It was June Week 1879 at the U.S. Naval Academy, a time that normally would be marked by much happiness and loud celebration, but the only sounds were the somber tolling of a bell and the scuffing of boots on cobblestones as the cadet-midshipmen marched in formation to the funeral service honoring the Academy’s ninth Superintendent, Commodore Foxhall Alexander Parker Jr., U.S. Navy.
Commodore Parker had come to the Academy in ill health and had been superintendent for a little more than a year when he passed. His time in that office was unremarkable, but during an earlier tour of duty at the Academy he left his mark for a very different reason.
Across the Yard, in the unassuming headquarters of the U.S. Naval Institute, editors were busy preparing the obituary that would appear in the next issue of the Institute’s Proceedings magazine, lamenting the loss of its vice president. Parker had held the title by virtue of his Academy superintendency, but to the Naval Institute, he was most remembered as one of its 15 founders six years earlier. Indeed, although no one could remember with certainty whose idea it had been to create this unusual organization whose importance was already recognized and growing with each passing year, most attributed the original idea to Parker.
On 9 October 1873, responding to the call for a meeting issued by Navy Lieutenant Charles Belknap with the concurrence of Naval Academy Superintendent Rear Admiral John L. Worden, Parker and 14 other officers stationed at the Academy—ranging in rank from lieutenant to rear admiral and representing both line and staff corps—gathered in one of the academic buildings on the Yard. The original intent of the meeting is not entirely clear—some remembering it as a casual affair, others recalling more of a sense of purpose. Whatever the intent, the outcome was the establishment of an organization independent of the Navy whose purpose was defined in several ways over the ensuing years but has evolved to “provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to global security.”
The impetus for the gathering was a shared discontent with the state of the Navy. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Navy had entered a demoralizing period in which promotions were stagnant and the total number of ships had dwindled to 52, most of which were more suited to the 1840s rather than this period in which the other navies of the world were capitalizing on new technological advances, such as steam power, armor, and rifled guns.
Parker and the other members of this eclectic group could not have known that they had laid the keel for a truly unique and enduring organization that would provide an open and independent forum for constructive—if sometimes critical—discussions of matters of great importance to the Sea Services and the nation. For some—Lieutenant Belknap and Lieutenant Commander J. E. Craig, Pay Inspector James Murray, and Medical Director Philip Lansdale—their participation as founders would be their highwater mark in terms of posterity; the others were more widely known, either for deeds before that momentous meeting or for accomplishments thereafter.
No fewer than nine of these founders became rear admirals, four would serve as superintendents of the Naval Academy, several had combat experience in the Civil War and/or Spanish-American War, and three—Lieutenant Commanders Purnell E. Harrington, Caspar F. Goodrich, and Charles Jackson Train—played significant roles in developing the newly formed Naval War College while serving there with iconic naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan.
Commodore Parker was one of those with combat experience during the Civil War. At the commencement of hostilities, he had remained loyal to the Union, though his brother, William Harwar Parker, would serve the Confederacy, heading the Confederate States Naval Academy. Foxhall had served as executive officer of the Washington Navy Yard—helping defend Alexandria after the disastrous Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run. He also thwarted blockade runners as part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Parker later commanded the Potomac Flotilla that had fought Confederates in the Chesapeake Bay and on nearby rivers and later searched for President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin in waters near the capital.
Most famous of those Civil War veterans was Rear Admiral Worden, who had commanded the Monitor in her renowned battle with the ironclad Virginia. By coincidence, the Monitor’s executive officer, Samuel Dana Greene, had rejoined Worden at the Naval Academy and was a member of the founding group.
Marine Captain McLane Tilton, the only founder representing the Marine Corps, served in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron during the war, and Lieutenant Commander Philip Henry Cooper had been a midshipman who ranked fifth in his graduating class in 1863 and saw action during the blockade and the Battle of Mobile Bay. After subsequent years at sea and a previous assignment at the Naval Academy, Cooper returned to serve on the Academy staff in July 1872 and, a little more than a year later, was among those meeting on that fateful October night.
That first meeting set an early precedent by reviewing a professional paper presented by Commodore Parker on “The Battle of Lepanto.” This practice continued and resulted in the eventual publication of The Papers and Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute—later mercifully shortened to Proceedings—beginning in 1874 and continuing to this day. The first published volume included an essay by founder Chief Engineer Charles H. Baker on “Compound Engines” and two essays by Parker, one titled “Our Fleet Maneuvers in the Bay of Florida” and another that was likely appreciated by fellow founders Worden and Greene, “The ‘Monitor’ and the ‘Merrimac.’”
