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Bill Thayer

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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.

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 2

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p1  Chapter I

A City of Historic Charm

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Annapolis, the ancient capital of Maryland, with its century‑old State House lifting its slender wooden dome as delicate as Chippendale above its highest hill, is a town with a charm all its own. Not because it contains houses and survivals of Colonial times but because with all these it has retained something of the very atmosphere of the rollicking days before the Revolution. As it has never expanded commercially it has never changed its character and has preserved its old buildings, streets, alleys, and general air of cultivated, aristocratic complacency. The coming of the Naval Academy in the middle of the last century did not destroy Colonial Annapolis but merely enabled it to achieve sufficient material prosperity to maintain its gentility.

 p2  Blue water, red brick, and green shade, with the white dome of the state House above them all, just about express one's impression of Annapolis in the pleasant months of the year, which here stretch from March to December. Almost surrounded by the blue Severn and its tributary inlets, Annapolis is essentially a maritime community with rakish Chesapeake Bay oyster schooners lying at anchor before the town, not to speak of the presence of the Naval Academy with its fleet of cutters manned by white-clothed midshipmen, darting submarine chasers, and an occasional cruiser and grim battle­ship lying out in the Roads. And wherever one turns, his farthest glance down the street is likely to rest upon a bit of blue water or the slope of a mast and sail.

But the real charm of the town is in its fragrant past. Its streets are narrow, like Boston's, but unlike them rarely need to be wider. They are generally straight, except where they describe circles around the State House and St. Anne's ancient churchyard to confuse and lose the wandering visitor. From these circles the streets lead out like spokes from the hub of  p3 a wheel. Their very names cast ghostly shadows of an aristocratic past: Duke of Gloucester, Queen Anne's only child who survived infancy; King George; Prince George, the name of Anne's almost forgotten husband; Hanover; Cornhill; Fleet — some of its founders evidently loved London — Dean; Cathedral — this was to have been a cathedral town; Charles, — all have remained without change since from before the Revolution.

Even the alleys are a delight and a novelty to one who has not traversed the older parts of London. They cut across from street to street in a surprising but helpful way, and Chancery Lane and Carroll Alley have a past as rich as any avenue. Like the city ordinances that till recently authorized the appointment of an inspector of chimney sweeps and established regulations for the proper sweeping of chimneys, they bring back a past that is too delightful to be obliterated.

Even if familiarity makes one forget the thrill of street names, one never loses pleasure in the beautiful Colonial residences that dot the town. In the midst of many modern dwellings, hardly  p4 a street fails to boast one or more charming relics of Georgian architecture at its best. Coming out of a narrow alley, one glances up the street to feast one's eyes on the majestic outlines of such a mansion as the Brice House, of old brick, with classic cornice and hall window, and great end chimneys. At each side is the low‑roofed wing overgrown with ivy that was originally the servants' quarters or kitchen or domestic offices. Inside, the high ceilings, ancient wainscoting, and stately fireplaces, all make one feel that he has stepped into a larger, more lordly time. And happy will he be to secure lodging, as he may, even in what was the kitchen or servant's bedroom, for these do not lack the simple beauty of Georgian building and decoration.

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With such houses to delight the eye, viewpoints come to be cherished, and one goes a longer way that he may see again some gem of architecture from a point that he has found especially fine. As he gazes and walks the scenes of "Richard Carvel" seem as if of yesterday, and he almost expects to see Dorothy Manners or Captain Clapsaddle appear before him and go off, she in a sedan chair and he on his sturdy saddle horse.  p5 Even in the negro quarter one occasionally discovers an old house which still stands in real beauty amid the squatty tenements.

Above all the houses and forming the cynosure of the town and vicinity is the lofty dome of the State House. It sits easily based on the ancient part of the capitol, rising in slender outline white against the sky, and so light and graceful that the eye is fascinated. From all parts of the town the streets lead toward it and thus afford many a varied picture of its charms.

As one enters the portals of these historic structures, public or private, one meets the old‑fashioned courtesy and gentility which is one of the permanent remains of the South before the Civil War. And one finds a social grace in men and women which shows itself in a simple but sincere hospitality which has always been noted by visitors to Annapolis and which is one of the best inheritances from previous generations.

