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Special - 'The Voice of Mahan': The U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 1890–1899

By Captain Robert C. Rubel, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Captain Mahan served as President of the Naval War College from 1886-1889, and again from 1892-1893, publishing his epochal The Influence of Sea Power Upon History , 1660–1783, in 1890. In the second quarterly issue of 1893, Proceedings published “ The Practical Character of the Naval War College ,” his 1892 opening address. Mahan mocked naysayers of the college’s strategic-studies mission. He underscored the importance of the study of history and its lessons. He used Napoleon and his preparations for victory in the Battle of Marengo as a prime example. “The College,” Mahan said, “has been founded with a view to supply the preparation, by antecedent study, and by formulation of the principles and methods by which war may be carried out to best advantage.”

Later in 1893, Proceedings published “ Sea Power ,” a British editorial and column from the pages of the London Times and Fortnightly Review praising Mahan’s contributions. “Sea power, of course, has influenced the world in all ages,” the editors wrote, “So also has oxygen. Yet, just as oxygen, but for Priestley, might have remained until this day an indefinite and undetected factor, so also might sea power but for Mahan.”

Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt were good acquaintances and admired each other’s works. In 1897, Proceedings published Roosevelt’s Naval War College address on the need to be prepared for war, and his essay “ The Naval Policy of America as Outlined in Messages of the Presidents of the United States from the Beginning to the Present Day .” He quoted 13 Presidents, from Washington to Harrison, on the importance of the Navy, and he wrote: “To stop now would be to leave the work half done. But if we continue to build up our Navy for a few years to come, along the lines we have followed for the fifteen years immediate past, we shall, within a comparatively short period, place the United States where she should be among the naval powers of the world.”

In 1895, Proceedings published Mahan’s “ Blockade in Relation to Naval Strategy ,” reprinted from the Journal of the Royal United Service Institute . Naval strategy in the past, he wrote, has depended in part on the ability to maintain close blockade of hostile ports. Can such methods be maintained in the new era of steel, steam, and torpedo boats? Blockades are both offensive and defensive and still a part of naval strategy. The change is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

If naval greats were thinking and writing in these years, so were a host of young, talented officers rising in the ranks. Lieutenant Richard Wainwright published “ Fleet Tactics ” in 1890 on fleet rules of conduct in meetings of equal, superior, or inferior strength. If strategy was important, so were people. Lieutenant W. F. Fullam wrote on “ The System of Naval Training and Discipline Required to Promote Efficiency and Attract Americans ,” and the 1891 Prize Essay was on “ The Enlistment, Training, and Organization of Crews for Our New Ships ,” by Ensign A. P. Niblack.

In 1892, Lieutenant W. H. Driggs published “ The Driggs-Schroeder System of Rapid Fire Guns ,” giving a detailed description, with plates and photographs, of this new weapon—its design, construction, operation and ordnance load—joining the Fleet at the time of the new ABCD cruisers. Improved guns and armament were essential to the success of the new fleet. In 1895, Lieutenant A. A. Ackerman published “ Face-Hardened Armor ," an authoritative, 105-page study with photographs and sketches of this armor designed to smash the projectile without allowing penetration of the hull. In another technical essay, “ Elastic Strengths of Guns ,” Lieutenant J. H. Glennon examined the effect of firing on guns’ metal, the highest stresses straining the metal to its elastic limits, then the subsequent shrinking of the metal.

Young authors were highlighting other high-priority, technical issues. In his 1896 “ Electricity in Naval Life ,” Lieutenant B. A. Fiske urged greater attention by and education of naval officers on electricity and new shipboard uses such as steering by electric motors, electrical firing of guns, ships’ telephones, the helm indicator, the engine telegraph, and speed and direction indicator. Lieutenant Joseph Strauss published on the importance of new “ Telescopic Sights for Guns .” Lieutenant John Bernadou translated Russian Lieutenant M. Vasilieff’s paper on Russian experiments with “ Naphtha Fuel for Warships .”

