Legislative Branch

Guide to Senate Records: Chapter 4

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Chapter 4. Records of the Committee on Armed Services and Its Predecessors, 1816-1986

Records of Committees Relating to Defense, 1816-1988 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States

Committee records discussed in this chapter:
Records of the Committee on Naval Affairs, 1816-1946

4.31 The records of the Committee on Naval Affairs (54 ft.) are arranged in seven series, including: Committee reports and papers, 1816-47 (2 ft.); committee papers, 1847-1946 (19 ft.); petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures referred to the committee, 1816-1946 (17 ft.); legislative case files, 1941-46 (15 ft.); unpublished public hearing transcripts, 1935-44 (5 vols., 6 in.); executive session transcripts, 1939-46 (7 vols., 10 in.); and legislative calendars, 1943-46 (1 in.).

1816-1861 (14th-36th Congresses)

4.32 For the pre-Civil War period, the records include committee papers and reports, 1816-47 (2 ft.), committee papers, 1847-55 (1 ft.), and petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures referred to the committee, 1816-61 (9 ft.). There are no committee papers for the 34th-36th Congresses. Like the Committee on Military Affairs for the same period, this committee's records include original committee reports, many of which are printed in the Congressional Serial Set, and a variety of correspondence and related documents supporting bills, resolutions, petitions, and memorials. A substantial number of records also concern claims, pensions, relief from some form of administrative action of the Navy, and accounts of naval agents and ship pursers. Sometimes entire crews of vessels petitioned for compensation; e.g., the surviving crew of the brig Somers, following an unsuccessful mutiny by other crew members (30A-H11.1, 32A-H13.1). On matters roughly paralleling the construction and expansion of armories and forts, the Committee on Naval Affairs also concerned itself with the construction and improvement of navy yards, particularly dry docks, and other facilities.

4.33 The early records of the committee are rich sources of information on scientific explorations and technical innovations, illustrating the Navy's important role in such activities in the early 19th century. Numerous records relating to the officers and crew of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-42, under command of Charles Wilkes, and other expeditions are found among the petitions and memorials of the committee. Many of these concern claims for losses suffered on the Wilkes Expedition (26A-G11, 27A-G11.1, 28A-G11, 28A-G11.3). The memorials of explorer and sealer Edmund Fanning advocated a South Pole expedition and documented his own oceanic travels from 1792 to 1832 (24A-D11, 24A-G11.1). Exploring expedition officer Lt. Robert F. Pinkney petitioned the Senate to prevent further dissemination of Wilkes' report on the expedition on the grounds that it damaged his reputation (32A-H13.3). In the early 1850's, several prominent scientists, explorers, and scientific societies asked Congress to support private efforts to search for British Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin (32A-H13.3, 33A-H13.1, 34A-H13.1). Also relating to expeditions and proposed expeditions are documents concerning a Pacific exploration bill (20A-D9), exploration of the Bering Straits and routes to China (32A-E8), and compensation of artists on the Perry expedition to Japan and China (35A-H10, 36A-H10).

4.34 Several prominent 19th-century scientists and inventors made claims or asked the Senate to consider sponsoring tests and, if successful, adopt their particular equipment or innovation. Among these were Samuel Colt for his invention of a submarine battery (28A-G11), John H. Roebling for a test of the efficiency of wire rigging over hemp (28A-G11.3), and B. F. Sands and William Greble for adoption of their process for taking ocean soundings (34A-H13.1). Several others proposed various solutions for preventing boiler explosions on steamships (23A-G11, 28A-D9) and improvements in the construction of naval vessels and dry docks. Commodore James Barron, perhaps better known for his surrender of the frigate Chesapeake to the British frigate Leopard in 1807 and his fatal duel with Stephen Decatur, invented an improved system of Navy signals. A substantial file of correspondence and printed material documents his efforts to justify special compensation (25A-G13).

4.35 Naval Affairs Committee records also document certain aspects of the social history of the U.S. Navy, such as the abolition of corporal punishment by flogging with the cat-o'-nine-tails (30A-H11, 31A-E9, 31A-H12); reform of the "spirit ration," liquor supplied to seamen by the Navy (25A-G13.4, 26A-G11, 30A-H11, 36A-H10.2); and education on board Navy ships (36A-H10.2).

1861-1901 (37th-56th Congresses)

4.36 The records include committee papers (16 ft.) and petitions, memorials, and resolutions from State legislatures referred to the Committee (6 ft.). The committee papers consist of legislative case files and supporting documents (correspondence, court of inquiry transcripts, printed reports, graphic material) and reports and correspondence from the Secretary of the Navy and other officials of the Navy Department. The petitions and memorials are similar to those of the pre-Civil War period, and many are accompanied by supporting documents. There are no committee papers for the 39th Congress, and very few for the 37th, 38th, and 51st Congresses.

4.37 A substantial part of the committee`s records, as usual, concern claims of one kind or another. Petitions and memorials seeking passage of private bills granting a pension to the widow of an inventor of a nautical warfare innovation, a prize for crews of ships successfully capturing enemy vessels in wartime, and recognition and promotion of a naval officer for some extraordinary service-connected mission are examples of such records.

