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Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

Introductory Essay

The Naval Militia in the Spanish-American War

     At the beginning of the Spanish-American War the United States Navy faced a shortage of qualified seaman to serve aboard the Navy’s commissioned and recently-acquired auxiliary vessels. Attempts to recruit merchant seaman and to establish a Naval Reserve force failed so the Navy turned to an unorthodox source that had long been neglected, naval militias of the individual states. By wars end, one of every eight enlisted men who served in the United States Navy was a member or former member of the Naval Militia.1 The performance record of militiamen in the war was mixed, but they were indispensable to the Navy’s ability to protect the American coast and to operate against Spanish naval forces. 

     As the Navy began to grow in the 1880’s and early 1890’s, there were repeated calls to establish and train a national naval reserve. But for a variety of reasons, both fiscal and philosophical, Congress voted down every proposal. Concerned and believing that in time of war the Navy would require trained fighting men to serve, a number of Navy veterans joined by a lesser number of non-veteran volunteers formed autonomous state naval militias.2

     Beginning with the Massachusetts Naval Militia, founded in 1888, coastal states and those with access to major waterways founded naval adjuncts to their state militias and National Guards. Throughout the 1890’s, the naval militia movement grew, generally driven by the enthusiasm of popular local commanders with funding from state legislatures. The Navy, however, was not supportive and committed only meager amounts annually ($50,000 in 1897) for militia expenses. This amount failed even to cover the cost of basic training. Some attempts were made to assign militia members to limited tours of duty on active-duty Navy vessels and to include them in regular training exercises, but these opportunities were infrequent and their value spotty. Still, naval militia service remained popular. The men who participated tended to be well-organized and politically active urban professionals and their support was important politically for the regular Navy.3

     Many officers in the regular Navy questioned the value of the naval militia. They noted that training was sporadic and inconsistent and that some state organizations were more developed and experienced than others. They also pointed out that steam-powered vessels were complex and that the militia lacked both the necessary technical expertise and experience with the ways, regulations, and traditions of daily life on a ship at sea. A report published in the Army Navy Journal revealed that high ranking officers believed that the militia, composed predominantly of urban professionals, were men who “would do more thinking than fighting.”4 Regardless, the Navy needed men and the public and state legislatures clamored for militiamen to be given their chance.

     Under Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, the Naval War Board selected only the most developed state militias to serve together as a unit. Those rated the best: New York, Massachusetts, and Michigan, were assigned blue-ocean fighting vessels captained by regular Naval officers.5 The newer and “less efficient” militias manned coastal monitors or were assigned to the Coast Signal Service and given command of signal stations.6   

Members of militias not selected for sea service were given the option to resign and receive a commission as landsmen in the regular Navy. This decision was unpopular and was seen as a blow to the state militia movement, but many accepted the opportunity to serve in the regular Navy. These “Naval Auxiliary Forces” received new, lower ratings. They were first used to help man ships crewed by other militiamen and later were used to plug gaps in personnel aboard regular naval vessels.7 

     The performance of ships crewed by militiamen varied. From the outset of the war, regular Navy commanders were concerned about their militia crews and vice versa. At the 1900 Naval War College Conference, Capt. Herbert L. Satterlee of the New York Naval Militia, said:

I think that every officer in the service had a kind of dread of us -- nobody wanted naval militia crews. Every commander at first felt badly when they got them, and on our part no one knew what they were going to be.8

This mutual apprehension was certain justified. Even the most efficient state militia lacked the experience necessary to man a ship. Simple tasks, the daily cleaning routine, shipboard organization, and even how to man and row a small boat, seemed completely foreign to the militiamen. When Lt. Lazarus L. Reamey delivered the Civil War-era monitor Montauk to Portland, Maine, its crew, drawn from the New Jersey Naval Militia, had trouble keeping the vessel’s coal-fired engines operational. Reamey was forced to stop repeatedly because his vessel lacked steam. Upon his arrival in Portland, Reamey discovered that the Maine Naval Militia were in a considerably worse state, incapable of employing a full crew for Montauk.9

     The Michigan Naval Militia assigned to the auxiliary cruiser Yosemite served on coastal defense and in the Caribbean. During a cruise off Puerto Rico, the Yosemite suffered a complete breakdown of discipline as members of the crew wrote letters to their Congressmen complaining about their ranks and assignments and published scathing critiques of their commanding officer, Cmdr. William H. Emory. During a short stay in St. Thomas, twenty-eight men had to be confined in the brig for infractions including drunkenness, being absent without leave, and assaulting the Yosemite’s master-at-arms.10

     What the Militia lacked in skill, they often made up for with enthusiasm and hard work. Both commanding officers of the all-militia-crewed auxiliary cruisers Yankee and Prairie reported that their men operations suffered from their crew’s lack of sea going experience, but that the men compensated by approaching their assigned tasks with “zeal.” Their men worked diligently to familiarize themselves with the working of the ship, particularly drilling and gunnery, and after some little time and instruction, adapted well to sea life. Cmdr. Charles J. Train, commander of Prairie, informed Secretary of the Navy John D. Long that Massachusetts militia “members possessed none of the qualifications for Seamen in the Navy of the United States, other than the patriotism, zeal and intelligence,” which Train found to be exemplary.11

     The experience of the naval militia in the war, convinced the Navy Department that there needed to be a standardized national Naval Reserve to meet future emergencies. The Department drew up a naval reserve bill, which was submitted to Congress in the months following the war. The plan evidenced a clear preference for militiamen with seagoing experience in the national service, including veterans of the Revenue Cutter Service, Life-Saving Service, Light-House Service, the Naval Auxiliary Force, and the regular Navy.12 The bill received mixed reviews from the naval militia officials, who feared it would mean the end of their own state level organizations, and this opposition played a big part in the plan’s rejection by Congress.

Over 4,500 Naval militiamen served in the Spanish American War, most with distinction, but the Navy remained dissatisfied and continued to rejected state naval militias in favor of a reserve force, but continued congressional resistance delayed the formation of a Naval Reserve until 1915 and the First World War.13

Footnote 1: Harold Thomas Wieand, “The History of the Development of the United States Naval Reserve, 1889-1941” (PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1952), 60.

Footnote 2: Ibid., 37, 52, 53-54.

Footnote 3: Ibid., 30-31,35-36,38-39, 45-46, 56.

Footnote 6: Wieand, “The History of the Development of the United States Naval Reserve, 1889-1941,” 58-59.

Footnote 7: See: On the Future of the Naval Militia, 30 April 1898; and Commo. Arent S. Crowninshield, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation to George C. Remey, Commandant, Key West Naval Base, 10 June 1898; and Wieand, “The History of the Development of the United States Naval Reserve, 1889-1941,” 59-60.

Footnote 8: Wieand, “The History of the Development of the United States Naval Reserve, 1889-1941,” 63.

Footnote 13: WWI was the impetus for introducing federal control of the Naval Militia and the creation of the Naval Reserve. In 1914, the Naval Militia was finally made a federal arm of the United States Navy, subject to Presidential orders and service in time of war. A year later, the national Naval Reserve Force was founded on 3 March 1915. Wieand, “The History of the Development of the United States Naval Reserve, 1889-1941,” 60, 64-66.

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