The operational commander of this force was the Secretary of the Navy, a political appointee and Cabinet member (the Navy went through six Secretaries during the 1800s, serving four Republican administrations—Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, and Harrison—and one Democratic one—Cleveland). Republicans controlled the Senate for the entire period, while the Democrats controlled the House for most of it. American domestic politics at the time were tumultuous, and the American economy went through cycles of boom and bust all through the decade. The great railroad buildup of the 1870s was ending, decreasing demand in the iron and steel industries, which were looking for new outlets for their products.
Meanwhile, the ships out on forward station kept busy—a bit. The screw sloop Ticonderoga returned from an around-the-world cruise, including a stop at a place never before visited by an American warship: the Persian Gulf. The Ticonderoga ’s skipper, Captain Robert Shufeldt, opened Korea to Western trade. A U.S. Navy expedition rescued a U.S. Army expedition from starvation in the Arctic. Squadron commanders landed forces of armed sailors and Marines to guard facilities, maintain order, and protect U.S. citizens and property in Alexandria, Egypt; Colombian Panama (twice); Inchon, Korea; and Haiti. The most serious naval crisis occurred in Samoa, where an American squadron faced off against Imperial German and British warships, only to be caught with most of the others in a dreadful hurricane that tragically sank two U.S. vessels. But that was about it, operationally. There wasn’t all that much for the U.S. Navy to do for its nation at sea in the 1880s, given the generally quiescent global environment, inward-looking domestic American politics, and stodgy state of much American naval technology.
All of that was about to change, however. A naval renaissance was beginning in America: An Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) was established in 1882, and the first U.S. naval attaché was assigned overseas. The next year, at the urging of a Naval Advisory Board, Congress authorized construction of four steel warships—three protected cruisers and a dispatch vessel—the first modern ships to enter the Fleet in almost two decades. In 1884 an Office of Naval Records and a Naval War College—the first in the world—were established. In 1886, Congress authorized two more protected steel cruisers (later reclassified as second-class coastal battleships), the Maine and Texas , and a Naval Gun Factory at the Washington Navy Yard. The decade ended with nine new additional modern cruisers authorized. A reborn U.S. Navy was on its way.
But it wasn’t there yet. Only the initial four steel ships had put to sea by the end of the decade, and they were often used as their predecessors had been, to cruise individually on forward stations. Meanwhile, a succession of North Atlantic Squadron commanders imaginatively tested the notion—when they could—that U.S. Navy warships needed to exercise and train together as tactical units, if they were to exert any real naval combat power (this very important story has just now been publicized by Commander James C. Rentfrow in Home Squadron: The U.S. Navy on the North Atlantic Station , Naval Institute Press, 2014).
Most prominent among those commanders was Stephen B. Luce, who began the decade as a captain and finished it as a rear admiral. Luce was a visionary, prolific, and persuasive leader and writer. During the 1880s, he published no fewer than six articles in Proceedings , all of them thought-provoking and recommendation-laden. One of them—“War Schools” (1883)—would change naval-officer education throughout the world forever. What is also striking about the period is the almost total lack of writings in Proceedings by any other serving flag officers, the two articles by ordnance expert and Naval Institute president Rear Admiral Edward Simpson excepted. No Secretaries of the Navy, no Bureau Chiefs, and no other squadron commanders deigned to put their thoughts in print at the time. (Contrast this with the May 2014 issue of Proceedings , where the CNO, two four-star fleet commanders, a brace of other admirals, and an influential member of the Navy’s civilian senior executive service all held forth—and not for the first time for most of them).
So who did all that thought-provoking in the 1880s? It was the lieutenants! Shades of the blogosphere of today! Lieutenants supplied fully half the Proceedings articles by line officers, responding to prize-essay contest announcements and contributing scores of technical articles as well. Indeed, lieutenants and ensigns accounted for two thirds of all line-officer contributions (including Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s younger brother, Lieutenant Dennis Mahan). Reflecting on and trying to improve their profession in print was certainly a young man’s game then. But there was also variety: Some engineers, a few foreigners, an occasional Army officer, several Naval Academy professors, et al. also contributed articles.
