The establishment of the U.S. Naval Institute and Naval War College demonstrated that the U.S. Navy was undoubtedly the most progressive and least hidebound sea service in the world when the twentieth century began. But America’s naval destiny was not at all obvious on the eve of the war with Spain or, indeed, for many years thereafter.
For all its potential strengths, the officer corps was demoralized. It should occasion little surprise that, for all its progressive attitudes toward leadership, Annapolis was home to the sons of what critic Peter Karsten has labeled “the nation’s business and political elite of their age.” The generally high social position enjoyed by midshipmen entering Annapolis at the beginning of the twentieth century ensured that most if not all harbored serious professional ambitions. But promotion was based strictly on seniority and was extremely slow. When a new personnel law was finally enacted in 1899, “many ensigns up to 11 years in grade, and lieutenants of 22 and more years seniority were promoted.” In these mournful circumstances, few officers could be expected to maintain a consistently high professional interest, and it was to their lasting credit—and a reflection of the intrinsic fascination of their profession—that such a large proportion in fact did so. Still, the system was a scandal, and all knew it. Reform was imperative, and by 1916 the navy had developed a system based on commanding officer fitness reports; examining, promotion, and retirement boards; and in extreme cases military courts. It was probably the fairest method that could be devised, although one critic caustically characterized it as “election, rejection, and selection.”
The slow pace of reform ensured a certain snobbish and hidebound attitude among many Annapolis graduates who vigorously fought efforts to enlarge the size and background of the officer corps by permitting enlisted men to seek commissions. Not until 1901 were provisions made to appoint up to a half dozen warrant officers a year to the rank of ensign, and only then if there were vacancies to fill after the commissioning of all academy graduates. Thirteen years later, Woodrow Wilson’s aggressively democratic secretary of the navy, Josephus Daniels, shepherded legislation through Congress providing for the selection of as many as fifteen enlisted men per year for admission to Annapolis, and thereafter the number gradually grew. Some writers have also criticized the Annapolis men for an excessive adherence to traditional warships and warship designs in the face of new realities such as the torpedo and the limited width of the Panama Canal that would in the future clearly circumscribe the historically dominant role of the battleship.
Nonetheless, the gradual reform of the promotion system reflected a wider movement for progress that paralleled the changes instituted by Jacky Fisher in the Royal Navy. Between 1901 and 1909 William S. Sims, Bradley A. Fiske, Homer Clark Poundstone, and a handful of others successfully agitated for major improvements in gunnery and ship design (though within the traditional battleship framework). Sims, the leader of the faction, had met both Percy Scott and John Jellicoe while on duty in Hong Kong at the turn of the century. Enthusiastically supported by Teddy Roosevelt, Sims and Fiske became the Scotts and Jellicoes of the U.S. Navy, while Poundstone was the driving force behind the all-big-gun battleships Michigan and South Carolina, which slightly preceded Dreadnought. Sims in particular applied Scott’s continuous-aim firing techniques, exploited new developments in fire control, and devised technologies of his own. By the end of the Roosevelt administration American naval gunnery was probably equal if not superior to that of Great Britain because of the perfection of such instruments as range clocks and range-deflection transmitters.
The training of enlisted personnel was as advanced as that of the officer corps. As the navy reached its nadir in the mid-1870s, Commodore Luce initiated a layered system of professional education for seamen that is still being used. Recruits, who generally enlisted at eighteen or nineteen for four to six years, first went to station ships for basic indoctrination before transferring to training vessels to learn gunnery and seamanship. In the 1890s the navy acquired property at Newport, Rhode Island, and on Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay for land-based training stations (although these facilities were not formally established for some years); later the service added stations at San Diego and Great Lakes, north of Chicago. As it slowly evolved in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, training for American sailors consisted of three stages: initial instruction on a station ship, a cruise on one of the vessels of the training squadron, and then assignment to one of the ships of the fleet until the apprentice reached his twenty-first birthday, at which time he could reenlist or be mustered out.
The spread-eagle patriotism that swept across the United States in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War stimulated a demand to man the navy with American citizens. During the Civil War the service had been filled with foreigners and newly arrived immigrants. Twenty years later the naval hierarchy began to search diligently not only in eastern cities but also in the towns and hamlets of the Midwest for intelligent boys of “native stock” to serve on the handful of steam and steel vessels that constituted the new fleet. Like their colleagues in the Japanese naval hierarchy, America’s admirals and navy secretaries wanted to spread the message and attractiveness of sea power to the most obscure corners of the nation. They also undoubtedly wanted to develop and maintain a navy composed largely of “native stock” at a time when immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were flooding the country. To induce enlistment by teenagers from respectable homes, the service promised to instruct apprentices in “the elements of English education, alternating with practical seamanship and other professional occupations designed to prepare them for sailors in the Navy.” In practice “English education” was subordinated to the demands of marlinespike seamanship, but the young men did find themselves in a clearly defined professional atmosphere. The navy also established advanced training programs for especially promising petty officers during their second enlistments. Classes for gunners and artisans began at the Naval Gun Factory in Washington, D.C., and somewhat later training courses in diving, electricity, and torpedoes were instituted at the Torpedo Station in Newport. When the electrician’s rating was established in 1898, new schools started in Boston and New York and on Mare Island north of San Francisco, and in 1902 a new artificer’s school opened in Norfolk. So important had engineering rates become by this time that the navy instituted special pay grades to attract and retain high-quality personnel.
Out in the fleet imaginative commanding officers set up their own regimens. The war with Spain revealed again that modern naval gunnery was extremely tricky and difficult to master. While British commanders were ordering their officers to throw practice shells overboard to avoid shooting them at targets, thus dirtying the white decks of His Majesty’s ships with shell smoke, their American counterparts began a practical course for gunners aboard the monitor Amphritrite. It was so successful that a school for firemen was soon organized aboard the cruiser Cincinnati. In 1909 Roosevelt could boast that his sailors were no longer the bluff, jolly, illiterate, profane marlinespike seamen of old but instead a new breed of “sea mechanics,” masters of the most advanced military technology in the world. Their officers generally treated them that way, realizing that there was an art to disciplining intelligent, well-trained young products of a society not far removed from its raw frontier beginnings and prizing personal independence over almost every other virtue.