Stephen B. Luce Part I

Intellectual Leader of the New US Navy

Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce was the intellectual leader and the catalyst for professional naval thinking among the generation of officers who became the admirals of America’s New Navy. Luce, himself, belonged to an earlier generation, but his contribution to the naval service became the legacy for the new era. As Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske wrote in an obituary in 1917:

Luce taught the Navy to think, to think about the Navy as a whole. . . . More clearly than any other man in American history he saw the relations that ought to exist between the central government and its military and naval officers. . . . Luce saw strategy as clearly as most of us see a material object. To him, more than any other officer who ever lived, are naval officers indebted for the understanding they have of their profession.1

It was with this point in mind that Fiske spoke for his own generation when he dedicated his autobiography to Luce, “who saw the light before others saw it and led the Navies toward it.”

Although Luce’s impact was large, his contributions were for the most part intangible ones. The preeminent seaman in the navy of his day, he has won respect for his ability and accomplishment in command of ships at sea, yet his achievement was to go beyond that and to use his success and practical knowledge as the basis for a conceptual understanding of the navy as a profession. His greatest achievements were made in peacetime as an administrator, an organizer, a writer, and a teacher. Most important, Luce may be credited with establishing a system of education and training within the U.S. Navy, ranging from the lowest apprentice seaman to the highest level of civil and naval command. mHis concept of education at the highest level was the basis for the Naval War College as an institution that would foster the continuing development and refinement of tactical and strategic theory, as well as the organizational concepts through which such theories and academic examination could be effectively translated into practice. Despite the intangible quality of his contribution to a rising generation of naval officers, there remain institutions within the U.S. Navy that derive their roles directly from the ideas that Luce championed. Under their present names, they are the Naval Recruit Training Command, the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler, the Naval War College, and the office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

Stephen Bleecker Luce was born in Albany, New York, on 25 March 1827, the third son of Vinal and Charlotte Bleecker Luce. The original Luce family had come from England and settled in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; his mother was from one of the old Dutch families of New York. In 1833, when Stephen was six years old, his father moved to Washington, D.C., where he obtained an appointment as a clerk in the Treasury Department through family connections with President Martin Van Buren. Family tradition has it that, at age fourteen, Stephen went to the White House with his father and personally requested a naval commission from Van Buren. Whatever the circumstances, Van Buren signed Stephen’s appointment as a midshipman on 19 October 1841.

Assigned first to the receiving ship at New York, Luce spent his first five months in naval life on board the ship-of-the-line North Carolina during the winter of 1841. After his indoctrination, Luce reported to the newly commissioned frigate Congress, cruising on the Mediterranean and off the east coast of South America. In 1845, Luce was assigned to the ship-of-the-line Columbus, then preparing to sail as the flagship of Commodore James Biddle’s squadron, which would bring to China the ratification of America’s first treaty with that country and then make the first attempt to establish formal relations between the United States and Japan. On the return leg of the voyage, Luce spent six months in the Columbus, cruising on the California coast during the Mexican War. After two, three-year cruises at sea, Luce, with a number of his contemporary midshipmen, was sent to the newly established U.S. Naval Academy, where he became a member of the second class to be sent to the school. The early classes were not expected to follow a finely prescribed curriculum; for the most part, the midshipmen were at Annapolis to review information that they had learned from their seagoing mathematics professors and to prepare for promotion examinations. Luce spent the months between April 1848 and August 1849 studying for his examinations at Annapolis, Maryland.

In its early years, Annapolis lacked the formal program of education for which it later became known. In 1850, a year after Luce left the Naval Academy, it went through its first reform, during which it was remodeled along the lines of the Military Academy at West Point. The school’s need for educational reform and its lack of discipline were readily apparent to Luce and were the cause of a punishment that hindered his career for years. In March 1849, the Secretary of the Navy had authorized midshipmen to participate in the inauguration ceremonies for President Zachary Taylor, but the superintendent of the academy decided not to take advantage of the opportunity. A number of midshipmen, including Luce, showed their displeasure by staging a demonstration, in protest. For his role in this event, Luce lost seventy-two places on the promotion list, which moved him from fourth in his class to near the bottom and delayed his promotion to lieutenant for six years.

