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Home Squadron: The U.S. Navy on the North Atlantic Station, by James C. Rentfrow, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2014, $54.95

The U.S. Navy is the largest and most powerful maritime force in the world, capable of performing complex fleet and amphibious operations anywhere on the globe. Such, of course, was not always the case. True, by the end of the Civil War the Navy had among the world’s largest collections of warships, but in the postwar years the service stagnated as the nation concerned itself with other matters, such as westward expansion and making money. By 1880 the Navy had deteriorated into a fifth-rate collection of old wooden ships and obsolete ironclads. Leadership had also stagnated, with many aging, old-school officers occupying positions at the top, making it difficult for younger, updated officers to be promoted. While the rest of the world’s navies moved on, implementing new technologies and modern tactics, the U.S. Navy remained mired in 1865.

The situation began to turn around in 1884, when the government moved to modernize and construction began on four new steel warships. Known as the ABCD ships, the group comprised the cruisers Atlanta, Boston and Chicago and the steel gunboat Dolphin. The first of their kind built for the Navy, the ships represented a revolution in design and armament, requiring new techniques for the fabrication of the materials from which they were constructed.

With its new ships, the Navy also had to develop new operating procedures. Till that time the service had operated more as an agglomeration of individual ships than a cohesive fleet. When the vessels did cooperate, the senior of the ships’ captains simply assumed command as acting “commodore.” That practice changed in the 1870s with the establishment of the U.S. Naval War College, where for the first time American naval officers would learn to become fleet commanders, thinking in terms of not merely ship vs. ship action but fleet tactics and even global strategy.

Home Squadron is the fascinating and little-known story of how the Navy transformed into a modern, integrated fleet whose defeat of Spain’s Pacific Squadron at Manila in 1898 stunned the world and established the United States as a world power. It highlights a period that closed the era of rogue ships under maverick captains, such as Isaac Hull, Stephen Decatur and David Porter, and ushered in a new era of vast fleets commanded by globally focused naval leaders, such as Raymond Spruance, William Halsey and Chester Nimitz.

—Robert Guttman