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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 15

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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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p276  Chapter XVI

Since the Civil War

With the close of hostilities between the North and South and the departure from Annapolis of Federal troops and wounded, the Naval Academy was enabled to return and reoccupy its quarters, sadly wrecked by their use as hospitals and by the erection of cheap, unsightly buildings for minor purposes, even for beer saloons. Almost immediately David D. Porter was assigned to the superintendency and in the course of his four years in office reconstructed both the external appearance and the internal organization of the institution.

Porter's career had been such as to stir the ambitions and fire the imaginations of the young men under him. A son of the famous David Porter of Essex fame, he had himself begun his naval experiences at the age of eleven on board a ship fighting pirates in the West Indies. When his father resigned from the American Navy and became for a short while a Mexican admiral, the  p277 son donned the uniform of a midshipman in the Mexican navy, but later enrolled as a midshipman in the navy of the United States. Although only a lieutenant at the outbreak of the Civil War, he became a rear admiral in less than two years, largely for his work on the Mississippi under Farragut, and he had full command in the closing days of the war of the attack on Fort Fisher, where the largest Union fleet assembled during the war, sixty vessels, was present. Four times he had been given votes of thanks by Congress.

Porter's energy and self-confidence found plenty of scope in the post he occupied. The Civil War had revolutionized the world's ideas of naval warfare, and steam engineering was at once given a prominent place in the curriculum. But Porter also changed the general character of the Academy from a school for mere boys to that of a college for men. He paid less attention to minor matters of conduct and encouraged athletic sports, especially baseball and rowing, and gave the midshipmen greater opportunities for social festivities and even such new ideas as amateur dramatics. During his time also appeared  p278 Park Benjamin's sketches of midshipman life, practically a class publication, entitled "Shakings."

As illustrating the new attitude of the superintendent to the midshipmen, is the story of Porter, then a Vice Admiral, putting on the boxing gloves and getting his nose smartly tapped by his midshipman opponent. But the older traditions of naval administration came back with the arrival of Commodore John L. Worden in 1869, although he had in the Civil War been the commander of the Monitor in its epoch-making engagement with the Merrimac under the command of Franklin Buchanan, the Academy's first head.​a

One of the interesting incidents of Naval Academy history in this period is the presence at the Academy of several famous ships. The Constitution has already been mentioned as arriving in 1860 as a practice ship, and after having served as quarters at Newport during the war she started back with the midshipmen on board. Though originally in tow of a tug, she broke loose and made the rest of the trip under her own sails, at times with a speed as great as thirteen  p279 and a half knots. From 1867 till 1871 she remained at her moorings, part of the time commanded by Lieutenant George Dewey, and serving as quarters for the entering class. Since her removal in '71 there has been an insistent demand by friends of the Academy that she should be returned to serve as a source of inspiration to the young men preparing for a naval life.

The other practice ship which remained at Annapolis for many years was the Macedonian, named for the British frigate captured by Decatur during the War of 1812 and often, though mistakenly, identified with her. She was first used by midshipmen in 1863 when they made a summer practice cruise to Europe in her. As American commerce was then being threatened by the activities of the Confederate cruisers, Alabama and Florida, Lieutenant Commander Luce, her commander, disguised her as a Spanish frigate and cruised all summer about the Bay of Biscay looking for Confederate raiders. The next summer she was again at sea with the midshipmen on a similar errand and the tradition is that one night off Block Island she actually had the Florida under her guns but burned a  p280 signal light too soon and so lost her quarry. She was used as late as 1868 for practice cruises.

Other ships with records of achievement which were sent to the academy for varying periods were the Constellation, built in Baltimore in 1796,​b the same year as the Constitution, the Hartford, flagship of Farragut at both New Orleans and Mobile Bay, and the Olympia, from which Dewey directed the annihilation of the Spanish at Manila on the 1st of May, 1898. Lastly, the yacht America, which gave its name to the America Cup races, has a connection with Annapolis which has justified bringing the old craft there in recent years and preserving it in dignified surroundings. After winning the Queen's Cup, as it was then called, at Cowes in 1851 and thus establishing America's skill in sailing, she passed into British possession till she was sold to the Confederates in 1861 for blockade running. Her crew scuttled her in 1862 up the St. John's River, Florida, when they were pursued by the gunboat Ottawa. But she was soon raised and served off Charleston as a despatch boat. When her case came before the prize court her captors gave up all claim to prize  p281 money on condition that the Government would fit her up as a practice ship for the midshipmen. She thus reached the Academy and was used on summer cruises for a number of years. In 1873 the Secretary of the Navy sold her for a small sum to our Civil War acquaintance in Annapolis, General Benjamin F. Butler. After lying in a dilapidated condition in Boston harbor for many years she was at last brought to Annapolis in 1921 and presented to the Naval Academy.

