During this centennial year of the Navy Reserve, it is significant to note that the Merchant Marine has provided the nation a reservoir of talented seafarers who could
enter the naval service at a moment’s
notice. For instance, the start of the
War of 1812 found the Navy with
4,010 Sailors. At its conclusion, this
number totaled nearly 15,000.
With a dormant Merchant Marine, the Navy not only could fill its
needs, but there were ample bodies
to crew privateers whose owners
received letters of marque authorizing the capture of enemy vessels.
During the war, 24 U.S. Navy warships captured 254 vessels. In contrast, American privateers captured
some 1,300 British merchantmen.
With America’s merchantmen carrying the bulk of
trade during the antebellum years, the Navy knew that
during times of conflict, a strategic reserve of trained
seafarers would be available for service.
This strategic reserve proved insufficient when the nation went to war with itself. With many Merchant
Mariners drafted to serve with ground forces, the Navy
needed alternatives to crew its growing blockading squadrons. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles received authority from Congress to contract “such vessels as may be
deemed necessary for the temporary increase in the Navy.”
The crews of these Merchant Marine ships were given
naval status and had, in effect, become a naval reserve.
The Civil War inflicted irreversible damage on the
American Merchant Marine and the numbers it
employed. In addition, as the Navy transitioned to ships
of steel, the skill sets of commercial seafarers no longer
fully matched those of bluejackets. Thus the Navy began
to look for other sources to augment manpower.
State-organized Naval Militias offered only a partial
solution. Eventually, it was thought that Sailors re-entering the civilian world after enlisted service would
solve the problem — the premise behind the legislation signed in March 1915 that established the naval
reserve. However, that legislation offered little incentives for joining and only applied to enlisted Sailors.
The passage of the Naval Pre-
paredness Act of 1916 rectified the
situation and opened the opportuni-
ties for others to serve in what would
constitute the Naval Reserve Force.
One of the six categories named in
the act was the Naval Auxiliary
Reserve “…of seafaring officers and
men of the Merchant Marine who
trained on Navy ships and could be
called on to serve on warships.”
Thus a place for Merchant Ma-
riners in the Naval Reserve had been
established. With the Naval Reserve
As a recruiting incentive, any ship that had more
than half of its officers holding a naval reserve commis-
sion could fly the Merchant Marine Naval Reserve flag.
In 1931, 141 vessels qualified to fly this flag.
With the Naval Reserve Act of 1938, the nomenclature was shortened to Merchant Marine Reserve. By this
time, members of the Merchant Marine Reserve were
authorized to wear a breast insignia that was modeled on
the spread-eagle carving on the stern of USS Constitution
with “U.S.” and “N.R.” engraved beneath the wings.
The Merchant Marine Reserve program would continue for the next seven decades until June 10, 2011, when
Military Sealift Command (MSC) assumed responsibility
for what is now known as the Strategic Sealift Officer
Program. Some 2,400 Navy Reserve officers wearing a
newly designed breast insignia stand ready to provide
emergency crewing and ashore support for MSC’s Surge
Sealift Fleet during times of national emergency.
As with other components of the Navy Reserve,
Merchant Mariners have been “Ready Then, Ready Now,”
and will be “Ready Always.” ;
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical Foundation and recently authored “Ready Then, Ready Now, Ready
Always: More Than a Century of Service By Citizen Sailors.”
Merchant Mariners Helped
Bolster the Navy Reserve
By DAVID F. WINKLER
WWW.SEAPOWERMAGAZINE.ORG 64 SEAPOWER / MAY 2015
During the Civil War, Secretary of the
Navy Gideon Welles received authority
from Congress to contract “such ves-
sels as may be deemed necessary for
the temporary increase in the Navy.”