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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
From the Mississippi
to the Sea

Admiral Robert E. Coontz

published by
Dorrance & Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p50  Chapter III

Choice of a Career

Desire to Be a Naval Officer — Examination for Annapolis — The Trip East — The Naval Academy — Entrance "Exams" — Hazing — The Life of a Midshipman.

When I was fifteen years old I began to think that I would like to be a naval officer. My father, while taking a business course in Cincinnati, in the late 'fifties, had roomed with a young man named A. Gola Armington, who later became a midshipman, but did not remain at the Academy to graduate.

In June, 1880, I wrote to Washington and found that there would not be a vacancy at the Naval Academy available for me until 1881. Each representative in Congress was then allowed one midshipman appointment every six years, and for that reason they were not easy to get. I had never seen salt water and the only midshipman I had ever known was a young man named Hepp, from Sedalia, Missouri. He came to my father's office in 1880, resplendent in his naval uniform, with a message from Senator George G. Vest. In the spring of 1881 I began to correspond with Cadet Hazeltine, of St. Louis, who had entered the Academy in 1880. He gave me much information and sent me an article on Life at the Naval Academy, by L. T. Peale. I also learned that several Missourians were to enter the Academy that year, and later I met two of the boys at Annapolis.

I had another opportunity for a river trip in 1880, and again made the journey to St. Paul on the steamer Belle of LaCrosse, in company with a friend named Hope, from Kirksville, Missouri. I observed that already there were indications that the Mississippi was getting shallower. The Keokuk locks had been completed and were  p51 in use. We were eight days going to St. Paul, and returned on a smaller boat than the Belle as far as LaCrosse. Since my first trip up the river I found that the country had been much settled. Minneapolis and St. Paul had become rivals, and a street car line across the intervening country connected the two cities. Summer resorts had been established and we stayed at the Hotel St. Louis, one of the leading hostelries on Lake Wayzata.

A campaign for the presidency was on that year, and I recall a peculiar sign over a saloon in St. Paul. It read:

"Hancock, the coming man,

English will come as well;

Fresh beer always on hand,

Whiskey, gin and wine to sell."

Hancock and English were the Democratic candidates for president and vice-president.

Through the influence of my father in March, 1881, James M. Nickell, the newly elected collector of taxes of Marion County, appointed me as his deputy. My pay was five hundred dollars a year. For a time I tried to do double duty, working in the collector's office until four o'clock and after that hour acting as shipping clerk for the printing company. I managed to retain both jobs for several months. In the meantime I had written to our Congressman, Colonel William H. Hatch, asking for an appointment to Annapolis.

Political strife was so intense in that part of the country that at one time my father supported Colonel Hatch with his newspaper, while my grandfather supported Colonel John M. Glover. A test came when father defeated grandfather for committeeman by a vote of ten to one. Notwithstanding, amicable family relations were maintained.

My father was secretary and manager of the Hannibal Fair Association, for Northeast Missouri was famous for  p52 its county fairs. Each county held one either in August, September or October. Prizes were offered for everything, from the best made jelly to the best jackass. The boys attended every one possible, and I was particularly fond of going to those in the neighboring counties of Monroe, Ralls and Shelby. I think the only expeditions of this kind that have survived are those still held at Paris and Palmyra, and the State Fair at Sedalia. It was difficult to keep gamblers away from these bazaars, and I have seen many a "sucker" hauled in and his money taken before the authorities could cause the arrest of the crooks. These gentry generally wore "plug" hats, dressed well and had fast horses with which to make their "get‑away" when hard pressed.

There were so many candidates for Annapolis that Colonel Hatch decided to hold a competitive examination, but when the time came to take it only three boys appeared, my bosom friend, Harry Carstarphen, a young man named Brown, and myself. Carstarphen and Brown failed to pass the physical test and I received the appointment. The time for qualifying was short as the examination at Annapolis was only a week off. I resigned my positions, including that of secretary and treasurer of the Park Sunday School, and prepared to go east without waiting for my credentials.

Going east was a big event for a boy who had spent all his life in and around Hannibal, Missouri. In particular, I remember an incident that happened the night I left. My grandfather, then seventy-three years old, came to the house to tell me "Good‑bye," and said he would never see me again. I believed it at the time, but he lived for twenty-five years after that and I saw him many times. I have no doubt my father and mother thought I would get homesick and be back in Hannibal within a few weeks.

I left home that night on the "Cannon Ball" train. It ran from Kansas City to Toledo, Ohio, and passed through Hannibal about two o'clock in the morning. I  p53 had often frolicked around the station with the boys and helped to play jokes on the farmers. The trains were usually made up a half hour ahead of their starting time, and when we would see a farmer hurrying up the tracks we would yell to him urging that he hasten, as the train was about to leave. They would come running with their valises, and then have to wait fifteen or twenty minutes before the train departed. In the meantime, having had our fun, we would disappear.

