history site — should in all propriety be titled "American Maritime History", since it includes books and other material dealing with all facets of the history of the seas, including privateering and piracy; but the bulk of the site is still about the United States Navy.

A Short History of the United States Navy is one of the finest books onsite. Written as a textbook for the U. S. Naval Academy by its then Commandant of Midshipmen, it continued to be used there for at least three decades; this is the revised edition, first published in 1927. Its clarity and good writing, striving at no effect and therefore getting it, put it in a class of its own: my only caveat is that, as would be expected, it adopts as a matter of course the official viewpoints of the United States government — but then every book has one viewpoint or another.

[ 3/18/13: 540 pages of print
— 34 webpages, 20 photos,
31 maps and diagrams, 5 engravings ]

Makers of Naval Tradition, co‑authored by Carroll Storrs Alden, a senior professor at the Naval Academy, and Rear Adm. Ralph Earle, a naval ordnance expert, is a set of biographies of naval officers who shaped America's history; bound together by the various ways in which they exemplified the best of that intangible yet very real spirit of the Navy.

[ 4/25/13: 370 pages of print
— 19 webpages, 20 photos ]

Among the earliest makers of American naval tradition was Captain Thomas Truxtun, who gave the United States a pair of significant victories at sea sorely needed during the Quasi‑War with France, the country's first war after the Revolution. Truxtun of the Constellation tells his life as a privateer, a merchant captain, and an officer who can be credited to a fair extent with shaping the early Navy.

[ 8/23/13: 307 pages of print
— 49 webpages, 5 illustrations ]

The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers, a doctoral thesis by Ray W. Irwin, is not primarily naval history (as the author himself makes very clear): but hardly a page goes by without ships, naval forces, and naval commanders, sometimes in a military, sometimes in a diplomatic rôle. It would have been remiss of me not to point it out here. The book is also of particular relevance today.

[ 10/18/15: 214 pages of print
— 15 webpages, 4 illustrations ]

The American Privateers, by popular writer Donald Barr Chidsey, covers an often over­looked area of American maritime history that shades into the government's Navy at one end and piracy at the other. The heyday of privateering was the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth; it thus played a significant rôle in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

[ 5/20/13: 175 pages of print
— 28 webpages, 9 illustrations ]

A primary source that is as entertaining as it is important, Life in a Man-of‑War • Scenes in "Old Ironsides" chronicles the 1839‑1841 cruise of the already venerable old frigate, the U. S. S. Constitution, from New York to the Pacific Ocean where she was tasked with showing the flag and protecting American interests in Chile and Peru. It is an eyewitness account written by a member of her crew with a keen eye for anecdote and atmosphere, and as such is an invaluable, almost unique, record of what life was like on an American man-of‑war in the early 19c.

[ 10/6/21: 289 pages of print
— 53 webpages, 29 illustrations ]

An early book by geopolitical historian Foster Rhea Dulles, The Old China Trade, falls under maritime history — the history of America's earliest trade with China, from the voyage of the Empress of China in 1784 to the Treaty of Wanghia in 1844 — but remains topical today: telling how America became a Pacific nation because of China, and how China became a force in international trade because of America. Intelligently written, with a wealth of interesting anecdote yet no needless flourishes.

[ 8/19/16: 220 pages of print
— 15 webpages, 16 illustrations ]

Prof. Robert Erwin Johnson's Thence Round Cape Horn is subtitled The Story of United States Naval Forces on Pacific Station, 1818‑1923; chronicling what at first was a backwater to the Atlantic, to grow in importance in sometimes unexpected ways, including for example the Navy's rôle in the annexation of California. A carefully written book, a good read.

[ 7/13/16: 261 pages of print
— 20 webpages, 22 photographs ]

From the pen of Charles Lee Lewis, professor of English and history at the Naval Academy, we have a biography of the school's founder: Admiral Franklin Buchanan chronicles the man's naval career, notable also for his service in the Confederate Navy as commander of the Virginia (Merrimac) in her famous encounter with the Monitor, then as commander at the Battle of Mobile Bay.