Besides Baker and Parker, three other founders published papers in the early issues of Proceedings. Samuel Dana Greene wrote three papers on the emerging technology of electricity, J. E. Craig contributed a paper on “Negative Reciprocal Equations,” and Charles Belknap, who had convened the inaugural meeting, published four essays, including the Prize Essay in 1880, “The Naval Policy of the United States.”
Foxhall Parker remained a prolific author, writing Fleet Tactics Under Steam, The Naval Howitzer Afloat, and other valuable texts used at the Naval Academy, as well as two histories: Fleets of the World and The Battle of Mobile Bay.
In the years following that first gathering in 1873, several of the founders left their marks in other notable ways. In addition to Worden, who was Naval Academy Superintendent at the Institute’s founding, three other founders subsequently returned to the Academy as superintendents: Parker (1878), Cooper (1894), and Willard H. Brownson (1902).
Cooper commanded numerous ships in the years following his founding tour as a lieutenant commander, including the screw gunboat Alliance while she was under repair, sloop-of-war Swatera in the Asiatic Squadron, protected cruisers San Francisco and Chicago, and the battleship Iowa. Interspersed among these sea tours, he served several times in the Bureau of Navigation, was a member of various courts-martial and courts of inquiry, and was a member of the Board of Inspection and Survey, overseeing the sea trials of the screw steamer Essex, the armored cruiser New York, the protected cruisers Detroit, Montgomery, and Columbia, and the gunboat Bancroft. Promoted to rear admiral in 1902, he held several commands in the Asiatic Fleet, assuming command of the entire fleet in 1904, where he served for several months before illness required his retirement.
After his founding tour as a lieutenant at the Naval Academy, Willard Brownson shipped off to the Asiatic Fleet before returning to the Academy as Assistant Commandant of Cadets in October 1878. Three years later, he joined the Coast and Geodetic Survey as a lieutenant commander, where he commanded the survey steamers Gedney and Blake. After brief duty as executive officer of the stern-wheeler steam frigate Powhatan from December 1884 until June 1885, Brownson served as Inspector of Hydrography for the Coast Survey.
Promoted to commander in 1891, Brownson commanded several ships, including the gunboat Petrel, the dispatch vessel Dolphin, and the cruiser Detroit at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the Brazilian Naval Revolt of 1893–94. During the Spanish-American War, he commanded the auxiliary cruiser Yankee, and then returned to the Naval Academy, this time as Commandant of Cadets. After serving on the Board of Inspection and Survey for two years, he was promoted to captain in March 1899 and took command of the battleship Alabama before returning yet again to the Naval Academy in 1902, this time as Superintendent.
Brownson was promoted to rear admiral in May 1905, and two months later he hoisted his flag in the armored cruiser West Virginia as Commander, Fourth Division, North Atlantic Fleet. The following year, he served as Commander, Special Service Squadron, in Central American waters before assuming command of the Asiatic Fleet. In May 1907, he became Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, where he took charge of the Navy’s personnel matters. After transferring to the retired list in July 1907, Brownson continued to serve in his post at the Bureau of Navigation until December. His impressive career ended when, against his advice, President Theodore Roosevelt decided to give command of hospital ships to Navy doctors. Brownson resigned in protest, setting off a storm of dissent within the Navy and from the public.
Caspar Goodrich, who had served with Mahan at the Naval War College, returned as its third president in 1892. Originating the Coast Signal Service in 1898, he then served as its director. During the Spanish-American War, he commanded the cruisers St. Louis and Newark and received the surrender of Manzanillo, Cuba, following that city’s bombardment.
In the years following, Goodrich commanded the Iowa, Richmond, Minneapolis, and Puritan at sea and served as Commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard (1900) and the Portsmouth Navy Yard (1903) before his promotion to the rank of rear admiral in February 1904. After three years as the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Squadron, he was Commandant of the New York Navy Yard until 1909, when he retired. Recalled to active duty during World War I, Admiral Goodrich served as officer-in-charge of the Pay Officers’ Material School at Princeton, New Jersey, until 8 November 1919, when he again stepped down from active duty, ending a 50-year naval career.
