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Chapter 13

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Annapolis: Its Colonial and Naval Story

Walter B. Norris

published by
Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1925

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 15
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p245  Chapter XIV

Fort Severn Becomes the Naval Academy

That the annals of Annapolis in the nineteenth century pictured for the first fifty years an eclipse and not a decline is due to the fact that just before the middle of the century the United States Naval Academy was established there. Thus to‑day the word Annapolis conjures up in the mind as much the institution where the officers of the Navy are trained as it does the colonial city which still remains the capital of Maryland. The story of this sudden change in the fortunes of the little town gives an interesting insight into the caprices of fortune.

If it had not been for the fact that there already existed, and had since 1808, a fort and government reservation surrounded by a high wall at one end of the town it is unlikely that Annapolis would ever have become the alma mater of the naval service. And the high wall is an essential part of the picture. It is constantly  p246 mentioned in the official documents, and more than the guns of the fort, which were quite useless, was to serve a useful and necessary purpose in restraining the spirits of the young officer-to‑be.

The fort was erected during the year following the outrage upon the United States frigate Chesapeake, when just outside the Virginia capes she was stopped by the frigate Leopard, and when she resisted a search for seamen who had deserted from British men-of‑war, especially the Melampus, she was fired upon till she submitted. It happened that the Melampus had been cruising in the Chesapeake off Annapolis, blockading some French frigates in the harbor of the town when the desertions occurred. In fact, two of the four men taken from the Chesapeake were Marylanders by birth.

During the war of 1812, although the British fleet under Rear Admiral Cockburn sailed up the Chesapeake in 1814 and bombarded Fort McHenry, outside Baltimore, Fort Severn, inadequately manned as it was, seems to have protected the town from attack.

 p247  The fort was situated on what was known as Windmill Point, at the junction of the Severn and the harbor of the town, and included eight acres of ground now roughly corresponding to the portion of the Naval Academy grounds lying between the Chapel and the bay side of Bancroft Hall. On it was the former family residence of Walter Dulany, from whose son's heirs the ground was purchased. Fort Severn itself was a cylindrical fort enclosed by a stone wall fourteen feet high, its parapet covered with turf. In an enclosure about a hundred feet in diameter within was a platform about three feet lower than the parapet, and on this eight guns were mounted en barbette, that is, with their muzzles exposed above the top of the wall. In the center of the fort was a brick magazine, and shorewards outside the enclosure, a furnace for heating red‑hot shot.

To George Bancroft, Secretary of the Navy under President Polk from 1845 to 1846, more than to any other individual, the establishment of a school for the Navy which would do for it what West Point had been doing for nearly  p248 fifty years was due. A graduate of Harvard and of Göttingen, already a distinguished historian, Bancroft believed his administration could be no better remembered than by a reform in the method of educating midshipmen for their varied duties.

Up to this time young men securing a midshipman's warrant in the navy had been sent to sea to learn their profession by actual experience. On the larger ships there were "schoolmasters," who were supposed to give instruction in mathematics and navigation, but they had no authority and their students were at the beck and call of any officer. About 1840 two schools had been established, one at Philadelphia and one at Norfolk, where midshipmen preparing for examinations for promotion might secure assistance, but the equipment was scanty and the work interrupted by frequent drafts for sea duty.

After 1841 the school located at the Naval Asylum at Philadelphia forged to the front in efficiency and came to be the only one in real operation. Here were employed three of the instructors with which the Naval Academy was  p249 to begin its career. The Naval Asylum, however, being near a large city and in close connection with a navy yard, was not considered a favorable place for a school, and when Secretary Bancroft in 1845 suggested uniting all instruction in one school, he mentioned Fort Severn as a better place. His idea was to make instruction permanent and to send to the school not only all midshipmen preparing for promotion, but all midshipmen on shore duty and all young men who wished to qualify for positions as midshipmen. The board of officers from which he asked recommendations as to the scheme reported that in its judgment the rank of naval cadet should be created inferior to midshipman and all students should hold this until they went to sea on graduation. This corresponded to the status of a cadet at West Point, but the suggestion was not adopted and only from 1882 to 1902 was this the official title for a student at the Naval Academy.

