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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Makers of Naval Tradition

Carroll Storrs Alden
and Ralph Earle

published by
Ginn & Company, 1942

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p1  Chapter I

The Navy and Tradition

Every great crisis through which the country has passed has brought to light unsuspected qualities. In the First World War people were astonished to see the United States Navy grow within a year from 85,000 to 350,000, and seven months later to 532,000. Admirable, however, as was the organization which would permit such rapid expansion, still more significant was the spirit, the morale, which not only touched the mass but to a considerable degree permeated it. Young officers lately graduated from the Naval Academy, as well as those brought in from civil life, found that "Navy Spirit" was something deeper and farther reaching than they had supposed. Most of them made no attempt to define it; but as the first consciousness of it came upon them, they felt a new sense of power. It meant something to belong to the navy and to be an American.

Since American naval tradition is the subject which will engage our thought throughout this volume, in these first pages we shall attempt little more than to point out a few of the occasions on which it has come to notice. It is a quality hard to define. Like many of the best things in life, its value to those concerned consists not in defining but in feeling it.

 p2  History in which Napoleon or Nelson played a part reads like romance. The mere fact of either leader's being present gave assurance to the forces under his command that, no matter what the odds, victory would follow. Nor did the magic end there. Years later every officer and every man who had served under him believed himself to be of superior value for that reason; and results commonly justified this presumption.

Admiral Edward Hawke, who fought an exceptionally brilliant engagement at Quiberon Bay, is reputed to be the founder of British naval tradition. One of his captains, William Locker, gave Nelson his early training. In later years Nelson wrote, gratefully ascribing his success to him: "It was you who taught me, 'Lay a Frenchman close, and beat him.' "

In tra­cing further the development of the British tradition, Jervis must not be omitted, for it was he who, when Nelson as a young officer, took the chaotic and mutinous Royal Navy and introduced discipline and morale. Nelson served under him and built on the substantial foundation which he laid.

The personality of Nelson was impressed upon the Royal Navy as that of no one else, before or since, has been. The mutual confidence between him and his subordinates, whom he characterized as "a band of brothers," his impetuosity in engaging the enemy the instant he discovered them, — "Time," he said, "is everything; five minutes may spell the difference between victory and defeat," — and his last signal flown at the beginning of Trafalgar, "England expects every man will do his duty," are as firmly grounded in the naval profession as if incorporated in law. If a plan of attack was felt to have "the Nelson touch," nothing else had to be said for it.

Vice Admiral, Lord Nelson

From the painting by Hoppner

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 p3  At the time when the genius of Nelson was first generally recognized, the Constitution, the Constellation, and their sister frigates were building, and the permanently established United States Navy came into existence. We were then but lately separated from the mother country, and the spirit of hostility had not altogether died out. Nevertheless the best model was followed; British discipline, regulations, and traditions were adopted for America. To the seafaring people who but recently had been English colonists these seemed their rightful heritage. And later no incongruity was felt in honoring the great Nelson by introdu­cing in the American sailor's uniform, as worn today, three white stripes on the collar in recognition of Nelson's three great victories, and a black neckerchief, a badge of mourning for the dead admiral.

Already John Paul Jones had made a tradition for struggling America, when he engaged a frigate of the "invincible" Royal Navy on unequal terms and carried the fight through to victory. While Nelson was blockading or pursuing the French in the Mediterranean, Preble and Decatur, in the same sea, were accomplishing what had not been attempted before in war against the Barbary states. Macdonough, Hull, Lawrence, and David Porter, who took a minor part in that war, were to show their full power later in the War of 1812. Farragut, trained as a boy by David Porter and given three years' grim experience of war and fighting when he was thirteen or less, had his testing time in the greatest naval engagements of the Civil War. And Dewey, a young lieutenant under Farragut at New Orleans and Port Hudson, found his opportunity at Manila Bay, and won because in preparations and battle he was guided by the thought "What would Farragut do?"

 p4  This is only a fragment of the American tradition, but it is sufficient to show its continuity and vitality.