As a passed midshipman, he then served from 1849 to 1852 in the sloop-of-war Vandalia on the Pacific station. Fortunately, part of his personal journal for this period is preserved among his papers. This ledger-sized book gives a good picture of the young officer in Honolulu, in San Francisco, and on board ship; it also provides an insight into his reading habits: Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop, works of Shakespeare, and George Grote’s twelve-volume History of Greece. In addition, he read the Bible and knew it well. He became familiar with the writings of the French biblical scholar Augustin Calmet, the sailor-poet William Falconer, and such authors as Lord Byron, Theodor Mommsen, and James Fenimore Cooper. While studying these works, Luce provided for his own liberal arts education through broad reading, travel, and experience. As he became proficient in the practical skills of his profession, Luce developed an awareness of the type and quality of men that the naval service required. Understandably, this knowledge grew with the scope of his practical experience.

Following Luce’s tour of duty in the Vandalia came four years in the Coast Survey. For a brief period in 1853, he assisted Lieutenant James M. Gillis with calculations made from Gillis’s observations of Venus and Mars between 1849 and 1852. Luce was then assigned to various survey ships on the Atlantic coast, where he continued to gain experience in the scientific aspects of his profession: astronomy, oceanography, cartography, and hydrography. On 7 December 1854, Stephen married a childhood friend, Elisa Henley, daughter of Commodore John C. Henley and a grandniece of Martha Washington. Three children were born of the marriage: John Dandridge Henley Luce (1855–1921), Caroline Luce (1857–1933), and Charlotte Luce (1859–1946).

From 1857 to 1860, Luce served first as a lieutenant in the sloop-of-war Jamestown and then on the east coast of Central America. By this point in his career, he had gained a wide variety of experience from which he could draw sound observations about his profession and outline the general direction of his future career. In 1858, the thirty-one-year-old officer wrote in his private journal, “It is my opinion . . . that the navy should be re-organized.” These were significant words, for they expressed his early determination to reform the service. In the long journal entry that followed, he discussed the training and education required for officers to lead and organize men. These fields of interest seem unusual when compared with those of other officers at the time, but their selection was very much a product of his own experience.

Just before the Civil War—in 1860—orders to the Naval Academy as an instructor in seamanship and gunnery provided Luce with his first opportunity to write and to publish. His initial published effort was in the area of practical training: the compilation and revision of textbooks for the Naval Academy.

As part of this work, Luce first revised a small gunnery manual that had been written by Lieutenant W. H. Parker in 1859: Instruction for Naval Light Artillery, Afloat and Ashore. When Parker resigned his commission to join the Confederacy, Luce was asked to revise the “rebel” officer’s work. Upon completion of that assignment, Luce saw the need for a text on seamanship; he perceived the inadequacy of the books on this important subject that were already in print and available in America. In recommending to the Commandant of Midshipmen that a seamanship text be prepared, he noted: “Compared to the Army with their wealth of professional literature, we may be likened to the nomadic tribes of the East who are content with the vague tradition of the past. Does it seem creditable then, Sir, to this Institution that it should possess no text book on the most important branch taught within its halls?”

When his textbook was finally published a year or so later, it was not an original treatise on seamanship but a compilation from a wide variety of sources. Revised over the years, Seamanship became the standard American text for the late nineteenth century and appeared in nine different editions. In the area of practical sea training, this book was Luce’s major contribution. As each edition appeared, Luce ensured that the new aspects of shiphandling in steamships were considered, along with guidelines for the newly popular fore-and-aft sailing rig. His attention to these details demonstrated his continuing interest in the practical aspects of the art, and his text provided up-to-date information on these matters to the academy’s midshipmen.

At the same time, Luce was an advocate of training under sail as the most appropriate method of teaching practical maritime skills. Not one to be reactionary or anachronistic, Luce strongly believed that practical experience under sail would teach a young man more about the basic nature of ships than experience in any other type of vessel.

