The officer corps of the Old Navy had suffered mightily from the effects of long stagnation. Large numbers of new officers during and after the Civil War and the subsequent gradual decline of the fleet had left them with fewer and fewer ships in which to serve. Promotion was strictly by seniority, but advancement to the top positions was effectively blocked by the presence of men who had achieved rapid promotion during the war and who had many more years to serve before reaching the age of mandatory retirement. In the meanwhile, the Naval Academy continued to turn out more new officer candidates than were vacancies. In 1882, with only thirty one ships in service, there were 1, 817 officers on active duty, one for every five seamen. Far too many had to be assigned to shore billets where duties were unchallenging if not downright trivial. Others sought duty with the Revenue and Lighthouse Services or the Coast Survey. Favoritism and the open solicitation of desirable orders were the rule of the day.

In legislation enacted into law in August 1882, which also included provisions for the creation of the New Navy, Congress attempted to cut back the swollen ranks of officers by reducing the authorised numbers in grade, curtailing the size of the Naval Academy and limiting new appointments to the number of actual vacancies. This meat axe approach reduced the rolls somewhat but further slowed down promotion and increased the age of command, and the personnel situation remained unsatisfactory for many more years.

An event of profound importance to the professional development of the Navy’s officers occurred in 1884 when Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler established the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, on recommendation of a few forward looking officers. Despite dogged opposition from old-line traditionalistsand some bitter personality clashes, the college gradually built up strength under Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce and Captain Alfred T. Mahan. Although Mahan’s opponents succeeded in ordering him to sea and even shutting down the college in 1890 and 1891, the institution came to life with renewed vigor when one of its former instructors, Professor James R. Soley became Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Benjamin F. Tracy in 1892. From then on it enjoyed permanent staff and adequate facilities, growing in importance and imprinting its philosophy of rational study to naval and political science on generations of senior officers.

In 1891 Secretary Tracy launched an investigation that identified the principal causes of officer promotion stagnation, but dissention within the service blocked immediate reform. Rivalry between the line and staff corps, especially the Engineer Corps was growing more and more virulent. The grievances of the engineers dated back to 1869 when Vice Admiral David D. Porter high handedly pushed through a series of measure downgrading the rank and status of the steam engineers and other staff corps. With the subsequent ascendency of modern technology in the new ships of the Steel Navy, the engineers and constructors pressed for comparable recognition in the form of positive rank in place of the old staff titles, and promotion opportunity equal to the line. The engineers were supported by their professional counterparts in civilian life ans ultimately in 1897, by outspoken Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. in Roosevelt’s view the duties of a modern Navy required that line and staff officers alike have a sound practical knowledge of science and engineering. “Every officer in a modern war vessel in reality has to be an engineer whether he wants to or not” he declared. “What is needed is one homogeneous body, all of whose members are trained for the efficient performance of the duties of the modern line officer.”

A Naval Personnel Board reduced this philosophy to specific recommendations which, while delayed in Congress by the outbreak of war in 1898, were written into law in March of the next year. A general pay increase sweetened the pill for the old-liners, who were forced to grant positive rank to the staff officers and accept provisions for early retirement, both forced and voluntary. The rank of Commodore was abolished to shorten the climb to flag rank. The Engineer Corps was amalgamated into the line, all naval cadets were henceforth to be educated in both deck and engineering assignments, and regular line officers were to stand normal tours of duty in the engineering departments aboard ships. Officers of the former Engineer Corps who were above the rank of commander were designated for shore duty only, while others were given the option of taking up to two years to pass qualification examinations for line status, a change that many elected not to take. The law also provided for a corps of 100 warrant machinists to take over a number of the routine engine room watch standing duties. The technical functions of ship and machinery design, however, were reserved for specialists selected from the line for advanced study. Beginning in 1901 a postgraduate course in naval construction was established at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to replace previous education in Europe and at the Naval Academy, and in 1902 this was augmented by a similar postgraduate course in engineering at Annapolis.

Age in command continued to be a nagging problem. in 1903, fifty seven years of age was the average on taking command of a battleship, and it was not uncommon for senior officers to be incapacitated for duties afloat because of chronic illness. In 1908 the famous Rear Admiral Roblet D. Evans was forced to relinquish command of the battle fleet on its world cruise because of rheumatism and stomach trouble. For many more years a seesaw struggle was waged between those who wanted to institute promotion by selection after a fixed period in grade, and those who would have preferred to speed up the flow of promotion by lowering the age of retirement.

