United States Naval Academy and the U.S. Naval War College
On this day in 1845, the U.S. Naval Academy opened its doors to the first class of midshipmen in Annapolis, Maryland. The Naval Academy and the Naval War College are two important components in the Navy’s system of professional military education. Today we wish our sister school in Annapolis a happy 175th birthday and take time to explore the connection between our institutions.
Following sixteen years of growth and experimentation with its training program, the Naval Academy suddenly found itself facing a crisis in 1861. More than 100 midshipmen from southern states resigned to fight for the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War. Even worse, the Academy itself was in danger of being trapped in hostile territory if Maryland’s state government voted to secede. The Superintendent, Captain George S. Blake, wrote an urgent letter to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in April asking for instructions in case of an attack on the Academy. Welles authorized Blake to relocate the school to a northern port far away from danger. Blake chose Newport, Rhode Island for the Academy’s new home, though local leaders in Perth Amboy, New Jersey also made a pitch for their town.
Though classroom instruction suffered, the Academy’s leaders did their best to give the midshipmen practical experience that would prepare them for war. The upperclassmen drilled in artillery and infantry tactics on a field near Ochre Point, future site of the Vanderbilt family mansion The Breakers.
The plebes must have relished the days they were allowed to leave Constitution and train with 32-pounder guns on a sandy stretch of beach at Brenton’s Cove. After a one-year hiatus, practice cruises resumed in 1862. That year the midshipmen sailed in the safe waters of Long Island Sound, but the following summer they boarded three ships – Marion, Macedonian, and America – and crossed the Atlantic to visit ports in England, France, and the Azores. Fortunately, they did not encounter any Confederate raiders at sea.
One faculty member who worked diligently to educate midshipmen despite the challenging conditions in Newport was Lieutenant Stephen B. Luce. As head of the Department of Seamanship, Luce compiled the first textbook used at the Academy to teach that subject. Though Newport had its drawbacks, Luce believed that it was actually a better location for the Academy than Annapolis. Featuring a large, protected harbor with easy access to the ocean, Newport also provided midshipmen with opportunities to meet and learn from transatlantic sailors who stopped there much more frequently than Annapolis.
Blake and Luce both hoped that the Navy would keep the Academy in Newport once the war was over. One day while scouting locations around town for future expansion, the two men visited Coasters Harbor Island to determine if the old poor house situated there had any potential as a property for the Academy. Luce liked what he saw. Though he was disappointed when Congress directed the Navy to return the Academy to Maryland in 1865, he never forgot his favorable impression of the island.
Luce was reassigned to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in 1863 and commanded several warships during the last two years of the war. One of the formative experiences that shaped his thinking about navies and officer education occurred in January 1865 during the siege of Charleston. Luce met with General William Tecumseh Sherman and expressed his frustration with the Navy’s repeated failures to capture the city through a direct assault on the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Sherman replied that the Army would cut off the city from land and force it to surrender without a battle. His way of viewing the problem and identifying a solution impressed Luce who later described this moment as a personal revelation: “It dawned upon me that there were certain fundamental principles underlying military operations which it were well to look into; principles of general application whether the operations were conducted on land or at sea.”
Luce understood that the Navy needed a school to teach strategic thinking. The Naval Academy played an important role in supplying the fleet with junior officers, but it could not teach its graduates everything they needed to know about naval operations. The demands of an undergraduate curriculum combined with a rigorous seamanship training program left little time to delve into strategy, theory, and
the art of high command. For those who served long careers in the Navy and rose to the highest ranks, further training was necessary.
Luce wanted to create a school where naval warfare was treated as an academic discipline. He believed that by studying naval and military history, students could discover certain scientific principles that governed war. He got his wish in 1884 when Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler signed General Order 325 establishing the Naval War College on the site Luce recommended, Coasters Harbor Island in Newport. As he explained to his colleagues, the Naval War College was designed to take Naval Academy graduates in the middle of their careers and bring them back to school where they would have time to study war in a quiet, reflective setting. Luce’s vision was to create “a place of original research on all questions relating to war and to statesmanship connected with war, or the prevention of war.”
The principles of war that Luce wanted to teach were not well understood by the United States military in the late eighteenth century. Unlike the Naval Academy, Luce recognized that students and faculty at the Naval War College would be more on an equal footing where they would have to work with each other to develop a new body of professional knowledge for the Navy. From his experiences teaching at the Naval Academy and observing the strengths and weaknesses of officer education, Luce established a new school that worked hand-in-hand with the Academy to develop naval officers throughout their careers.
Naval War College Museum