Scott Mobley. Progressives in Navy Blue: Maritime Strategy, American Empire, and the Transformation of U.S. Naval Identity, 1873–1898. Naval Institute Press, 2018. 432 pp.
By Larry Grant
After the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy returned to its traditional peacetime role, relying chiefly during that time on the material stocks amassed during the Civil War to carry out its mission. Scott Mobley writes of this period that “Both Congress and the Navy Department officials considered the legacy fleet sufficiently suited for managing the less developed nations and the so-called primitive peoples that composed the U.S. maritime empire.” (147) Innovative construction proposals failed, and even the few new ships that were authorized relied on the old standards: “wooden hulls, muzzle-loading armament, full sailing suites, and low-power steam engines.” (147)
Mobley’s new history, Progressives in Navy Blue: Maritime Strategy, American Empire, and the Transformation of U.S. Naval Identity, 1873–1898attempts to explain how this antiquated and languishing force underwent one of the most significant periods of reform in U.S. Navy history to emerge as a modern naval service, not just in material terms but in all aspects of the naval art, especially in terms of having a corps of officer professionals well-versed in the modern strategies necessary to employ the fleet.
Mobley’s study is less interested in the technological details of the transition than in the “intellectual and institutional developments that reshaped the U.S. Navy” during those decades. He begins his study a decade before Congress authorized the ABCD warships (protected cruisers USS Atlanta, USS Boston, USS Chicago, and gunboat USS Dolphin) that marked the first step in the Navy’s material transition from sail-powered wooden hulls to modern steam-powered steel warships. The upsurge in intellectual and institutional change that Mobley tracks coincides with the founding by reformers of a key progressive forum, the U.S. Naval Institute in 1873.
The reaction to postwar institutional decline led progressive individuals with an interest in the Navy’s future to attempt to reverse the decay by advocating for the creation of a modern Navy and the strategy needed to use it. These men, like Lieutenant Bradley A. Fiske and Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, Mobley writes, “possessed an intellectual predilection for innovative thinking about naval warfare. Furthermore, an eagerness to understand and address the new problems posed by technological development and international political turbulence drove their discourse.” (89)
The Navy’s official leadership—officer and civilian—gave this group neither a mandate nor authority to guide them during the early years. As Mobley depicts it, the postwar Navy was effectively a leaderless body lacking a unified voice that was divided against itself and prey to opportunistic raiders in search of openings for political patronage and other shortsighted ends. If the reformers gained little traction at first, as Mobley notes, “The Navy’s retrenchment woes began to turn around in 1881, as political, administrative, and technological challenges converged.” (152)
The new steel warships created by the 1883 Act began to provide the Navy with modern tools, but, as any craftsman can testify, adding a new tool to the kit does not imply the skill to employ it effectively. Fortunately, as Mobley records, progressive American sailors were advancing strategic thinking on a parallel track to meet the emergent national need. Mobley traces the history of strategic thought in the Navy during this period and the associated changes in the officer corps, placing those developments firmly in the context of the late nineteenth century progressive movement.
Mobley defines progressivism “as a new approach to reform, in response to the social, economic, and political upheavals wrought by modernization.” The naval progressive movement “mobilized specialized experts … [who] practiced innovative problem-solving by applying systematic inquiry and scientific methodology. Theirs was a language of efficiency, systemization, and planning. Their methods challenged naval traditionalists who sought to restore a preexisting order….” (65)
Mobley notes that the new Navy progressives’ arguments against traditionalism didn’t always preclude disagreement among themselves regarding their own priorities, and they argued over the relative importance of strategy and technology from the late 1880s to nearly the end of the century. Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with institutional politics, their disagreements were often based on organizational interests and competition for limited fiscal resources; nevertheless, Mobley notes that “many officers readily embraced both perspectives.” (207)
Mobley’s history is arranged it in eight chapters that begin with a look at the old traditionalist mariner-warrior culture of the quarterdeck and end by 1900 with an officer line corps that then identified as warrior-engineers, whose mechanical skills had supplanted the older sailing related competencies. Skills like carrying out boarding tactics and landing party evolutions were replaced by skills more appropriate to the times. “Seamanship ability remained important, albeit with a reduced emphasis,” Mobley writes. “At the same time, strategic expertise redefined what it meant to be a naval warrior.” This new generation of Navy officers “cultivated strategy, logistics, and operational art as their highest professional callings.” (265)
Mobley’s study is well-written and easy to read. His bibliography is thorough, and his extensive notes are based on a great many archival, primary, and secondary sources. His study of the development of the intellectual aspects required by a modern service forms a nice complement to works like Stephen K. Stein’s From Torpedoes to Aviation: Washington Irving Chambers & Technological Innovation in the New Navy 1876 to 1913(University Alabama Press. 2007) that look in depth at the technological side of things. Anyone interested in gaining a more comprehensive view of the late nineteenth century Navy will find Mobley’s work informative.