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Knox, Dudley W. "Our Vanishing History and Traditions." U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 52, no. 1 (January 1926): 15-25.

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Our Vanishing History and Traditions

By Captain Dudley W. Knox, U.S. Navy, Retired

The early history of any great nation is not only of especial interest to succeeding generations, but also of vital constructive value to the progress of the world, because the youthful virile stage of development most clearly marks the fundamental forces which have been at work. When we look forward several hundred years and vision the maturity of the United States - her magnitude in all things material and her leadership in all things cultural and spiritual we begin to realize how important it is to the advancement of civilization that the record of the origins and early development of this potential giant of a country should be carefully preserved.

A great deal is now being done to this end in many fields of American history, but, unfortunately, much less in the naval field than in any other one of importance. The influence of naval and maritime affairs upon the course of the nation's history has been very much greater than can possibly be recognized by the average person. This is, undoubtedly, largely due to glaring deficiencies in our written naval history, which in their turn arise from the extraordinary inaccessibility of authentic sources.

The general condition is best illustrated by reference to the Revolutionary War, in which it has been claimed that we had more sailors engaged than soldiers. At all events the spontaneous uprising on the sea was on a scale quite comparable to that ashore. Its general character has been described by Captain T. G. Frothingham, secretary of the Massachusetts Military Historical Society in the following words:

The dogged resistance of the Americans was maintaining this successful defence at home in the face of military defeats in set battles, and, in addition, it must be kept in mind that with the British thus brought to an impasse in the American colonies. The Americans themselves were able to carry on an offensive, which was doing decisive harm to Great Britain. It is a fact that the real offensive of the American colonies was on the sea, where the American privateers were taking such an unprecedented toll of British commerce that these heavy losses to the British merchants were bringing about the demands in Parliament to let the Americans go. It is not generally understood, but our whole offensive strength, in the true military sense of doing damage to the enemy, was thus upon the sea, and the widespread losses inflicted upon British commerce provided the argument for setting free an obstinate people, who not only had shown that they refused to submit on the land, but also continued to destroy shipping in increasing totals on the sea. In a military sense, this meant that the Americans were inflicting heavy damage upon the British, while the British were finding themselves unable to do damage to the Americans.

We are compelled to the conclusion that a military situation like this could not exist through all the years of trial, unless there was a strong surge underneath. Such a determined resistance of a people must mean a mighty impelling force. We must recognize this military test as proving that the rising of our ancestors was one of the instinctive primitive movements of a people which can be brought about only where long continued causes have produced the inevitable effect of creating an irresistible force. This force was the spirit of our ancestors, created by their inborn instinct for self-government, and this should be emphasized at our coming anniversary observances.

The importance of the naval side (including irregular forces) of the Revolution is manifest. Why has no comprehensive history of all this naval activity ever been written? The explanation is very simple. Many of the records, of course, have been lost, but hundreds of thousands of others still in existence are so badly scattered as to make it almost impossible to find and collate the information which they contain and to piece together anything approaching a complete history of what occurred. Fortunately there are a number of large collections of Revolutionary documents in state archives and in the files of historical societies and libraries. But probably the greater number are distributed in small groups among thousands of small libraries, county court houses, small historical societies, and private collectors.

Recognizing this unsatisfactory situation, Congress appropriated $30,000 in 1913 for the purpose of photographing the scattered Revolutionary military and naval documents and making a federal collection of copies which would be sufficiently complete to serve historical needs. The commission which started this work very soon decided that their funds would limit efforts to a few states, and decided to concentrate upon Massachusetts, Virginia, and North Carolina. Even in this restricted field it was found impossible to be thorough. For example, all that could be done in Massachusetts was to photostat from the state archives the Massachusetts Board of War minutes, orders, and letters (2,914 documents) and from the Harvard University Library, Hamilton's Journal of the Vincennes Expedition (77 documents). In the Harvard Library alone, to say nothing of hundreds of other sources of Revolutionary material within the state of Massachusetts, there must remain thousands of documents which could not be copied. The commission ceased its work in 1914 on account of exhaustion of funds.

Whether Congress will ever renew appropriations for the completion of the task of collecting originals or copies of Revolutionary historical documents is doubtful. The necessity of doing so much photostating makes the work expensive, which difficulty might be largely overcome by the use of some such device as the recent invention of Admiral Fiske permitting the ready reading of extremely small type, and therefore a great reduction in the size of the photostat copy. Meantime efforts are being made to include private collectors to donate originals or copies of Revolutionary manuscript and pictures, and in this way, considerable progress recently has been made in building up the naval archives. New material is constantly coming to light. Only within the last few days the writer learned of three groups of very early manuscript, one of them containing about 1,000 documents, which have been in a garret or otherwise inaccessible for more than a hundred years. Every effort is being made to obtain at least copies of these before they are accidentally burned or sold and scattered to the four winds.