I had a sleeper as far as Ft. Wayne, but could not rest well. We were late in reaching Ft. Wayne and I had to make a rush to catch the Pennsylvania train. When I got aboard I settled down to view the Ohio and Pennsylvania scenery, as I had done while riding along the Wabash. It was economy to take a sleeper at night and ride in a coach in the day time. I was up before we reached Pittsburgh to see the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. I did not want to miss seeing the Horseshoe Curve, but the Juniata River was a disappointment to me, as it was smaller than I thought it to be, having heard the song of The Blue Juniata many times. We were obliged to wait three hours at Harrisburg, Pa., and I employed the time in going to the state capitol and to see the Susquehanna River across which circus wagons were fording. That stream was a disappointment to me, too, as I had pictured it as a second Mississippi with steamboats going up as far as Harrisburg and Williamsport.

Aboard the train I was on the lookout for other candidates for Annapolis, and picking out one, I introduced myself. He told me he was Carl Jackson, of Morrison, Whiteside County, Illinois. Accompanying him was a tutor and he had to explain to me just what a tutor was. I had never encountered one up to that time. Jackson was a fine boy, but had gold teeth and the examiners at Annapolis would not pass him physically.

It was after dark when we arrived at the old Pennsylvania station, Sixth and B streets, in Washington. Following the instructions I had received, I crossed the street  p54 to the St. James Hotel, which is still standing, and engaged a room for a dollar a day. Early the next morning I called upon my predecessor, an officer named Clements, of Macon City, Missouri. Clements was a star at Annapolis, and by special permission was allowed to marry before his six years' course at the Academy and at sea was completed. He immediately took me to the Navy Department where I met the Acting Secretary, Rear Admiral Edward T. Nichols, and procured a duplicate appointment. Mr. Clements asked me if I had been to a preparatory school and I told him I had not; in fact, that I had never heard of one, and he expressed doubt as to my ability to get into the Academy. He gave me a letter to Captain Wilkinson, who conducted the well-known school at Annapolis, but it was so late that I did not present it.

President Garfield had just died and the examinations were postponed for a few days. Jackson and I, accompanied by his tutor, went down to Annapolis and took rooms at the old Maryland Hotel. After dinner we decided to go down to the Academy gate. We reached Capitol Circle through one of the numerous alleyways and started, as we thought, for the gate. In passing a barber shop we saw a man being shaved, and a few minutes later, we thought we saw the same man under the razor in another shop, only to discover that we had been walking around the circle and had passed the same shop a second time. We reached the entrance to the Academy grounds, took a look at the iron gates and returned to the hotel.

The next day was Sunday and I had my first voyage in a sail boat. I went with Clark, who had entered the Academy in June as a plebe, and two candidates for admission, Tarbox and Heilig. During the sail out to the middle of Chesapeake Bay, the conversation turned to politics. Heilig was from the mountains of eastern Kentucky, and a Republican. Tarbox, who was from South Carolina, allowed that no Kentuckian had any business  p55 being a Republican. A fight immediately ensued. They fought, it seemed, for hours, in the hot September sun. It was almost the worst fight I have ever seen. Finally, from sheer exhaustion, both dropped to the bottom of the boat. Clark and I sailed back to Annapolis and took them to a doctor.

That afternoon we received a visit from two midshipmen in uniform, and we remembered later that they had certain distinguishing marks on their right sleeves. They were Jayne, of Mississippi, and Blandin, of Alabama, on leave. Having entered in June they told us they would be in our class and glad to assist us. We opened up our hearts to them, much to our subsequent discomfiture, when they told the others how easy we were.

I was given a room in the hotel with Victor Blue, of South Carolina, later to become a rear admiral.

We had our first examination in English, of which department James Russell Soley was the head. For oral reading he gave me an article on "Women's Clothing," by Abraham Lincoln. I had been reared with Negro boys around, and doubtless my pronunciation had been influenced somewhat by them. Two of my particular associates were sons of our cook who was an ex‑slave. One of them had already been sent to the penitentiary.

During my reading the professor stopped me and said, "How do you pronounce y‑o‑u‑r?

"Yore," I replied.


I had never heard any one pronounce the word with the broad sound of the "i," and so I answered, "Neether."

"Where do you come from, young man?" he demanded, and I told him "from Missouri."

"I thought so," he replied.

After considering the matter for a time, however, he allowed me to take a re‑examination in reading, and gave me a paper prepared by Thomas Jefferson. I then managed to pass in reading.

My revenge came six months later when I stood first  p56 in the English branches, having a mark of 3.86, and as head of the department he had to sign my paper.

