Jan 4

19th Century Furloughs

Tuesday, January 4, 2011 12:01 AM


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.

  • Jim Valle

    The Nineteenth Century naval officer was considered a gentleman and as such had considerable leeway as to how he practiced his profession. A normal commission wherein a ship was sent to a foreign station usually lasted three years during which the officer was on duty continuously unless he requested relief or was sent home. Upon returning he could request being placed on home leave at half pay for an indefinite period of time. After he felt rested he could write the secretary of the navy requesting orders. If the resulting assignment was to his liking he accepted his orders but if he didn’t like them he was at liberty to refuse them and wait for more favorable ones. He might stay inactive for years or even decades depending on his whim. There was no retirement system. An overage officer simply stayed at home on half pay and the department saw to it that no orders came his way until he finally resigned officially or, more likely, died. By the 1850’s the Navy List was clogged with inactive officers on half pay and nobody knew how to get rid of them.