In 1901 a long standing barrier fell when Congress authorised the appointment of six new ensigns annually from the warrant officer ranks. While this number was so small as to be insignificant, the action was never-the-less a major breakthrough for the future advancement of enlisted men. A few years later another ancient tradition was broached by the authorisation in 1908 of a female Nurse Corps.

The basic correction for officer deficiencies  had to come ultimately from changes in the Naval Academy at Annapolis, where for years naval cadets had been educated along traditional lines, their classroom instruction leavened by seagoing cruises under sail and steam, and by local operational training in monitors and torpedo boats. As a first major step, the Academy’s facilities, which had fallen into disrepair along the rest of the Old Navy, were thoroughly rehabilitated between 1898 and 1907 with a $10 million building programme.

The old traditions were not all easily shucked off. In 1903 the Superintendent of the Academy, Captain Willard H. Brownson, was forced to air some dirty linen when it was disclosed that “hazing of a serious character” had been carried out by midshipmen “in defience not only of the orders of the Navy Department but also of the laws of Congress.” This incident was followed by by yet another public scandal in 1905 when a midshipman was killed in a fist fight. The authorities had to admit that such activities, while “highly objectionable and essentially unmilitary,” were long standing customs.

In 1902, when the shortage of officers reached dangerous proportions, Congress belatedly expanded the input to the Academy by extending the privilege of midshipman appointments to U.S. Senators, a prerogative previously limited to the President and members of the House of Representatives. The following year the number of appointments per Senator and Representative was increased from one to two, and by 1906 enrollment at Annapolis had grown to 879, nearly three times that at the turn of the century.

The famous round-the-world cruise of the “Great White Fleet” long planned by President Theodore roosevelt and carried out in 1907-’09 was actually conceived as much as a training exercise as a show of force. For the firt time new officers, new enlisted men, and new ships would be able to perform major fleet operations. Although the ships came home to face rapid technological obsolescence, the officers and men were on the way to being welded into a homogeneous force capable of leading and fighting a new Navy that would be second to none.

The above is excerpted and abridged from The American Steel Navy, by CDR John D. Alden, USN (Retired)

Though a Naval Academy education was free and sons of poor families were sometimes appointed, Secretary Daniels feared that ambitious young men who lacked political connections would seldom get tapped. In 1914 Daniels won from Congress the power to appoint 15 enlisted men to the Naval Academy each year. By 1918 the number had grown to 100, and in 1919 the navy opened preparatory schools in Norfolk and San Diego to provide special coursework for promising bluejackets preparing to take the Naval Academy entrance exam.

USNA-Mother B

Bancroft Hall, US Naval Academy

Officers and enlisted men took their meals in separate spaces. Officers enjoyed the privacy of the wardroom, an area off-limits to enlisted (sailors). Below  is the wardroom dining room of the cruiser USS Brooklyn. Officers sit around a table complete with glass, silverware, tablecloth, and china. Stewards — usually African-Americans or foreigners (mostly Asian) — stand at the ready. Under this photo is “Officers’ Country” on board the cruiser OLYMPIA, photographed in 1898. This private space — off limits to enlisted men — features comfortable lounge chairs, and cushioned seating surrounding the armoured barbette (turret support). Lining the wood paneled bulkheads are private staterooms for each officer. The entryway to one of these staterooms can be seen open at right. At the far end, light can be seen streaming in from a wooden skylight and hatch.

BROOKLYN-Wardroom Dining Room

BROOKLYN-Wardroom Dining Room

OLYMPIA-Senior Officers Wardroom_99_Crop

OLYMPIA Senior officer’s wardroom staterooms.

OLYMPIA-Wardroom Dining Room_99_Crop

OLYMPIA Senior officer’s wardroom dining room.

OLYMPIA-Wardroom ladder and hatch_99_crop

OLYMPIA Senior officer’s wardroom staterooms.

OLYMPIA- Junior and Warrant Officer's Wardroom Mess.

OLYMPIA- Junior and Warrant Officer’s Wardroom Mess.