Out of fifty‑six candidates, only twenty-four passed this examination. Fifteen had entered in June, and nine others had been turned back from the previous year, so that we started with the cadet midshipmen part of our class numbering forty-eight. There were twenty-five cadet engineers who entered each year, and that year the number were chosen from among upwards of two hundred candidates. Later we had two other midshipmen turned back to our class and when the classes were combined by law our total was seventy-five.

Our class was predominantly southern. There were five from Missouri, seven from Virginia, three from South Carolina, three from Georgia, five Maryland, two from Tennessee, and so on. The question has often been asked as to why there were so many boys from the South in these classes, and Rear Admiral H. P. Jones gave the best answer I know. He said, "Our parents at that time, a few years after the close of the Civil War, were so poor that they had to send their sons to some free institution in order to enable them to get an education."

One morning I awoke and found that my roommate, Victor Blue, had departed, bag and baggage. On the table lay a note from him telling me that he had failed to pass his re‑examination in mathematics, and that he was going back to South Carolina. He asked me to write to him and I did. He taught school at Centennial and after two years returned to the Academy under another appointment. Eventually, he became Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, after an adventurous and creditable career.

I remember my first meeting with some of the candidates. Of course, we were all strangers and had to get acquainted. The Academy hospital where we had physical examinations afforded the best opportunity. I recall the  p57 exact spot where I met Slocum and Eberle, at the end of the old quarters, near the gymnasium.

I was placed with good roommates at the Naval Academy, which is really a matter of importance. I roomed with Kittrell, of Mississippi, for three years, and the last year with Robert L. Russell, of Georgia. They were fine young men and stood high in their classes. Russell stood one and starred the first year.

I carried my belongings and my mattress on my back from the store room to the so‑called new quarters, and was assigned to a room on the upper floor. At supper time I met a June man named Slade, from Georgia. He suggested that if we were to go out on the grounds we might escape the hazing which he thought was sure to occur before the study call sounded, three-quarters of an hour later. We slipped out quietly, but alas, were followed by two first classmen, Anderson, of North Carolina, later a rear admiral, and Fowler, of Virginia. Upon inquiry they learned why we had come out and took us down toward the river where there was a long terrace. They directed us to roll down the terrace, come back and roll down again, and to continue doing so until the study call sounded. After that we remained in our rooms and took what was meted out to us.

Hazing was practiced at the Academy, but there was little brutality about it. I think the worst case I ever saw was that of a youngster who was made to stand on his head while water was poured down each leg of his trousers. Of course hazing soon developed and the papers were full of yarns. My name, together with those of McGuinness and Ledbetter, classmates, appeared in the press of the country, much to our horror and the worry of our parents.

When I entered the Academy, Rear Admiral Rodgers was the Superintendent, but shortly afterwards he was succeeded by Captain Francis M. Ramsay. To a plebe, the Superintendent was next to the Almighty, and when my cousin, Colonel William Leonard, of Salisbury, Maryland,  p58 came over to see me, and took me into the office of his old friend, the Superintendent, I was greatly astounded.

We attended strictly to our studies as plebes. Shortly after we entered, our colored boy, Bias, who cared for our rooms, announced that he could bring us ice cream and cakes after taps sounded at ten o'clock on Sundays. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I still had some money, and the result was that every Saturday night we had what we called a "spread" which was very much enjoyed. The ice cream was brought in a gallon freezer and the cakes were always lady fingers. Besides our own classmates we always invited Hazeltine, of Missouri, Johnston and Terrell, of Mississippi, and Ledbetter, of Texas. No one ever declined our invitations.

At the Academy, there was in our day a branch of the Y. M. C. A., and meetings were held in the chapel on Sunday afternoons. Once one of our classmates, who was a member, came to our class committee and told us that the wrong man would be elected President the next Sunday afternoon unless something could be done to prevent it. We inquired who the proper man was and how many votes were needed. He gave us the name and told us that twenty votes would be required. The next Sunday afternoon twenty-four third classmen attended the Y. M. C. A. meeting for the first time and cast a solid vote for Midshipman –––––––––. He was elected. There was no call for the twenty-four to go again. The meetings were not largely attended, I regret to say.

We also had a "meditation hour" on Sunday afternoon, between two and three o'clock, which time we usually used to read or to write letters home.

I progressed fairly well in my studies for a time, especially in the English branches. Where I had lived in Missouri, no one spoke French, and I did not even know the word "yes" in that language. In drawing I was hopeless. I began to work hard after getting scared because of my low marks in mathematics, and for the first year I  p59 stood three in the English branches, thirteen in mathematics, twenty-seven in French and forty in drawing. My best instructor in mathematics was Lieutenant T. B. Howard. By the end of the course I had pulled up well in French and prided myself that when I should get to France I would be able to speak the language. It was not until nineteen years later, however, that I landed on the soil of La Belle France and had occasion to test my skill as a linguist.

