California Naval History
The Genesis of the Naval Reserve
Mark J. Denger, California Center for Military History

Contrary to what often appears to be a general opinion among most Naval Reservists today, the United States Naval Reserve as we know now view it did not originate as a Federal force. In fact, today's modern Naval Reserve is a step-child of the militia forces of the National Guard. It originated from the National Guard concept of a volunteer Militia, formed into companies, and created by citizen-soldiers of the States, who had a longing for the sea.

The concept of a volunteer Militia unit was confirmed in the Uniform Militia Act of 1792, which prescribed flank companies of grenadiers, light infantry, or riflemen for the "common" Militia battalions and a company of artillery and a troop of horse for each division, to be formed of volunteers from the Militia at large and to be uniformed and equipped at the individual volunteer's expense. Thus, from within the national Militia structure emerged a corps of "citizen" soldiers who enjoyed military exercise, and the pomp and circumstance accompanying it, and who were willing to sacrifice both the time and the money necessary to enjoy it.

Since the members were volunteers, they were ready to submit to discipline up to a point; they trained rather frequently; many of the officers made an effort to educate themselves militarily; they chose their own officers; and their relative permanency gave rise to an excellent espirt de corps. Many of these organizations served as private military clubs, and differed from other male social and fraternal groups only in externals.

The opening of the West in the decades following the War of 1812 brought an important change in the organization of the Army. Experience having shown that infantry were at a distinct disadvantage when pitted against the fleetly mounted Indians. By 1832 mounted rangers soon began to replace infantry. The mounted arm had come to stay in the Army. In 1836, during the second Seminole War, increasing demands for surveying and mapping services resulted in the creation of the Corps of Topographical Engineers as a separate entity. At the start of the War with Mexico Congress leaned heavily on volunteer units, with the hard core of the Regulars remaining unchanged.

Likewise, the need for a Naval Reserve was first recognized by Naval leaders prior to the War of 1812. A Bill providing for such a Reserve organization was introduced in Congress during Jefferson's period in office but it failed to pass. During the War of 1812, the problem of getting men to go to sea was not so acute as was the need for ships to send to sea. Thus the ships of the small U.S. Navy of 1812 competed only with the American privateers in recruiting seasoned seagoing personnel.

It was not until the late 1870's before a need for a Naval Reserve force began to emerge. Beginning in the seventies, two movements set the stage for the formation of the Naval Militia. The first was the Federal government's first concrete act in three-quarters of a century to increase the efficiency of the National Guard with the passage of Secretary of War William C. Endicott's act of February 12, 1887. This act doubled the annual appropriations to the National Guard. This "reform" impetus also struck the Navy. Many of the younger officers saw the need for a more modern navy. This "reform" movement saw the creation of the War College and the formation of the Naval Institute in 1873, which further promoted the "advancement of professional and scientific knowledge in the Navy."

Despite the Navy's increase in size and technological efficiency in the eighties, the Navy Department was still reluctant to depart from its traditional wartime policy of "coastal-defense" and "commerce raiding." The Navy justified its peacetime existence by protecting American commercial interests overseas and, to this end, naval officers advocated a larger merchant marine, financed by government subsidies.

Most of the Naval Reserve schemes proposed by active and retired officers in the eighties sought to organize, in some fashion, the seafaring classes of the nation, and to add retired officers and men to the reserve pool. This sentiment led to Senator Washington Curran Whitthorne of Tennessee to "launch" the Naval Reserve and Naval Militia movement by introducing a bill "to create a Naval Reserve of auxiliary cruisers, officers and men from the Mercantile Marine of the United States" on February 17, 1887. Even though this first attempt to create a Naval Reserve ended in failure, Whitthorne would again introduce a similar bill in 1888 calling for both a trained reserve of men, and a subsidized reserve of ships. However, this too ended in failure.

Gradually, there emerged two different schools of thought, one advocating a national organized reserve of individuals under the direct control of the Secretary of the Navy and the President, and the other advocating a state militia controlled only by the governor and existing in organized units like the National Guard.

Aside from the maritime and naval establishments, there was yet a third group supporting the idea of a Naval Reserve or Naval Militia, the nation's yachtsmen. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, Yacht Clubs became important social organizations on both the East and West Coast for the wealthy and near wealthy. While these yachtsmen were sincere in their efforts to help the Navy, most were interested in the social prestige attached to being affiliated with a Naval Militia or Reserve.

