Considering The Naval History Diaspora

By: BJ Armstrong, CDR, USN, PhD.

Dr Armstrong discusses the state and dispersion of Naval history.


Two years ago, at the 2015 McMullen Naval History Symposium in Annapolis, MD, Dr Dave Rosenberg delivered the McMullen Sea Power Address to an evening plenary session.  Rosenberg was the Class of ‘57 Chair in Naval Heritage with the U.S. Naval Academy at the time, and he elected to deliver something of a “state of the field” address. As a visiting professor at the U.S. Navy’s educational homeport, and an experienced hand in the field both as a retired captain from the U.S. Naval Reserve and as a leading historian, Rosenberg was well qualified for the task. His assessment was that naval history was not doing well in the United States, or more specifically within the university ecosystem and academic sphere in the United States.

As we approach the next McMullen Symposium, Rosenberg’s thoughts on who studies naval history, and where they study it, came to mind while I was reading A. Roger Ekirch’s recent book American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution.  The book has been well reviewed, and there is a lot of material to think about packed in those 300 pages. We do not review books at the Laughton Review, but when I finished Ekirch’s work Rosenberg’s dim assessment of the state of naval history kept returning to my thoughts.

when I finished Ekirch’s work Rosenberg’s dim assessment of the state of naval history kept returning to my thoughts.

American Sanctuary uses the mutiny aboard HMS Hermione in the autumn of 1797 as the starting point for an examination of Early American political and legal history, delving into questions of American identity, immigration, and political partisanship. Historians who have examined these issues have tended to use the election of 1800 as their baseline event or narrative. Ekirch’s use of the aftermath of the Hermione incident, and the political fallout as some of the mutineers scrambled for safe haven in the United States, is fascinating. It also makes his book a work of naval and maritime history, despite the fact that the publishers do not appear to be advertising it as such. The first third of the book is the narrative and explanation of the mutiny, but even after the author brings the reader ashore the maritime connections in Early American society lay just below the surface. The United States was a maritime nation. Whether it still is one today may be open for debate, but there is no doubt about the nation that Ekirch writes about in his book.

The use of British naval history to provide the scaffolding for an examination of American legal and political history ends up working amazingly well.

I have just received the most recent editions of The Northern Mariner and Naval History magazine, which both had reviews that  claimed the book as naval history. (Who is responsible for identifying a piece of scholarship in this disciplinary way? The researcher? The publisher? That may be a question for another time.) This left me considering how often, or how well, naval and maritime historians do the same sort of thing. How well do we make those connections between the waterfront and seaborne history, which is the heart of our research, and the larger social or national historical questions that need examination? Do we believe, as Lincoln Paine has written, “all history is maritime history”? Because it seems that navies commonly are relegated to their own independent bubble, predicated by a focus on combat at sea in times of war.

Dr. Rosenberg suggested at McMullen that the field of naval history in the United States is in dire straits when measured by the number of naval historians hired into tenure-track academic jobs, or the number of self-described naval historians working in academia generally. This then extends to the number of professors available to supervise new graduate students who want to study naval affairs. He identified a real problem. As many of our recognized mentors and leaders in the field approach retirement, there is a very real possibility that their Departments will not replace them with dedicated, or self-identified naval historians. Much like our cousins in military history, naval historians have struggled in an already brutal humanities job market in the United States. This element of the state of the field is partially the responsibility of the wider historical discipline, but also partially the responsibility of naval historians and how we interact (or do not interact) with wider issues.

But this does not mean that there are not naval historians out there. They are just not identified as naval historians. Hired into History Departments at colleges and universities as historians of technology, or social historians, or environmental historians, there are many scholars who would quietly admit to considering themselves naval historians over a grog after standing their watch in the classroom, but who can never let their Tenure & Promotion committees hear them say it. I have struggled with a way to describe these scholars, to label them in some way. The best I have come up with is that they are our naval history diaspora, spread throughout the History Departments of the U.S. and other nations and quietly continuing their work. These are exactly the kinds of scholars who have positioned themselves to help expand perceptions of naval history within the wider historical field. If only we can make it safe for them to admit they are naval historians.

