Home Squadron

The U.S. Navy on the North Atlantic Station

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This study examines the transformation of the United States Navy as a fighting organization that took place on the North Atlantic Station between 1874 and 1897. At the beginning of this period, the warships assigned to this station were collectively administered by a rear-admiral, but were operationally deployed as individual units, each of whose actions were directed by their captains. By 1897 the North Atlantic, or “Home” Squadron as it was known, was a group of warships constituting a protean battle fleet – that is, an organized body moving and fighting in close-order, which meant that the actions of the captains were directed by a commanding admiral.

The process of the development of an American battle fleet resulted in the construction of a new organizational identity for the North Atlantic Squadron. This process was as critical as the eventual outcome. It was not linear, but one in which progress in critical areas was modulated by conflicting demands that caused distraction. From 1874-1888, exercises in fleet tactics under steam were carried out sporadically utilizing existing wooden cruising vessels. From 1889-1894, the last wooden cruisers were decommissioned and the Squadron consisted entirely of new steel warships. Ad-hoc concentrations of vessels for purposes besides exercise and training retarded the continued development of doctrine and tactics necessary for a multi-ship fighting capability during this time. However, much work was done to develop a concept of multi-ship operations. From 1895-1897, the identity of the North Atlantic Squadron as a combat unit solidified. Tactical exercises were held that had specific offensive and defensive wartime applications. These exercises were necessary to develop a combat capability.

The results of this study demonstrate that the United States government had an interest in developing an offensive naval combat capability as early as the 1870’s. Based on the record of the North Atlantic Squadron, it is argued that imperial aspirations, in the sense of possessing a capability to restrict the actions of other great powers in the Caribbean region, existed prior to the War of 1898. However, the process of change often resulted in the appearance of capability without the rigorous exercise necessary to possess it.

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Editorial Reviews

"Home Squadron is an excellent addition to the literature on the history of the U.S. Navy.: The Nymas Review
"Rentfrow throws fresh light on the many senior officers, most today obscure, who helped shape the fleet's evolution in the period, such as Stephen B. Luce, Bancroft Gherardi, or John G. Walker. Particularly interesting is how these exercises fitted into the work of the fleet, and of the North Atlantic Squadron in particular. In the process, Rentfrow touches upon a surprising number of long-forgotten crises, from the 'Virginius Affair' through interventions in Panama, Haiti, and elsewhere, to policing fisheries, and on to the eve of the Spanish-American War, by which time the North Atlantic Squadron had become a capable combat force with a coherent doctrine. A volume in the series 'New Perspectives in Maritime History and Naval Archaeology,' Home Squadron is an excellent addition to the literature on the history of the U.S. Navy." The Strategy Page.com
"In his first historical monograph, Home Squadron, James Rentfrow explores the modernization of the US Navy in the period leading up to Spanish-American War (1898). He concentrates on changes in doctrine, strategy, tactics, and ship inventory that helped the Navy transition from a fleet of loosely governed wooden ships of sail operating independently and randomly, to a fleet of steam-powered steel warships working coherently as a singular fighting unit. Using the operational records of the North Atlantic Squadron (NAS) between the US Civil War and the Spanish-American War, the author attempts to clarify how the American Navy secured commercial interests abroad and took significant steps toward supremacy on the sea." Michigan War Studies Review
"The epilogue is a prime example of what conclusive chapter in a history book should be a review of facts elaborated in previous chapters that lead to the conclusion. Rentfrow even provides the arguments of other historians of how the transition occurred, comparing the changes in the U.S. Navy at the end of the 19th century to the challenges to today's Navy. He says the fight against global terrorism is forcing the Navy to consider change again to its strategy and tactics. Home Squadron...worthy to be included in any naval officer's library and especially used to study this most important part of the history of the U.S. Navy." The Daybook, Hampton Roads Naval Museum
"This book should be read by all those interested in the modern U. S. Navy. The author lays a solid foundation that allows student of naval history to comprehend the philosophical reasoning that shaped the interwar fleet exercises and the development of the office of the Chief of Naval Operations." Journal of America's Military Past
"The development of the U.S. Navy between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War is only lightly chronicled, and this book goes a long way in adding weight as it describes the U.S. Navy's transition from wooden steam- and wind-powered ships to armored steel steamships, and from a patrol force to a true battle fleet, setting the stage for a world-class navy in the 20th century." Seapower
"Exhaustive notes, a bibliography, and an index round out this exceptional addition to nautical and military history shelves, highly recommended especially for college library collections." The Midwest Book Review
"This is a vital, seldom analyzed period of our Navy's growth and author Rentfrow gives the topic the scope and insight it deserves." Sea Classics
"Cdr. James Rentfrow's Home Squadron fills a critical gap in our understanding of the evolution of the modern Navy. A superb analytical effort, it conveys within a flowing literary style the story of the critical years of the Navy's other inter-war period, when it finally transitioned from wood and sail to steel and steam, developing all new tactics and maneuvers along the way. Rentfrow also examines the critical personalities who weighed in to pull the Navy out of the doldrums to set the stage for the United States' emergence as a great power in the twentieth century. This is a strong effort that I am sure will become a trusted reference for scholars of the period." Capt. Henry J. Hendrix, USN, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command
"Rentfrow's study surveys from a hitherto-unexplored angle the U.S. Navy's transformation during the 1880s and 1890s from a maritime constabulary, commerce-raiding, and coast defense force into a battlefleet intended to meet and fight similarly structured forces. He sheds new light on the critical role played by Stephen Bleecker Luce in the Navy's modernization, but he did not act alone. Officers within the Navy's intellectual vanguard, including John Grimes Walker, played a crucial facilitating role, first from within the Navy Department and, following Luce's retirement, as an operational commander himself. While Luce's name is widely known to naval historians, Walker's has languished in obscurity. Rentfrow's valuable work should correct that state of affairs." John Beeler, professor, University of Alabama and author of British Naval Policy in the Gladstone-Disraeli Era, 1866-1880, and Birth of the Battleship: British Capital Ship Design, 1870-1881
"Sailor-scholar James Rentfrow has done us all a great service by chronicling and analyzing the historical roots of the current U.S. Navy's intensely operational nature. Multiship warship exercises, operations, and tactics at sea may be the hallmarks of our modern naval force, but their origins in the late nineteenth century have strangely never been comprehensively examined until now. Anyone involved in contemporary strike group operations of any navy will gain from learning how it all began, and why." Capt. Peter M. Swartz, USN (Ret.), principal research scientist, CNA