Building the Military-Industrial Relationship: The U.S. Navy and American Business, 1854-1883

Article excerpt

FOR MUCH OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, the United States Navy wrestled with the problem of incorporating new and essential technologies into the fleet. Rapid advances in naval science created managerial problems as the naval bureaucracy tried to figure out how to incorporate technologies like steam propulsion, iron cladding, and steel warship design without losing control over the shipbuilding process. A lack of basic facilities and technical sophistication forced the Navy to turn to private companies for much of this technology, which in turn compelled the service to alter its administrative practices in an effort to maintain control over the construction of its warships. The forced interaction and modified administrative procedures created closer ties between the Navy and private industry that ultimately produced the nascent militaryindustrial complex of the 1880s and 1890s.

The Navy dabbled in modernizing the fleet with steam technology during the 1830s and 1840s, but the political climate would not support much experimentation. Things began to change in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Bolstered by the emerging doctrine of Manifest Destiny, Southern hopes of a slave empire in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the spirited politics of "Young America," naval expansion became more acceptable to a broader spectrum of the country's populace. Young America in particular breathed new life into a stagnant foreign policy, with its efforts to increase America's standing in the world community. The Navy became an obvious instrument for the accomplishment of its goals, and for the first time in many years the growth of the fleet became politically feasible.'

Still, there were problems not so easily fixed by the changing winds of politics. The steam technology that powered modem war vessels was in a constant state of flux. Even the professional engineers of the Navy Department found it difficult to keep up with each new advance, and they preferred to make recommendations about equipment only after careful study and comparison. No universally acknowledged design for steam power plants yet existed; each ship's engine was a unique piece of machinery, attuned to the peculiarities of that particular vessel. A team of engineers might agree on the basic components, but each vessel had its own idiosyncrasies. Such an approach almost guaranteed mistakes and miscalculations, as was the case with well publicized failures of USS Allegheny, Princeton, and San Jacinto.

The Navy completed the Allegheny in 1847 as an experimental vessel mounting the Hunter wheel, an internal horizontal paddle wheel that proved a remarkable failure. The ship was rebuilt in 1851-52 as a conventional screw steamer and rejoined the fleet, but it never performed satisfactorily, one journal reporting it "completely disabled . . . in her first engagement with the enemy (wind and tide and fair weather)." Repairs made during active service and the alterations made in 1851-52 added over $150,000 of work to a vessel that originally cost $242,595.92.

The Princeton was a rebuilt version of a vessel originally designed by John Ericsson. Constructed at the Boston Navy Yard, it faced delay after delay as the engine builders and the Navy argued about the installation of the machinery. Part of the problem stemmed from the Secretary of the Navy at the time, William A. Graham, who never fully understood the implications of steam warships and exercised insufficient leadership when strong direction was sorely needed. When the ship was finally launched in November of 1852, its steam plant proved such a disappointment that the ship was taken back to port and "put in the hands of the doctors; but this time a change has been made in the practice, and there is some hope for the better, although but little can be expected where the patient has suffered so badly from malpractice." The Princeton retired soon after from active service and ended its career as a receiving ship. …