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Remembering Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce

Rear Adm. Stephen B. Luce was the founder of the Naval War College.

By David Kohnen, Ph.D., Director, John B. Hattendorf Center for Maritime Historical Research and U.S. Naval War College Museum

The founder of the Naval War College,  Rear Adm. Stephen B. Luce, died of natural causes in Newport, Rhode Island at the salty age of ninety years old … and what a wonderful life he lead!

A true sailor and scholar, Luce drew from personal experience to recognize the interrelationship between professional education and practical experience in shaping the vision which fueled the development of the U.S. Navy of the twenty-first century.

Luce established the Naval War College after many years of service before the mast. Having entered the service in 1841, he “learned the ropes” without the benefit of formal technical training or educational foundation. Luce eventually attended the U.S. Naval Academy and sailed the seven seas to attain a global perspective during the antebellum period, sailing on scientific expeditions to the farthest reaches of the known world, conducting anti-slavery operations off the coast of Africa, and participating in the first formal American naval expeditions to Japan and into Chinese waters.

Scientific exploration inspired Luce to develop deep interest in the arts and human cultures. Given the close comradely experience of service at sea in distant waters, Luce also lamented the decision of fellow naval officers who “went south” during the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865.

From friendships established in battle and in the doldrums of blockading duty off the shores of the Confederacy in the Civil War, Luce became the mentor of close circle of like-minded visionaries within the ranks.  In particular, Luce’s protege, Lt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, drew perspective from historical studies. Among others, Luce first introduced Mahan to read the works of British maritime historians, including Sir John Knox Laughton of King’s College London and Spenser Wilkinson of Oxford University. Luce also introduced Mahan to the ideas of their fellow American, brevet U.S. Army Brigadier General Emory Upton.

Midshipman Stephen B. Luce. Oil on wood, 24 x 12, by Alexander James (1890-1946).

Together, Luce and Mahan envisioned the Naval War College to serve as an international forum for scholarly discussion about concepts of “sea power” and the future military policy of the United States. Drawing from historical studies, they recognized a new mission for the U.S. Navy in the global maritime arena. Luce successfully lobbied the Navy Department to establish the Naval War College in 1884. Five years hence, Luce framed a global mission within the text of “Our Future Navy,” which appeared in an 1889 edition of The North American Review. “History, as a means of instruction in the art of war, is obviously of the highest value”, he observed that it is “only by a philosophical study of military and naval history that we can discover those truths.”

In the century since the passing of our Naval War College founder, the ideas Luce articulated in his lifetime remain relevant in the twenty-first century. “Shutting our eyes to the lessons of history,” Luce warned his students over a century ago, “is to be unscientific in one’s own profession, which, in these days, is to be culpably ignorant, if not criminal.” Luce also warned practitioners that “all naval operations are strategic, not to make war but to avert the prospect.”

Luce would assuredly be proud to know that his Naval War College is still thriving and producing naval strategic thinkers who will draw from the past in navigating the uncharted future waters of the twenty-first century.  Indeed, he once observed that “naval strategy adopts some of its most important measures during peace.” With this thought in mind, we should all take a moment to remember Admiral Luce … may he rest in peace.