An evidence of the advances made by the United States in naval reputation, and of the Naval Academy as well, was the decision of the Japanese Government to send some of its young men to Annapolis for training. These began to come in 1869 and continued at intervals till 1887. Of the fifteen Japanese who entered, Sotokichi Uriu, of the Class of 1881, proved the most distinguished when he commanded one of the cruiser divisions in the battle of Tsushima in 1905 and assisted in the disastrous defeat of the Russian fleet.

No history of the life of the Academy since the times of the Civil War can be complete without some reference to hazing, a custom which apparently  p282 dated from Civil War days at Newport when the upper classes were mostly in active service and there were but few officers to carry on the work of discipline. It was also probably due to imitation of customs at colleges and West Point. According to Admiral Mahan and to most of the older officers, there was no hazing in the 50's, for the "oldsters" — those midshipmen who had been at the Academy longer or had even served on board ship before entering — adopted a friendly attitude toward the entering class. But in 1871 eleven midshipmen were expelled for the offense. A fresh outbreak occurring in May, 1874, in June Congress passed the so‑called "hazing law," by which any midshipman found guilty of hazing was to be summarily dismissed by the superintendent. This made no distinction between the different kinds of hazing, whether cruel or ridiculous, physical or mental, but considered any unauthorized assumption of authority by one midshipman over another to be worthy of dismissal.

In the various measures devised to eradicate the practice, which the passage of the "hazing law" failed to effect, there has been a great variety.  p283 Some superintendents have adopted the rather strict, police-like methods by which the ships themselves were governed. Others have persuaded classes in the Academy to pledge themselves not to carry on physical or brutal hazing, in some cases using threats if this was not done, in others offering concessions or privileges. In other cases there has been an emphasis on the obligation resting upon the upper classmen as petty and cadet officers to report all cases of hazing or any other breach of the regulations that came to their notice, for it has generally been agreed that hazing could not go on without the knowledge of the graduating class. In all cases the fact that any one guilty of hazing in the very strict sense of the word as defined by Congress can be punished only by dismissal has made it impossible to regard some offenses as pranks and others as criminal. The greatest stir over the matter was probably in 1906 following a fight between two midshipmen, Branch and Meriwether, from which Branch died.

As in other institutions of learning, hazing in recent years has tended to diminish because of the larger number of students, the greater interest  p284 in athletics, which sidetracks attention to inter-class conflicts, and the general broadening of outlook which students experience by greater freedom of movement and a chance to divert their surplus energy in other directions, such as student publications and dramatics.

That the Naval Academy was essentially sound was demonstrated by the conduct of its graduates in the Spanish-American War, the first war where its product was in entire command. The deeds of the leaders have already been mentioned. At the beginning of the war junior officers were too few for the needs of the Navy and the graduating class was sent to the fleet in April. Soon after, the class to graduate in 1899 secured permission to join their comrades, and even members of the two lower classes were permitted to see active duty if they wished. After the battle of Santiago Rear Admiral Cervera and seventy-eight other officers were brought to Annapolis and quartered on the Naval Academy grounds to await arrangements for exchange or the end of the war. The liberal treatment accorded them left many a tender feeling for the town in their minds.

 p285  In the new developments in naval warfare which began in America about 1880, the adoption of steel ships, nickel-steel armor, and the application of electric power to the operations on board ship, the graduates of the Academy showed their progressiveness. Chief, perhaps, should be mentioned Bradley A. Fiske. Entering in 1870, when considerable hazing was in vogue, his particular humiliation was, as soon as he heard, "Jim Fiske, strike your attitude," to immediately assume the appearance of an idiot. Fiske's contributions to the new science of naval warfare were the first use of electricity for training guns, an improved range finder, the gun director system, a stadimeter, and finally in 1911 the torpedo plane.

Of other graduates of the Academy who about this time brought credit to their alma mater, Admiral Mahan revolutionized the world's conception of the importance of sea power on the development of nations and served as the guide for much of the naval expansion in Germany and Japan. His "The Influence of Sea Power on History," published in 1890, has placed his name with the great historians of the  p286 nineteenth century. In physics, a graduate of the time of Fiske, Albert A. Michelson, who soon left the navy for civil life, was the first one to measure the velocity of light and to prepare the world for the principle of physical relativity.