A few years ago several admirals and captains and also a group of college presidents were asked to name the naval officers who in their opinion had been the most distinguished. The following list represents their reply, and it has been carved on the amphitheater at Arlington: John Paul Jones, Thomas Truxtun, Edward Preble, Isaac Hull, Stephen Decatur, Oliver Hazard Perry, Thomas Macdonough, Charles Stewart, David Glasgow Farragut, David Dixon Porter, Andrew Hull Foote, John Lorimer Worden, George Dewey, and William Thomas Sampson.

This is an inspiring list, yet few who read it will be entirely satisfied. The truth is that the service of such officers as Barry, Biddle, Wickes, and Conyngham in the Revolution, Bainbridge, Lawrence, and David Porter in the War of 1812, and dozens of other officers of the same time or later was so important that any considerable number of persons interested in history would not entirely agree upon any selection which has been sharply restricted. Further, all fourteen in the list just given won distinction in war and fighting. What of those who rendered important service in other ways?

In the field of exploration it was a naval officer, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, who discovered the Antarctic continent and explored the Samoan archipelago; and it was a civil engineer of the navy, though on leave of absence and without a naval crew, Commander Robert E. Peary, who discovered the north pole.

In diplomacy the service of Kearny, Matthew C. Perry, and Shufeldt in the Far East was of conspicuous excellence. Similarly in oceanography there was Maury; in ordnance development, Dahlgren; in seaman­ship,  p5 fleet organization, and naval education, Luce; and in naval history and strategy, Mahan. Thus many officers, not conspicuous in war, or not in war alone, have gained national distinction and have added breadth and depth to the great current of tradition.

This growth of American naval tradition is all included within a century and a half; within the lives of two men of not extraordinary age, provided that the second took up the position of observer when the first was ready to relinquish it.

"If we do not exalt our highest we are not worthy of them," remarked Admiral Henry C. Taylor (quoted by Admiral Gleaves). It is certainly true that an intimate knowledge of our great men and the absorption of the tradition they fostered is good for the youth of today. No small part of the education at the Naval Academy consists of the fact that the chapel, where officers and midshipmen assemble for divine service, contains in its crypt the remains of John Paul Jones; that the broad brick walk leading toward the Tripoli Monument, along which midshipmen of earlier years had their formation, bears the name of Decatur; that the gymnasium in which they seek to gain physical prowess is Macdonough Hall; that an ancient Japanese bell in the middle of the yard, according to custom rung by midshipmen only to celebrate an athletic victory over their friendly enemies of West Point, was a gift of Matthew Calbraith Perry; that the massive armory close by is Dahlgren Hall; that the athletic field looking out upon Chesapeake Bay where the academy football teams practice and play most of their games is Farragut Field; that the road on which the heads of the academic departments have their quarters is Porter Road; that the building to which midshipmen  p6 report for recitations and practical work in seaman­ship and navigation is Luce Hall; that the basin from which launches leave for visiting cruisers or battle­ships lying in the bay bears the name of Dewey; and that the three divisions of the academic group, where midshipmen go to the library or for recitations in mathematics, English, and physics, are known as Mahan Hall, Maury Hall, and Sampson Hall.

It would be a misfortune if midshipmen went through the four years' course of the Naval Academy and did not feel the significance of these names. The desire to guard against such a possibility originally prompted this book. Further, if the Naval Academy is rightly a source of inspiration, its influence should not be limited to the few, comparatively speaking. Thousands of visitors enter its gates every month, and it is to be hoped that they carry away with them something that makes for good citizen­ship. Our naval tradition is a common heritage.

"One of the best things about the American naval officer," wrote Lieutenant Lewis R. Freeman of the British Navy at the close of the World War, "and one that stands him in good stead at the present time, is his open-mindedness." Others have remarked on his daring, initiative, enthusiasm, endurance, and loyalty both to leaders and to followers. But these qualities of the officer are also common American traits. It should always be thus. If the navy is an institution worth while, it represents American character, and it is most truly national when it represents the best.

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Page updated: 26 Apr 13