One might imagine that after the adoption of the Constitution and the formation of the existing federal government, pains were taken to keep reasonably complete official naval files. But such is unfortunately not true. The case is illustrated by the recent discovery of an official report made in 1815 by the Board of Navy Commissioners to the Secretary of the Navy, by special request of the latter. This important document making a general survey and broad recommendations respecting the whole naval establishment - navy yards, ships, personnel, laws, and so forth - remained in the possession of descendants of one of the Board of Navy Commissioners until very recently when it was donated to the public archives. This is merely one of a great number of similar cases which could be cited to demonstrate the wide dispersion and deplorable inaccessibility of the official sources of naval history and tradition; a condition resulting from old customs rather than any culpability on the part of individuals.

In the old days there was nothing approaching modern filing systems or regulations regarding official correspondence and records. Personal idiosyncrasy more than any other factor governed both the method of filing and the final disposition of papers, and it has been said that there were few qualities which the "old-timers" were more famous for than a degree of eccentricity. The fact that commanding officers often had financial responsibilities in connection with their duties was doubtless a large influence in the custom of considering what we now regard as official files as belonging to the officer himself. Upon the detachment of an officer of rank, he seems to have taken the files of his office with him, as a matter of course. This practice continued even after the Civil War. The thirty volume printed Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies could not have been made even approximately complete without reference to the thousands of originally official documents in the personal possession of nearly every officer, who had served in command rank during the Civil War.

Many large collections of this kind were temporarily loaned to the Navy Department for the purpose of being copied, preliminary to printing, and then returned to the owner. All papers could not be printed. Fortunately some of the most important large collections, such as the Farragut, Porter, Dalghren, Goldsborough, Davis, McKean, Mervine, Wise, and Macomb papers were donated and are now carefully preserved in the official archives. Others were placed on indefinite loan and in that status have been at least available for reference for a number of years, though when the owners or their heirs wish them back, the Government will be in the anomalous position of having to give up to private individuals what are in fact the originals of official historical records. In the course of a few generations most of such papers in private hands are inevitably burned, rat-eaten, lost, rotted, scattered, or sold to persons whose addresses are difficult to determine. Naval history and tradition vanish with them.

But history and tradition are by no means limited to what may be contained in official correspondence. Personal letters very often give more interesting sidelights and greater detail to important affairs. As a reflection of the morale, discipline, manner of living, and customs, they are incomparable. They are the best source of establishing the vital element of the "state of mind" of naval personnel during war and peace. From a large number of personal letters from "Lion-hearted" Flusser to his mother and sister, who very kindly donated them to the official archives, the following matter is selected as illustrating these points.

I have tried to do everything for the cause here, but obstinacy, prejudice, and laziness, on our side have defeated nearly all. I feel confident that I could have this state in the Union at this time had I had the distribution and control of the Army and Naval Forces down here. I have written and recommended till I am tired and disgusted, and only wish my letters were public instead of unofficial. If my advice had been acted on we might now have several loyal regiments of North Carolinians in the field. . . . .

. . . . . Remember, Mama, all this is entre nous, sub rosa, etc., etc. The above is terribly egotistical, but I am pleased with my egotism when writing to you - for to you I like to write my thoughts as they are, and not as other men hear them expressed.

. . . . . I was interrupted by the music of the band of the 46th Massachusetts Regiment which came off to serenade me. I had to invite them on board. They gave us some music to which the men danced and sang songs which they enjoyed hugely.

. . . . . Do not believe any stories you hear of my exposing myself. I shall try to keep my life for you. I hope I shall never be afraid to go where duty calls, and I pray God to give me courage before going into battle, (without this I think I should be a coward) but I do not think I have ever exposed my life recklessly. A man can have little to live for, must be very miserable, who commits suicide in that way. My men are not cowards - they need no rash example to make them fight. They combat for a good cause, and for the reputation the boat has already attained. They are proud of her and I of them. They are sad scamps, but they will fight.

. . . . . I went out the other day with a flag of truce and had a pleasant interview with a Lieutenant-Colonel Townes of the 62nd Georgia

. . . . . I bantered him pleasantly and he me. I carried out to him some good whisky, and tolerable cigars. I told him I knew he had had nothing of the sort for a long time. From the way he "took to" them I think my surmise was correct. He laughed at the idea of our starving the Rebs into submission. There will certainly be a famine in this state - no one left here to cultivate the crops. Provisions are scarce and very dear. Alas for the poor!

We met the enemy on the tenth instant, a short distance below Elizabeth, and protected by a four-gun battery. They had five steamers; we had nine, but only two or three of ours got up in time to fight the rebel steamers.

I was given the lead. I singled out the largest vessel, Commodore Lynch's flagship, the steamer Sea Bird, and ordered my pilot to run her down.

