The Naval War Board
The early months of 1898 witnessed the explosion of Maine and additional inducements for war with Spain. The War and Navy Departments responded to the looming threat with the short-lived Army-Navy Board in early March to generate a final joint operations war plan for the West Indies. The Boards members were, Major Arthur L. Wagner, the head of Military Intelligence Division, the U.S. Army’s intelligence service, and Capt. Albert S. Barker, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long’s personal aide-de-camp.
The Naval War Board was founded that same month. It was summoned to formulate strategy for the impending hostilities. After some initial personnel shuffling, the boards final composition was set, with RAdm. Montgomery Sicard, serving as President, and Commo. Arent.S. Crowninshield, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, and Capt. Alfred T. Mahan. Documentary evidence is fragmentary regarding exactly when these boards were established, but it is clear that the Army-Navy Board was dissolved shortly after the Naval War Board began meeting. Letters from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt to Long indicate that the Strategy Board, as the Naval War Board was also called, was actively making arrangements and preparations for War in early April. The official start of this board is ambiguously dated by the Navy Department at the beginning of May. It was guardedly stated that it was “the outgrowth of an informal advisory board which had existed for some time.”
The Appendix to the Report to of the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation of 1898 insists that the Naval War Board “throughout the war acted as an advisory board,” a view seconded by scholars who study the conflict. David Trask, for instance, in The War with Spain, asserts that the War Board “served simply as an advisory body to the Secretary of the Navy. It had no executive authority, although it undertook certain administrative duties. . . it did not decide the movements of any force at sea.” Robert Seager in his biography of Alfred T. Mahan comes closer to the truth when he asserts that Naval War Board was “the body within the department ostensibly entrusted with the overall planning of naval operations” and rendered a few specific “practical decisions.”
The editors of this documentary edition take issue with these interpretations. Documents suggest that the Naval War Board, also known as the Home Strategy Board, was actually the primary decision-making body of the naval aspects of the Spanish-American War. Sicard, Crowninshield, and Mahan, after all, regularly had the ear of McKinley and wielded considerable strategic influence.
In almost constant session, both day and night, the three members played the role occupied by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in today’s military. Once a campaign decision had to be made, the U.S. Army had to follow in its wake, only taking control of its forces once a landing had been effected.
The most striking proof of the Board’s paramount influence are memoranda, and there were myriads of them, drawn up by the Naval War Board on its official stationery for Secretary Long. These suggestions were issued without alteration as orders under the Long’s name. They cover a wide spectrum—from minutiæ, such as sending a collier to re-coal a ship, to a major operational plans.
The usual format would politely begin with the words that “The Board recommends that the following telegram be sent to Admiral Dewey” or “Admiral Sampson,” and so forth. It would be signed by RAdm. Sicard, the president of the Naval Board, and then followed by the “request” and Long’s signature. Officialy, and for public consumption, a cursory remark suggests that “it prepared for [Long’s] consideration and signature orders affecting. . . [strategic] policy.
Long was unsuited for command decision, nor even for the inner workings of the Navy’s eight Bureaus. He seems to have served as little more than a rubber stamp for the Board’s decision-making. In one of his Journal entries he admits that he was not the best man for the job, so it would be more propitious to leave the bureaus, yards, and ships in more capable hands. John Cortelyou, for one, described his demeanor in the White House in mid-May of 1898:
Secretary Long moves along quietly. He is not so sure-footed as his friends would have us believe; he hesitates, questions too much, seems hampered by too great conservatism and oftentimes seems to be in the position of the surgeon who fails of the end desired in an operation through lack of “nerve” and decision at the critical moment.
The three gentlemen who composed this august collegial body apparently were not always on friendly terms. It took a majority of two to send these memoranda to Secretary Long. One document in this section was signed by Sicard and with a concurrence by Crowninshield—not Mahan. Although they were, at times contentious, especially Mahan, who was depicted by Long as having gone on rampages, even in the White House.
Capt. Mahan harbored an incessant distaste for the structure of the Naval War Board, and made his sentiments known. He rigidly adhered to what he considered to be objective historical principles and claimed to approach any issue from a dispassionate stance. “Resting,” in his own words, “as my opinion does, upon a wide study of military history, it is not liable to change, and at present it has the advantage of absolute impersonality.” He insisted as soon as he joined the Naval War Board that it should be abolished in favor of one commanding officer with a group of advisors.
The change suggested is from a Council of War, which the Board virtually is, with corporate responsibility and without individual responsibility, to the single, individual responsibility, which alone achieves results in war.
In an exchange of letters with his mentor RAdm. Stephen B. Luce in August 1898, Mahan is even more emphatic about his rancor for the Naval War Board, especially directed at Sicard.
Sicard is a clear headed man for Bureau work, but very second or third rate for what we had to do — in my judgment; and the Secretary knows this, for I told him 20 several times. . . As far as a Board is concerned, I don’t believe in it at all; and less than ever since I served on this. . . If I believed it would do good, I would feel bound to write; but I have written + talked and stormed for three months before the Board, the Secy, + the President, and I feel now very much like the teacher who after laborious explanations, receiving from one of his boys one of those answers we see in the funny columns of a newspaper.
The Naval War Board oversaw the creation of a geo-political framework, written by Mahan in mid-August, for the acquisition of eight coaling stations and naval bases for the new global American naval and commercial presence for the twentieth century. Its gist was succinctly stated:
It is obvious, however, that the United States does require coaling stations outside its own territory, from which coal can be freely and certainly obtained during war. Such stations therefore should now be obtained, and under such conditions, either of use or cession, as shall enable us to assure their safety and free use in time of war.
The report wisely refrained by suggesting any appreciable territorial aggrandizement, an object lesson learned from the mistakes of the European powers, and to avoid international friction.
Initial research indicates that the Naval War Board was the prototype for major administrative changes in the Navy, and sparked innovations in the Army as well. This enigmatic war council is virtually unknown today after commanding one of the most important military moments in American history between the Civil War and World War I.