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Progressives in Navy Blue

Maritime Strategy, American Empire,

and the Transformation of U.S. Naval Identity, 1873-1898.


Scott Mobley


Studies in Naval History and Sea Power

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018

Hardcover. xii+410 p. ISBN 978-1682471937. $34.95


Reviewed by John Beeler

The University of Alabama




With this study of the transformation of US naval policy in the 1880s and 1890s, Scott Mobley has made an important contribution to our understanding of that process, which has long perplexed historians. In the decade between 1886 and 1896 America first abandoned a wartime naval strategy relying on coastal defense (forts and monitors) and a largely improvised guerre de course (protecting US maritime commerce and preying on enemy merchant vessels) in favor of a defensively-oriented guerre d’escadre (battleships, albeit still supplemented by commercial warfare) and, subsequently, by a substantial battlefleet capable of hemispheric power projection, despite the absence of any existing strategic rationale for the latter shift. Indeed, Phillips Payson O’Brien has argued that, given America’s geographic insularity from foreign naval threats, prior to the 1930s, when Japanese expansionism in East Asia first posed a potential threat to the Philippines, there was no strategic justification for the major battlefleet that the country began to construct in the 1890s.(1) Mark Shulman is even more blunt: the US created a battlefleet in the late nineteenth century not for any cogent strategic reason, but simply because it could: “[a]pparently for reasons of pride and the technical ability to do so, both [political] parties favored building battleships".(2)

To be sure, Shulman also points to navalism—a geopolitical stance in which naval power is touted as the most critical component of national and imperial defense—and its concomitant, imperialism, as critical motivators for those, many of them naval officers, agitating for a large battlefleet, and several historians of US foreign relations, among them William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber, have painted a damning picture of the navy’s role in what the former termed the “tragedy of American diplomacy.” Mobley succinctly summarizes this perspective:

[h]istorians…wove the nineteenth-century naval revival into a broader narrative of national tragedy. Their conceptions teamed naval officers enamored of “big-gun” battleship technology with imperialist politicians…and with industrialists seeking contracts. Together, the manufacturers, imperialists, and Navy battleship enthusiasts forged a fleet for projecting American power of the four corners of the globe—ultimately to the detriment of both the United States and the foreign peoples exploited by its hegemonic aspirations. [13-14]

And historian Peter Karsten adds an icing of cynicism to this sordid cake, arguing that naval officers touted a big battleship navy, supposedly on the grounds of strategic necessity, but in reality as a cloak for motives that were narrow and self-interested: institutional self-preservation and furthering their career prospects. “[T]he naval aristocracy…created a body of propaganda and rationalizations designed primarily to serve its own interests".(3)

Mobley acknowledges that these explanations have merit, but maintains that those of the Williams school “tend to pronounce broad conclusions from a relatively narrow set of causal factors,” and that an earlier interpretative paradigm that touted naval reformers—above all Stephen Bleecker Luce (1827-1917) and Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914)—as strategic visionaries who presciently divined America’s global destiny, is equally incomplete. Neither school, he argues, “fully explains U.S. naval development in the Gilded Age.”[14] His study seeks to furnish that explanation.

To do so it closely examines the emergence during the 1870s, 80s and 90s of two professional discourses within the US Navy’s officer corps, one focused on technology, the other on strategy. The former—“mechanists” in Mobley’s parlance—valorized new ship types and weapons systems, above all torpedoes and torpedo boats. Implicit in this prioritization was the assumption that the technological revolution that witnessed the replacement of sails by steam engines, wooden hulls with iron and later steel, and novel weapons such as torpedoes had changed the character of naval warfare beyond recognition, and that past conflicts, campaigns, and battles furnished no guide for the future. Conversely, the latter—“strategists” in Mobley’s telling—maintained that technological change had not overturned fundamental strategic verities, and sought to illuminate and articulate those foundational principles just as Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini had done for warfare ashore.

Mobley’s study opens by surveying the “quarterdeck culture” of the officer corps the navy within the service’s traditional mission as a maritime constabulary force guarding American oceanic trade, facilitating the expansion of overseas markets, and upholding the nation’s commercial interests abroad. Not surprisingly this culture placed premiums on seamanship and navigation. Other attributes of these “mariner-warriors” also followed from the navy’s historical roles: tactics and leadership in the context of single-ship encounters and small-scale landing operations, usually against “uncivilized” peoples, and diplomatic skills for encounters with other “civilized” nations. Within this service culture little if any thought was given to grand or operational strategy, or to logistics.