[ 10/2/21: 276 pages of print
— 18 webpages, 12 photographs, 2 maps, 18 other images ]

The Rebel Shore is not quite what the title suggests, but rather a recounting of the battle for the coast of the Confederacy in the War between the States: the infighting within both the Federal and the Confederate naval establishments, the technological innovations it forced, the strategic implications of naval power — rich in unexpected interest.

[ 1/3/18: 238 pages of print
— 15 webpages, 17 photographs, 1 map ]

Moving forward to the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, From the Mississippi to the Sea is an autobiographical memoir by Adm. Robert E. Coontz, the United States Navy's second Chief of Naval Operations, one of the first high-ranking naval officers to recognize the potential of aviation. His book, abounding in amusing anecdotes but also recounting more serious events and concerns, and here and there providing us a window into American naval policy: mostly, giving a good feel for the daily life of the Navy the way it was in his time.

[ 12/31/16: 483 pages of print
— 41 webpages, 24 photographs ]

A small book, somewhat misleadingly titled, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of the Modern Navy more generally tells the story of the emergence of a twentieth-century Navy during that president's administration: how an assortment of technical, political, and budgetary problems were solved or at least addressed, under the impetus of forces within the Navy as well as Roosevelt's vigorous personal naval interests.

[ 12/31/14: 133 pages of print
— 12 webpages, 11 illustrations ]

Adm. Hugh Rodman's Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral is an atmospheric thread of stories, loosely chronological, many of them funny, some of them quite serious, from his long naval career, from wooden sailing ships to steel battle­ships: including notably his days as a midshipman at the Naval Academy, and his service in China, in the Battle of Manila Bay, and with the British Grand Fleet in the North Sea in World War I. The book includes a particularly interesting and somewhat technical chapter on the navigational skills of ancient Polynesians — a 20c seaman treating with respect and admiration the technical achievements of his remote predecessors.

[ 12/22/17: 311 pages of print
— 16 webpages, 27 photographs ]

The First Yale Unit tells the story of 29 young men, most of them college students at Yale University, who while World War I was being fought in Europe, realized it was only a matter of time before it would touch America, and of their own initiative taught themselves to fly the dangerous aircraft of the time; when the United States entered the war, they offered their services to the Navy: not only did they prove to be an exceptional group of pilots, three of them giving their lives, but in many ways the Yale Unit laid the foundation of U. S. Naval aviation. The book, published seven years after the war, draws on a deep array of primary sources and has thus preserved their story for posterity.

[ 9/11/13: 679 pages of print
— 50 webpages, 132 photographs ]

One Man's Fight for a Better Navy is the autobiography of Holden Evans, a United States naval officer and naval constructor who in the early 20c attempted, with limited success, to apply modern managerial techniques — at the time considered a radical innovation — to the operation of the Service's navy yards. Prefaced by several chapters on the author's difficult childhood and youth and an interesting account of the Naval Academy, the book is mostly an instructive tale of the obstacles, failures and successes of his later career, written from retirement many years after he had left the Navy for a success­ful career as a civilian shipbuilder: opinionated, abrasive, but analytically written, and with great love of the Navy and his country.

[ 2/9/15: 382 pages of print
— 36 webpages, 5 photographs ]

Admiral Thomas P. Magruder's The United States Navy is a snapshot of that service at the critical time between the two World Wars when the United States government was slowly dismantling it with the notion that this would advance the cause of world peace. The book offers a description, sometimes technical, of the various types of naval vessels; but the politics and economics of a strong Navy are never too far from the writer's mind.

[ 9/24/14: 179 pages of print
— 8 webpages, 26 photographs;
plus added material: 12 pages of print, 2 webpages ]

Prof. Gerald E. Wheeler's Prelude to Pearl Harbor is a detailed scholar­ly study of American naval policy after World War I and the Washington, Geneva, and London naval armament limitation conferences between 1921 and 1930, with special reference to Japan. It is particularly interesting in showing how the Navy was weakened by disunity among the Navy Department, the State Department, the President and Congress against a backdrop of pacifist and belt-tightening public opinion. Good bibliography.

