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Commanding Petty Despots: The American Navy in the New Republic, Thomas Sheppard, Naval Institute Press, ISBN 9781682477557, £41.35

21 Mar 23

Creating a new Navy involves far more than building ships and acquiring manpower: as complex state-funded organisations navies must be located in the wider context of state, society and culture. They are as unique as fingerprints, however similar they may appear at first glance, while professional military forces that do not share and reflect the values and beliefs of the state they serve constitute a standing threat to civil order. Although foreign models of naval service may be useful guides to professional methods, they are necessarily inadequate when considering the political dimension. Navies go to sea to fulfil political ends, not display their seafaring and war-fighting skills. Reconciling sea-going professionals to the rule of law, and elected politicians, could be difficult in an age without over the horizon communication technologies. This process forms the core of Marine Corps historian Thomas Sheppard’s lively text, which builds on Christopher McKee’s collective biography of the pre-1815 officers corps, A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession of 1991.

The establishment of civilian authority has particular interest because the United States Navy is a relatively modern creation, and shaped the development of many post-1945 navies. It had a troubled birth: many Americans did not want a navy, fearing it would threaten the Constitution. This led to the bizarre notion that despite a profusion of Generals, Admirals posed a far greater risk to the infant republic. American Admirals were belatedly created in the 1860s, to wage war on other Americans. Nor was the service guaranteed to endure: created to meet pressing need, cut, then rapidly expanded and finally reduced to a skeleton by peace and political ideology in1800. These dramatic shifts of fortune created an officer corps obsessed with personal status and glory, seething jealousies reinforced by a promotion system that followed the random opportunities of battle and political patronage.

Governments tolerated or ignored insubordination, as long as naval officers upheld national authority. Those who failed that test were unceremoniously dismissed. This created serious problems in the Anglo-American War of 1812. Officers wilfully ignored orders in pursuit of personal glory. This led to the loss of the frigates Chesapeake and Essex, along with smaller warships, but the consequent Court Martials ignored the issue of discipline, focussing on courage rather than common sense. Furthermore, American claims that victories over British frigates were equal combats were not even ‘approximately’ accurate. Although the American vessels were one third larger, more heavily armed and manned than their opponents, the propaganda value of these victories to a desperate Administration took precedence over basic facts and figures, as William James demonstrated as far back as 1817.

After 1815 the Navy became permanent, reflecting inflated claims of success and generous wartime funding, but the officer corps remained prone to duelling, and insubordination. The new post-war administration had a civilian Navy Secretary in the Cabinet directing a Navy Board of senior Captains, who administered the professional aspects of the service. Offered the post of Navy Secretary, senior Captain John Rodgers refused, well aware that political careers were short. He preferred leading the Navy Board. This system served the needs of the Republic for many years, reining in naval expenditure. That said the risk involved in sending proud professionals to represent the state beyond the reach of contemporary communications persisted into the Civil War. In 1861 Captain Charles Wilkes USN created a major international incident by stopping a British Mail Steamer in international waters and forcibly removing two Confederate passengers. The resulting ‘Trent’ crisis brought Britain and the United States to the brink of war. Wilkes, disavowed, but not disciplined, was, by any standards, a ‘petty despot’. He was the last.