Jan 4

19th Century Furloughs

Tuesday, January 4, 2011 12:01 AM

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Wishing to reduce its war-fighting assets after the end of the Quasi War, Congress passed the Peace Establishment Act of 1801 in the waning days of the Adams Administration, drastically curtailing personnel and ships. Despite these cuts, during the ten years before the outbreak of the War of 1812, numerous officers vied for berths in the few remaining vessels. The Navy Department dealt with this surplus of manpower, as well as the accompanying animosity it engendered, and provided essential on-the-job training for its officers, by allowing these men to take furloughs, often to join merchant cruises.

Approximately one-fifth to one-fourth of furloughs approved by the secretary of the navy during these years of the Early Republic were for men requesting leave for such voyages. Furloughs benefitted both parties: midshipmen and lieutenants supplemented their income, while both they and the Navy profited from their honing their seamanship skills. The department particularly encouraged cruises to India, Java, and China because the men studied lunar navigation on these lengthy journeys. Status tensions prevented young officers on a man of war from learning the manual operations of a ship, but those lines of authority disappeared on a merchant ship, thus permitting the development of essential competencies.

Permitting Sailors to undertake professional and personal opportunities marked a flexible Navy in 1809. The ultimate goal of Stephen Decatur’s and today’s Navy is the same: force preparedness.