In the unbustling atmosphere of the town, calling is a social custom that still persists, fostered partly by the official requirements of the naval service but also by strength of ancient custom. An American Mrs. Gaskell would find no  p6 better setting for her characters than here, where a lady has an "afternoon at home" and during at least the winter months devotes some time nearly every afternoon to eating the sandwiches and drinking the tea provided by successive hostesses of her acquaintance. Here exists in an inexplicable fashion — until one remembers that Annapolis has always been Southern and that the spirit of the Southern plantation owner was a Colonial spirit and that the South never really changes — the air of unconcern with the serious things of life which reminds one of the days of Steele and Addison and which is reflected so brilliantly in the many sprightly and lovely private letters that Annapolitan chatelaines of the past have left us.

The naval atmosphere which at present dominates the life and thought of Annapolis does not really obliterate the chief qualities of the earlier period. In its emphasis on formality and its generally aristocratic tone the Navy fits perfectly into the picture of the past. Social forms and the usual features of higher society, the call, the ball, and the dinner party, are still found, even though the naval officer, as well as the present day Annapolitan, supports these on an income which would hardly have supplied Richard Carvel with his claret. And there is also a constant memory of traditions of the naval profession as evidenced by the many memorials and mementos of famous men and events that dot the Academy grounds. In Bancroft Hall, high on the wall where no midshipman can fail to notice it, is spread the flag which has given the Navy its watchword, Lawrence's dying words on the Chesapeake inscribed on the rude piece of blue which Perry flew at Lake Erie spelling out "Don't Give Up the Ship."​a And from Guerrière, Macedonian, Java, Lady Prevost, and other captured frigates and sloops of the second war of independence have come trophies that bring us directly in touch with the earlier times. And in his imperial marble sarcophagus in the crypt of the Academy chapel sleeps Paul Jones, who, as every reader of Churchill's stirring story of the town knows, prized every fashionable appurtenance of his time.

Few towns in America have thus a more varied store of historical interest than the little capital by the Severn. Like Bruges and Perugia, Warwick and Nuremberg, its charm lies in its actual preservation of the atmosphere of the past in everything except flesh and blood, not mere sites where famous actions took place but the very houses, streets, and drawing rooms in all their original character. Here is no museum or museum-like atmosphere, but the town itself is a living museum with everything in a natural setting.

It ought, therefore, to be worth the while of every American who venerates the historic foundations of the nation to‑day, and the men who laid those foundations so well, to trace the growth of one town where these facts are so evident. In its varied history he will see its Puritan origin in a Catholic colony, its fortunes changing with the rise and fall of party in the mother country, its rapid strides to affluence and luxury from the profits of the tobacco field, its sturdy assertion of the rights of freemen against Parliamentary oppression, its burning of the hated tea in emulation of Boston's example, its support of the cause of the Colonies in its firm but dignified fashion, its sympathetic reception of the aristocratic French officers fresh from the  p9 court of Louis XVI, its social intimacies with Colonel, and then later, General Washington, its preservation from decay by the establishment of the Naval Academy, its "capture" in 1861 by the redoubtable "Ben" Butler, and its refining influences upon all the principal naval characters who emerged from their midshipman days to prove their sterling qualities as junior officers in the war between the States, whether they were under the Stars or the Bars, as commanding officers at Manila and Santiago, and in both capacities in the world-wide activities of the defeat of Germany. Such a survey will present an almost perfect cross-section of American achievement in war and peace, in commerce, education, politics, and the more elegant phases of social life.

Thayer's Note:

a Perry's flag — Dont with no apostrophe, actually — is seen in this classic photo of Memorial Hall, taken Oct. 15, 2006 by Joe Bengoechea and generously released to the public domain:

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The flag is actually not visible here in its entirety, the edges being folded back inside the frame. A complete and much closer view is provided by the frontispiece to Alden and Earle's Makers of Naval Tradition.

Update, December 2014: Until 2004, the flag in Bancroft Hall was Perry's original historic flag; but what is now to be seen there, as in this photograph, is a replica. The original was removed from Bancroft and conserved. Since 2009 it has been displayed on the First Deck in the Naval Academy Museum.

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Page updated: 5 Dec 14