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Captain Bowman H. McCalla to the Naval War College


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Delivered at


Newport, R. I.,

Session of 1899,


Captain B. H. McCalla, U.S.N.

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. . . The War Board.

Following,1 perhaps the unfortunate example established by Congress during our Revolutionary War,2 for which there was a classical precedent,a War Board,a kind of small Aulic Council”3was created in the Navay Department.

    This Board of three officers, popularly known as the “Strategic Board”, was appointed at the beginning of the War.4

    During the Civil War, the Union cause lost great battles, involving great slaughter with the pecuniary loss of millions of dollars, mainly from the fact that the Union armies in the East were controlled from Washington by a military chief of staff subject to civilian control.5  It was not until Grant,6  as the actual commander-in-chief [n]ot the chief of staff of the Union armies, with the support of President Lincoln, took the field in 1864 that the Union forces operating in all the scenes of operations under one general, away from Washington, brought the war to an end.

    If the Naval War Board were instituted to take the place of a naval chief of staff, it should have gone to the front and taken control of the Atlantic Fleet, in the same way that von Moltke, after the Prussian mobilisation had been completed, left Berlin and joined the German armies in France to direct them all from the theater of war.7

    A Board is slow in acting and its conclusions are generally compromises. A Board of three is not adapted to quick decision and action. It would seem that naval officers should have noted the experience of the Army of the Potomac from 1861 to 1863 and should have profited by the lesson its history teaches. But our experience in the Civil War apparently went for nothing, for the naval situation in the Atlantic, before the arrival of Cervera in the West Indies, was so similar to the one in Virginia during the campaign of 1862, before McClellan's discomfiture, that it is interesting to recall it.8   The military objective was then the Confederate Army--nominally Richmond--and McClellan with the main army was in front of the capital of the Confederacy. Fremont, Banks, Shields and McDowell, also in independent command of other forces, were scattered over Northern Virginia, to protect Washington.9  All, including McClellan, were, however, under the control of the chief of Staff in Washington. In the Mississippi Valley there was a similar scattering of the Union armies, though there was not a strong effort from Washington to direct the campaign in that region.

    Substitute Cervera’s fleet at sea in Cuba for Johnston’s army and Richmond and we have a similar condition of things in the Atlantic Fleet in the early part of the Spanish War of 1898.10

    Sampson, the nominal commander-in-chief, was on the Cuban coast with the main body of the Atlantic Fleet.11  Schley, with the Flying Squadron, was in Hampton Roads, apparently for the protection of a part of the coast and to cover Washington.12

    The Northern Patrol Squadron was on the East Coast of New England;13  the “Columbia” patrolled the coasts of Long Island and Nantucket; and the “Potomac”, a seventeen-knot despatch-boat and wrecking tug, was lying in the mouth of the Mississippi River to protect the jetties. The scouts were under the management of the War Board. These forces were all practically independent of each other, and they were directly under the Navy Department, their situation seem to correspond with that of the Union armies in 1862.14

      As a result, in the early part of the naval campaign of 1898, the naval force was so divided that the policy of the Government could not be carried out effectively.  Havana, Matanzas and Cardenas, on the north coast, were alone blockaded, while a weak force only appeared intermittently before Cienfuegos on the south side of the island. The fortunate fact that no serious incident happened should not close our eyes to the danger.

    The military conditions in 1862 differed in one essential point from the naval situation in 1898, for while there was but one chief of staff in the War Department in 1862, there were three chiefs of Staff, in the form of a War Board, in the Navy Department last year.

    During the course at the Naval War College in 1897, in discussing a problematical campaign in a war begun for the liberation of Cuba, it was predicted that in such an event the Spanish government would be forced to make an attempt to reinforce the island or to abandon it.15 This appeared so sound, from a professional point of view, that it was pointed out that the best policy for our government would be to neglect our own lack of land defenses and send all the available warships to the coast of Cuba, as this being the true objective in such a war, any Spanish naval force would, of necessity, be drawn to that locality, even if the enemy's original intention had been to threaten our coast.

    The advice of one man who is an expert in any line of business is generally considered better than a compromise of the opinions of three, and this holds true in the management of a fleet in peace or in war. The views of the commander-in-chief on the spot, except in so far as they would affect the political situation, should be accepted. Otherwise, he cannot be held responsible for results. If he prove inefficient, he should be relieved.

Source Note: TD, RNN, Section 2, Envelope 2, No. 71.

Footnote 1: This paragraph appeared on an appended sheet of paper. The words were typed, but above them in handwriting was the following: “Follows directly the heading ‘The War Board.’”

Footnote 2: The Board of War and Ordnance was established by the Second Continental Congress in 1776.

Footnote 3: The Aulic Council was an executive-judicial body of the Holy Roman Empire that met from 1497 to 1806.

Footnote 4: The members of the Naval War Board were: RAdm. Montgomery Sicard (president), Commo. Arent S. Crowninshield, and Capt. Alfred T. Mahan.

Footnote 5: The general in chief at the beginning of the Civil War was Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott (1786-1866).

Footnote 6: Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) replaced Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck (1815-1872) as General-in-Chief in 1864, however Halleck became Chief of Staff and subordinate to Grant.

Footnote 7: A reference to Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891), the chief of staff of the Prussian Army during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).

Footnote 8: RAdm. Pascual Cervera y Topete, the commander of the Spanish squadron that was defeated at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba on 3 July. A reference to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s (1826-1885) defeat by the Confederate forces during the Peninsular Campaign of 1862. Capt. Bowman H. McCalla is undoubtedly drawing an analogy to the poor preparations and performance between these two events.

Footnote 9: Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont (1813-1890), Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks (1816-1894), Brig. Gen. James Shields (1810-1879), and Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell (1818-1885).

Footnote 10: The Confederate forces under the command of Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston (1807-1891) fought against the Union troops under the command of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan (1826-1885) at Seven Pines in 1862. It was an inconclusive battle. This analogy refers to RAdm. Cervera’s maneuvers to elude the United States Navy in the West Indies, and the ten days that it took the Navy to locate his squadron at Santiago de Cuba.

Footnote 11: RAdm. William T. Sampson, Commander, North Atlantic Station.

Footnote 12: Commo. Winfield S. Schley, Commander, Flying Squadron.

Footnote 13: The Northern Patrol Squadron was under the command of Commo. John A. Howell.

Footnote 14: McCalla’s view of the role of the War Board contrasts with that of Alfred T. Mahan. See: Mahan to Dewey, 29 October 1906.

Footnote 15: Courses at the Naval War College drew heavily on the various war plans against Spain devised by their colleagues. The first Naval War College plan was written in 1894 by Lt. Cmdr. Charles J. Train. For more information, see: Plan of Operation Against Spain Prepared by Lt. Cmdr. Charles J. Train.

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