Despite the efforts of those who wanted a Naval Reserve force under the operational control of the U.S. Navy, the politics of the day dictated a State-controlled Naval Militia. Thus, early on, an emphasis on State-controlled Naval Militia organizations patterned after the National Guard, supplied and assisted by the U.S. Navy Department became the wave of the day.

The Formation of a Naval Militia

Although Senator Whitthorne failed to get a national Naval Militia organization authorized on the Federal level, his efforts stimulated a great deal of activity on the state and local level. That same year, in 1888, civilian Naval enthusiasts from New York turned to the New York Adjutant General and that State's legislature for authority to organize a Naval Militia. However, despite the initial claims of New York, the honor of forming the first Naval Militia goes to the state and commonwealth of Massachusetts.

In Boston, Mr. E. B. McClellan and Mr. J. C. Soley, supported by their fellow members of the Dorchester Yacht Club, took the matter straight to the Adjutant General of the Massachusetts National Guard. Massachusetts' Constitution already allowed for a Naval Militia by making the Governor its "Captain General, Commander in Chief and Admiral of the land and sea forces of the State." Nevertheless, a formal bill was passed by the State's legislature on March 17, 1888, providing for four Naval Companies to be known as the Naval Battalion of Volunteer Militia. Its first unit was formed on March 28, 1890.

Meanwhile, in New York, the story was much the same, but the naval officers and yachtsmen there were soon joined by the Board of Trade and Transportation. Advised by a number of prominent national figures like Admiral Porter, John McAllister Schofield, the Commanding General of the Army, and other Militia supporters, they were able to persuade New York to pass its Naval Militia Act on July 14, 1889, creating a Naval Battalion despite the objections of the governor who felt that naval defense was the province of the federal government. A provisional Battalion was organized in New York City on October 28, 1889. However, as this Battalion was not officially mustered-in until June 28, 1891, the honor of becoming the first Naval Militia was bestowed upon Massachusetts.

Like Massachusetts, here on the West Coast, California's 1849 Constitution had provided authority for both an "army and navy of this State." However, the formation of a naval militia force in this state was not made until 1891. That year, California, by an act of the Legislature entitled: "An act to establish a naval battalion, to be attached to the National Guard of California," formally authorizing the formation of the State's Naval Militia. The act, formally approved on March 31, 1891, provided for "four companies of naval militia, which shall constitute a battalion, to be known as the Naval Battalion of the National Guard." By the end of August, 1891, the first company of naval reserves on the Pacific coast where sworn in, making California the first of the Pacific states to muster a Naval Militia force. On September 3, 1891, California became the third state to form a Naval Militia in the nation.

A article entitled: "The National Guard of California," written by then Brigadier-General C. C. Allen, Adjutant-General of the State of California [1890-1894], and published in The Californian, 1891-1892, Vol. I, pp. 541-563, provides us with an interesting first-person account of the National Guard of California and the then newly formed Naval Battalion of the National Guard.

"Last winter the Legislature authorized the formation of an additional force to be attached to the National Guard, to be known as the Naval Battalion. It is composed of four companies, or, more properly, divisions, of eighty men each-one in San Diego, Lieutenant T. A. Nerney, and Divisions B, C and D, commanded by Lieutenants J. J. Fitzgerald, C. A. Douglas and L. H. Turner. Lieutenant-Commander Fred B. Chandler commands the battalion. This organization is designed to fit men for the Navy, the new armed vessels requiring an entirely different class of men from the old sailing ships. Already there is a demand for new seamen such as will be educated in this battalion to man the new sea-coast defense vessels being constructed in San Francisco. The general Government arms the battalion, but the men are required to furnish their own uniforms. Following the old policy of doing things only by halves, as in case of the National Guard, the Government simply supplies the arms and says, ‘now go and fit yourselves for seamen; we will want you one of these days.' Thanks to the liberality of the citizens of San Diego and San Francisco, the entire force is now well equipped. The Secretary of the Navy has notified the Adjutant-General's office that the allotment of arms has been made to this State, (which is in excess of that of any other, we having already mustered more men than either New York or Massachusetts) and that a vessel will soon be placed in the harbor of San Francisco, to be used by the battalion for purposes of drill. It will have boats and heavy guns, and a naval officer will be detailed to instruct the men in practical seamanship, gunnery, etc. A majority of the officers have had sea service in the Navy and marine, and are discharging their duties in a satisfactory manner. No provision has been made by the State for payment of armory rents and other expenses, but the officers have given liberally of their private means for this purpose. The organization should have aid from the State, and should receive the cordial support of the people of the cities in which it is located.

