The U.S. Navy’s Secret, 11-Page Plan to Conquer Canada
The U.S. Navy schemed to invade Canada during the summer of 1887. This fact may surprise readers familiar with the long history of amicable relations between the United States and its northern neighbor. Even in 1887, the United States and the British Empire (which included Canada) were on generally agreeable terms. Nevertheless, Lt. j.g. Charles C. Rogers, USN, observing that “the frontier of Canada is assailable at all points,” imagined a joint Army–Navy campaign to seize Canada’s strategic heartland. “The distribution of her population, and the situation of her most important cities and strategical points,” he posited, “suggest three invading armies from the United States.”
A dispute with Britain over fishing rights in Canadian waters prompted the Navy’s strategic planning initiative in 1887. During the summer of that year, undercover agents from the recently established Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) traveled north to examine Canadian defenses. The ONI mission coincided with another reconnaissance conducted by Rogers. Under orders from North Atlantic Squadron commander Rear Adm. Stephen B. Luce, Rogers visited strategic sites in eastern Canada. After completing his survey, Rogers compiled several classified reports at ONI headquarters in Washington, D.C. One study, entitled “Intelligence Report of the General War Resources of the Dominion of Canada” included an eleven-page “Plan of Operations” for conquering the great northland.
Rogers’s campaign plan now resides in the U.S. Naval War College’s Naval History Collection at Newport, Rhode Island. The plan proposed a strategy of “divide and conquer.” Rogers suggested splitting Canada by securing control of its strategic locus: a geographic triangle demarcated by Montreal, Ottawa, and Kingston, Ontario. He envisioned a three-pronged campaign, with one American army driving north along the Hudson River–Lake Champlain–Richelieu River axis, another to seize Halifax and interdict the St. Lawrence basin, and a third to target Toronto by advancing along the Niagara River. Mindful of Britain’s tremendous naval superiority, Rogers called for deploying most of the overmatched U.S. fleet in coastal waters to defend against maritime incursions. However, he also suggested that American gunboats, working in cooperation with the army, might seize local control of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.
Compared to the voluminous and detailed campaign plans of later generations, Rogers’s 1887 scheme to invade Canada appears quite modest — essentially a handwritten “concept of operations” rather than a comprehensive strategic blueprint. Nevertheless, the plan represented an important first step for a navy without significant experience planning contingent operations during peacetime.
Strategic expertise mattered little in the early U.S. Navy. Since the 1790s, American naval professionals had emphasized nautical skills above all other competencies — line officers prided themselves first and foremost on their skills as seamen. They also valued gunnery, boarding tactics, and landing party maneuvers as essential warrior skills. When they thought of it at all, most approached strategy simply as a wartime improvisation, an activity to be practiced on the fly only during times of conflict. Confident that the nation’s size, wealth, and distance from potential foreign enemies would allow ample time to mobilize the fleet and devise plans for its use when danger loomed, the early Navy did little to boost its strategic knowledge and skills while the United States remained at peace.
Several developments helped to transform naval attitudes toward strategy as the 19th century drew to a close. First, Civil War experience opened the minds of some officers to new possibilities regarding strategic theory and practice. Second, naval intellectuals grasped that globalizing trends and technological modernization would soon nullify America’s traditional prescriptions for national defense. Third, a rising tide of commercial and imperial expansionism emanating from Europe and elsewhere sparked apprehensions that the United States might become involved in a future great power conflict.
Propelled by these trends, the U.S. Navy experienced a strategic awakening. Nurtured by the U.S. Naval Institute and other new forums for professional discussion, the awakening marked an unprecedented moment that departed sharply from the Navy’s legacy of strategic indifference. From 1874 to 1884, a strategic dialogue among Navy professionals grew in scale and sophistication. Calls for new strategic institutions emanated from this discourse — culminating in the establishment of both ONI (1882) and the U.S. Naval War College (1884).
Another important development added momentum to the Navy’s early strategic planning efforts. Soon after entering office in 1885, the administration of Grover Cleveland orchestrated a monumental shift in naval mission priorities. For the preceding five decades, the United States had primarily employed its national fleet to promote and protect the mercantile interests that comprised America’s high-seas maritime empire. Thus commercial policy, rather than national security imperatives, defined the Navy’s fundamental mission, force structure, and deployment patterns. This traditional, commerce-oriented U.S. Navy exercised sea power to awe and intimidate native peoples and minor states while relegating war-fighting to lesser consideration. If faced with actual conflict against a maritime power, the nation expected to mobilize and train an “emergency navy” — essentially a provisional war fleet.
Departing from this tradition early in 1886, Navy Secretary William C. Whitney proposed a permanent “war navy” intended to confront the battleships of leading maritime nations. In effect, Whitney’s action shifted the Navy’s fundamental mission from peace to war — from overseas constabulary duties to national defense. Perceiving new security risks arising from a world fraught with change and turmoil, Congress supported Whitney’s proposal by authorizing construction of two seagoing battleships, a heavy cruiser, and other vessels — the genesis of a true American battle fleet. At the same time, Whitney mandated the new strategic planning role for ONI.
In the end, ONI’s 1887 planning effort achieved no warlike purpose, as President Cleveland wisely chose diplomatic means to resolve the North Atlantic fisheries dispute. A new fisheries treaty in 1889 eventually eased tensions between the United States and British Canada. However, Rogers’s plan did undergo various stages of review at Navy headquarters, apparently even reaching the desk of Admiral of the Navy David D. Porter. Rogers also utilized materials from the plan in lectures he delivered at the Naval War College during 1888 and 1889. War College president Alfred Thayer Mahan became familiar with the document — elements of Rogers’s original scheme would reappear in contingency plans prepared by Mahan and others over the decade that followed.
U.S. Navy strategic planning grew in scope and sophistication during the 1890s, becoming an interagency activity that involved ONI, the Naval War College, the Bureaus of Ordnance and Navigation (the latter a precursor to both OPNAV and BUPERS), and afloat commanders. Thus the Navy developed contingency plans to address a variety of scenarios, including potential conflicts with Britain, Japan, and Spain. Indeed, when conflict erupted with the Spanish Empire in 1898 U.S. Navy leaders consulted strategic designs worked out well before the opposing fleets clashed in battle. So while Rogers’s early plan to conquer Canada never saw operational use, its very creation represents a turning point in American naval history, one whose characteristics continue to influence the U.S. Navy today.
Scott Mobley recently earned a Ph.D. in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studies how political, economic, technological, and cultural influences shape military affairs and international politics. He served thirty years as a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, commanding USS Boone (FFG-28) and USS Camden (AOE-2), and was the Reactor Officer in USS Harry S Truman (CGN-75).