[ 6/8/13: 208 pages of print
— 12 webpages, unillustrated ]

Also by Gerald E. Wheeler, Admiral William Veazie Pratt, U. S. Navy • A Sailor's Life: a biography of the Naval Academy graduate (Class of 1889) who would become Chief of Naval Operations in 1930‑1933. Less a personal biography than an account of the United States Navy and the problems it had to face, especially between the world wars, from the viewpoint of one of its key movers.

[ 9/27/14: 437 pages of print
— 21 webpages, 60 photographs ]

For his trenchant views and abrasive personality, Rear Admiral Stirling Yates, Jr. was sometimes called the Navy's "stormy petrel". Upon retiring, he published his autobiography, Sea Duty: the world and the Navy as he saw them, from his early years as a callow naval cadet to the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, to the Yangtze River patrols and his command of Pearl Harbor in the 1930s, including his involvement in the unfortunate Massie affair. He calls the shots as he sees them; most of the time he was right — and either way, his memoirs are color­ful, informative, and a good read.

[ 11/3/14: 309 pages of print
— 20 webpages, 10 photographs ]

The Atlantic System, published about a month before Pearl Harbor — its author, Forrest Davis, a noted journalist — takes as its foundation Mahan's view of seapower and its role in world history, and goes on from there to analyze American and British naval and foreign policy, public opinion, and more generally geopolitical conditions, in the period from the War Between the States to the beginning of the Second World War in terms of a growing Anglo-American entente for the control of the seas. The book is often acute, sometimes prescient in its observations, and remains surprisingly relevant in the context of the war for America in our own century.

[ 10/25/14: 350 pages of print
— 11 webpages, unillustrated ]

On the cusp of World War II, Captain William Puleston, who was wrapping up a distinguished naval career, wrote Annapolis • Gangway to the Quarterdeck, a history of the Naval Academy. In addition to its strictly historical aspect, the book aims to show why and how a young man might make a career of the Navy.

[ 7/4/17: 261 pages of print
— 20 webpages, 22 photographs ]

The D‑Day landings required two complete artificial port facilities — "Mulberries" — to be built in England, towed across the Channel, and assembled in three days on beaches in France, under enemy fire. The story of this extraordinary enterprise, Force Mulberry, is told here by the Deputy Commander of the Mulberry at Omaha Beach, Cmdr. Alfred Stanford. Involved as he was in every phase of the operation and often an eyewitness to the events he describes, the book is inevitably one of the best first-hand sources of information that could have been written on the subject.

[ primary source: 233 pages of print
— 23 webpages, 13 photographs, 2 maps ]

Among the great naval leaders of the twentieth century was Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey: he has left us an autobiography, Admiral Halsey's Story, which naturally details his World War II service in the South Pacific, but also includes several chapters on his earlier career.

[ 7/4/17: 483 pages of print
— 42 webpages, 79 photographs, 14 maps ]

At the end of World War II, the Navy's Aviation History Unit was tasked by the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air) to tell the story of The Navy's Air War. The result is a dense, detailed book on every facet of American naval aviation in the Second World War: Pearl Harbor of course, then the forces and organization on hand at the beginning of the war, the war in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and especially the Pacific; and several interesting chapters on the logistics behind it all.

[ 9/11/14: 415 pages of print
— 38 webpages, 55 photographs, 3 maps ]

Archibald D. Turnbull and Clifford L. Lord's History of United States Naval Aviation, though not an official Navy publication, is about as close as you can get, published in 1949 by two high-ranking naval officers who had been respectively Deputy Director of Naval Records and History, and Head of the Naval Aviation History Unit. The authors trace the history of the Navy's air arm from the earliest heroic and tentative days thru the end of World War II, and make the case for naval aviation independent of any unified air force such as had just been established as the third major arm of the American military.

