Origins of the Naval Historical Center

Related Resources: Directors of Naval History


The Naval Historical Center traces its lineage to 1800 when President John Adams instructed Benjamin Stoddert, the first Secretary of the Navy, to prepare a catalog of professional books for use in the Secretary's office. Thus was born the Navy Department Library, today an integral part of the Center and its historical programs.

When the British invaded Washington in 1814, this book collection was rushed to safety outside the Federal City. Thereafter the library had many locations, including a specially designed space in the State, War, and Navy Building (now the Executive Office Building) overlooking the White House.

When the library was placed under the Bureau of Navigation in 1882, the director, noted international lawyer and U.S. Naval Academy professor James Russell Soley, gathered the rare books scattered throughout various Navy Department offices, collected naval prints and photographs, and subscribed to professional periodicals. He also began to collect and preserve naval records, particularly those of the Civil War. Congress initially recognized his efforts by authorizing funds for an office staff and combining the library and records sections into the Office of Library and Naval War Records.

Six years later Congress appropriated the funds to print the first volume in a monumental documentary series, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. The series, completed in 1927 with the publication of the General Index, marked the beginning of a responsibility to collect, edit, and publish historical naval documents, a mission that the Naval Historical Center continues to carry out in its American Revolution and War of 1812 documentary projects. In 1915 the appropriations for publications, the library, and naval war records were combined and the office received a new title--Office of Naval Records and Library.

Once America entered World War I, emphasis shifted to gathering documents on current naval operations. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels directed Admiral William F. Sims, Commander U.S. Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to collect war diaries, operational reports, and other historic war materials of naval commands in his London headquarters.

To handle World War I records in Washington, a Historical Section was established in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, separate from the Office of Naval Records and Library and housed in the new Navy Department Building ("Main Navy") on Constitution Avenue. When the war ended, Admiral Sims's London collection and photographs and motion pictures from the various Navy bureaus were transferred to the Historical Section. The library, by now with over 50,000 volumes, remained in the State, War, and Navy Building.

In 1921, a former member of Admiral Sims's wartime staff, Captain Dudley W. Knox, was named head of the Office of Naval Records and Library and the Historical Section. For the next twenty-five years he was the driving force behind the Navy's historical program, earning for the office a national and international reputation in the field of naval archives and history. The Historical Section was absorbed into Naval Records and Library in 1927. Knox's additional appointment as the Curator for the Navy envisioned a display of our nation's sea heritage in a naval museum in Washington. Thirty years later, in 1961, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke established the U.S. Naval Historical Display Center (now The Navy Museum), which opened in Building 76.

At President Roosevelt's suggestion, Knox began several documentary series. Seven volumes pertaining to the Quasi War with France and seven volumes relating to the war with the Barbary Powers were ultimately published. World War II halted similar plans for the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and World War I. During World War II, Knox turned his attention to collecting documents generated by naval operations in a two-ocean war. Knox immediately began a campaign to gather and arrange operation plans, action reports, and war diaries into a well-controlled archives staffed by professional historians who came on board as naval reservists.

To complement the developing World War II Operational Archives, the Knox group pioneered an oral history program whereby participants in the significant Atlantic and Pacific operations and battles were interviewed as soon as possible. When the Pulitzer Prize winning history professor from Harvard, Samuel Eliot Morison, was commissioned by President Roosevelt to prepare the 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, he relied not only on his own combat experience, but also on those records assembled by Knox's archives.

To coordinate the Morison project, an administrative history of the U.S. Navy Department, then under way, and other planned World War II histories, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal established an Office of Naval History. Although Knox served as deputy director of naval history under the director, Admiral Edward C. Kalbfus, initially the Office of Naval Records and Library was kept separate from the Office of Naval History. The two finally merged in March 1949 to form the Naval Records and History Division in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. This organizational designation was simplified in 1952 to Naval History Division. The division remained in the Main Navy Building where it had moved just after the war.

The future home for the Navy's historians was the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, which in 1961 was converted from an industrial facility to an administrative center. The first component of the Naval History Division located in the yard was The Navy Museum, which was established in 1961. In 1963 the Operational Archives moved to the navy yard. The other sections of the Naval History Division followed in 1970, occupying several scattered buildings.

In a final organizational change of the early 1970s, the Naval Historical Center was established as a field activity under the Chief of Naval Operations, thereby replacing the Naval History Division. Most of the Center's activities were brought together in 1982, when they moved into the historic building complex named to honor Dudley W. Knox, who perhaps did more than any individual to strengthen and reinforce the Navy's commitment to its historic heritage and traditions.

The present organizational structure was completed in 1986 when the Navy Art Collection and Gallery and the Naval Aviation History and Publication Division, both already located in the Washington Navy Yard, became part of the Naval Historical Center.


13 June 2009
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