More than Battles: Naval and Maritime History on The Yard in Annapolis

BJ Armstrong

A Class, U.S. Naval Academy, Late 19th Century. Detroit Publishing Company. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

There is an entire generation of naval officers who equate the phrase “sea power” with battle history and great guns firing on the high seas. For decades, they were taught that maritime history was a sequence of sea fights. The very title of the course they were taught on naval history at the U.S. Naval Academy, designed by famed professor E. B. Potter, was Sea Power. As retired Admiral and former Dean of the Fletcher School James Stavridis recently wrote:

When you walk through the gates at Annapolis, the first truly nautical course you take is called “Sea Power.” It is a survey course in global naval history, and over the course of plebe year, a midshipman will encounter dozens of battles that changed history, beginning with the epic Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. Lepanto, Trafalgar, Jutland, Midway, and many other conflicts at sea demonstrate again and again the importance of ocean battles in shaping history.

The class that introduced so many officers to the history of their profession was tactical and operational and occasionally moved into the strategic. It rarely was cultural, social, or economic, nor did it wrestle with historical concepts like contingency and differentiate between the heritage of the naval profession and its documented history.

Today, the curriculum and our approach to the naval past at the Naval Academy has moved beyond solely the “boats, battles, and bombs” focus on combat at sea that Admiral Stavridis remembers, and which he described in the opening of his recent review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent book Eye of the Storm. The course offered to first-year midshipmen in Sampson Hall in Annapolis today, which serves as their introduction to one element of the maritime past, the naval element, is retitled “American Naval History.” It continues to teach about the operational and tactical execution of naval combat. But it also grapples with the social and cultural history of the U.S. Navy, examines the organizational development of the command structure and shore establishment, and explores the relationships between naval power and the political and economic history of the United States.

In addition to understanding the Anaconda Plan or Nimitz’s instructions on calculated risk at the Battle of Midway, midshipmen must be prepared to lead a dynamic population of sailors and marines. And they will need to do so in a bureaucracy that has evolved over two centuries. This requires a broader knowledge of our naval past, and one that engages with how organizational culture and even race and gender have influenced the force they will be joining, in addition to whether or not “Halsey acted stupidly” at Leyte Gulf. Being a naval officer is about far more than action during wartime.

Poster for Annapolis, 1902. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

And yet, despite the academic rigor and wider aperture applied to how I teach naval history inside the high granite walls that surround “The Yard,” it is impossible to escape the heritage of this place. I teach in Sampson Hall, named for the commander at the Battle of Santiago in the Spanish-Cuban-American War at the dawn of what some have called the era of American Empire. Across the way is Rickover Hall, the home of engineering at USNA, of course. And the crypt beneath the famed chapel holds the alleged body of Captain John Paul Jones. This heritage has its own value. In his seminal essay on “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” Sir Michael Howard asserted that the myths of our military past can have value to service members. They are tools of inspiration and leadership as well as ways to provide cultural touchstones. The trick, of course, is to acknowledge the heritage for what it is, and not confuse it for a deeper knowledge or understanding of our maritime and naval history.

Teaching the vast field of maritime history is fundamental to the job of the History Department at USNA. And it is vast, with many ways to study it and areas on which to focus. Civilian and military professors, and military instructors from the fleet, all contribute to a broad examination of maritime topics. After completing their introduction with the freshman American Naval History class, midshipmen select courses that range from the Golden Age of piracy to the history of ships and engineering, including opportunities to study with a regional focus that highlights the maritime past in its global context, from Southeast Asia to Latin America and beyond. Maritime history is about so much more than navies, or the military and security presence on the sea, and midshipmen who major in history are exposed to the wider consideration of what power means on and from the sea.

Because it is almost impossible to escape the tension between heritage and history at an institution with professional responsibilities as well as academic ones, more often than not I embrace the dichotomy in my classes. The tension can be healthy, and a good way to occasionally surprise your students as you explain the real history behind some of the “professional knowledge” they are assigned to memorize. In today’s naval and military writing and thinking, in the pages of journals like the Naval Institute’s Proceedings and in contemporary strategic documents from the Pentagon, we read a great deal about a return to Great Power competition. Professional discussions often highlight the value of “critical thinking” and the knowledge of foreign affairs. The complexity of globalized markets and geopolitics has been rediscovered as the United States moves beyond what some historians have called the unipolar moment. And yet, anyone who has studied maritime history in width, depth, and context (to fall back on Howard again) is familiar with all of these elements of the past. As a result, maritime history broadly, and naval history more specifically, offers a chart to consult when trying to lay a course in the present as well as for understanding the past. Battles on the sea are an important part of that history and an important part of the profession that the midshipmen are joining. But only a part.

This post is offered in Commander Armstrong’s personal and academic capacity and does not reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Navy, or any government agency.

26 August 2019

About the Author

Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong is Assistant Professor and Permanent Military Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

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  1. Joshua Smith
    Joshua Smith says:

    BJ, I couldn’t agree more. Maritime history has so much to offer. Economic competition, environmental degradation, society, gender, race–you name it! Mahan, who served as a president of the AHA for a time, was aware that sea power went beyond operational history. Furthermore, he knew the study of sea power required knowledge of American history as well as global history. As I teach the students at my institution, for more than 100 years American sea power has started in Duluth, Minnesota with the pouring of taconite pellets into the holds of Great Lakes bulk carriers. No iron ore means no steel navy or merchant ships.
    Keep up the good work in getting the word out about maritime history.

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