SPECIAL - A Journey in Time

By Fred Schultz

In Washington, the House of Representatives began investigating shady business dealings between high government officials and financiers of the completed Union Pacific Railroad, and Tammany Hall Boss William M. Tweed was standing trial in New York City for corruption.

Grasshoppers were plaguing the West, and Congress passed an act prohibiting what apparently had itself become a plague in the eyes of the Society for the Suppression of Vice—obscene literature by mail. Meanwhile, in Vienna, Austria, the buzz permeating its international trade exhibition concentrated on the first public demonstration of ways to harness something called electricity.

By that autumn, just over eight years had passed since the end of America's Civil War, a watershed event in the technology of war. It was an especially pivotal point in naval history, when ships made of iron and propelled by steam had completely changed the complexion of naval warfare. The romantic old image of iron men in wooden ships had practically vanished before the eyes of the world.

But now, the U.S. naval services were warily watching as the nation's focus rapidly shifted from the construction of new warships and weaponry toward more peacetime commerce. Perhaps the most obvious hint came that year, when executives at the Remington Fire Arms Company, the country's oldest maker of guns and ammo, decided to start manufacturing typewriters, too. America was turning its attention inward.

Republican President Ulysses S. Grant was into his second term. Even though Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Dakota (not yet North and South), Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington were still only territories (Hawaii was its own kingdom at the time), the nation's gaze was expanding westward, with 35,000 miles of new railroads eventually crisscrossing the continent. That summer, however, the American economy was unraveling.

What was later called the Panic of 1873 precipitated one of the longest recessions in U.S. history and caused thousands of businesses to fail. A series of events had led to the panic, not the least being an equine flu epidemic that spread in late 1872 from Canada to Cuba and across the United States.

The virus infected and debilitated nearly all the nation's horses. Thousands even died from the outbreak. Cavalrymen in the West were forced to fight on foot, raw materials went undelivered to factories, garbage went uncollected, and men were forced to pull streetcars through the large Eastern cities.

Fortunately, the epidemic subsided after a cold winter, but the shaken economy continued its downward spiral. In September, the Philadelphia investment firm Jay Cooke and Company, which had overestimated the money it had on hand to invest in building the as-yet-unfinished Northern Pacific Railroad, was forced into bankruptcy. Two days later, the panic closed the New York Stock Exchange for ten days, and the resulting recession—actually more like a depression—lasted through most of the 1870s.

The nation's economic woes meant even less funding available to build and sustain ships and other war materiel and to train recruits. While American troops had been sent on two occasions in 1873 to protect American interests in Panama, a naval reform movement was afoot at home.

Among those spearheading the effort were Captain Stephen B. Luce from his station at the Boston Navy Yard and Lieutenant Charles Belknap at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Both were advocating a modern, adequately trained Navy nearly two decades before Alfred Thayer Mahan emphasized the importance of command at sea in his celebrated book, The Influence of Seapower upon History .

On the crisp Thursday evening of 9 October 1873, 15 active-duty members of the Sea Services navigated the gaslit streets of Annapolis to the U.S. Naval Academy's Department of Physics and Chemistry building for what turned out to be a historic gathering.

Lieutenant Belknap had assembled the group, a diverse collection of commanders, lieutenant commanders, and lieutenants, a Marine captain, a chief engineer, a medical director, and a pay inspector.

At 1945, by oil lamplight, Academy Superintendent Rear Admiral John Worden, former skipper of the USS Monitor , the ironclad ship that had changed everything, called to order the first meeting of an organization to support the naval reform movement. It would promote "the advancement of professional and scientific knowledge in the Navy" and be called the U.S. Naval Institute.

We hereby propose a toast to the 135th anniversary of this American institution.

Mr. Schultz is senior editor of Proceedings and Naval History .

 

 

 
 

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