4.38 Equally numerous are petitions and memorials relating to the administration of the Navy Department, such as requests for officers pay increase or for names to be added to or removed from the Navy's retired list (numerous Congresses), reorganization of the Navy engineers (54A-J24) and of the medical department (40A-H14), and protection of Navy doctors from the arbitrary conduct of superior officers (41A-H13). Petitions favoring labor reforms--such as the 8-hour workday in navy yards (39A-H12.2, 40A-H14), investigation into navy yard abuses (54A-J24.1), and construction of all Government vessels in navy yards (56A-J26)--were also referred to the committee. Another common type of memorial were those from citizens hoping to obtain for their community a major naval facility, such as a navy yard or naval station, or for an improvement to an existing facility, such as a new kind of drydock. In instances where a bill was introduced, additional records may also be available, such as the report of the Pearl Harbor Board accompanying a bill to establish a naval station there (56A-F23).

4.39 Senate interest in naval operations is not greatly apparent from the surviving records, but in certain instances the records may be excellent sources. The unsuccessful claim of Representative Robert Smalls of South Carolina, a black Member of Congress during Reconstruction, for an indemnity for the capture of the steamer Planter during the Civil War (44A-E10) and the claim of Capt. David McDougal of the Wyoming, who sank several Japanese vessels during a confrontation in the Straits of Shimonoseki in 1863 (40A-H14, 42A-H15), are well documented, as is the history of the ironclad Monitor and its crew's request for compensation (43A-E11,-H14, 47A-E14, 48A-E14, 52A-F17). Surprisingly, there are few records relating to the sinking of the Maine (55A-J23).

4.40 A number of records concern certain technical innovations proposed and/or adopted that modernized the U.S. Navy. Several were developed during the Civil War; after the war they were the basis of claims, either by the inventor or his heir. Among these are Hartt's "screw elevator" for raising cannon on warships (40A-E9) and Col. James H. Ward's improved gun carriage (41A-E11). Possibly the richest source of information among committee records on naval activities is the nearly 8 feet of copies of reports, correspondence, and specifications relating to the construction of the Navy's first four steel warships--the Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Dolphin (49A-E17, 50A-F16). Another symbol of the modern Navy, the torpedo boat, is also well documented, and the committee's records include engravings of an apparent prototype and a report on the use of such vessels by other nations (48A-E14, 56A-F23).

4.41 The records of the committee also reflect interest in Navy-sponsored exploration of the world and general promotion of scientific inquiry. Included among the records are the report of Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt's 2-year circumnavigation of the globe in the Ticonderoga (46A-E14), records relating to the rescue of Lt. A. W. Greely and the survivors of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition (48A-E14, 48A-H16, 49A-E17), and petitions from Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Howard Universities supporting the selection of a professional astronomer to operate and a committee of scientists to oversee the construction of the new Naval Observatory (47A-H17).

1901-1946 (57th-79th Congresses)

4.42 Records of the Naval Affairs Committee for most of this period appear to be incomplete. There are fewer than 2 feet of committee papers, with no papers at all for the 66th, 68th-70th, and 73d-76th Congresses and not more than a single file or document for several others. The papers include originals of reports that were printed, original resolutions, original Presidential messages, and some correspondence, chiefly with officials of the Navy Department. Unpublished reports include one from the Commissioner of Navy Yards and Stations, May 1917, shortly after U.S. entry in World War I (65A-F14, oversize), and periodic reports on contracts for aircraft parts and petroleum during World War II (77A-F21, 78A-F21, 79A-F20).

4.43 More complete are the committee's records for the mid-1930's through the mid-1940's. These include unpublished public hearing transcripts, 1935-44 (5 vols., 6 in.) and executive session transcripts, 1939-46 (7 vols., 10 in.); legislative calendars, 1943-46 (1 in.); and legislative case files, 1941-46 (15 ft.), concerning particular Senate or House bills or resolutions referred to the Naval Affairs Committee for the 77th-79th Congresses. The Naval Affairs Committee did not retire its legislative case files for the 77th-79th Congress to the Secretary of the Senate at the end of each Congress, as was the customary practice of Senate committees at that time. Legislative case files of the committee, 1901-40 (57th-76th Congresses), are in another series, papers supporting specific bills and resolutions.

4.44 The subjects of petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures that were referred to the committee (2 ft.) include labor conditions in navy yards, such as the battleship appropriation bill that repealed the 8-hour workday (61A-J68); adoption of the Taylor system of shop management in navy yards (62A-J59); requests for ship and naval facility construction, such as torpedo boats (60A-J92), battleships (60A-J93, 61A-J67), and west coast naval bases (64A-J60); pay and personnel issues, such as equal treatment of chaplains compared to other naval officers (57A-J49); enlargement and modernization of the Navy (60A-J94, 70A-J34); preservation of the frigate Constitution (59A-J77, 68A-J44); and raising the Maine (61A-J69). The committee also received 15,000 signatures on a petition requesting that the results of the board of inquiry's investigation of the Pearl Harbor disaster be made public (79A-J17).

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Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-42). By Robert W. Coren, Mary Rephlo, David Kepley, and Charles South. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.