Lest We Forget -Taking the Dare

From Proceedings Magazine – October 2011 Vol. 137/10/1,304

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

At the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy was one of the largest in the world and, with its ironclads and advancements in ordnance and engineering, was on the cutting edge of technology. But within five years the number of ships had fallen from 700 to a mere 52, accompanied by nearly consequent technological retardation. The distractions of postwar reconstruction and westward expansion were among the chief causes, but for those who understood that the United States was, and always had been, a maritime nation, this decline was unacceptable.

Within the Navy itself, a promotion system based on seniority alone brought stagnation to the officer corps, with many gray-haired lieutenants despairing of advancement. While most officers accepted their lot, employing the age-old sailor’s grumble as their only offensive weapon, a radical few were unwilling to be so passive, choosing instead to invoke the same determined spirit that had made “Don’t Give Up the Ship” a credo for their culture.

In the early twilight of 9 October 1873, the sounds of leather boots on cobblestones converged on one of the U.S. Naval Academy’s academic halls. Fifteen naval officers, ranging in rank from lieutenant to rear admiral, had come to “organize a Society of the Officers of the Navy for the purpose of discussing matters of professional interest.” Many of these men had known the “dangers of the sea and the violence of the enemy”—indeed, Rear Admiral John L. Worden had commanded the USS Monitor in her historic battle with the CSS Virginia, and Commander S. Dana Greene had been his executive officer. Now, armed with quills rather than swords, they were exhibiting a different kind of courage, risking not their lives but their livelihoods as they prepared do battle the complacency and conservatism of those in power during this discouraging and damaging era. A century earlier, John Adams challenged his fellow Americans to “dare to read, think, speak, and write” and these 15 were heeding that call.

No one is quite certain who first proposed the idea, but Commodore Foxhall Parker—who had fought on the Union side during the Civil War, while his brother had served as Superintendent of the Confederate States Naval Academy—chaired the organizing committee. He was aided by Lieutenant Charles Belknap and encouraged by Worden, who was then Naval Academy superintendent. The others who attended that inaugural meeting included a pay inspector, a chief engineer, a medical officer, two commanders, five lieutenant commanders, a lieutenant, and a Marine captain.

They chose the name United States Naval Institute, and within a year, one of their published papers had influenced congressional legislation to support state-sponsored Merchant Marine training, one of the early steps that eventually brought America out of its maritime doldrums.

An idea conceived in extremis did not ebb once the crisis had passed, and today the Naval Institute continues its mission of supporting the sea services in its own unique manner, still on the grounds of the Naval Academy, although now in a hall named for Captain Edward L. Beach (and his father), who once described the Institute as like “no other organ in any of the armed services of any nation” because it “jealously guards its editorial independence,” providing “a forum for free dissemination and discussion of ideas.”

We owe much to those initial 15 and even more to the many who have dared to follow in their wake: reading, thinking, speaking, and writing for 138 years . . . and counting.

Posted by Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired) in History, Naval Institute

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