U.S. Prize Regulations, 1780
During the Age of Sail it was common to award “prize” to the crews of warships and privateers who captured enemy vessels. The awarding of prize was rooted in ancient tradition, but carefully regulated by law. On April 23, 1780, Congress passed “An Act for the Better Government of the Navy,” which included the first systematic prize regulations for the new United States Navy.
The law recognized differences in the relative power of ships. Thus, if a captured ship was of equal or greater power than the ship doing the capturing, the entire proceeds from the sale of the prize were to go to the officers and crew of the capturing vessel. If the prize was of inferior power, half of the proceeds would go to the government. That being settled, the law set up a sliding scale for divvying the loot up among the affected officers and crewmembers.
5% to the commander of the squadron, unless he was also the captain of the capturing vessel
10% to the captain of the capturing vessel, plus the squadron commander’s share if the vessel was sailing independently
10% to be divided among the ship’s lieutenants, sailing master, and captain of marines.
10% for the ship's senior professional and technical personnel (e.g., surgeon, chaplain, chief boatswain, chief carpenter, master gunner)
17˝% for the midshipmen and specialized personnel (e.g., sail maker, armorer, master-at-arms, schoolmaster, and the mates of the men in the preceding class)
12˝% among the remaining non-commissioned officers
35% for the ordinary seamen, marines, and boys
Prize was eagerly sought after. In a way it was a route to social mobility, for the capture of a fat prize could easily provide a poor man sufficient cash to buy land or go into business. Oddly, men in the land forces were not eligible to receive prize, the taking of civilian property being deemed “looting,” and subject to severe penalties, albeit that these were not often enforced.
With only minor changes, the 1780 regulations for the awarding of prize to American sailors remained in force until shortly after the Spanish-American War, when the U.S. abolished prize (though not salvage rights). In contrast, the Royal Navy continued to award prize, albeit using very different guidelines, until shortly after the Second World War.
A Family Tradition
For nearly half of the years between 1897 and 1936 the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy was occupied by a member of the Roosevelt family. During those 39 years five members of the Roosevelt family served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, for a total of about 17 years.
- Theodore Roosevelt, was the first member of the extended Roosevelt clan to hold the office, serving for a little more than a year, from 1897 to 1898, during the McKinley administration
- Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy’s fifth cousin (their common ancestor had died in the 1690s), served from 1913 through 1919, in the Wilson administration.
- Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Teddy’s eldest son, served from 1921 through 1924, under Harding and Coolidge
- Theodore Douglas Robinson, who served from 1924 through 1929 under Coolidge, was the son of Teddy’s sister Corinne, and was married to Franklin’s niece Helen Roosevelt, who christened the carrier Lexington (CV-2) in 1925.
- Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, yet another fifth cousin, who had served as a Marine officer, 1899-1920, was appointed by Franklin in 1933 and served until his death in 1936
When FDR announced that he was appointing Henry to the job, he added that the assignment was a "family tradition."
Nelson A Miles Reinvents the Testudo
In 1898 Nelson Appleton Miles (1839-1925) was the General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army. He’d joined the service as a volunteer in the 22nd Massachusetts Volunteers during the Civil War and by its end had risen to major general of volunteers. In the post-war Army, Miles became commander of the 5th Infantry, and over the following 25 years rose to major general, while serving variously against the Cheyenne, the Comanche, the Kiowa, the Arapaho, the Sioux, the Nez Perce, the Bannocks, the Apache, and the Pullman Strikers. He became general-in-chief in 1895.
Miles played an important role in overseeing the expansion of the army for the war with Spain, albeit hampered by not having direct authority over the various staff departments or even over the operational forces in the field, which was a contirbutory cause of some of the muddle during the Santiago Campaign in Cuba.
Miles did attempt to make a contribution to operations in Cuba, in the form of a little invention based on the ancient Roman testudo. Perhaps he had been reading some ancient military classic, such as Vegetius’ De rei militari. In any case, Miles’ “testudo” was not made from interlocking shields. Rather, it consisted of a mobile oak barrier about 16 feet wide and 6-inches thick, covered with a thin iron plating and provided with loopholes. At each end of this barrier there was a wide, solid wooden wheel, while attached to its rear was a study “wagon tree”, so that it could be pushed by 16 soldiers. The idea was that the testudo could be pushed towards the enemy, providing shelter from which advancing troops could fire. A number of these contraptions were shipped to Cuba, and at least one was landed at Siboney, the supply base for the V Corps, which was spearheading the attack on Santiago.
Well, needless to say, the damned things didn’t work. In fact, Maj. Gen. William Shafter, commanding V Corps, is supposed to have said “Throw them overboard” when informed that there were others still aboard ship. And that seems to have been the last time anyone every heard of Miles’ invention.
Despite this fiasco, Miles went on to command the expedition to Puerto Rico, a mission which he performed superbly, and retired from the army as a lieutenant general in 1903.