This state of affairs began to change in the early 1870s, driven largely by awareness of technological developments abroad. The first practical self-propelled torpedo was patented in 1866. Three years later HMS Devastation, the prototype of the modern battleship, was laid down. It was completed in 1873, the same year that a small group of American naval officers founded the US Naval Institute (USNI), a voluntary professional organization designed to serve as a forum for discussion of technological, tactical, organizational, personnel, and strategic issues.  Among the most prominent of these men were Charles Belknap (1845-1901), Caspar F. Goodrich (1847-1925), Theodorus B.M. Mason (1848-89), Foxhall Parker (1821-79), Christopher R.P. Rodgers (1819-92), William T. Sampson (1840-1902), and above all Stephen Luce. Mobley’s second chapter examines the birth and early years of the USNI in the larger context of the officer corps’ modernization, and that in the even broader arc of the spread of professionalization in the US during the second half of the nineteenth century. He argues persuasively that the officer corps’ modernization should be situated within the emergence of graduate and professional education in Gilded Age America and that, like the law, medicine, and civil engineering, it had acquired the attributes of a modern profession by the dawn of the twentieth century.

It was in the context of this professionalization that the “mechanist” and “strategist” schools emerged. The former was dominant within the officer corps during the 1870s and early 80s, as Mobley makes clear in his third chapter, and the perceived need to gather as much information as possible about foreign navies’ technological progress drove the creation of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), the subject of his fourth chapter, in 1882. Yet, as he also stresses, at the same time that concerns over foreign navies heightened the perceived need for detailed and up-to-date intelligence, a “nucleus of naval progressives broke with past habits of mind and awakened to strategy as a discipline worthy of full-time study and practice,” and although the ONI had been established as a repository and clearinghouse for technological intelligence, by 1885 it had been assigned an additional task: preparing “detailed plans of campaigns….”[111, 133]

Roughly concurrent with the establishment of the ONI, the American political establishment began, after years of neglect, to fund the navy’s reconstruction, the subject of Mobley’s fifth chapter. In 1883 the first steel vessels—three protected cruisers and a dispatch vessel, very much in keeping with the navy’s traditional strategic posture—were authorized, followed over the course of the next five years by another eleven cruisers and two second-class battleships (or armoured cruisers, as they were often designated). William Whitney (1841-1904), Secretary of the Navy from 1885 to 1889, oversaw legislation authorizing twenty-seven new warships: his successor, Benjamin Tracy (1830-1915; Secretary of the Navy 1889-93), added a further eleven, including four battleships. Thus it was during the eight years encompassed by the two men’s tenures at the Navy Department that the service abandoned its guerre de course orientation, in which peacetime duties were prioritized, in favor of battlefleet intended for national defense in wartime. Indeed Mobley pinpoints 1886 as the year in which this shift took place.[179]

An equally important development occurred in 1884, however, with the founding of the Naval War College (NWC). Stephen Luce had long been a champion of professional education for both officers and enlisted personnel, and it was he who not only perceived a need for mid-career officers destined for senior command to be schooled in the larger dimensions of war at sea, namely operations, strategy, and logistics, but who envisioned a post-graduate institution to provide that that instruction. As early as 1877 he was lobbying the Navy Department for the creation of a school, but only in 1884 was he able, with the influential support of Captain John G. Walker (1835-1907), then Chief of the Navy Department’s Bureau of Navigation, to prevail upon Secretary of the Navy William Chandler (1835-1917) to authorize it.

From the start the NWC posed an intellectual/ideological challenge to the “mechanist” paradigm that had and continued to drive the Navy’s approach to ship design and procurement. The college’s proposed curriculum, drawn up in 1884 by a committee consisting of Luce, Caspar Goodrich, and William Sampson made this challenge explicit. While they recommended courses in International Law, Rules of Evidence and Modern Political History, the core of the NWC’s curriculum was to be courses in naval strategy, tactics, and history. Moreover, their précis of intended course content left no doubt that they envisioned instruction in offensive, as well as defensive operations. That for the strategy course listed

[t]he disposition of a naval force for the protection of a coast or convoy—for the attack of an enemy’s coast or fleetfor the destruction of an enemy’s commerce—plans of naval campaigns—bases of operation—coaling stations and other supplying depots—analyses of naval campaigns—vulnerable points of an enemy’s defense—practicable landing places in the neighborhood of strategic points—naval transport—defense of landing points on our coast—a study of the time required for any nation or probable combination of nations to concentrate a given force upon our own coast—their means of subsistence and probable point or points of attack and the means of defense to be employed in each case—etc. etc.(4)

With the NWC Luce hoped to elevate the study of war at sea “from the empirical stage to the dignity of a science.” [quoted in Mobley : 192, emphasis in original] History would furnish the means of doing so: “[t]here is no question,” he stated, “that the naval battles of the past furnish a mass of facts amply sufficient for the formulation of laws or principles.”[quoted in ibid] And Alfred Thayer Mahan was Luce’s choice (albeit not his first one) to be the NWC’s lecturer in naval history.