What did they write about? Lots of things, but chiefly about changing the nation’s use of naval power and about new technology. Lots on new technology, what former Naval Institute vice president Captain Mahan described in an 1888 article as “the mass of matter dealing with all sorts of mechanical and physical problems.” These articles were often beautifully illustrated with fascinating and informative line diagrams: Charts, ship designs, schemata of weapons, etc., some with foldouts. (The first photograph—and first advertisement—appeared in Proceedings in 1889.) There were only a dozen or so articles on naval history published in those years, and curiously with scant treatment of the Navy’s most recent experience with major joint combat campaigns and warfighting innovation: Civil War operations. Annual prize-essay topics focused writers on significant issues, including “The naval policy of the United States,” “The best method for the reconstruction and increase of the Navy,” ”What changes in organization and drill are necessary to sail and fight most effectively our warships of the latest type?,” and “The naval brigade” (what we would recognize today as amphibious and maritime security forces). A smattering of articles on navigation at sea, personnel and training policies, intelligence, the merchant marine, and other maritime topics provided variety and breadth to the decade’s ten volumes. There were few articles on current or recent operations, but then again, there weren’t all that many to write about.
Were there any blockbusters? Certainly. Here’s just a selection: Lieutenant Belknap’s “The Naval Policy of the United States” (1880); Lieutenant Murdock’s “The Naval Use of the Dynamo Machine and Electric Light” (1882); Ensign Rogers’ “The Bombardment of Alexandria” (1882); Assistant Naval Constructor Bowles’ “Our New Cruisers” (1883); Ensign Chambers’ “The Reconstruction and Increase of the Navy” (1885); Commander Hoff’s “A View of our Naval Policy and a Discussion of its Factors” (1886); Lieutenant Calkins’s “What Changes in Organization and Drill are Necessary” (1886); Lieutenant Hutchins’ “The Naval Brigade: Its Organization, Equipment and Tactics” (1887); Captain Sampson’s “Outline of a Scheme for the Naval Defense of the Coast” (1889); and everything by Rear Admiral Luce and Captain Mahan. The decade closed with Rear Admiral Luce’s “Our Future Navy” (1889), an article that occasioned rejoinders—foreshadowing today’s Proceedings “Comment and Discussion” entries—from an ensign, a lieutenant, a commander, and Captain Mahan.
The reader will have already recognized some of the other names, beyond Luce and Mahan. For if the Proceedings of the 1880s was hardly a mouthpiece for the mandarins of the naval establishment, it most certainly was a proving ground for future generations of naval leaders. Lieutenant Belknap went on to direct the Naval Overseas Transportation Service during World War I. Lieutenants Murdock and Hutchins (and Dennis Mahan) would retire as flag officers. Assistant Naval Constructor Bowles would be named Chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair. Ensign Chambers would become a founding father of U.S. naval aviation. Captain Sampson—a Naval Institute vice president and president—would achieve Spanish-American War fame as the victor of the Battle of Santiago.
Other prolific Proceedings authors of the 1880s also had bright futures: Lieutenant E. W. Very would invent the flare gun that bore his name. Lieutenant Seaton Schroeder would command the Atlantic Fleet as a rear admiral. Lieutenant French Ensor Chadwick would become a president of the Naval War College. Lieutenant Richard Wainwright, an author and also secretary-treasurer of the Institute, would be appointed Aide for Operations to the Secretary of the Navy, a forerunner to the position of Chief of Naval Operations. Lieutenant Royal R. Ingersoll would become a rear admiral and president of the Naval Ordnance Board during World War I. Commander Charles D. Sigsbee would serve as captain of the ill-fated USS Maine , as well as several subsequent warships. Ensign W. L. Rodgers would rise to vice admiral and command of the Asiatic Fleet. Lieutenant Albert Gleaves would retire with the rank of admiral, having commanded the crucial Cruiser and Transport Force during World War I. And so on.
But none of them had achieved such fame and glory in the 1880s. The decade closed in 1889, a year of becoming: for the Navy, its officers, and its professional journal. Change, however, was certainly in the air, and in the building yards, in the maneuvers of the North Atlantic squadron, in the sensational annual report of new Republican Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy, and in receptive congressional committees, where plans were afoot to authorize three true battleships, each a third again as large as the Maine and Texas and armed with centerline turrets. Transformational change was also in the offing on the writing desk of Captain Mahan, whose Naval War College lectures would be published the very next year as The Influence of Sea Power upon History . The world, the U.S. Navy, the Naval Institute, and Proceedings would never be the same again.