Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The United States Navy and the Genesis of Maritime Education

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The United States Navy and the Genesis of Maritime Education

Article excerpt

IN THE SECOND HALF OF the nineteenth century, reform-minded officers in the U.S. Navy took part in a unique civil-military experiment in maritime education. Citing a symbiotic relationship between the navy and the merchant marine, seafarers from both the commercial and naval fleets joined forces between 1874 and 1902 to develop a formal system of nautical training for future merchant marine officers. In addition to their advocacy for the New Navy, such officers as Stephen B. Luce, Robert Phythian, French Ensor Chadwick, and William S. Sims played an active, if forgotten, role in establishing the three original state nautical schools: the New York Nautical School (established 1874), the Pennsylvania Nautical School (established 1889), and the Massachusetts Nautical Training School (established 1890). These schools represented a radical departure from the prevailing wisdom of learning the ropes at sea. Instead, in the rapidly transforming maritime world at the turn of the twentieth century, active-duty naval officers became school ship instructors in order to instill seamanship, engineering, and naval discipline into a new generation of merchant mariner officers.

The most articulate and effective spokesman for maritime education was Luce. He maintained a firm belief in education as a means of enhancing the personnel and professionalism of the naval service in a time of technological change and encouraged the officers around him to do the same.1 Luce is best known for the 1863 publication of Seamanship, the first textbook of its kind used at the United States Naval Academy; the creation of the United States Naval Institute in 1873; and the founding of the United States Naval War College in 1884.2 In addition, he wanted to apply his educational theories to the officers and men of the U.S. Merchant Marine, and he lobbied tirelessly in support of state nautical schools, the precursors of the United States Merchant Marine Academy. Like his more famous protégée, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Luce had carefully examined the relationship between commercial and military seagoing enterprise and national power and prestige. The call for commercial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century necessitated not only a larger merchant marine but also a larger navy to protect it.3 Conversely, a country's merchant marine could serve a quasi-military function as a naval auxiliary for a modern navy. In particular, Luce saw the personnel of the merchant marine as a potential ready reserve of sailors for the navy in wartime.4

Luce and fellow naval officers had good reason to worry about the overall health of the merchant marine. In the antebellum period, American ships had handled two-thirds of the nation's foreign trade. That figure dropped to one-third after the Civil War and showed no signs of improvement in the following decades. Confederate commerce raiders, skyrocketing insurance rates, the collapse of the cotton trade, sale to foreign owners, and requisitioning by the Union Navy all factored into the short-term decline of the U.S. merchant fleet. However, something more fundamental lay at the heart of the problem. The advent of the British transatlantic steamers signaled the end of the American sailing packet's reign. Advances in steam engineering and iron construction left the American wooden shipbuilding industry behind, while at the same time scarce postwar capital went into internal improvements and western railroad construction rather than maritime enterprise.5 America, it seemed, had gone west and abandoned the high seas.

Unable to compete with British steamers, American ship owners sold their vessels and got out of the business altogether. As the number of vessels in the U.S. registry declined, so too did the number of Americans willing to man them. Concerned about the influx of immigrants and foreigners into the navy and merchant marine, in 1872 Captain Luce ordered a statistical study of the crews of five naval ships serving in the Mediterranean Squadron. …

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