When about two hundred yards from her, and after passing through the fire of the battery and giving them some good shots in return, I fired a nine-inch shell at her, which struck her just amidships, at the water line, passing through her as if she was so much paper, and exploded a great distance beyond. I then called away boarders and ran for her, my men picking up their muskets, pistols and cutlasses for a hand-to-hand fight. When fifty yards or more from her she hauled down her flag and her commander appeared on the upper deck holding open his coat to signify that he had surrendered. I immediately ordered the helm put a-port and the steamer stopped to avoid striking him, but my men were so crazy with excitement and made so much noise that the helmsman could not hear, and so plump into her we went, smashing in her whole port bow. My men immediately jumped on board and I had to follow to restrain them from injuring the prisoners. The captain surrendered to my vessel, stated that he was in a sinking condition, and asked me to rescue his officers and men. I was anxious to secure another steamer and gave the order to back out and pursue when, to my inexpressible annoyance, I found that as we struck the Sea Bird the fastenings of our anchor went and the anchor had gone to the bottom, so we were anchored and I could not move. The men were frantic with excitement, and for ten minutes I could not get any one to slip the chain, then one of the engineers unshackled it. I cut the line which fastened us to our prize with my sword, and was just leaving when her captain came to me for the second or third lime and begged me, for God's sake, not to leave his men to drown; so to save them I reluctantly gave up the pursuit. While I was at anchor engaged taking the prisoners from the sinking vessel two small rebel steamers ran around me, firing with musketry at my men. I could have sunk them both with one gun each, but my men were so wild that I could not get them to their quarters at the great guns. One of these steamers came up on my starboard quarter, only ten or fifteen yards off, where there was not a man but myself, and tried to train a great gun on us. I repeatedly called the men to their guns, but they would not come, so as a last chance, for I felt that if the gun was fired I was destroyed, I drew my revolver, a small-sized Colt's, and fired at the captain of the enemy's gun. I fired three or four shots with deliberate aim and saw the captain of the gun and the man on his left fall; whether I hit them or not I do not know, I only know that the gun was not fired.

Personal letters which deal with naval life and naval affairs are undoubtedly a very valuable source of naval history and tradition and have an important place in official archives, since they shed much light upon official reports of every nature. In the past there has been less attention to this class of documents than their real value warrants, and the number available for examination is correspondingly small. The reluctance which many persons feel to violating the privacy of personal letters by placing them in public archives can always be obviated by special arrangements for safeguarding their confidential nature until after the passage of several generations, or other specified time.

The foregoing is intended mainly to indicate the existing danger of losing permanently some of our most valuable naval history and tradition because of the very wide dispersion of manuscript sources. This condition renders it practically impossible to collate the needful information for any comprehensive works on naval history which will do justice to the Navy and the nation, and, moreover, greatly adds to the probability of destruction of the documents. It is manifestly desirable that such valuable records should be accumulated into a few large collections, systematically archived, and properly secured against fire and other risks.

Perhaps the greatest forward step which could now be taken to this end is the erection of the government archive building in Washington, which already has been authorized by Congress, but for which construction funds still remain to be appropriated. The completion of such a building would seem certain to stimulate public interest in the general question of the preservation of historical records and to persuade many private collectors to deposit historical manuscript in the great central archives. A further advantage will be provision for adequate space in which to make accessible in a systematic way huge quantities of old manuscript now boxed up and stored by the several government departments in basements and numerous other odd places. For example, large numbers of documents pertaining to naval history are now contained in the store rooms of the State, War, Treasury, and other departments. Similarly each of the various bureaus and offices of the Navy Department, many of the branch offices and naval stations outside of Washington, and many of the American Consulates abroad, have quantities of "dead" and forgotten files of no administrative value which properly belong in the central archives. The writer has been told of a recent "find" of naval manuscript pertaining to the Barbary War in the files of the Consulate of Algiers.

But the completion of a national archive building does not seem probable for a number of years. Meantime the Navy Department is making efforts toward getting its own historical documents in some kind of order. About thirty-five years ago the "dead" files of the Secretary of the Navy up to 1885 were transferred to the Office of Naval Records and now form the nucleus of the Navy's historical archives. After this first step little was done in the way of archiving (many papers being received but merely stored) until after the World War when Congress appropriated money for collecting, filing, and indexing naval documents pertaining to that war. While the World War papers are being thus archived a simultaneous effort is also being made to fill in the gap between 1885 and 1917, and further to add to the archives of older date, many paper's previously overlooked or subsequently accumulated. It is estimated that the Office of Naval Records now contains about one million documents of dates previous to 1885, and is thus much the largest single depository for old naval manuscript in the country.

