As it was a part of the object of this book to deal with the condition of the navy at the outbreak of the war and with the preparations made by the Government
to carry it on, it will not be out of place to dwell for a moment upon certain conclusions which may be drawn from a consideration of this branch of the subject.
As conclusions by a non-professional observer, they are submitted with hesitation and diffidence; and as they carry with them no weight of authority, they may be taken simply at their own worth.
A military force, whether intended to operate on land or at sea, exists primarily for purposes of war. Cruising on foreign stations during peace, in these days when piracy has disappeared, is not an occupation calculated to exercise fully its powers.
Ships-of-war are no doubt of use from time to time at various points, but their usefulness is not so great that a government whose foreign relations are generally amicable would keep up a large establishment for this object alone.
Their real purpose is to become the national defence in time of war. As with the ships, so with the officers; it is in war, not in peace, that the fruit of their labors is to be gathered.
So far, doubtless, everybody is agreed; in fact, what has been said is little more than a truism.
But the logical inference drawn from the premises is far from commanding
universal assent, and still farther from obtaining recognition in practice.
The inference is this: that the primary object for a navy at all times is to maintain itself, in all its branches, materiel, personnel, and organization, in the most perfect state that is possible of readiness and efficiency for war. This should be the first and ever-present consideration with those who enact, who administer, and who execute measures of naval policy; the ability to place the whole establishment in the condition of active warlike operation, as instantaneously and as smoothly as an engineer starts his machine.
In 1861, the navy was by no means in a condition of readiness for war, although war was the purpose for which it existed.
In materiel, it had a few ships suitable for cruising purposes, and it had superior ordnance; but half the fleet was antiquated, and the rest was displaying the flag on distant stations.
As to the personnel, it is useless to deny the fact that the list was heavily weighted by the old officers at the head, who had reached their position, not because of merit, but because of the date when they happened to enter the service; that the middle of the list was suffering from long stagnation, and from the absence of any inducement to effort; and finally, that the young men, who were to bear the brunt of the work, were altogether too few for the needs of the service.
It is commonly said that the navy was on a peace footing; but if that was the case, a complete and well-defined provision should have been made for expansion.
To speak of a ‘peace footing’ implies that a ‘war footing’ is something different; and no naval establishment can consider itself prepared for war that has not made beforehand all the arrangements necessary to pass at once from one to the other.
Conceding the necessity of a peace footing for personnel
and materiel, on the score of expense, there is no necessity for such a thing as a peace footing for organization.
The organization of a military or naval establishment is fixed primarily with a view to efficiency in war, and only such slight modifications are introduced in time of peace as are indispensable.
So far from this being the case in 1861, the whole administration was arranged on an exactly opposite basis.
It was about as unfitted for the conduct of a war as it was possible to be. The organization was that of five bureaus, independent of each other, and only united by a common subordination to the Head
of the Department.
Now, whatever merits the system of nearly independent bureaus may have in time of peace, it is entirely inadequate as an organization for carrying on war. The direction of military or naval operations must be centralized, not only in the person of the Departmental bead, but in his responsible professional advisers; and to impose this heavy burden upon Chiefs of Bureaus, whose business is with certain specific branches of administration, is to expect men to take in at the same moment the whole field of view and the minutest details of a single part.
It is the essence of a good organization that every branch of it should have its own work, and should confine itself to that; and for that, and that alone, it should be held to the fullest responsibility.
The province of a Bureau is to furnish a gun, or a hull, or an engine, or a crew, the best possible that can be obtained; and to devolve upon its Chief the duty of planning campaigns is only to divert him from his legitimate business, and would, in the nature of things, result disastrously both to the campaign and the bureau.
The general direction of military and naval operations, if we are to accept the testimony of the highest authorities and the evidence of the most successful campaigns, is the work of men bred in the business.
It cannot be done successfully, according to the demands of modern warfare, by this or that officer picked up on the spur of the moment, or by boards of officers created as the exigency arises.