Charles Jackson Train was another Institute founder who served during the Spanish-American War, commanding the battleship Massachusetts during the blockade of Santiago de Cuba. Like Brownson, he served in the steam frigate Powhatan—they may have briefly overlapped—as well as sloops-of-war Jamestown and Constellation and the auxiliary cruiser Prairie. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1905 and, like several of the other founders, served in the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, taking command in March 1905 in time to participate peripherally as a neutral in the Russo-Japanese War.
Train planned to retire in May 1907, but he contracted what Westerners in China called “Chefoo” (uremia) while in Yantai and passed away on 4 August 1906. His memorial service on board his flagship—the battleship Ohio—was attended by Japanese Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō, who had recently achieved world renown as the victor of the Battle of Tsushima. Departing the Chinese harbor on board the steamer Empress of China, Admiral Train returned to Annapolis and was buried in the Naval Academy Cemetery within sight of Beach Hall, the headquarters of the Naval Institute.
Like Brownson and Train, Edward A. Terry had served in the steam frigate Powhatan, although much earlier (1866–67). As a commander, he was one of the more senior participants at the founding of the Naval Institute and, according to the notes kept during that singular meeting, had served as “acting secretary to further the objects of the association.” He had seen extensive action during the Civil War, engaging the Confederate ram Manasssas while on blockade duty, participating in artillery duels with Confederate shore batteries leading to the capture of New Orleans, running the gauntlet at Vicksburg, and serving with Rear Admiral David Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay.
After the founding meeting, Terry was appointed Commandant of Cadets before returning to sea, where he too served in the Asiatic Fleet. He fell ill and died a little over a year after the founding and, like Train, is buried in the Naval Academy Cemetery.
McLane Tilton had just returned from service in the Asiatic Squadron when, as a captain, he assumed command of the Marine Guard at the Naval Academy, joining the 14 Navy officers at the founding. While in the Far East, he had seen combat during a punitive expedition in Korea, when a combined force of Marines and “Bluejackets” had captured several Korean forts after they had opened fire on American survey ships in the Salee River. After Annapolis, Tilton continued a successful career that included commanding Marines at the Washington Navy Yard, the Marine Barracks at Norfolk, and as Fleet Marine Officer, European Station. He retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel in February 1897.
Already having left his indelible mark during the Civil War and at Annapolis, Admiral Worden commanded the European Squadron during the late 1870s, visiting ports in northern Europe and patrolling the eastern Mediterranean during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. He returned ashore and concluded his naval career as a member of the Examining Board and as President of the Retiring Board. When he retired on 23 December 1886, Congress voted him full sea pay in his grade for life. Rear Admiral Worden resided in Washington, D.C., until his death from pneumonia on 19 October 1897. After funeral services at Washington’s St. John’s Episcopal Church, he was buried at Pawling, New York.
Sixty years after the founding, two of the original 15—Willard Brownson and Purnell Harrington—were still alive and still members of the Naval Institute. Both were retired rear admirals, and each contributed letters that were published in Proceedings on the anniversary of its founding. Both confirmed the importance of the Navy to the nation’s wellbeing and endorsed the worth of the organization they had helped create in supporting the vital missions of the service.
In the 150 years since its founding, the Naval Institute has continued to grow in both size and mission. Two important magazines, thousands of books, and countless seminars have established the Institute as a uniquely beneficial and unofficial arm of the Navy, serving it, the other Sea Services, and the nation. Of all its achievements, arguably the most significant has been the provision of an open forum in which matters of vital importance can be introduced, pondered, and discussed, often leading to their implementation.
In October 1923, an article by Navy Lieutenant Commander Roy C. Smith Jr. appeared in Proceedings commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Naval Institute’s founding. The article quoted founder, prolific writer, and then–Rear Admiral Casper Goodrich:
We should all clamor for the desirability of an officer’s speaking out at will. . . . Encourage all, especially the youngsters to blow off their steam. . . . Doubtless much of this material will be useful only in letting a chap unburden his mind, but occasionally the Department will get a suggestion of importance which would never reach it through routine channels.
Admiral Goodrich’s words rang true even then and have echoed ever since as, time and again, ideas conceived in the pages of Proceedings or during Naval Institute seminars have come to fruition for the betterment of the nation. Smith’s article concluded with these words:
Admiral Goodrich’s view is one that we cannot but subscribe to, all of us, and the Institute should ever tactfully and gracefully work to that end. Within recent memory, times have arisen, and they may arise again, when we shall have to fight for this principle.