However diligent the Navy Department may be in bringing together and archiving such records as are now in the custody of branches of the naval establishment and of other government departments, it can never adequately safeguard our early history and tradition without the interest and aid of officers and the relatives of former officers. Old documents are too widely scattered and their location too little known to permit the discovery of any great number of them without the constant watchfulness of a large number of persons. Only a few weeks ago, while motoring near Narragansett Pier, the writer accidentally stopped at an old farm house and quite unexpectedly found in the front parlor the naval historical document of the War of 1813 reproduced on another page herein. When the owner's attention was called to its historical value he was kind enough to have it photostated at his own expense and the copy forwarded to the Navy Department. It is in such ways that the service could be helpful in building up the central source of our history.

There also are other ways. In almost every naval family of maturity there are to be found papers which would be of much value to the official archives. The importance of personal letters containing references to naval life and incidents has been pointed out above. In addition the private files often include diaries and copies of important official reports, the originals of which may have been lost. For example, two years ago an inquiry from a participant in the first Boxer Relief Expedition of 1900 led to a search being made for the official report of the commander of the American contingent. Documents of so late a date not having yet been turned over to the Office of Records, reference was made to the original bureau files, but the report could not be found. There was evidence of the original report having been received and lost and the commandant at Cavite having been asked to forward a duplicate. If he did so, the duplicate also was lost. Inquiry was then made of other participants for data, and Captain Courtney very kindly donated his private diary, which as subsequent events proved contained photographs and many details not included in the official report. After a two-year search a copy of the latter was finally discovered among the private papers of one of the heirs of its author.

A similar case is that of the naval operations at Vera Cruz in April and May of 1914. Very recent careful search of Navy and State Department files failed to disclose a single document pertaining to the naval landing and occupation of that city. The unfortunate custom which has lately prevailed of burning ships' files of supposedly no historical value probably means that there are no records of the important Vera Cruz operations except such as may remain among the personal papers of officers. In the Department's historical archives (not administrative files) they would be secure against loss.

It is easy to understand the reluctance which most persons feel over parting with family papers. But the sentimental aspects of this question appear to be outweighed by practical advantages to the owners themselves. The security of the precious documents is far greater when placed in public archives, where they are usually also more accessible for reference by members of the family. But perhaps the greatest advantage of all is that they are brought into close relation with a large number of other papers upon the same subjects, thus making possible a proper understanding of the comparatively few documents otherwise held out of the main collection. Among family papers there are often a few of outstanding personal interest, such as letters of commendation. In such cases a photostat copy is almost as satisfactory for the public archives as the original document. In all cases a photostat reproduction is much better than no copy at all for the Department's historical archives.

One of the greatest enemies of naval history is the private collector of manuscript and old pictures. Due to these faddists probably more historical records are now being dispersed beyond the reach of the research worker than are finding their way into large public collections. Almost every second-hand bookseller carries a stock of manuscript, and there are frequent sales at auction of much historically valuable material that was originally the equivalent of what we now consider as official files. Among papers recently seen in the stock of a second-hand dealer were some twenty official letter-books of the commander of a blockade squadron during the Civil War. Another dealer has for sale the official notification from the Secretary of the Navy to the commander-in-chief on the coast of California that the War with Mexico had terminated.

The old official documents are, of course, more badly needed to complete the official sources of history and tradition than any other kind of material. The older the documents, the greater will be their accession value since it is in our earlier history that the greatest gaps exist. From the beginning of the Revolution to the year 1798 is the most important period of all, not only because of its antiquity but also on account of a fire in 1800 which destroyed most of the files of the War Department, which had administered the Navy under the Constitution until 1798. Most naval officers are poorer even than the Office of Naval Records (which has no funds for the purchase of manuscript) and therefore can hardly be expected to aid the latter by buying in old naval manuscript. But they may have opportunities of discouraging the sale of old collections, or of having them photostated before being sold, or of encouraging some large library or historical society to buy them. A service will be done the Office of Naval Records by notifying it of the discovery of old historical material, so that at least a record of its existence and location may be kept.

Viewing the whole question broadly the rescue from loss and the subsequent preservation of our Navy's history and traditions depends primarily upon the degree of interest felt by naval officers and the relatives of former officers. If keen interest in the matter exists, official and unofficial ways and means will be exerted toward filling the great gaps in manuscript sources. Undoubtedly, the present lack of general interest is due to a misconception of the condition of the naval archives, which it is the principal purpose of this paper to correct.

The author of a recent book on old merchant marine affairs of this continent says: "I have been collecting information on the subject for many years. But owing to the fact that first-hand sources of information were rapidly vanishing, I have hastened the task of compilation in the hope that the publication of this record might result in an effort being made by public bodies to preserve whatever remains of interest and value in connection with the old-time shipping." His plea can he applied with equal justice to the case of our vanishing sources of naval history and traditions.


Published: Mon Nov 27 16:49:23 EST 2017