Commissioned Officer’s Pay 1918

(Annual salaries)

Admiral in Command of Fleet  $10,000

Vice Admiral (Second in command of Fleet) $9,000

Rear Admirals- First nine (or Commodore) $8,000

Rear Admirals- Second nine (or Commodore) $6,000

Captain $4,000

Commander $3,500

Lieutenant-Commander $3,000

Lieutenant $2,400

Lieutenant, Junior Grade $2,000

Ensign $1,700 with allowances.

Many Thanks to Dave Colamaria for permission to use content from The Steel Navy.

Convergent Corps: Line Officers, Staff Officers and the Modernization of the U.S. Navy

By Zach Kopin

The age of steam introduced a new type of officer on board United States Navy ships, the boiler engineer. This officer, originally unschooled in the art of naval tactics (this would later change as the Naval Academy began to train its own engineers), was not eligible for command of ships. This arrangement was not unusual for the time. Other staff officers, such as surgeons and pursers, while having been granted assimilated rank in 1846 and 1847 respectively, did not serve in the line of command. That, however, did not make the engineer’s job insignificant. It was the engineer’s task to keep the ship moving and maneuvering in combat.

In the last half of the nineteenth century, the lack of coaling stations abroad meant that, for the U.S. Navy, fuel was in short supply. It was, therefore, common practice to cruise under sail and steam into battle. This, however, subverted the “normal” order of things.

Previously, when ships sailed under wind power alone, it was the captain’s job, as the most experienced officer aboard, to direct his ship through storm and doldrum, battle and diplomatic mission. The existence of the engineer, who controlled a ship’s ability to maneuver during engagements, limited the control of the line officers. As can easily be imagined, the latter did not enjoy the loss of control.

So, when the staff officers, specifically the engineering corps, sought to be assimilated into the regular officer corps, the line officers resisted.

The staff officers of the engineering corps took offense at this assertion. They responded in an unsigned, undated, paragraph by paragraph, published rebuttal; each claim rebuked, each fear assuaged. The most significant of these was the assertion that the staff officers made no claim to being superior to the executive officer, only superior to those of lesser rank, all serving at the pleasure of the commanding officer.

This issue continued to fester for several more decades, compounded by a bloated officer corps in the wake of the downsizing of the US Navy fleet following the Civil War, –until the passage of the Naval Reform Act of 1899. That act, whose first line stated its goal was “to increase the efficiency of the personnel of the Navy…”, addressed the issue by folding the engineering corps into the chain of command, thereby completing the process of assimilation. This compromise, which both addressed the line officer’s desire to clarify the chain of command and the engineer’s desire to be treated the same as any other ranking officer, seemed to resolve the issue, ending a period of resentment between the various officer communities dating back to before the Civil War. While this may seem simple and logical to the modern mind, at the time it was a radical move. To this day other navies, such as the Royal Navy, still maintain separate engineering officer corps with no shared command responsibility. Nor did this necessarily relax the line officer’s antipathy towards engineering. As late as the First World War Admiral Samuel Robison advised Lieutenant Commander Chester Nimitz to redirect his energies from engineering and technology to leading and organizing men. This, however, is understandable as Robison was one of the old sailors from a time of the unassimilated corps.

In the post-World War II, Cold War era, the increasing complexity of the engineering plants aboard Navy ships, and repeated, high-visibility failures of ships to meet operational requirements because of engineering failures, led the Navy to require prospective commanding officers to complete engineering officer of the watch qualifications before they could be considered qualified for command. Furthermore, once ordered to command, those prospective COs were further required to attend the nuclear navy-inspired “Senior Officer Ship Material Readiness Course, or “SOSMRC” before assuming command. The engineer officers of the 1890s would surely have enjoyed the spectacle of their line officer comrades lighting fires under boilers, sounding fuel tanks, checking lubrication levels and performing the myriad tasks inherent in running a power plant. In a sense, their assimilation into the line officer community was now matched by the line officers’ assimilation into the engineering community!

If you are interested in reading the letter that first articulated this dispute, you can download a digital version here.

The Naval Historical Foundation recently acquired this historical document from 1878, and generously donated it to the Naval History and Heritage Command’s rare book and document collection in the Navy Department Library. This document, a letter addressing the nineteenth century debate between staff officers and line officers, completes a pair, as the staff officer’s response to the letter is already in the collection. The acquisition of this document enhances the ability of naval historians to understand the thoughts and concerns of the officer corps during the post-Civil War period.

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