Duties of Officer Ranks in the US Navy?

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OldReliable1862

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What were the duties of individual ranks in the US navy in the Civil War period? I've seen several examples of ships as large as steam sloops being commanded by lieutenants, which would seem odd for a junior rank.
 

AndyHall

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A Navy Lieutenant is the equivalent of a Captain in the Army. It is one of the junior officer ranks, but not TOO junior. "Sloop" is a somewhat flexible term, that could be applied to vessels of widely-varying sizes. KEARSARGE, I believe, was classed as a "steam sloop," but under normal circumstances rate a more senior officer assigned to regular command. It would not be usual for a mere Lieutenant to be in command on a temporary basis if the regular CO was unexpectedly transferred, incapacitated, etc.

That doesn't really answer your question, I guess.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Well... it gets a bit involved, and has a lot to do with the prewar state of the naval officer corps. I'll try to be brief (really!)...

First, to take it back to the state at the beginning of the 1800s: the ideal is that a captain captains a ship, and a lieutenant assists him; and shadowing the lieutenant is a midshipman, who is an apprentice officer, basically. In the British Royal Navy there were admirals over the captains, but that smacks too much of aristocracy, and Congress refuses to countenance any rank above captain.

The number of captains and the number of lieutenants are fixed by legislation. Midshipmen appointments are made by Congressmen, often granted as favors to supporters among their constituents-- X is a big fundraiser, so get X's son an appointment as a midshipman. There's no academy, so the new midshipman buys his uniforms, reports aboard, and starts on-the-job training. After a probationary period, he receives his warrant (and is therefore a warrant officer), but the real aim is to pass his examination to be eligible to receive his commission from the President and be promoted to lieutenant-- then he'll be a professional naval officer for life, receiving pay no matter where he is and what he's doing (though of course, active sea duty pays the best and inactivity pays the least).

Since there are only a given number of slots authorized for captains, if they're all filled, the lieutenants need to wait for a vacancy to get promoted. Since there are no higher ranks than captain and no such thing as retirement, the only exits are resignation, dismissal, or death; and dismissals are fought tooth and nail with every legal trick in the book. So, pretty much, the lieutenants are waiting for the old captains to die off in order to take their places.

Same goes for the midshipmen and lieutenants... the midshipman may have passed his examinations and be fully eligible for promotion, but he needs a slot to open up above him in order to move up. Here's a catch, though: the number of captains and the number of lieutenants are fixed by law, but there's no such restriction on midshipman appointments; while at the same time, there's every incentive for Congressmen to keep making more midshipmen.

So, by about the 1830s-1840s, there was this logjam of aging captains, some too old to go to sea any more; waiting on their places were aging lieutenants; and a bunch of frustrated midshipmen. (In fact, the rank of "Passed Midshipman" is created, to indicate that the gentleman has passed his exams and is ready to move up when the next slot opens... and since the only officers fit to command are often Lieutenants, command of ships often goes to them, who are then referred to as "Lieutenants-Commanding".)

Lots of things are tried to correct this situation. There being no war to reduce the officer ranks by attrition, and few resignations, some push for the rank of admiral to be created to push the old men up out of the captains' slots... but no, "admirals" are too reminiscent of British aristocracy (and, really, the U.S. Navy seldom operates in squadrons large enough to need an actual fleet commander), so Congress won't hear of it. The concept of "retirement" is repeatedly floated, but is fought vigorously by the senior naval officers and their political allies, both because of the potential loss of income and because the implication of "retirement" is a feeble old man (which a number of those officers in fact are, but are unlikely to admit it). The only other thing would be to increase the number of captains and lieutenants authorized, but that's only a temporary pressure relief, and is also resisted by a budget-minded Congress. (The idea of taking midshipman appointment power away from Congressmen is [of course] never seriously entertained.)

Breaking here at this cliff-hanger...
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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There's a lot more to say here about the reform efforts in the mid-1800s, and I'll happily ramble on about it (and was about to)... but the key points are these: it's already normal for a lieutenant to command a major warship; and when the Navy expands drastically during the war and experienced officers are stretched to the limit, it's still normal for a lieutenant to command a major warship. (It's also normal for a Lieutenant to be a graying middle-aged man with twenty years of experience already.)
 

OldReliable1862

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There's a lot more to say here about the reform efforts in the mid-1800s, and I'll happily ramble on about it (and was about to)... but the key points are these: it's already normal for a lieutenant to command a major warship; and when the Navy expands drastically during the war and experienced officers are stretched to the limit, it's still normal for a lieutenant to command a major warship. (It's also normal for a Lieutenant to be a graying middle-aged man with twenty years of experience already.)
Thanks! By all means, please ramble away!
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Huzzah! License to ramble! :laugh:

So... you've seen the story thus far.