[ 5/26/15: 331 pages of print
— 31 webpages, 46 photographs ]

The Coast Guard is not the Navy, at least not in peacetime; but no account of American seafaring would be complete without telling its story. Riley Brown's Men, Wind and Sea does just that, in a popular vein. Not so much a history of this branch of the armed services as a graphic showing of what the Coast Guard is about; get past the sometimes unfortunate style, and the book does a very good job of it.

[ 11/6/13: 266 pages of print
— 13 webpages, 15 photographs ]

The merchant marine is not the Navy either, but the two are closely related: the Navy protects merchant shipping, and in time of war, the merchant marine is a power­ful auxiliary in the movement of troops and supplies. Allan Nevins' Sail On • The Story of the Merchant Marine is a pleasantly sober account of the American service's development and strategic importance: changing technology, shipping patterns and tonnages, legal framework, war record.

[ 12/20/21: 103 pages of print
— 8 webpages, 33 illustrations ]

The Pirates of Colonial North Carolina provides a background on the general topic of piracy, then tells the tale of many of the buccaneers who made the future State their base of operations in the "golden age" of piracy in the late 17c and the first quarter of the 18c. Among them Calico Jack Rackham, women pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Edward Low — and a full chapter each on Stede Bonnet and of course that most infamous epitome of piracy known to us all as Blackbeard.

[ 5/27/13: 72 pages of print, 10 illustrations ]

[image ALT: A close-up of a collection of papers spread out on a table. It is the icon used on this site to represent my American History Notes subsite.]

Among the journal articles onsite (most of them also collected in my American History Notes section), the following, listed chronologically, deal more specifically with naval or maritime history:

Lafitte, the Louisiana Pirate and Patriot

La guerre franco-américaine (1798‑1801)

Voyage of the Ophelia from Boston to Canton

River Navies in the Civil War

The Itata Incident

The World Cruise of the American Battleship Fleet, 1907‑1909

The New Far East Doctrine (1922)

[ 7 articles, 138 pages of print ]

[image ALT: A stylized graphic design of the heads of two men: the one in the background wearing something that looks like a top hat (but is in fact a cropped view of a 19c naval officer's dress hat) and a beard and looking somewhat like President Lincoln, and the one in the foreground is that of a 20c naval officer in a dress hat. In the lower left corner, the number 90. The design serves as my icon for Volume 61, No. 10 of the Proceedings of the U. S. Naval Institute, an issue entirely devoted to celebrating the 90th anniversary of the U. S. Naval Academy, which is transcribed in full on this site.]

Deserving special mention, an entire commemorative issue of the Proceedings of the U. S. Naval Institute (LXI.10) devoted to the Naval Academy at Annapolis on its 90th anniversary in 1935.

[ complete: 18 articles, 220 pages of print, 159 illustrations ]

For completeness' sake, a book that isn't really naval history, but has some information on the Naval Academy. Annapolis: Its Colonial and Naval Story is mostly an anecdotal social history of the town, but the last three chapters, weak as they are, do sketch a summary chronology of the institution thru the early 20c.

[ 5/7/13: 3 chapters, 2 photos  ]

Finally, these four stray items:

Visit to Monterey in 1842, an eyewitness memoir of Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones' seizure of Monterey from Mexico — in peacetime — by Dr. Richard T. Maxwell, a naval surgeon on his staff.

Monitor-Merrimac: a Short Bibliography.

"Melancton Smith, U. S. N.", a brief memoir by Reuben Gold Thwaites (1893).

"John Rodgers' Flight to Hawaii", an official Navy account of the first attempted flight from the American mainland — a landmark in naval aviation.

[image ALT: An upright anchor fouled with a rope passing from the ring over the right arm of the stock (from the viewer's standpoint), then behind the shank, then forming a large bight or loop passing in front of the left arm and behind the right arm about halfway between the crown and the flukes, and extending some ways below the crown. The image is taken from the shoulderboard insignia of naval midshipmen, and serves as the icon on this site for the book 'A Short History of the United States Navy'.]

The icon I use to indicate this subsite is the fouled anchor on the shoulder boards worn by midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy.

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Site updated: 9 Feb 22