The outlines of the rest of the story are widely known. Mahan arrived at the NWC in 1885 and succeeded Luce as its president in 1886. In 1890 his naval history lectures, bundled up at the insistence of his publisher with an introduction and an opening chapter setting forth the “Elements of Sea Power” (far and away the most-read and influential portion of the book) were published as The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783. In it Mahan argued that sea power had been the decisive factor in the outcomes of the wars of that period, and conflicts at sea had been determined by clashes between rival battlefleets, not by commerce-raiding. Swayed by his argument, American politicians became less grudging with naval appropriations, and by 1898 the US had a fleet of battleships and cruisers capable of defeating Spain.

Naval historians have long been aware that this story is closer to a creation myth than to a sober historical account, just as they have long been aware that the “Elements of Sea Power” chapter is closer to propaganda—urging the US to embark on naval, and by implication imperial, expansion—than to a dispassionate assessment of the actual value of sea power.(5) Yet Mobley’s account adds not only much valuable detail but nuance to our existing knowledge. First of all, the NWC, and with it the historical/strategic paradigm espoused by Luce and Mahan, was for several years after its founding the target of attacks by advocates of mechanism, in particular Secretary Whitney and Francis M. Ramsay (1835-1914), Superintendent of the US Naval Academy 1881-86 and later John G. Walker’s successor as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. Indeed, in January 1889 Whitney ordered the NWC amalgamated with the Navy’s Torpedo Station, an apparent mechanist triumph.

That triumph was short-lived, though. Whitney left office two months later and his successor, Tracy, was far more sympathetic to the arguments of Luce, Mahan, and their allies. His 1889 annual report to Congress contained a ringing endorsement of the NWC and its mission. It was, he stated, “unquestionably one of the most important institutions connected with the Navy….Its work, even in the restricted sphere to which it has been confined, has been of immense benefit to the service, and it is of the highest importance that nothing should be done that will in any way interfere with its efficiency.(6) This support was not enough to prevent Ramsay from making further attempts in 1893 and 1894 to close the NWC, but these efforts ran aground when Secretary of the Navy Hilary Herbert (1834-1919, Secretary of the Navy 1893-97) had a change of heart and became an enthusiastic supporter of the college.

Yet even with the NWC’s survival more-or-less assured, the historical/strategic school’s success was not, and the Navy’s higher command structure was wracked by what Mobley terms “culture wars” during the late 1880s and through much of the 1890s, as mechanists battled strategists over their rival visions of that the navy should do and, by extension, what sorts of ships it should build. These disputes are the subject of Mobley’s seventh chapter. The eighth examines the NWC’s achievement in “acculturating” a significant portion of the officer corps to the strategic principles taught there; a brief epilogue surveys the transformation of the officer corps’ professional ethos in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

History is usually written by the victors, in this instance Luce, Mahan, and their allies, and in their accounts opponents—Whitney, Ramsay, Winfield S. Schley (1839-1911), Montgomery Sicard (1836-1900), Francis M. Bunce (1836-1901), and others—are depicted either as slow, dull-witted men clinging stubbornly to the past, heedless to the march of enlightened progress, or (especially in the case of Ramsay, whose enmity toward Mahan does give him something of the quality of a pantomime villain) petty, spiteful and vindictive, motivated by the desire to guard their turf rather than to advance the service.

One of Mobley’s most important achievements is in rehabilitating these men’s reputations. They were, he argues persuasively, every bit as progressive as their opponents: “both embraced an ideology of progress. Both…viewed science, technology, and expertise as the best paths to restoring order in a world contorted by modernizing and globalizing trends” [266-267]. Both views, indeed, could coexist within the mind of a single individual, and Mobley rightly points to men such as Caspar Goodrich, whose weltanschauungs encompassed both technology and strategy. As an account of the ways in which the officer corps’ differing views on the service’s mission evolved during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1980s, Mobley’s is not likely to be bettered.

Yet his focus on the intra-service discourse does not answer all of the questions surrounding the Navy’s strategic transformation, especially the pivot from defensive to offensive orientation. Benjamin Tracy’s vision, laid out in his 1889 Report to Congress, although ostensibly defensive, contained within it the seeds of power-projection capability by transmogrifying coastal defense into hemispheric defense, i.e., meeting would be seaborne menaces from Europe (read: Britain) at the perimeter rather than the five-fathom line.