Enter at this point a number of Navy officers who were both reform-minded and had enough rank and seniority to be influential; and also their political allies in Congress. (Since nearly all midshipmen were made by Congress, they had a Congressional connection from the beginning, and so long as that politician stayed in office, the officers had that to pull on at least.) The key individuals in the efforts that would eventually be successful (there were a number of false starts and dead ends) were Captain Franklin Buchanan of Maryland, Commander Samuel Francis Du Pont of Delaware, and Senator Stephen R. Mallory of Florida.

Buchanan had been named the first commandant of the Naval School at Annapolis that quickly developed into the U.S. Naval Academy under his leadership. The founding of the Academy had significant Congressional opposition, and that's a story in and of itself... suffice to say that the Navy stole a march on Congress and set up the Academy, and Congress acquiesced. One effect here was to potentially regulate the intake of would-be officers into the Navy, because they had to go through the Academy curriculum first, and be subject to weeding out if they didn't make the grade.

Repeated efforts to create ranks higher than captain failed, until at last, just on the eve of the Civil War, the position of Flag Officer was created. (You can see the lengths to which they went to avoid the word "admiral"...)

The other, crucial wall that needed to be breached was the resistance against a retirement system. Du Pont and Mallory and others came up with the idea of a "Reserve" list that would shunt inactive officers off to the side, out of the main line of promotion, yet not stick them with the stigma of being "retired"-- as Du Pont said, they were still subject to recall at need to take a round for their country. They found an ally in Navy Secretary James C. Dobbin of North Carolina (interestingly, many of the leaders in the reform efforts were of Southern extraction, though not all). Dobbin was wary of causing too much of a ruckus and had to be propped up a bit by the others, but he was at least amenable to doing something, which had not been true of former Navy Secretaries. The result was the Naval Efficiency Board of 1855, which attempted to sort officers into "Active" and "Reserve" categories. Unfortunately, in the process, it was suggested that the board simultaneously recommend officers that should be put out of the service entirely, which mostly undid what the whole notion of "reserve" was trying to do, and a political firestorm erupted. I've told that story elsewhere... [ https://civilwartalk.com/threads/the-naval-efficiency-board-of-1855.85618/#post-662404 , with a bit of repetition of the above ]

When the war came along, and many Southern officers left to "go South," the population pressure on the U.S. Navy officer corps was eased... and then, the opposite condition resulted from the sudden expansion of the Navy, so that instead of too many officers there were too few, and Lieutenants ended up commanding ships again, but for a different reason. (Lincoln's Navy Secretary Gideon Welles did use the pressures of the war to make many of the reforms that had been impossible in peacetime, and the Navy emerged from the war with a full slate of Admirals, a retirement system, and a solid core of officers trained by the Academy.)
 
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USS Cumberland

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In the 1812 US Navy, in between the lieutenant and the captain, there was the rank of "Master Commandant", a senior lieutenant in command of a sloop or brig. His vessel had to rate at 18 guns at most, or the ship, by law, would have to be given over to a captain. This was why such successful heavy sloops of war, such as the Wasp of 1813, which carried 22 heavy guns in broadside, was rated at only 18 guns. The master commandant wore his single epaulet on the right shoulder, instead of the left, indicating he was in command of a vessel. He was called 'captain' while in command by courtesy. The equivalent rank in the British service was "Master and Commander" equivalent to the more modern "lieutenant commander".

A ship rated and twenty guns or more in the RN service, even if not quite a frigate, was called a "post ship", requiring a "post captain" to command her. These were the ubiquitous 24 to 28 gun quarterdeck ship sloops.

In the US navy, the permanent rank of "Commodore" was used for the most senior captains, like John Rogers, who sailed small squadrons at sea early in the war. Oliver Hazard Perry, Thomas MacDonough, and Issac Chauncey, who commanded squadrons on the inland lakes, were all Commodores. In the RN, this was a temporary title, used for frigate squadrons at sea, given (not always) to the senior-most captain, but the title vanished when the mission was over, and the senior captain went ashore. The British laughed at the Americans for using "commodore" as a permanent title.

The rank of commodore also gave its wearer a bigger piece of the prize money pie, close to an admiral's share.
 
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Talos

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Beg to differ, but "Commodore" was not a formal rank prior to 1862.
Quite so, nor was admiral a rank of any sort before the Civil War. Captain was the highest rank of the Navy, based entirely on seniority. Commodore was used as a courtesy title to designate which Captain was in charge of a squadron, but it was not an actual rank.