The chief problem for Secretary Bancroft, after securing some support from the officers of the Navy for his idea, was how to set such a school going without asking Congress for a  p250 special appropriation and thus seeking its permission. This he accomplished by securing the transfer of Fort Severn from the War Department and by placing on waiting orders, where they would receive no pay, all the so‑called "schoolmasters" formerly employed on board ship and at the various naval stations. The few retained were sent to Annapolis to join several naval officers from the regular list as instructors. As the students were simply midshipmen already on the payroll there were no additional expenses.

The command of this interesting experiment in naval education was given to Commander Franklin Buchanan, an officer of thirty years' service, one who had served several commands at sea and who was known as an efficient executive. The executive officer was Lieut. James H. Ward, who had been teaching at the Naval Asylum and had made a reputation as an instructor in gunnery and naval tactics. Professor Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Henry H. Lockwood, an ex‑army officer, also came from Philadelphia to teach natural philosophy and, as it proved, introduce the midshipmen to infantry drill. Last, but  p251 not least in influence upon the school, was Professor William Chauvenet, who had graduated from Yale in 1840 and had in his few years in Philadelphia as a professor of mathematics in the Navy made his mark as a brilliant teacher, mathematician, and astronomer. These four men were the backbone of the institution and had more to do to make its early years successful than any others.

As late as the summer of 1845 it was only rumor in Annapolis that a naval school was to be established there, and not till August did a board of officers officially approve its location in the town, influenced apparently by Commodore Mayo, one of the board, who was an Annapolitan. On August 15th the formal transfer of Fort Severn was made, and on October 10th Commander Buchanan, with a staff of eight officers, assembled the forty‑odd midshipmen who had reported in Annapolis and inaugurated the work of naval instruction. By the 18th the Maryland Republican, the successor of the old Gazette, had commented on the rapidity with which the change was being effected and remarked on the "forty young gentlemen whose  p252 handsome appearance and gentlemanly deportment give a cheerful aspect to the streets of our quiet city."1

The course of study reads as if it were very formidable, with its mention of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, navigation, geography, English grammar and composition, French, Spanish, trigonometry, astronomy, mechanics, optics, magnetism, electricity, ordnance, gunnery, the use of steam, history, natural philosophy, chemistry, infantry drill, and fencing, but the work was necessarily elementary, as the students had little preparation and were at all stages of attainment. The chief work of the first year  p253 was to prepare for examination those students who were due for promotion. The age of entrance was from thirteen to sixteen years, and the only admission requirement mentally was ability to read and write and some knowledge of arithmetic and geography.

No sooner had the Academy got into running order than the Mexican War opened and threw all into confusion. Midshipmen were detached for active duty, and even Buchanan himself left for a post at sea. The difficulty of adapting instruction and discipline to two very different classes, midshipmen who had made several cruises at sea, for the earliest students had entered the Navy as long before as 1840 and were thus quite mature in experience, and the class of youths who had just received papers as acting midshipmen and had had no experience on board ship, brought about various changes until 1851, when the four years' course was established substantially as at present. Thus the institution became a unit and not a place for haphazard cramming for examinations.

The atmosphere of the Academy during the  p254 first fifteen years that followed its foundation and preceded the Civil War is well reflected in the recollections of those of its graduates who in later life wrote down their experiences, chiefly Alfred T. Mahan, the historian of sea power, who was a midshipman from 1856 to '59 and has left his record in "From Sail to Steam," his substitute for autobiography. Before him came several officers who distinguished themselves in junior commands during the Civil War, namely George H. Perkins and George Dewey.