Probably, however, the Academy graduate who has done the most for the town itself in recent years was Winston Churchill, Class of 1894, when, having left the navy upon graduation and pursued a literary career, he returned to Annapolis, lived in the Governor Paca house, and wrote "Richard Carvel." The book was an instant success and directed attention to Annapolis as a charming bit of Colonial life still undisturbed. The foreword, put into the mouth of Daniel Clapsaddle Carvel, supposed grandson of the hero, pictured the town almost as it was in 1899, and offended many of the townspeople. But the book itself probably helped to destroy the sort of place it described. Churchill wrote:

"The lively capital which once reflected the wit and fashion of Europe has fallen into decay. The silent streets no more echo with the rumble of coaches and gay chariots, and grass grows where busy merchants trod. Stately ball-rooms,  p287 where beauty once reigned, are cold and mildewed, and halls, where laughter rang, are silent. Time was when every wide-throated chimney poured forth its cloud of smoke, when every andiron held a generous log — andirons which are now gone to decorate Mr. Centennials' home in New York or lie with a tag in the window of some curio shop. The mantel, carved in delicate wreaths, is boarded up, and an unsightly stove mocks the gilded ceiling. Children romp in that room where the silver door knobs, where my master and his lady were wont to sit at cards in silk and brocade, while liveried blacks entered on tiptoe. No marble Cupids or tall Dianas fill the niches in the staircase, and the mahogany board, round which has been gathered many a famous toast and wit, is gone from the dining room.

"But Mr. Carvel's town house in Annapolis stands to‑day, with its neighbours, a mournful relic of a glory that is past."

With the close of the Spanish-American War, however, a new movement began in Annapolis. The Navy had demonstrated its value to the country and the possession of islands far distant  p288 from the continental United States made an increase in naval strength necessary. This involved a larger number of midshipmen to supply the officers for such ships. The accommodations at Annapolis were already inadequate and dilapidated; some buildings were unsafe and all unsuited for a modern institution of naval education. Accordingly an entirely new plant was decided upon by the authorities. The original impulse probably came from Col. Robert M. Thompson, of New York, a graduate of the Academy in 1868, and a member of the board of visitors in 1895. So much interested was he in the matter that he enlisted the services of Mr. Ernest Flagg, the architect, and secured from him a plan for an entirely new arrangement of buildings and even changes in the grounds as well. This was the plan by which in the course of the next ten years the new Academy was constructed.

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Since the outlay would be extensive, the Academy officials bided their time and in 1898, when a few buildings became wholly untenantable, they asked Congress for only a million dollars for a boat house, power house, and armory, only  p289 one‑half of the needed money to be appropriated in the following year. These structures were to fit in with the plans of Mr. Flagg. In the course of the years before 1910 most of the features of the plan were secured at a total cost of over $10,000,000. At the same time the number of appointments was increased so that in 1905 the midshipman body numbered 881. The Academy reached its highest enrollment in 1923 with 2,499 on its rolls.

In 1906 occurred a fitting climax to all the work of rebuilding and expansion. On the 24th of April the body of Paul Jones, the first American naval officer to stamp himself upon history, was landed at the Naval Academy in the presence of a fleet of American and French warships and a large assemblage including President Roosevelt. In 1911 the original lead coffin was enclosed in a handsome marble sarcophagus and given a permanent resting place in the crypt of the Academy chapel.

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The story of the finding of the remains of Jones is almost as romantic as was his life. When he died in 1792 in Paris he was buried in a Protestant cemetery in the outskirts of the  p290 city and the location of the grave promptly forgotten. But in 1899 General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Horace Porter, then American ambassador to France, became interested in discovering the grave. After nearly six years of investigation, ended finally by tunnelling through what had been the cemetery where it was found that the lead coffin in which he had been buried had been placed, the body was discovered. Though the lead coffin had lost any name plate and a pick had penetrated one point and allowed the alcohol in which the body was preserved to evaporate, the original remains were discovered and found to correspond in every detail to busts of Jones by Houdon and with accounts of his physical condition at the time of death.

In the search for Jones General Porter met the considerable expenses necessary but the French and American governments gave the sacred remains of the naval hero a fitting funeral journey to Annapolis. The casket was escorted to the railroad station in Paris by companies of both French and American sailors, and at Cherbourg placed on board the U. S. S. Brooklyn and brought to Annapolis, where on the anniversary  p291 of Jones's first great victory, that of the Ranger over the Drake, it was received on shore; to serve as a perpetual incentive to patriotism and that spirit of undaunted courage which has always marked the American naval officer.

Thayer's Notes:

a C. L. Lewis, Admiral Franklin Buchanan: Fearless Man of Action, p196.

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b The Constellation was a late‑18c ship built for and commanded by Commodore Truxtun in several famous engagements. The story of the ship is told in Chapters 23‑25 and 27‑37 of Eugene Ferguson's Truxtun of the Constellation; a complete transcription of the book is onsite.

The Constellation served as a training ship at the Naval Academy for several decades. She can be seen in the background of an 1893 photograph of the Naval Academy crew, in Proceedings of the U. S. Naval Institute, 61:1558, and atmospheric photos of midshipmen on her deck are given in W. D. Puleston, Annapolis, p112 (taken in 1885, five years after our author graduated from the Academy) and G. E. Wheeler, Admiral William Veazie Pratt, p9 (taken in 1889).

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Page updated: 28 Sep 21