Follow the Fleet

The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1805

by Alfred Thayer Mahan, abridged and edited, with an introduction and Anthony Preston
Prentice-Hall, 256 pp., $29.95

Alfred T. Mahan
Alfred T. Mahan; drawing by David Levine

The next compiler of a dictionary of British and American English would do the speakers of each a service if he included the proper name Mahan and the explanation that in Britain it is pronounced to rhyme with barn but in the United States with Japan. A considerable number of Transatlantic conversations would be rescued from foundering in the opening stages on mutual incomprehension. For Mahan is still a name to conjure with, both that of Dennis Hart, teacher of strategy to the generals, North and South, of the American Civil War, and his son Alfred Thayer, prophet of the creed of seapower to the Anglo-Saxon world.

Dennis, protégé of Sylvanus Thayer, the “Father of West Point,” taught there throughout his adult life. Indeed, so precocious was he that he was appointed an assistant professor while still following the course as a cadet. Though like many prodigies an imitator rather than an innovator, he propagated the ideas of his master, the early nineteenth-century Swiss general and military writer, Antoine Henri Jomini, and did so with such force and clarity that his teaching indelibly marked the professional practice of many of his pupils. By no means for the better: Jomini’s central idea, derived from a partial understanding of Napoleon’s methods, was that success in war turned on choosing the correct “line of operations” and dominating the theater of battle through which it ran. McClellan’s disastrous Peninsular campaign of 1862 is held to be the most perfect example of a Jominian campaign ever fought, admittedly by a temperamental defeatist. The great victories of the Civil War were won by two ex-pupils, Sherman and Grant, who flagrantly broke every one of the classroom rules. The professor nevertheless went to his grave (curiously a watery one) in the odor of military sanctity, and would still be remembered, at least in the professional circles, even had he died childless.

He had certainly by 1871 given no expectation that his son would add refulgence to the family name. Alfred was then a junior naval officer, unremarkable save for his religious scrupulosity and air of intellectual remoteness, enhanced by his great height. He continued unremarkable for the next twenty years, eking out an obscure career aboard a succession of decrepit naval ships whose romantic Fenimore Cooper names—Iroquois, Monocacy, Seminole, Wachusett—were the most warlike thing about them. Starved of money, like the navy itself, he took refuge in France when he was put on half pay. He then made his first shot at writing—about cathedral architecture—and it was the same financial want that prompted him in 1883 to accept a beggarly commission from Scribner’s for a volume in its history of the navy in the Civil War.

The rather pedestrian result nevertheless persuaded the first commandant of the new Naval War College that the author was the man to lecture its students on naval strategy, and he…

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