With a view to learning from other navies and militaries, and to preparedness, Proceedings ’ authors kept a continuing eye abroad. In his 1895 Honorable Mention Prize Essay, “ A Summary of the Situation and Outlook in Europe ,” Assistant Naval Constructor Richmond Pearson Hobson examined the political issues and concluded that the nations were prepared militarily, and that “imminent war bids fair to involve all of the six great nations of Europe.” Marine Captain Richard Wallach’s Naval War College lectures on the war between China and Japan in 1894 were also reprinted.

In his 1898 Prize Essay, “ Esprit de Corps: A Tract for the Time s,” Captain Caspar F. Goodrich wrote that despite the incredibly good articles published down through the years in Proceedings , a monument to the wisdom of the founders, there had been no discussion of naval morale. He examined the reasons for waning esprit de corps, to include the low esteem in which going to sea is held. “A sense of patriotism and duty are vital to those in the Navy, as well as a sense of being part of a band of brothers.” In his Honorable Mention Prize Essay, “ Our Naval Power ,” Richard Wainwright, by this point a lieutenant commander, framed the state of the Navy in the late 1890s—its uses in time of war, the sea power required by the United States because of its geographical and political position, the line drawn between mobile and immobile coastal defenses, the balance between warships and fortifications, the fleet in being, and the strategic position of Hawaii and the Nicaragua Canal.

In late 1898 and 1899, the focus of Proceedings shifted dramatically. With the Navy victorious in its battles with the Spanish fleets off Santiago and in Manila Bay, and with the U.S. victorious in the Spanish-American War, a new chapter in the history of the U.S. Navy had opened. Author after author captured the details:

• Lieutenant E. E. Capehart on rendering Spanish minefields harmless, in ” The Mine Defense of Santiago Harbor

• Lieutenant F. K. Hill on commanding the USS Iowa ’s secondary battery during the late war with Spain, in “ The Secondary Battery

• Lieutenant R. C. Smith on the use of naval reserves aboard ships during the war, in “ Naval Reserves and Naval Volunteers

• “ Views of Admiral Cervera Regarding the Spanish Navy in the Late War ,” a translation of an article in La Epoca , provided by the U.S. Navy’s Chief Intelligence Officer, protesting Spain’s rushing into the war in the face of certain defeat

• “ Comments of Rear Admiral Pluddemann, German Navy, on the Main Features of the War With Spain ,” translated from Marine-Rundschau , and provided by the Chief Intelligence Officer

• Captain Caspar F. Goodrich on how the USS St. Louis had been modified to carry troops to Cuba in “ The St. Louis as a Transpor t”

• Lieutenant W. F. Halsey on the naval expedition after the surrender of Santiago to break up blockade running, in “ The Last Naval Engagement of the War

• Ensign W. S. Crosley on his experiences as a tugboat skipper during the war, in “ Some Experiences on a U.S. Naval Tug-Boat

• A 183-page official Spanish report, translated from the Spanish, on the war by the second in command of the naval forces of the province of Santiago de Cuba, in “ Battles and Capitulation of Santiago de Cuba

• Lieutenant Carlos G. Caulkins’ 53-page review of the naval campaign in the Philippines, in “ Historical and Professional Notes on the Naval Campaign of Manila Bay in 1898

• A report prepared by the intelligence officer on the USS Baltimore on “ The Effect of Gun-Fire, Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898

• Lieutenant R. H. Jackson on the prison built for Spanish captives after the naval battle of Santiago, in “ Seavey’s Island Prison and Its Establishment .”

This uniquely valuable documenting of the war reached its peak in 1899 when Proceedings published Admiral George Dewey’s official report on the Battle of Manila Bay , sent to the Secretary of the Navy from the flagship USS Olympia , Cavite, Philippine Islands, 4 May 1898.

Now, in its 25th year of publication, Proceedings was moving ahead at full speed, having helped to guide the Navy from its post-Civil War ebb to rebuilding, first triumph, and thinking, speaking, and writing that was trained on the 20th century.

Captain Rubel is currently the Dean, Center for Naval Warfare Studies, at the Naval War College. He is a retired naval officer who flew light-attack and strike-fighter aircraft. He is a graduate of the Spanish and U.S. naval war colleges and has written on a number of operational and strategic naval issues.


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