At Christmas time a few of the midshipmen were allowed to go to Washington and Baltimore, and the rest of us stayed in Annapolis. Up to the time I left home for the Academy, I had never seen fresh oysters; in Missouri we always bought oysters in cans, a can costing twenty-five cents. Kittrell and I upon one occasion went to an oyster house and asked how much a real oyster feast would cost. We were told that for fifty cents we would be served with all the oysters we could eat. We began with raw oysters, then had oyster stew, and finished with fried oysters. We had our fill.

Nearly every boy received a Christmas box from home, and during the holidays the cry "Spread, Room –––" meant that one of them was to be opened and its contents enjoyed by all. A classmate named Luzenberg received two barrels of oranges from Louisiana. They were the best I have ever tasted, and the only oranges I have ever known to compare with them are the juicy ones with the fine thin skins that are grown in Tahiti.

We were quartered at the Academy by classes, the fourth class, or "plebes," on the fourth floor. Among my best friends and associates were, first, Russell, Kittrell, McGuinness, Howell and Tarbox, then Corpening, Eberle, Gilmer, Pagin, Shindel, Slade, Jacobs, Pitner and Wright. Most of them were what were termed, in Naval Academy slang, "red mikes"; we had nothing whatever to do with the girls. When I came to be a second classman, however, though much abashed, I did escort Miss Katie Munroe, of Annapolis, and Miss Maggie  p60 Wilen, of West Virginia, to a leap year hop. During my first class year I was made a member of the hop committee because of my ability to handle finances. I was then obliged to go to a dance.

Kittrell and Wright were musicians, and on Saturday nights they frequently entertained us in some classmate's room. Saturday night we were required to bathe, no matter how much we had done so throughout the week. Toward the last of the course the number of cadets diminished until we had only about one hundred and eighty-five, and I came to know practically each one of them. There were not more than forty officers and instructors and I also came to know each of them.

There was good skating the first and third winters, and upon one occasion we were able to skate as far out as Greenbury Point lighthouse.

At midnight, on December 31, most of the members of the fourth class turned out of bed, and in celebration of the coming of the new year began making a terrible racket with tin pans and basins, and anything that would cause a loud noise. The officer in charge was Lieutenant Alexander McCracken, and we were mustered on the lower floor from whence we were made to march in the cold winter night to the prison ship Santee — some to remain there for months. As we passed through the grounds on the way to the wharf, we disturbed the quiet of the Academy grounds by giving three cheers for the Superintendent. Strangely, however, he did not appear at door or window to acknowledge the salutation.

I believe that midshipmen have more nerve than any other class of people. I am supposed to have a marvelous memory. After one examination in mathematics, when I was in the second section and taking what was known as the elective course, the instructor, Sperry — then a lieutenant and later commander in chief of the fleet on the last leg of its voyage from San Francisco to the east coast by way of the Far East and Europe — called me after the section was dismissed and showing me a "G" opposite  p61 my name, asked me if I knew what it meant. When I answered in the negative, he said, "It means that you gouged on the examination and will get a zero on it, as well as on your report. Your work was perfect and exactly like the book."

I made no response, but as soon as I reached my room and reflected on the matter, I decided to see the Superintendent. Permission being given, I related the circumstances to Captain Ramsay, assuring him that inasmuch as gouging was dishonorable, it was not done by a Missouri gentleman. The result was that Lieutenant Sperry had to apologize to me.

By the end of the year we had lost some of our classmates who could not make the grade in mathematics or French. When the time came for the summer cruise, I was picked for the Constellation, because my name came fifth on the list, and numbers three, six and nine, went to the other ship, the Dale. My father, mother and baby sister came east that June and spent a week at Annapolis. It was the first time my father had ever been East. They visited Washington, and after I had sailed, father went to Hartford, Conn., to visit his boyhood friend, Mark Twain.

In good weather we had all formations in front of the main building, or, as it was then called, the "new quarters." One morning, when I arrived at breakfast formation, I found everyone looking at a long black streak on the wall of the building, extending from a fourth classman's room to the ground. The cadets suspected that some one was in for serious trouble. As soon as formation ended, the officer of the day went to the suspects' room and found that apparently a pan of caramel taffy had been spilled on the window sill and had run down the wall to the ground. The fourth classmen occupants were summoned, but denied all knowledge of the matter. Their statements were accepted by the Commandant, although not without some misgivings. Later it was learned that third classmen in the room directly below had made  p62 a big pan of caramels over a gas jet, and that when it was placed on the window sill to cool, the pan was accidentally overturned and the syrup dripped down the side of the building. Something had to be done and they decided that after inspection they would make another batch of candy, and at 9:30 when the two fourth classmen who occupied the room above were to be out, they would go to the room and pour the taffy on the window sill there and let it run down and join the streak below their own window. The plan succeeded and when the authorities finally solved the mystery they enjoyed the joke and the culprits went unpunished.

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