It must be put in the hands of those who have spent much labor and thought in examining and fastening upon the strong and weak points of all possible enemies; who have made their office the repository of all possible information; who have, as Moltke
is said to have had, the whole details of campaigns in their pigeon-holes, to be modified, month by month, as new circumstances arise; and finally, who are studying, not gunnery, nor machinery, nor construction, nor fleet-tactics alone, but the science of war, in all its bearings, as an actual, living, and, above all, as a growing science.
In short, the direction of naval operations, like that of military operations, should be entrusted to a previously-trained and previously-equipped General Staff
Now, in 1861, the navy had no general staff
Staff-work was a branch of naval science as uncultivated as the attack and defence by torpedoes; nor did it occur to the authorities at the time that a staff might be created.
So they set about to find a substitute.
By one of those fortunate accidents, which lead our happy-go-lucky nation to fall on its feet, when it has come unprepared upon a crisis, a man had about this time come forward, in connection with the reliefexpedi-tions to Fort Sumter
, who was fitted, as nearly as any one man could be, to take charge of the work.
This man was Captain Gustavus V. Fox
It may be said in passing that an accident of this kind cannot be counted on, nor can it justify the absence of preparation, when preparation is so simple and easy —in war nothing must be left to chance.
In addition to his natural attainments, which were exceptional, Fox
was a man of varied experience, having passed eighteen years in the navy,
during which he had served in ships-of-war, in the Coast Survey, and in command of mail-steamers.
Five years before the war he had resigned, and had engaged in business.
He therefore started in his career as Assistant Secretary
with a grasp of the situation, and a capacity to meet it, that could be found in few men at that time, either outside the service or in it. To say that he became Assistant Secretary
does not define his position.
He was anything but an Assistant Secretary
He was really the Chief of Staff
; or rather he was the whole general staff
Of course he could not perform all the details of his work himself, and as he had not at command a previously-trained body of staff-officers, he made judicious use of the material at his disposal by the creation of temporary boards.
One board was organized, composed of Captains Dupont
, Major Barnard
of the Engineers
, and Professor Bache
, to report on the coast of the enemy, its points of access and its defences.
Here the exceptional character of the war led to the selection of exceptional persons to give the information necessary for intelligent operations; for, as the enemy's coast was also our own, no one could be better informed about its accessibility and defences than the Superintendent
of the Coast Survey, and the engineer who had built the forts.
Similarly another board, composed of Commodores Smith
, and Captain Davis
again, was appointed to examine plans for ironclad vessels.
The board modestly stated in its report that it approached the subject ‘with diffidence, having no experience and but scanty knowledge in this branch of naval architecture.’
It was composed of extremely able men, and their conclusions were formed under the circumstances with promptness and judgment.
Yet the report of the board was only made September 16, five months after the war may be said to have begun, and six weeks after the Act of Congress
authorizing the expenditure for the purpose of building ironclads.
A properly-organized general staff
in working operation would have had every plan that could be presented thoroughly examined and passed upon before Congress was even in session; and the contracts should have been ready for signature on the day after the appropriation was made.
The importance of time, even in a war as loosely conducted and as long drawn out as that of the Rebellion
, has no better illustration than in the case of the Monitor
Congress assembled July 5; a month later it passed the appropriation; in six weeks the board reported; three weeks afterward the contract for the Monitor
was signed; and, after all this deliberation and discussion, had the Monitor
's arrival in Hampton Roads
been postponed by one single day, by the infinitesimal space, considering the length of preparation, of twenty-four hours, she would have found little in the shape of a fleet to need her protection.
It is a common mistake to point to our experience in 1861 to show that a navy can be prepared for action at short notice.
It is supposed that, because the Government
came out victorious in the end in its naval operations, without having made any preparation beforehand, it will always be safe to postpone measures looking to war until the war is upon us the supply of a large body of trained officers, the selection of the ablest men for the higher grades, the establishment and training of a general staff
, the organization of reserves, the construction of modern vessels.
It is true that a partial substitute for all these requisites of an efficient force was secured before the war was over; that in 1865 there were 7,600 officers and 50,000 seamen in the service, that the ablest men had come to the front, that a Chief of Staff
was found in the person of the Assistant Secretary
, and that the fleet had been increased from sixty-nine vessels to six hundred
and seventy-one, two hundred and eight of which had been built or begun while hostilities were going on. Perhaps, if our next war lasts four years, and if all the sea-board cities are not destroyed during the first half-year, we may do the same again.
