Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

On the Future of the Naval Militia


  The recent order of the Bureau of Navigation requiring the Naval Militia men to enlist as landsmen is creating the wildest divergences both of opinion and action; some organizations accepting the situation without hesitancy, and others avowing an intention to stay at home.

  While it is clearly the right, and indeed the duty, of the Government to prescribe conditions which it deems best for the country, it may be pointed out that at the beginning of so abnormal a state of affairs as a foreign war, and until the people become, so to speak, a little educated to it, it is sound policy not to raise issues which can be avoided by simple tact and a knowledge of popular the desires. The Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Navigation1 not long ago conceived it his duty to file a rather severe report concerning the Naval Militia, which provoked a reply in kind from the representatives there of the Naval Militia, and a disclaimer from the Assistant Secretary.2 The result is some soreness on both sides, and a not unnatural inclination on the part of the Militia to insist on proving its own value as a body rather than as individuals.

  The conditions are not the same as those which affect the National Guard. The Naval Militia is an entirely new organization, which believes it has a useful place in the Navy. Its opponents aver that such nautical education as it gets in peace time is not of a character or value to warrant making any distinction between the Naval Militiaman and the ordinary recruit. Or, in other words, that both have so much to learn prior to assimilation in the service, that what the naval citizen has already attained is relatively inconsiderable. Furthermore, they hold that the social and intellectual status of the Naval Militiaman is rather an obstacle that otherwise to his complete transformation into the bluejacket. As they express it, he has “too much brains,” and a ship’s company made up wholly of him “would do more thinking than fighting.”3

  Of course the gravamen of the whole matter is naval tradition, customs and discipline, and whether or not this can be inculcated outside of the regular Navy. The maintenance of militia regimental organizations is based largely on sentiment. With the Naval Militia it is not a matter of sentiment, but of proving its right as a body to exist. It is now about to under go its first and crucial test. If it is of no use collectively now, it is nothing but an excuse for permitting a lot of citizens to exhibit their nautical proclivities in peace times, and therefore has no serious value. Indeed, such people, it may be argued, would enlist during war in the Navy anyhow. Naval Militia or no Naval Militia, and therefore the States are merely wasting money in keeping the organizations going.

  This is not the opinion of the public, nor that of a large number of progressive and thoughtful Naval officers. It is the clear popular will that the Naval Militia should be given the full measure of opportunity which now presents itself to show its capacity and usefulness as an actual part of the Navy.

Source Note: Army and Navy Journal, April 30, 1898, p. 668.

Footnote 1: Cmdr. Francis W. Dickins, Asst. Chief of the Bureau of Navigation.

Footnote 2: Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.

Footnote 3: Members of the Naval Militia were predominantly college educated urban professionals who often lacked basic knowledge of seamanship. For example, see: Lt. Lazarus L. Reamey to Commo. Arent S. Crowninshield, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, 13 May 1898. 

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