The command is under orders of the Commander-in-Chief, and is governed so far as practicable, by the rules and regulations of the National Guard."

The expansion of Massachusetts' Militia to Naval crews, closely followed by New York, California, North Carolina and Rhode Island, goaded the Navy Department to make appropriations for the "arming and equipping naval militia." On August 23, 1892, B. F. Tracy, Secretary of the Navy, reported that the Naval Appropriation Act, approved July 19, 1892, had the following provision: "For arms and equipment connected therewith for naval militia of various States, under such regulations as the Secretary of the Navy may prescribe, $25,000 ...," thereby providing necessary funding for the equipment of these newly formed naval militias.

By 1893, California's Naval Battalion of the National Guard consisted of "four companies of naval militia, with headquarters at San Francisco." It had "a total strength of 23 officers and 280 seamen," making it the largest naval militia in the country, exceeding even New York and Massachusetts.
As the Naval Militia movement grew in these States and spread to other Atlantic, Gulf, Pacific Coast and Great Lake States, appropriations were increased parsimoniously and ships were lent to these Naval Militia organizations, along with necessary material and equipment. An "Office of Naval Militia" soon appeared in the Navy Department's organizational charts.

The Organization of the Naval Militia

After the defeat of the Whitthorne bills in 1897 and 1898, the Navy Department continued to press for a national reserve of ships and men, but quickly learned to live with a Naval Militia under the National Guard.

A number of people, mostly outside the Naval Militia, felt that the units should be trained as infantrymen since they would normally supplement the National Guard in riot and strike duty. Others felt that the primary purpose of the Naval Militia was to train "bluejackets" capable of going to sea with the Fleet in time of war. The third and intermediate school decided that "by fitting ourselves for coast and harbor defense, we would be prepared to render the best service, both to the states and to the national authorities."

Another article published in The Californian, 1893, Vol. IV, pp. 548-559, by W. F. Burke, an Ensign in Company B of the Naval Battalion of the National Guard, describes the training of the Naval Militia as follows:

"The Naval Battalion occupies a peculiar position in its relation to the military forces, both regular and militia, and the naval forces of the United States. It partakes of the properties of all, and yet the true reserve man is every inch a sailor. Following the theory of the organization to its logical conclusion, the finished reserve man should be a fighter of the first order. He must know the duties of a sailor on shipboard, first of all; he must know how to land on a beach or rocky shore, and that, too, in the face of an enemy; then when he lands he becomes a soldier, and a soldier's duties and the theory of land warfare must be familiar to him. He must be a good shot with his rifle, whether on solid ground, on the rolling deck of a ship, or in the swaying ‘top' at the mast head. He must understand machine guns, torpedoes and powder in all its forms; he must be able to use his cutlass and revolver with deadly effect, and above all, those long black, wicked looking naval breech loaders must be as familiar to his hand and eye, as his vessel itself. He must be a sailor at sea, a soldier on land, a sharp-shooter in the top, a gunner on deck, and at home efficient in any or all of his numerous characters."

Until the Spanish-American War, coastal and harbor defense duty became the accepted and most likely wartime function of the Militia. This view was based upon three schools of thought. In the first place, few Naval Militia units had many seamen at all, and the only vessels available for extensive training were small craft. Secondly, the idea of a local defense force coincided with Navy Department thinking until the eve of the Spanish-American War. It was thought that "by fitting ourselves for coast and harbor defense, we would be prepared to render the best service, both to the states and to the national authorities." However, the third school of thought was that the primary purpose of the Naval Militia was to train bluejackets capable of going to sea with the Fleet in time of war. Thus, many of the Naval Militias were trained to meet all of these possible duties, although attempts were made to standardize training.

Secretary of the Navy B. F. Tracy, for example, envisioned the "harbor defense ship" as "the rallying point, the armory, the drill hall, the parade ground, and the naval school" of those men in the organization of these Naval Militias. At the same time, Tracy and others expounded the idea that a part of the Militia might consist of technical specialists, such as electricians. The new Navy possessed only a few real experts of its own, and a body of trained professionals was thought to be invaluable assets to the Navy. Several units actively recruited mechanics, electricians and other technical specialists to meet this need. The Rhode Island Naval Militia became a torpedo unit and frequently trained at the Navy's torpedo school on Coaster's Island near Newport.

