“Preserved Lumber”

June 20, 1885

Thomas Nast

“Preserved Lumber”

Business Scandals; Business, Shipping; Federal Government Scandals; Presidential Cabinet, Secretary of the Navy; U.S. Military;

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The board of investigation was forced to the following conclusion: "That the art of preserving timber has no practical value whatever."

This cartoon is part of a series by Thomas Nast that criticizes the feeble state of the United States Navy.  Here, he blames former Navy Secretaries George Robeson (left; 1869-1877) and William Chandler (right; 1882-1885), who appear encased in glass as "preserved lumber" on the "Navy Department shelf."

For decades following the conclusion of the Civil War, America's tiny navy was not only far smaller than the navies of European powers but even lagged behind countries such as Turkey and Chile.  It was also increasingly outdated, lacking steel ships and other competitive advantages.  The modernization and expansion of the U.S. Navy was impeded by several factors:  a traditional American aversion to a large peacetime military, debates over what strategy should be pursued (defensive, offensive, or balanced) and thus what type of vessels should be built, budget-conscious congressional appropriations that left the Navy under-funded, and charges of corruption in shipbuilding contracts and other areas of Navy Department operations.

The Navy was already in disrepair when Robeson became secretary in 1869.  He had difficulty getting Congress to allocate sufficient monies for upkeep, thereby forcing him to cut costs. In the election year of 1876, House Democrats initiated numerous investigations of the Grant administration, including possible corrupt practices by Secretary Robeson.  The main charge stemmed from the activities of Alexander Cattell & Co., a firm that gained profitable contracts from Robeson's Navy Department and offered itself as an influence broker for other companies doing business with the Navy.  The Cattells had clearly furnished Robeson with favors, including substantial loans, repayment of large debts, and real estate.  Still, no direct evidence linked Robeson or his subordinates to influence peddling or to any questionable Navy contracts.

William Hunt, who was briefly Navy secretary in 1881 under President James Garfield, established a Naval Advisory Board headed by Rear Admiral John Rodgers.  The Rodgers Board proposed a Naval program that emphasized rebuilding, including using steel rather than iron or wood.  In March 1882, the House Naval Affairs Committee recommended that Congress fund 15 ships.  Many congressmen and journalists, however, attacked the alleged corruption and wastefulness of the Navy Department, so the full Congress only approved the construction of two ships.

But Hunt's successor as Navy secretary, William Chandler, argued against building one of the approved ships, which were large and expensive, and instead recommended construction of medium-sized vessels.  Besides being conscious of Congressional resistance to Naval expenditures, Chandler favored the traditional Naval strategy that balanced defensive and offensive military capabilities.  Many in Congress, especially among the majority House Democrats, preferred a wait-and-see approach, stressing that funding would be wasted if advances in naval technology outpaced construction.

Chandler appointed a second Naval Advisory Board, chaired by Commander Robert Shufeldt, which reflected the secretary's preference for strategic balance over innovation.  In January 1883, debates on the Shufeldt Board's recommendations revealed an important attitudinal shift in which some congressmen assailed the Board and Chandler for failing to advance a larger, modernized Navy.  In March 1883, Congress appropriated funds for construction of the ABCD ships:  Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Dolphin.  Those favoring an expanded Navy saw it as a starting place, while those opposed viewed it as a proper limit.

In order to be large, fast, and inexpensive, the ships were unarmored and lightly armed.  At the time this cartoon appeared, the tests for the Dolphin were proving to be disastrous, and the press was having a field day.  During its first trial, the ship's shaft broke; the second trial was officially deemed satisfactory, although rumors questioned the report's veracity; and in the third trial, the crank pin overheated, so that the engines had to be stopped.  A fourth trial was scheduled.  When finally put into service, the Dolphin served not as a warship, but as an excursion boat for government officials and journalists whom the Navy needed to court.

Despite their limitations and problems, the ABCD ships can be identified as the beginning of the new Navy. By the end of 1885, Navy Secretary William Whitney and Congressional supporters had adopted a new strategy for the Navy:  that the best defense is a good offense. In 1886, Congress approved construction of the battleships Texas and Maine, and the expansion and modernization of the U.S. Navy was underway.  It would not be until five years later that Alfred Mahan, president of the Naval War College, published his book, The Influence of Sea-Power on History, which is often credited with inspiring the modern American Navy.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Preserved Lumber”
February 22, 2024

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