You're also right about the founding of the Naval Academy, definitely a story in and of itself. Alleged mutiny on the Somers brig in 1842, hanging three accused of conspiracy without a proper court-martial, including a midshipman who was the son of the standing Secretary of War at the time...it's no surprise the Navy was quick to modernize their education system and established the shore-based US Naval Academy.

There were issues finding the right balance of ships to match what officers they had on-hand. Interestingly, both Congress and Cumberland (a frigate and a razee sloop) were commanded by Lieutenants at the Battle of Hampton Roads. Congress had been under the command of Commander William Smith and had just handed off command to his first lieutenant, Lieutenant Joe Smith (no relation). Commander Smith was still on the ship when the battle took place, but Lt Smith was in command. Cumberland was commanded by Commander William Radford, who was onboard the frigate Roanoke at an inquiry when the battle began. He tried to get a horse to get back but missed the battle. Cumberland was instead fought by her first lieutenant, George Morris. Congress being commanded by a Commander is interesting, Ships of the line and frigates were normally Captain slots, while sloops (all the way up to the largest and razees by this point) were Commanders. Constitution was stripped of her spar deck guns for a while and rated as a sloop with a commander (though not actually razeed to match).
 
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USS Cumberland

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You're right. What I was referring to was the habit of the commodore title sticking to senior captains long after they had come ashore and their squadrons broken up. Hull, Bainbridge, Decatur, Perry and Rogers frequently retained the honorary commodore title, long after their sea service days were done, in a manner that the British seldom did.
 

LilRhody

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Huzzah! License to ramble! :laugh:

So... you've seen the story thus far.

Enter at this point a number of Navy officers who were both reform-minded and had enough rank and seniority to be influential; and also their political allies in Congress. (Since nearly all midshipmen were made by Congress, they had a Congressional connection from the beginning, and so long as that politician stayed in office, the officers had that to pull on at least.) The key individuals in the efforts that would eventually be successful (there were a number of false starts and dead ends) were Captain Franklin Buchanan of Maryland, Commander Samuel Francis Du Pont of Delaware, and Senator Stephen R. Mallory of Florida.

Buchanan had been named the first commandant of the Naval School at Annapolis that quickly developed into the U.S. Naval Academy under his leadership. The founding of the Academy had significant Congressional opposition, and that's a story in and of itself... suffice to say that the Navy stole a march on Congress and set up the Academy, and Congress acquiesced. One effect here was to potentially regulate the intake of would-be officers into the Navy, because they had to go through the Academy curriculum first, and be subject to weeding out if they didn't make the grade.

Repeated efforts to create ranks higher than captain failed, until at last, just on the eve of the Civil War, the position of Flag Officer was created. (You can see the lengths to which they went to avoid the word "admiral"...)

The other, crucial wall that needed to be breached was the resistance against a retirement system. Du Pont and Mallory and others came up with the idea of a "Reserve" list that would shunt inactive officers off to the side, out of the main line of promotion, yet not stick them with the stigma of being "retired"-- as Du Pont said, they were still subject to recall at need to take a round for their country. They found an ally in Navy Secretary James C. Dobbin of North Carolina (interestingly, many of the leaders in the reform efforts were of Southern extraction, though not all). Dobbin was wary of causing too much of a ruckus and had to be propped up a bit by the others, but he was at least amenable to doing something, which had not been true of former Navy Secretaries. The result was the Naval Efficiency Board of 1855, which attempted to sort officers into "Active" and "Reserve" categories. Unfortunately, in the process, it was suggested that the board simultaneously recommend officers that should be put out of the service entirely, which mostly undid what the whole notion of "reserve" was trying to do, and a political firestorm erupted. I've told that story elsewhere... [ https://civilwartalk.com/threads/the-naval-efficiency-board-of-1855.85618/#post-662404 , with a bit of repetition of the above ]

When the war came along, and many Southern officers left to "go South," the population pressure on the U.S. Navy officer corps was eased... and then, the opposite condition resulted from the sudden expansion of the Navy, so that instead of too many officers there were too few, and Lieutenants ended up commanding ships again, but for a different reason. (Lincoln's Navy Secretary Gideon Welles did use the pressures of the war to make many of the reforms that had been impossible in peacetime, and the Navy emerged from the war with a full slate of Admirals, a retirement system, and a solid core of officers trained by the Academy.)

What is not mentioned here is that U.S. Senator Stephen Mallory of Florida was Chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee in the mid and late 1850s. He was energetic, dedicated, and whatever improvements happened in shipbuilding and officer "weeding out" (and there was very little accomplished because of politics), is attributable to Stephen Mallory, the same Stephen Mallory who becomes Jefferson Davis' Secretary of the Navy, over the objections of many who believed Mallory was not sufficiently dedicated to the Confederate cause. (they were wrong).
 
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