That Tracy was taking his cues from Luce and Mahan is not in doubt: why he accepted their arguments more-or-less uncritically is. Given the US’s geographic insularity, given its lack of overseas possessions, and above all given Canada’s vulnerability to invasion should a contretemps between Britain—the only power actually capable of posing a seaborne threat—and the US erupt, there was no strategic rationale as of 1889 for building a seagoing battlefleet. Indeed, Mark Shulman has argued that Francis Ramsay, with his focus on coastal defense and torpedoes, had a more realistic—not to mention economical—view of America’s existing national security needs than did Mahan and Luce.(7) Yet not only Tracy adopted their views; so did his successor Hilary Herbert and, more consequentially, so did Congress to the tune of authorizing the construction of nine battleships and two large armored cruisers between 1890 and 1897. And, not surprisingly, once provided with the means of power projection, naval planners quickly availed themselves of them, envisioning offensive operations—blockade and invasion of Cuba—should war with Spain occur. In perhaps the supreme irony, an 1896 Navy Department board chaired by none other than Francis Ramsay even advocated concentrating the bulk of “the Navy’s fighting strength in Spanish waters” to prevent the Spanish navy from threatening America’s eastern seaboard in the event of war [259].

Leaving aside the impracticality of such a plan, even the more feasible suggestions of blockading and/or invading Cuba leave no doubt that by the mid-1890s American naval strategy, at least as far as naval officers were concerned, had adopted an offensive orientation, and given Tracy’s, Herbert’s, and Congress’s acquiescence to the arguments of Luce and Mahan, it is tempting to speculate that much of the political world had adopted an expansionist agenda or, as Tracy’s 1889 justification for building a battlefleet suggests, at least had bought into the navalist argument that enemy forces were better dealt with before they reached the American littoral.

How that might have been accomplished was left unstated by contemporaries, a fact that reinforces the suspicion that ulterior motives were at work. Indeed, given the near-impossibility of locating, much less intercepting, hostile forces on the high seas, as American hysteria over the whereabouts of Admiral Pascual Cervera’s Spanish squadron in 1898 suggests, one might easily, if somewhat cynically, conclude that offense via hemispheric power-projection was the unstated aim of many of those agitating for construction of a fleet of battleships. Certainly Luce was a committed (and vocal) imperialist, and under his influence Mahan became one too, but that was not the rationale that they or Tracy put forward for building a battlefleet.

In this regard Mobley might have drawn upon Robert Mullins’s The Transformation of British and American Naval Policy in the Pre-Dreadnought Era: Ideas, Culture and Strategy (2016), which makes clear the degree to which the latter borrowed from the former.(8) Mahan’s strategic vision was shaped by the proposed curriculum for the NWC drawn up in 1884 by Luce, Sampson, and Goodrich. But Luce’s appreciation of the centrality of historical study to adumbrate timeless strategic verities came not from his own fertile intellect but instead from the influence and example of British scholar John Knox Laughton, the pioneer of rigorous naval history for precisely that didactic purpose.(9) More critically, in this context, American naval thinkers of the 1880s and 1890s largely adopted Britain’s naval strategy despite its lack of applicability to their country’s geostrategic circumstances.

Mullins’s study reveals another parallel between the development of strategic consciousness in the Royal and US navies. Very much the same struggle between technocrats and their opponents took place in Britain. The similarities indeed are strikingly: Mobley’s “mechanists” had their near-exact counterparts in the Royal Navy’s “material” school and his “strategists” theirs in its “historical” school. The terms employed are different, but the attitudes they represent were closely aligned, as is evident in the works of historians including Mullins, Arthur J. Marder, and Andrew Lambert.

Reviewers should ever be wary of falling into “this isn’t the book that I would have written” trap, and the foregoing observations should not be taken to suggest that Mobley’s study should have been something else. As an examination of the competing modernizing discourses within the US Navy and the course and outcome of that competition it is exemplary. Those in search of a broader perspective can easily consult other works, but it is essential reading for anyone interested in the navy’s fin de siècle strategic and matériel transformation.


(1) O’Brien, British and American Naval Power Politics and Policy, 1900-1936 (1998) : 53-62, 223.

(2) Shulman, Navalism and the Emergence of American Sea Power 1882-1893 (1995) : 130.

(3) Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (1972) : 387.

(4)Quoted in Robert E. Mullins, The Transformation of British and American Naval Policy in the Pre-Dreadnought Era : Ideas, Culture and Strategy: (ed. John Beeler, 2016) : 212. Emphasis added.

(5) For the latter, see Julian S. Corbett’s Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911) and Colin S. Gray’s The Leverage of Sea Power (1992).

(6) Quoted in Mullins, The Transformation of British and American Naval Policy in the Pre-Dreadnought Era : 258.

(7) Shulman, Navalism and the Emergence of American Sea Power : 99-100.

(8) In the interest of full disclosure, I edited Dr. Mullins’s book.

(9) See Andrew Lambert, The Foundations of Naval History John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy and the Historical Profession (1998) : 30.



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