No doubt the Administration was handicapped at the outset by its unwillingness, for reasons of public policy, to take the offensive; but even allowing for this delay, the fact remains that in the first six months—months during which, in modern wars, not only the most telling blows are struck, but the issue of the war is generally decided—all that could be done with the most strenuous efforts, and the greatest energy in the administrative head, was to collect our fragmentary resources and to discover the men who could make them available.
Fortunately, we were fighting a Government that was destitute of a naval force.
Had our enemy been a maritime power with a navy in the most ordinary condition of readiness, and with a competent working staff, it would have fared ill with us in the first summer.
In our next war we shall probably have no such good fortune, and we shall learn to our cost the fatal result of procrastination.
It is idle to suppose, in face of the changes that mechanical science is making every year in our daily lives, that the materials of naval warfare will remain long at any given stage of development.
Progress will go on, and the only way in which a naval force can be kept up which shall be equal to the barest necessities of the country is by a constant adaptation of fleets and armaments to the new demands of modern war. Objectors may say that if changes are so rapid, new constructions will shortly be superseded by newer ones.
But science advances, whether Governments wish it or not; and if the navy is to be kept up at all, it must be kept up to date.
New instruments of warfare cannot
be manufactured in a day; nor can officers be expected to use them to advantage when they have had no previous opportunity to practise their use. ‘Our occupation,’ wrote Admiral Jurien de la Graviere
, shortly after the war, ‘was formerly an instinct; now it is a science.’
The mastery of a science requires study; but while war is going on, men have little time to think, much less to study.
They can only use as best they may the new tools that are put into their hands, if their government has not given them modern tools beforehand.
Even admitting, though it should never be admitted for a moment, that it is too much to ask that provision should be made for keeping the material in the forefront of scientific progress, there is at least a limit to the distance which it may be allowed to fall in the rear.
If we must be out of date, it is better to be four years behind the times than to be twenty years behind.
It is hard to see how the advocates of a policy of procrastination can reiterate the old arguments about the success of our naval operations in the war, to justify inaction.
It was not really a naval war, for there was hardly a naval enemy.
There were three or four cruisers at sea, some of which were captured or destroyed after having obliterated our commerce, and one of which, at least, never was captured.
There was an extemporized fleet here and there, made up of anything that came to hand, such as drove the blockading squadron from the Head
of the Passes.
There was one steam-frigate that had been raised out of the water, and made in some sense a modern war vessel, which played havoc with her antiquated opponents, and for a month kept the force at Hampton Roads
at bay. There were other ironclads which had been fitted out under almost every disadvantage that circumstances could create, and which had a short career at various points.
In coping, not with this
force, for it could hardly be called a force, but with the simple obstruction of natural causes, the navy, as soon as it obtained any suitable ships, maintained an extensive blockade, and captured many vessels; it occupied several points on the coast, but only three of them in the first year; it was compelled to postpone attacking others until years had been spent in making them impregnable; and it cruised in the dark after the commerce-destroyers, without adequate sources of intelligence or unity of direction.
In the first six months, the enemy had few powerful forts, and fewer torpedoes; his navy hardly existed; and yet all that could be done was to effect an entrance at Hatteras Inlet, and to establish a blockade that during this period came near the suspicion of being fictitious, except at a few of the principal ports.
If a navy can be built to order after a war begins, how did it happen that with unheard — of efforts there was not an adequate force afloat in September, 1861, to enter every Southern port?
The cause did not he in the officers.
Such faults as they had were faults, not of the men, but of the system—a system which ignored the cardinal principle of naval policy, that a navy must always be maintained in a condition of readiness for instant war. Neither in its central organization, nor in the number and mode of advancement of its personnel, nor in the character of its ships, did it approach such a condition.
Even the bravery, endurance, and energy of its officers, and the capacity shown in its direction during the war, in the face of extraordinary obstacles, cannot blind us to the fact that the work would have been better and more quickly done under a better system—a system which should utilize the long intervals of peace to prepare, with the utmost thoroughness, for the sudden emergency of war.