Luce’s textbooks were all devoted to obtaining a standard routine for all drills, maneuvers, and evolutions at sea; but together, they form only a small part of Luce’s literary contribution to training. Within a decade after his first text appeared, Luce had expanded the scope of his work to the broad problems of a training system. This too had its origins in Luce’s experience during the period from 1861 to 1865.

Luce’s service during the Civil War was divided between the Naval Academy and the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. He participated in the early blockade, the operations at Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, and the Battle of Port Royal, South Carolina. His most fruitful activity during this period, however, had nothing to do with the prosecution of the war. In the summer of 1863, he took his first command, the midshipman practice ship Macedonia, to Europe and visited the naval installations at Portsmouth and Plymouth, England, and Cherbourg, France. The French navy at this time was experiencing a resurgence, and the English were meeting the French challenge; both nations were developing efficient maritime administrations and excellent training systems. Luce compiled a comprehensive report on European naval training and later used this information as source material in his articles and letters recommending a system that would be appropriate for the United States. Shortly after returning from Europe, Luce was ordered to command the new monitor Nantucket.

The poor quality of many of the men in the U.S. Navy at this time was painfully evident to him. The situation was no better than the one that he had perceived in 1858. Wartime service in the Navy held few attractions for enlisted men. Blockade duty was arduous and boring, liberty ashore was infrequent, and the grog ration had been stopped in 1862. Even prize money was largely a delusion; only the crews of a few lucky ships received any.

The physical environment and pay were somewhat better for naval officers. A large number of officers was made necessary by the expansion of the Navy, and they were easier to recruit than were enlisted men. Drawn from both oceangoing ships and river steamers, these new officers performed credibly. The Navy would have been unable to perform its demanding task without them, but they did have their limitations.

While in command of the Nantucket, Luce resolved to search for remedies to deficiencies that he had found. During the war he wrote several articles on naval personnel and training for the Army and Navy Journal, and after the peace he developed a plan that included an apprentice system for the Navy and a parallel program of maritime schoolships for those aspiring to be officers in the merchant marine. Reform of the merchant training system was his first accomplishment, based on the 1862 Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.” This act was to be the source of the agricultural and mechanical arts colleges and many of the country’s state universities. Luce expanded on the original concept and extended it to include the knowledge of nautical sciences among young men in the coastal states.

Luce wrote the draft bill that both extended the Morrill Act to nautical education and authorized the Secretary of the Navy to lend ships and to detail officers to public maritime schools. This bill was enacted into law on 4 January 1874. By January of the following year, Luce had personally fitted out the sloop-of-war St. Marys and drafted plans, rules, and regulations for her to function as the New York State Maritime School. Commander Robert L. Phythian was chosen as the school’s first superintendent. Other schools followed in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, California, Maine, and Texas. To meet the academic needs of these schools, Luce wrote a textbook, The Young Seaman’s Manual. Taken from Seamanship, it provided information needed in the new curriculum that he had designed for merchant marine apprentices.

Once this program was effectively organized, Luce transferred his energies to naval training and education. He spent the years from 1877 to 1883 in school-ships as he developed a naval apprentice program for training afloat. Eventually transferred ashore, with close-order drills added, this program became the naval training system.

It was during this period that Luce produced a volume of Naval Songs. He believed that singing was an effective means of instilling the traditions of the sea and teaching the type of discipline that stresses interdependence.

By the mid-1870s, Luce had established himself well enough in Washington circles to exert some influence with regard to his ideas for reforming the Navy Department. While in command of the Hartford at Norfolk, Virginia, Luce met Congressman Washington C. Whitthorne when the Tennessee representative was inspecting the Norfolk Navy Yard in February 1876. Whitthorne, a former Confederate general, served as chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee in the Democratic Party–controlled Forty-fourth (1875–1876) Congress; he was the first chairman of that committee. Although he came from an inland state that had no navy yard, Whitthorne had become one of the nation’s chief spokesmen for naval preparedness. With other legislators, such as Eugene Hale, Benjamin W. Harris, Charles Boutelle, Hilary Herbert, and Henry Cabot Lodge, Whitthorne deserves credit for building the New Navy of the 1880s.