Perkins, a New Hampshire youth, entered in 1851 and was so full of life and spirits and so little inclined to study that he was compelled to remain an extra year and not graduate till 1856. He had already, however, shown ability in target practice, and when he found himself under Farragut at New Orleans he piloted the swift gunboat Cayuga by the forts and against the Confederate steamers that were stationed farther up stream. Again at Mobile Bay he was in command of the monitor Chickasaw and delivered such a persistent fire of 15‑inch shot against the stern of the Confederate ironclad  p255 ram Tennessee that she was obliged to surrender to avoid being shot to pieces.2

Admiral Dewey's coming to Annapolis was, as he relates in his "Autobiography," somewhat of an accident, as he wished to go to West Point, but found the only appointment available was to the Naval Academy. He entered in 1854 at the age of fifteen years and eleven months, and after having been declared in his first year unsatisfactory in conduct, geography, and history, was saved to the Navy by a good record in mathematics, a more important subject than the last two. Dewey impressed his classmates as a likable lad, with marked refinement and natural dignity, and he rapidly progressed in class standing and in his influence upon his comrades. Generally known as "Shang" Dewey, he foreshadowed his future success and graduated fifth in his class. His poorest work at graduation had been in naval tactics and gunnery!

The one prank which is recorded against Dewey was a fist fight with another midshipman who called him some insulting name at the mess  p256 table. They fought it out right there and were promptly haled before the Superintendent for punishment. The latter individual, however, declared that Dewey was justified in his action but imposed demerits as a punishment just the same.

At his very entrance to the Navy, Admiral Mahan gave also indications of his superior intellectual gifts. Having already had over a year at Columbia College, he did what no one had apparently thought of doing before and asked to be examined for entrance to the class which had already been in Annapolis one year. His success in securing this enabled him to graduate in three years. One of the aspects of the life of the Academy in his day was, as he looked back upon it in later years, the elevating social atmosphere which Annapolis possessed. As he remarks, "The phrase 'all sorts and conditions of men' never had wider or juster application than to the assembly of green lads, from every variety of parentage and previous surroundings, pitchforked into Annapolis once every year; and, of all the humanizing and harmonizing influences under which they came, none exceeded that of  p257 the quiet gentlefolk of moderate means with whom they mingled freely."

Mahan's career at the Naval Academy seems to have been uneventful, as was that of Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, who graduated in 1860. By this time the institution had thoroughly justified its existence and had outgrown its quarters. In Dewey's time the midshipmen numbered about a hundred in all but in 1860 there were 281 at the beginning of the school year. Accordingly the entering class were quartered upon the Constitution which had been brought to Annapolis by David D. Porter.

This class numbering at entrance 100 was destined to take as active part in the naval activities of the next five years on both the Union and Confederate sides as any similar group. It has been called by one of its members, James M. Morgan, whose "Recollections of a Rebel Reefer" is a fascinating account of midshipman experiences during the Civil War, the "Brood of the Constitution." The officer in charge of the ship at that time was George W. Rodgers, who before the war ended met an heroic death in an assault on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.  p258 Members of the class were in almost every major action of the naval forces during the war. In the fighting at Hampton Roads which culminated in the Monitor-Merrimac engagement, three of the class, Brown of Virginia, Carroll of Maryland, and Goode of South Carolina, were on the Confederate steamer, Patrick Henry, which assisted in destroying the wooden ships of the North. Peters of Tennessee was among the Confederates captured at Roanoke Island, and Long of Alabama was a midshipman on the Merrimac itself. Especially on the ironclad rams that made so many gallant attacks on the Union blockading ships and the river patrols were the Southern members of the class present. Long fought on the Albemarle when she damaged several Union gunboats at the mouth of the Roanoke River in 1863, Goode was attached to the ram, Fredericksburg, which was built at Richmond, as was also Meyer of Louisiana. Sevier of Tennessee served on the Palmetto State, which operated in Charleston harbor, Wilkinson joined the Stonewall on its cruise from Europe to Cuba, where it learned the war was over, and Peters of Tennessee was  p259 on board the Atlanta when a 15‑inch shot from the rifled gun of the Union monitor Weehawken put it hors de combat. And at Mobile Bay and Fort Fisher other members who had joined the Southern ranks saw desperate service.

