At the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy was one of the largest in the world and, with its ironclads and advancements in ordnance and engineering, was on the cutting edge of technology. But within five years the number of ships had fallen from 700 to a mere 52, accompanied by nearly consequent technological retardation. The distractions of postwar reconstruction and westward expansion were among the chief causes, but for those who understood that the United States was, and always had been, a maritime nation, this decline was unacceptable.
Within the Navy itself, a promotion system based on seniority alone brought stagnation to the officer corps, with many gray-haired lieutenants despairing of advancement. While most officers accepted their lot, employing the age-old sailor’s grumble as their only offensive weapon, a radical few were unwilling to be so passive, choosing instead to invoke the same determined spirit that had made “Don’t Give Up the Ship” a credo for their culture.