Federal appropriations soon made the Naval Militia different from the National Guard. They reaffirmed that the primary function of the Naval Militia was to serve the needs of the Navy rather than those of the state governments. Although signs of mutual resentment showed up even before the war with Spain, relations between the Navy and the Naval Militia were, on the whole, much closer and more cordial than those between the Army and the National Guard.

In the summer of 1892, the Navy began the annual practice of training militiamen with short summer cruises on naval warships. Also in that year, a number of militiamen from Massachusetts and Rhode Island went for training to the torpedo school at Newport, and selected officers began attending the Naval War College in 1896. The summer cruises were the backbone of the training routine as far as the Navy was concerned, and were supervised by professional officers who not only instructed each of the state units, but issued comprehensive reports on their progress as well.

Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War provided the first true test of the Naval Militia. As in past wars, the organized militias of the several States provided men for the Army, and National Guard units of these States were encouraged to volunteer en masse. During this conflict, the National Guard units of the several States provided most of the manpower for the 125,000-man Volunteer Army.

Likewise, the Naval Battalions of the National Guard or Naval Militias of the several States were eager to provide the manpower for the U.S. Navy. However, as the Navy Department soon discovered, neither it nor the President had legal authority to call up the Naval Militia who were responsible only to the Governors of their respective states.

On 26 May, Congress allowed the Chief of the United States Auxiliary Naval Force, Commander John R. Bartlett, upon the consent of the Governor, to "muster into the said force, the whole or any part of the organizations of the Naval militia of any State. . . ." The Governor of California responded by granting its Naval Militiamen a leave of absence from their units, so that the Federal government could enlist them.

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, no less than eighteen States of the Union had Naval Militia units that entered the service of the Federal government in that war. They were California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.

The Naval Militia provided some 263 officers and 3,832 enlisted men to the Navy in the war. About half of these men made up the Coast Signal Service.
Even before the outbreak of war, based on the proposals of the War College, the Navy had prepared for the formation of a "mosquito flotilla," manned by captains and crews from the Naval Militia. This "flotilla" was designated as the United States Auxiliary Naval Force, which was later placed under Commander Bartlett, who took as his aide, Naval Militia officer Lieutenant Herbert L. Satterlee. Leaning on Satterlee's recommendations, Bartlett appointed some senior Militia officers to command Coast Defense Districts. Among them, William E. Gunn, Lieutenant, from the Second Division of the California Naval Militia, who was appointed Assistant to Chief, U.S. Auxiliary Naval Force, Ninth District (Pacific Coast of U.S.), with headquarters at San Francisco.

Transformation of the Naval Militia

Following the Spanish-American War, the Navy Department's attempt to create a Federal Naval Militia, or Naval Reserve, met with very little success.
From its early beginning , the United States relied heavily on the Naval Militia as its reserve force. However, it was evident that the naval militias of the several States could not fill the need for a second or innerline of defense in case of a national emergency as they were purely State organizations, organized and controlled by State law. The Federal Government, represented by the Navy Department, had no direct control in the naval militia matters of the state. In effect, Congressional appropriations and Navy vessels and equipment were used by the several Naval Battalions of the National Guard as the State saw fit. This caused the Secretary of the Navy, George V. L. Meyer, in 1906, to write:

"...Beyond a few men on the retired list, for the most part too old to render effective service, we have no other reserve that the officers and men of the Naval Militia of the several States... we have about 6,000 naval militia organized by the different States bordering on the sea and on the Great Lakes. These small groups, while enthusiastic and generally efficient, are not under central control and training. The formation of a national naval militia, on the lines of the land militia, is a necessity and legislation is required to accomplish this."

By the year 1907, California's Naval Battalion of the National Guard had now grown to a total of eight divisions consisting of 52 commissioned officers and 382 enlisted men.

In 1911, the Department of the Navy submitted to the 61st Congress a draft of a bill embodying its idea for the legal establishment of a naval reserve of officers and men (introduced as S. 7644 and H.R. 24942) entitled: "A bill to provide for a reserve of personnel for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and for its enrollment...". However, it was not until February 16, 1914, when "An Act to Promote the Efficiency of the Naval Militia and for Other Purposes," often referred to as the "Naval Militia Act," was written into the Federal statutes. The result was the April 12th, 1914 publication of Navy Department's General Order No. 93, which established a Division of Naval Militia Affairs in the Navy Department.

