Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Recent Reads: From Sail to Steam: Recollections of Naval Life by Alfred Thayer Mahan


Alfred Thayer Mahan shown late in his career (Naval History and Heritage Command)

By Dr. Ira Hanna
HRNM Docent

If any group of naval officers from any nation were asked what the name Mahan would bring to their minds, “Sea Power Wins Wars” would be their first choice. But Mahan’s life tells a lot more. From his first ship, the Congress, he learned what it felt like to be under “full sail.” Built in 1840, it represented the culmination of the era of sail. And from his last ship, the USS Wachusett, he became fully knowledgeable about being under “full steam.” This book is his story of how the U. S. Navy went from sail to steam power.

Mahan was born September 27, 1840, at West Point, New York, where his father was a professor at the Military Academy. Even so, he visited Norfolk often and became interested in the Navy and its ships. He always thought of himself as a Virginian. Although Mahan remained true to the Union during the “War of Secession,” he forever was influenced by the Chesapeake Bay. His father told him, “your mother is northern and very few can approach her, but still none compare for me the southern woman.” His father met Lafayette when he toured America in 1825-26 and spent time in France visiting him. His mother had a strong strain of French blood. Alfred said of himself that he was one half Irish, one quarter English, and “a good deal more than a trace of French.”

As a young boy, Mahan was fascinated by books written by the “old salts.” So it was not unusual that he chose to go to the Naval Academy rather than the Military Academy which his father preferred. In 1870, Mahan obtained command rank but was concerned with the “apathy” of the American people toward the navy. He called it a time of naval stagnation. That was when he began to read every book that told how sea power influenced the success of a nation, commercially as well as militarily.

By 1884, he had published a number of articles in popular magazines and become a regular lecturer at the Naval War College. He collected those articles and lectures into a book and in 1889 published The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660 – 1783. He continued to publish books that changed the way Americans, especially Congress and the President, felt about the need to build “a navy second to none.” Some of them were: The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793 -1812 (published in 1892); The Life of Nelson (1897); The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present, and Future (1897); and The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (1914). During his lifetime, Mahan authored over 40 books and before his death in 1914, predicted the defeat of the Central Powers and German Navy in World War I.

Although written in Victorian Era English with its hidden meanings, some revealing tales, and insights into the navy’s leadership, there is no doubt that Alfred T. Mahan influenced that leadership. The present navy reflects his belief that technological advances will influence what kind of ships will be built now and in the future in order for America to maintain its place as a world leader.

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