Becoming an officer of the line in the navy is a bit like getting on the tenure track in academia. Not all officers are created equal–officers such as pursers, sailing masters, and chaplains were classified as officers and received the preferential treatment given to officers. But they could never be captains–they were not in line for those sorts of promotions.
The Naval Historical Center has made lists available of the officers of the navy and Marine Corps from 1775 to 1900. This list is very useful, but it’s not in a format that makes it easy to see the data in the aggregate. It includes both warrant officers (non-tenure-track) and line officers (tenure-track).
I wanted to look at the promotion trends of line officers from the early republic. There was no way to isolate those records in the form the NHC provides. So I built a Google spreadsheet that tracks each line officer’s initial date of entry and his subsequent promotions.
Following my desire to track how social connections changed as the navy developed, I’ve divided the officers into 4 groups, or generations. I had initially planned to do 3 generations, but after doing all the data input, I realized that 4 was a more logical divide.
First generation officers entered the service before 1801, as a rank higher than midshipman.
Second generation officers entered the service before the Peace Establishment Act (or by the end of 1801), but as midshipman. Thus, they essentially became adults in the service, and they learned their craft from the first generation.
Third generation officers entered the service as midshipmen after the Peace Establishment Act but before the end of the War of 1812. Those officers in this generation who became captain rose to that rank in the 1830s and ’40s.
Fourth generation officers entered the service after the War of 1812 had ended. These officers saw almost no wartime service, and many of the ones who achieved captain found themselves having to decide whether to serve in the Union or the Confederacy during the Civil War.
I marked a few things that were interesting that weren’t specifically promotion-related. Though I didn’t record dates of exit from the service, if the officer was discharged under the Peace Establishment Act, I marked it in column G as “PEA.” I also marked records where the official record indicates that the officer was killed in a duel (an idle curiosity about whether duels were really as prevalent as most historians have claimed).
Promotions in the navy are a bit tricky because the system of ranks changed considerably from 1798 to 1849 (the end point I selected for my data). But there were four standard ranks that prevailed throughout that time period, so for consistency, I tracked only those four ranks: midshipman, lieutenant, master commandant (then commander, an equivalent rank), and captain. It took until the Civil War for ranks above captain (such as commodore and admiral) to be created, so I didn’t record those.
All told, there are 3441 line officers in the NHC database. I’m not interested in all 3441 of them, most of whom never made it past midshipman. Since my project involves social networks of influence, I’m mostly interested in those officers who stayed around long enough to have influence, generally those who made it at least to lieutenant. However, I put all the line officers into my spreadsheet in case someone else wants the data.
There are several specific limitations on my spreadsheet that anyone who wants to use it (all 2 of you in the world) should be aware of.
- There are a few rare instances in which an officer entered the service, resigned, and then re-entered later at the same rank or lower. In those instances, I did not mark the second entrance, but rather treated the officer as if he had never left the service.
- There are even rarer instances in which, during the late 1790s, officers were given the commission of captain in order to command galleys, but they were never subsequently given other commands. So I left them out of the record entirely.
- I noticed a few discrepancies in dates (promotion to lieutenant dated before promotion to midshipman, for instance). Where possible, I merely corrected the obvious typos. Otherwise, I highlighted the cell of the disputed date.
Merely recording all this data given me a better understanding of how the promotion system worked in the early navy. But I’d like to do some visualizations showing the relative speed of promotion, how batch promotions work, and a few smaller things. So far I haven’t found a visualization program that will do it. (Suggestions are welcome!)
I’m sure there are plenty of other uses for this data, as well. For myself, it will help me to see where promotions don’t follow the general pattern–these aberrant promotions may very well be indicative of an intervention by a social connection. But I hope other people will be able to use it as well.