About all the 1914 legislation had accomplished was the application of the principles of the 1903 Dick Act for the National Guard to the Naval Militia units of the States.

The Navy Department's General Order No. 153, of July 10, 1915, provided the statement that the Navy Department was to: "so organize, arm, uniform, equip the Naval Militia that it may be eligible to be called forth by the President of the United States to serve the United States in the event of war...."
Additionally, General Order No. 153 also encouraged former enlisted men of the Navy and Marine Corps to enter the Naval Militia, and so as to avoid interfering with the promotion of enlisted men of the Naval Militia who had no previous Navy or Marine Corps service, the Order provided that: "Any former enlisted man of the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps who is in good standing in the community and who was honorably discharged will be allowed to enter the Naval Militia without professional examination in any unit of organization or headquarters of a brigade or of a battalion, with such rate or rank as he last held in the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps...."

Passage of the Naval Militia Act of February 16, 1914, finally began to give the Navy Department control of the Naval Militia. The Division of Naval Affairs soon replaced the Office of Naval Militia in the Navy Department. With this stimulus the Navy Department secured the passage of the additional legislation of March 3, 1915. This legislation, passed by the 63rd Congress, provided for a larger Navy and the creation of the Naval Reserve designed merely to retain in a reserve the men who had been honorably discharged from the Regular Navy. A small retainer pay was established. With expansions and modifications under the Act of August 29, 1916, the U.S. Naval Reserve continued alongside the Naval Militia units of the States.

Although the Naval Militia performed fairly well in their unfamiliar role as deep sea sailors, the Navy used the Spanish-American War experience to plead once more for a national "Naval Reserve." Secretary John D. Long advocated a "Naval Reserve" made up from those who had served in the Navy in the recent war, and from the various seafaring classes, to be maintained by Federal appropriations and to be subject to the call of the National Government in time of war. On the other hand, the Navy did not wish to abolish the Naval Militia, but to return the organization to its prewar role of manning coastal and harbor defenses.

World War I was the highpoint and climax of the Naval Militia Movement. The Naval Militiamen had proved their worth to the country and to the Navy during the Spanish-American War. Even the Naval Militia's most persistent critics acknowledged their value as a coastal defense organization. The Naval Militia could not survive without Federal appropriations, because in thirty years of existence, from 1888 to 1918, it never demonstrated to the states any political advantage in maintaining seagoing National Guardsmen.

By November 1918, the end of World War I, approximately 20,000 officers and 280,000 enlisted members would be designated as Reservists serving alongside 230,000 active-duty Regular Navy personnel at sea and ashore. What was to follow with the passage of the Naval Act of 1920, which in effect, overshadowed the Naval Militia, soon superseded the Naval Militias by the formation of the Naval and Marine Corps Reserves. The entire structure was completely reorganized in the Naval Reserve Act of 1938.

After thirty years of existence, the Naval Militia had not brought the Navy into the mainstream of the American military tradition of the citizen-soldier, but it came closer to fulfilling the ideals of that tradition than any other organization before or since.

From its humble beginnings, and on into the twentieth century, the Naval Militia was unique in that it held a dual and paradoxical view of itself. Dedicated to the ideal of the citizen-soldier concept conceived by the National Guard, it nevertheless felt a certain selectness, in many ways the same "elite" feeling long cherished by the Navy itself. Unlike the National Guard, the Naval Militia seldom felt threatened by the regular services, and wholeheartedly subscribed to the theory that its primary duty was to help the Navy in time of war. Ultimately, of course, the nature of sea warfare doomed the Naval Militia, despite the belated application of the Dick Act, embodying the principle of Federal control, to the Naval Militia in 1914. With the establishment of the modern Naval Reserve in 1915, the Navy Department saw little future need for the citizen-sailor not under their direct control. Even so, our modern day Naval and Marine Corps Reserves are merely the successors of their National Guard brothers of the Naval Militia over 100 years ago. Not just by name, for, in the final analysis, the Naval Battalion of the National Guard and the subsequent Naval Militia were in fact the "Naval Reserves" of their day.

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Updated 8 February 2016