The College was established on October 6, 1884 and its first president, Commodore Stephen B. Luce, was given the old building of the Newport Asylum for the Poor to house it on Coaster's Harbor Island in Narragansett Bay. Among the first four faculty members were Tasker H. Bliss, a future Army Chief of Staff, James R. Soley, the first civilian faculty member and a future Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and most famously Captain (later, Rear Admiral) Alfred Thayer Mahan, who soon became renowned for the scope of his strategic thinking and influence on naval leaders worldwide. Despite Mahan's prestige, the College was long met with skepticism by Navy officers accustomed to conducting all education aboard ship.
The College engaged in wargaming various scenarios from 1887 on, and in time became a laboratory for the development of war plans. Nearly all of the U.S. naval operations of the twentieth century were originally designed and gamed at the NWC.
The current president is Rear Admiral Jacob Shuford, USN a 1974 graduate of both the University of South Carolina and Harvard University.
The Naval War College has two international courses, Naval Command College (NCC) and Naval Staff College (NSC), specifically prepared for the naval officers of other nations. Graduates of these programs include numerous chiefs of the maritime forces all over the world.
Despite the extensive international presence, the Naval War College, unlike other U.S. military staff colleges, has never granted a master's degree to an officer of another nation. The Naval War College declines to grant degrees to its international graduates because some officers from other navies have no undergraduate credential, generally an essential requirement for conferring a master's degree in the United States.
Over the years, the Naval War College has expanded greatly. The original building, the former Newport Asylum for the Poor, now serves as home to the Naval War College Museum. In 1892, the structure now known as Luce Hall opened as the college's new home, at a cost of $100,000. At the time, the building housed lecture rooms and a library. Wings at either end provided two sets of quarters, occupied by the president of the College and members of the faculty. When the Naval War College was enlarged in 1932, this original building was renamed Luce Hall in honor of the institution's founder and first Superintendent (later President), Stephen B. Luce. The building was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places on September 22, 1972.
Mahan Hall, named for Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (NWC President from 1886–1889 and 1892–1893), was completed and opened in 1904, and encompasses the historic Mahan Rotunda and Reading Room, as well as student study areas. The Mahan Rotunda also serves as an impromptu museum of gifts and artifacts donated by graduating international students over the years.
Pringle Hall (named for Vice Admiral Joel R. P. Pringle, NWC President from 1927–1930) was opened in 1934, and was the principal site for war gaming from the time of its completion in 1934 until the Naval Electronic Warfare Simulator was built in Sims Hall in 1957. The exterior facing of the building is pink Milford granite, similar in appearance to the ashlar granite of Luce Hall, to which it is connected by two enclosed bridges. Pringle Hall contains a 432-seat auditorium, the Quinn Lecture Room, the Naval Staff College, the Graphic Arts Studio, the Information Resources Department, and the Photography Branch.
In 1947, the NWC acquired an existing barracks building and converted it to a secondary war gaming facility, naming it Sims Hall after former War College President Admiral William Sowden Sims (NWC President from Feb. to Apr. 1917 and again from 1919-1922). In 1957 Sims Hall became the primary center for the Naval War College's wargaming department, serving as such until 1999.
The 1970s saw the War College's most active expansion, with the opening of three separate buildings. In 1972, Spruance Hall, named for former NWC President Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (March 1946 - July 1948), was completed, housing faculty offices and an 1,100 seat auditorium.
In 1974, Conolly Hall was opened and named in honor of Admiral Richard L. Conolly, Naval War College President 1950–1953. It houses the NWC Quarterdeck, Administrative and faculty offices, numerous class and conference rooms, and two underground parking garages.
1976 saw the opening of Hewitt Hall, one of two Naval War College buildings not named for a War College president, this time taking its name from Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt, an advisor to the NWC during his tenure as Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe following World War II. Hewitt Hall is home to the Henry E. Eccles Library, the Trident Café, the bookstore and barbershop, and student study areas and lounge.
In 1999, the state-of-the-art McCarty Little Hall opened, replacing Sims Hall as the War College's primary wargaming facility. The other building named for a non-president, it is named after Captain William McCarty Little, an influential leader and key figure in refining the techniques of war gaming. This high-tech facility is used primarily by the Center for Naval Warfare Studies to conduct war games and major conferences, and for research and analysis. The building features the technology necessary to support a variety of multi-media needs essential during multiple and simultaneous war games.