Alfred Thayer Mahan was born on September 27, 1840 at West Point, New York, where his father was a professor of Civil and Military Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1859 and embarked on a nearly 40-year naval career seeing duty in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico against the Confederacy. He taught briefly at Annapolis, but spent most of his academic career at the newly founded Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where he eventually served as president. He wrote twenty books during his lifetime including The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783; The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812; The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future; The Life of Nelson; and The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence. He died on December 1, 1914.
In pondering this matter, it occurred to the author—whose acquaintance with naval history was at that time wholly superficial—that the part played by navies, and by maritime power generally, as a factor in the results of history, and as shaping the destinies of nations and of the world, had received little or no particular attention. If this were so, an analysis of the course of events through a series of years, directed to show the influence of Sea Power upon History, would at least serve to imbue his hearers with an exalted sense of the mission of their calling; and might also, by throwing light upon the political bearings of naval force, contribute to give the service and the country a more definite impression of the necessity to provide a fleet adequate to great undertakings, lest, if an occasion should arise for what he has ventured to call "statesmanship directing arms," we should be found unprepared, through having no sufficient armed force to direct.
In avowing this as the original, and, for a time at least, almost the sole motive of his work, the author practically confesses that he at the beginning had no scientific appreciation or reasoned knowledge of the naval history of the past. Upon giving this the attention required by his new duties, and collating the various incidents with the teachings of recognized authorities upon land warfare, he soon came to recognize that the principles which they claimed to be of general application in their own specialty received also ample and convincing illustration in naval annals; although the development of the Art of War at sea has been slower, and is now less advanced, than on shore. This backward result has been due, partly, to uncertainties peculiar to the sea, and partly to a contempt for the study of the past, and of its experience, as "not practical," from which the naval profession has not yet wholly rid itself.
Thus, in its course, the author's former work, without abandoning its first simple motive, expanded into an attempt to analyze the strategic conduct of the naval campaigns, as well as the tactical features of the various battles—all too few—in which any clear tactical purpose was shown by the commanders engaged. The cordial reception given to the work by his professional brethren, in Great Britain as well as at home, has been to him not only most gratifying, but wholly unexpected. Its chief significance is, however, not personal. The somewhat surprised satisfaction testified is virtually an admission that, in the race for material and mechanical development, sea-officers as a class have allowed their attention to be unduly diverted from the systematic study of the Conduct of War, which is their peculiar and main concern. For, if the commendation bestowed be at all deserved, it is to be ascribed simply to the fact that the author has been led to give to the most important part of the profession an attention which it is in the power of any other officer to bestow, but which too few actually do.