FDR and the Naval History Society
By DAVID F. WINKLER
Upon completion of the world
cruise of the Great White Fleet
a century ago, a meeting was convened at the New York Yacht Club to
discuss formation of an American
naval history society. The senior
attendee, Rear Adm. Caspar Goodrich, had recently retired from the
post of commandant of the New
York Navy Yard after previously serving two tours as president of the
Naval War College. Franklin D.
Roosevelt, at the time a lawyer in
New York City, served as the meeting’s secretary. John Sanford Barnes
was unanimously elected president.
As with other American naval
institutions, the Naval History Society had a British forebear. Founded in 1893 by a small
group of historians, naval officers, publicists and states-men, the British Navy Records Society sought to publish
original materials on the history of the Royal Navy, as
the basis for the development of policy and doctrine.
American naval strategist Alfred T. Mahan joined as one
of the Navy Records Society’s first overseas members.
The Navy Records Society would persevere as a
resource for serving officers, scholars and all those
interested in British naval history and the development
of naval power. Details about the organization can be
viewed at www.navyrecords.org.uk/.
The Naval History Society’s founding president, ironically, was born at West Point, N.Y., in 1836. The son of
an Army officer, Barnes entered the U.S. Naval Academy
at Annapolis, Md., at the age of 14 and graduated with
the class of 1854. After several sea tours and a stint teaching ethics at the academy, he left the Navy in 1858 to pursue a career as a lawyer.
However, with the onset of the Civil War, he rejoined
the Navy and held commands of several Union warships. In 1863, he married Susan Bainbridge Hayes, the
granddaughter of Commodore William Bainbridge and
great-grandniece of Commodore John Barry.
After the war, Barnes returned to the Naval Academy as
an instructor and wrote the first major work on the use of
torpedoes, titled “Submarine Warfare.” Although he left
the Navy again in 1869, he began collecting memorabilia
of the Navy from its early years.
Before he died in 1911, Barnes edited
the first volume of the Naval History
Society publication “The Logs of the
Serapis, Alliance and Ariel.”
Barnes’ son, James, remained involved with the organization and
arranged for the transfer of his
father’s manuscript collections and
library in 1915 to the Naval History
Society, which had as its stated mission “the purpose of publishing and
preserving manuscripts, documents
and writings relating to our naval
history, naval art and science, and
the surroundings and experiences
of seamen in general and of
American seamen in particular.”
With the collection coming into the possession of
the Society, finding a space to house it became a challenge. Initially, the Society rented space in Aeolian Hall
on West 42nd St. in New York. On Jan. 10, 1916, the
John S. Barnes Memorial Library of the Naval History
Society opened to the public at Aeolian Hall.
In 1918, James Barnes became the president of the
Society — a post he would hold until his death in 1936.
In 1923, Franklin D. Roosevelt contacted the New York
Historical Society about hosting the Naval History
Society’s collection and, with the expansion of the
Historical Society’s facility, the two organizations
reached an agreement in 1925 to move the collection.
For several more years, the Naval History Society continued to publish works on naval history. However, a combination of factors — primarily the death of James Barnes
— led to the organization’s demise in the late 1930s.
Another was the presence of a new upstart organization —
the Washington-based Naval Historical Foundation.
Though the Naval History Society is long gone, its
collections remain thanks to the initiative of Franklin
D. Roosevelt. Recently, the New York Historical Society
cataloged the entire Naval History Society collection
and placed the finding aid online at http://dlib.nyu.edu/
findingaids/html/nyhs/ NHSColl.html. ■
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Prior to becoming president, Franklin
D. Roosevelt was instrumental in the
creation and continuation of the
Naval History Society.
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical
SEAPOWER / MAY 2009