What could a diasporatic naval historian have brought to a work like Ekrich’s American Sanctuary? There are a number of things. First, there are some quibbles of maritime detail that a historian steeped in work on and around the sea would have handled differently. But more widely, as a historian of the Early American Navy myself, I was a bit flummoxed over how little attention was paid to the War with France in the book. It is mentioned only a handful of times, and only in passing.

Less than a year after the mutiny aboard Hermione, the U.S. and France became involved in what has come to be known as the Quasi War. (Labeled as such by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to recognize that it was an undeclared maritime conflict, and because in the years leading to WWII he did not want Americans thinking that France had ever been an enemy.) During the political wrangling and legal proceedings over Hermione mutineers who had been captured in American harbors in 1798 and 1799, it is hard to imagine that the conflict with France was not weighing on the minds of President Adams or other members of the executive. In the summer of 1798, Adams and Secretary of the Navy Stoddert organized a set of secret signals so that British and American warships could work together against their common French enemy. Yet none of the details related to active hostilities between the U.S. and France, an explicitly naval conflict, or how it influenced the Adams administration’s relationship to Britain, is discussed in the book.

In a specific example, American Sanctuary spends some time discussing the question of sovereignty aboard a warship at sea. In Congressional debates, and in American court rooms, politicians and lawyers asked whether the British government in London retained jurisdiction over a crime committed on the high seas. Particularly, they debated the status if the accused claimed to be an American citizen (as one of the mutineers falsely did.) The debate focused around the question of HMS Hermione’s status as a vessel of war.  This admittedly seems like a preposterous debate to many Britons, or historians of later periods.  However, these were discussions that fit in the Early American explorations of freedom and liberty that became a wider issue with the advent of the French Revolution.  Old assumptions were regularly questioned in the era.

Not being a naval historian, Ekrich appears to miss the fact that in the question of sovereignty of warships at sea, the shoe was also on the other foot. In November of 1798, a small British squadron under the command of Captain John Loring aboard HMS Carnastic stopped an American convoy off the north coast of Cuba. The U.S. sloop of war Baltimore escorted the merchants, but Captain Loring refused to recognize Captain Isaac Philips status as an American warship. (Admittedly, the American’s papers were not exactly in order because the ship had sailed in such haste at the start of the war.)  Despite the unofficial alliance in the conflict against France, Loring sent his press-gangs aboard the American ships and removed seventy men, including from the decks of Baltimore, a sovereign American warship.

In the diplomatic exchanges that followed between Washington and London, the American government asserted the sovereign status of their warship. London eventually disavowed Loring’s behavior. But even then, Secretary Stoddert cashiered Captain Phillips from the U.S. Navy for not defending his ship and his convoy. How could Americans assert their sovereignty on the high seas, but then claim His Majesty’s Ships did not have the same? Ekrich’s examination of the issue leaves this question, potentially an important part of how the Adams administration worked out their policy on the Hermione mutineers, entirely unexamined.  But it is a question that I expect naturally presents itself to naval historians, rather than political or revolutionary historians who have delved into naval records and archives.

Observing that American Sanctuary’s ignores of the Quasi War is not so much a critique of Ekrich or the excellent book he has produced.  It may, in reality, be a quibble, since I have not immersed myself in the sources deep enough to tell if it actually did have an impact.  Instead of a criticism it is offered as an illustration of how naval historians can bring insights and knowledge to larger projects and larger historical inquiries.

Books like American Sanctuary should offer inspiration to naval historians, both in the United States and globally. Rather than seeing a historian of the Revolutionary Era like Ekrich as an interloper in naval research, perhaps we should see this as a model that we need to flip on its head. It will be interesting to hear the results of this month’s conference on the state of maritime history at Greenwich in the UK, and how much the British segment on the field is focused on these kinds of questions.

The American naval history diaspora is particularly well suited to consider efforts for naval history to engage with wider political, economic, social, and cultural issues that are important to national or world history.

They are also well positioned, with the knowledge to help raise the profile of naval and maritime history, and its connections and contributions to the wider endeavor of researching, writing, and teaching history.By doing so over time, we may be able to help more scholars return the phrase “naval historian” to their byline bios and departmental webpages.



Dr “BJ” Armstrong CDR USN completed his PhD in 2016-2017. He is an assistant Professor in the History Department of the United States Naval Academy. 

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