Luce’s meeting with Whitthorne marked the beginning of a relationship that would be nurtured by fifteen years of correspondence and an exchange of ideas on the state of the Navy and needed reforms. In 1878, Luce advocated reforming the Navy Department so that it would more successfully carry out government policy, complement the Army, and adequately represent the nation. To achieve these goals, he recommended to Whitthorne the establishment of a “mixed commission” made up of members of Congress and Army and Navy officers, as well as other prominent citizens. For a time, success seemed likely, but the attempt ultimately failed. It was to be thirty years before the Moody Board would consider the basic issues behind this recommendation. Nevertheless, Whitthorne continued to listen to Luce’s advice while serving in the House of Representatives and, later, the Senate. In this relationship, Luce had found an outlet in Congress for his views.

During this same fertile period in Luce’s thought, he came into contact with Colonel Emory Upton, then at the Artillery School at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Through Upton, Luce came to appreciate more fully the practices of the Prussian General Staff, which would become a major factor in Luce’s approach to professional education and staff work within the Navy. In 1877, Luce had been giving a considerable amount of thought to establishing an advanced school of naval officers. The opportunity came for Luce in 1882 with his assignment as the senior member of a commission to study and to make recommendations on the conditions of navy yards and naval stations. It was during the year that he was engaged in this work that he first came to associate closely with Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler and to present to the Secretary his ideas on naval education, strategy, and administration.

In the 1880s the United States had just entered a period when rapid technological change would have a continuing and direct effect on the character of the Navy. The development of steam and electrical engineering, the screw propeller, the rifled gun, and the study of interior and exterior ballistics, together with the use of iron and then steel, provided a new fabric for sea power that spurred rapid and continued change in ship design, engineering, armor, and weapons. These developments quickly altered the physical character of navies while, at the same time, they demanded new types of special expertise. It was the beginning of a period in American naval history, continuing to this day, in which new equipment would become obsolete almost as soon as it was put to sea. Luce saw that although naval professionals have nothing to gain from restricting technological development, surely their central interest should be in technologies that have a direct usefulness to their profession. For this reason, Luce believed that the most important education for naval officers to receive was that which developed their understanding of the purpose, character, use, and nature of navies.

For Luce, the highest aspect of the naval profession was the study of the art of warfare. This, he believed, was properly divided into several branches, in descending order of importance: statesmanship, strategy, tactics, and logistics. The study of diplomacy, or statesmanship, in its relationship to war, was so important to Luce’s concept of education that he believed it needed “to attain any degree of proficiency, such an amount of careful reading as to leave little leisure for extra professional studies.”

Luce saw that diplomacy, strategy, tactics, and logistics were fundamental areas that together comprised the highest elements of professional naval thought. In order for naval officers to command effectively, all these areas must be in harmony and reflect even broader aspects of national interests, values, and economics. This, Luce believed, could be done only if a commander first had been given an education at a college dedicated to the broadest perspectives of professional thought.

The Naval War College was Luce’s answer to this need. On 8 March 1884, Luce presented to Secretary Chandler a draft of a general order establishing the school. Chandler appointed Luce to head a board that would elaborate on the subject and make specific recommendations. The board consisted of Luce, his sympathetic friend Commander W. T. Sampson, and Lieutenant Commander Caspar F. Goodrich.

The report of the board, submitted on 13 June 1884, concisely argued for establishing an advanced school of naval warfare, and it went on to consider the curriculum and location. Washington, D.C., Annapolis, New York City, Newport, Rhode Island, and Boston, Massachusetts, were all mentioned, but only the last two locations were critically examined. Newport was favored over Boston because in Rhode Island the college could be located close to a promising fleet base where a school of application could be established. At the same time, it would be distant enough from the daily pressures of policy making in Washington that it could allow for the proper academic atmosphere and broad reflection. It was also close enough to “the Hub” to ensure that eminent talent from Harvard, Yale, and Brown Universities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other centers could easily visit the college. The Naval War College was established by General Order 325 of 6 October 1884, and the first course was presented from 4 to 30 September 1885.