Practically all the class who remained true to the Federal cause were engaged on board the blockading fleet, on ships in the Mississippi, or in distant seas looking for Confederate raiders such as the Alabama or the Florida. And in the Spanish-American War, graduates from this class had probably a majority of the commands of fighting ships. Three of Dewey's captains were from them, Gridley of the Olympia, Coghlan of the Raleigh, and Wildes of the Boston. At Santiago Cook commanded the Brooklyn, Clark the Oregon, Evans the Iowa, and Taylor the Indiana — all entrants of this year. Admiral Sampson himself had graduated in 1860.

With the coming of the first rumors of secession there came a time which parallels strangely the period from 1775 to 1776 when before in Annapolis two parties gradually formed, those who stood for loyalty and those who stood for  p260 rebellion. And again there was displayed as nowhere else a kindly personal feeling between the two sides which is not often commented upon. The midshipmen had been together too long and had formed too close friendships to allow partisan feeling to overcome personal regard and affection. This was strikingly shown early in 1861, when an honor man of the graduating class resigned to follow his State, Alabama.

As Park Benjamin describes it in his collection of Annapolis traditions entitled "The United States Naval Academy,"

"The entire first class gathered and marched solemnly, with Acting Midshipman William T. Sampson — the other honor man — in the lead and arm in arm with the departing member, past the quarters and so on to the walk which ran in front of the officers' houses to the gate, singing in chorus a farewell song. As they came in front of the commandant's house, Lieutenant Rodgers suddenly appeared.

" 'What is the meaning of this rioting on Sunday night?' he demanded sharply.

" 'No riot, sir,' replied the leader; 'we are only bidding our classmate goodby.'

 p261  " 'Go on, gentlemen,' said the commandant simply, and the dreary little procession resumed its march."

As the various States seceded the boys from that State would send in their resignation as soon as they could get their parents' permission. In the case of Robley D. Evans, his mother, a Virginian, was more anxious for him to resign than he was himself and sent in his resignation for him. When Evans learned of it he had decided to stick by the North and after some difficulty got the action revoked by which it had been accepted. But after Sumter had been fired upon and Lincoln had called for troops the parting of the ways came definitely. Federal troops had arrived in Annapolis and the Academy was to be moved to Newport, R. I.

Accordingly when on the 24th of April Captain Blake, the superintendent, prepared to send the midshipmen away on the Constitution, the class of 1861 met and smoked together the pipe of peace, and pledged themselves to eternal friendship. When the drums beat for the final formation, all fell in as usual. Then C. P. R. Rodgers, the commandant, ordered the band to  p262 play "Hail Columbia" and "The Star Spangled Banner." With mixed emotions stirring in the breasts of the Southerners, he addressed the whole body with a fervent plea to stand by the old flag. Then, ceasing, he ordered those who wished to fall out to do so. The boys from the South who had followed their States and some from border States which had not left the Union stepped out of their places. Personal farewells followed, and many a boy from the North grasped the hand of his Southern friend or wound his arms about his neck while tears flowed freely. Then those who were to remain went aboard a tug to embark on the Constitution, while the rest walked resolutely out the gate into Annapolis on their way South.

The Author's Notes:

1 One incident that broke the calm of the "quiet city" is related by no less a "character" than P. T. Barnum, the celebrated showman, in his autobiography. In 1836 he was a partner in a traveling circus that visited Annapolis. On the Sunday morning following his arrival, Barnum reply proudly donned a new black suit he had just purchased and sallied forth to see the town. Unfortunately in passing through the barroom he was seen by his partner Turner, an addict to practical jokes, who immediately started a rumor that the black-coated, ministerial-looking individual was a notorious clergyman from Rhode Island who had recently been the object of public indignation on account of his connection with the murder of a factory girl.

Consequently Barnum found a crowd following him, and was soon stopped and threatened with violence and a ride on a rail. When he learned the reason, he persuaded the mob to return with him to the hotel, where his partner laughingly admitted "he believed there was some mistake about it." In fact, the whole episode was a scheme of Turner's to increase the audience at the circus performances the next day.

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2 C. S. Alden, "George Hamilton Perkins," pp16‑36.

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