- Historic Sites
School For Sailors
A novelist and historian takes us on a tour of the Academy at Annapolis, where American history encompasses the history of the world.
April 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 3
The chapel as well as almost every building in the present Academy might never have been built if it were not for the genius of another historian. His name adorns a single nearby building, but his spirit presides over the entire school. Mahan Hall, formerly the school library, now used for visiting lectures and theatrical presentations, is named for Alfred Thayer Mahan, the austere scholar who rescued the American Navy from second-class status and made it and the Academy a permanent force in American life.
After the Civil War the Navy sank into what looked like terminal decline. It was a familiar, demoralizing story. The Continental Congress had beached the Continental Navy as soon as independence was won. (John Paul Jones wound up fighting for the Russians.) President Thomas Jefferson starved the Navy that fought the victorious quasi-war with France from 1798 to 1800, only red-facedly to revive it to fight the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean. The naval victories on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain in the War of 1812 were followed by three decades of neglect.
In the 1880s, while the rest of the world’s powerful countries were building steel ships, American sailors floated around in a dwindling number of wooden ones. So few appointments were open to midshipmen that they were urged to resign on graduation—a practice that did little for morale or discipline. As if to emphasize their sinking status, Congress decreed that midshipmen would now be known as “naval cadets.” Some graduates joined the Army. One, Henry L. Hawthorne, became the first Annapolis man to win the Medal of Honor, fighting the Sioux as an Army lieutenant.
Enter Mahan. He was the son of Dennis Hart Mahan, the most famous teacher on West Point’s faculty in the nineteenth century. Alfred chose Annapolis against his father’s advice, enrolling in 1856. The man who did so much to create the modern Navy was miserable after his first two years at the Academy. Imbued with West Point’s severity from birth, he was repelled by the tradition that a midshipman never put a member of his own class on report. As a first captain in his final year he began reporting fellow firsties. His classmates retaliated by putting him in Coventry—refusing to acknowledge his existence, another tradition inherited from West Point, where it was called the Silence. Thenceforth Mahan had few close friends in the Navy.
Nevertheless, in the stagnant post-Civil War years Mahan put his formidable intellect to work to justify the Navy’s existence to a nation that saw little need for one. At the newly established Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, Mahan gave a series of lectures, soon published as a book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, which seized the attention of politicians around the world. In essence Mahan argued that the traditional French (and American) naval strategy of commerce raiding was a waste of men and ships. The British strategy of concentrating to defeat an enemy’s fleet and win command of the sea was the key to victory. Even more convincing was his second book, The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812, in which he demonstrated how England’s superiority at sea enabled her to defeat a far more powerful France.
Today some historians argue that Mahan’s thesis was greeted with acclamation, particularly in England and Germany, because it justified costly naval expansion programs already under way. But even they will grudgingly admit that few if any historians have had such an impact on their times as this aloof scholar. Lionized around the world, Mahan was frequently consulted by President Theodore Roosevelt while his administration built the Great White Fleet.
It may be no accident that the men who commanded the fleets of World War II came to Annapolis in the heady atmosphere of triumphant Mahanism. The Spanish-American War seemed to prove everything Mahan maintained and made it look easy in the bargain. Of course there was that near-collapse of the U.S. Army in Cuba and the nasty four-year war the soldiers fought to pacify the Philippines—but the Spanish had surrendered when Adms. George Dewey and William T. Sampson destroyed their third-rate fleet in Manila Bay and off Santiago.