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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
United States Naval Academy

John Crane and James F. Kieley

McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.
New York, 1945

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 5

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p37  The Finest of Its Kind

On the morning of Friday, Oct. 10, 1845, at eleven o'clock, a group of about 50 to 60 midshipmen of the United States Navy were assemble in a room in one of the buildings of old Fort Severn at Annapolis. Most of them were veterans of five years' service with the fleet and ranged up to twenty-seven years of age. Many had four years of service to their credit. Only about half a dozen were youngsters, thirteen to sixteen years old, with no sea experience.

These were the first students of the new naval school founded by Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft — the first of more than 17,500 midshipmen who have passed through the United States Naval Academy in a hundred years. Many of them, particularly the men approaching their thirties, were frankly dubious about their assignment. They were accustomed to the old style of naval life. They had come up through the kind of apprentice­ship at sea that had supplied the Navy with its officers since 1775. They were not sure that they were going to enjoy going to college, nor did they have a great deal of faith in a system that proposed to train naval officers on shore.

Whether they liked it or not, they were taking part in the simple ceremonies marking the formal opening of the school. When the group was called to order, Commander Franklin Buchanan, who had been detailed as superintendent of the institution, read to them Secretary Bancroft's letter that outlined the purpose of the school and the plan along which it was to operate.

Then he spoke to his students and his small faculty. When he had finished, there was no doubt left in the mind of any midshipman present as to where he stood with his commanding officer. Buchanan made it clear that attendance at the school was to be considered serious business and that naval discipline would be just as strict at this shore establishment as in any ship at sea.

"Gentlemen," he said in a quiet, earnest tone, "in preparing the rules and regulations for the internal government of the naval school, I have endeavored to confine myself to those points so absolutely necessary for the preservation of good discipline and harmony at an institution yet in its infancy, which we all, I am well assured, feel a pride should rank high in the estimation of our countrymen. Those among you who have served several years in the Navy know the value of wholesome laws and regulations; and to you I look with confidence for assistance in impressing upon the minds of those youths who have lately entered the service the absolute necessity of obedience.

"The government, in affording you an opportunity of acquiring an education, so important to the accomplish of a naval officer, has bestowed upon you all an incalculable benefit. But few, if any, now in the service have had the advantage that you are about to receive.

"The Regulations of the Navy require you to pass through a severe ordeal before you can be promoted; you must undergo an examination on all the branches taught at the naval school before you are eligible to a lieutenancy; your morals and general character are strictly inquired into. It is therefore expected that you will improve every leisure moment in the acquirement of a knowledge of your profession; and you will recollect that a good moral  p39 character is essential to your promotion and high standing in the Navy.

"By carefully avoiding the first step toward intemperance, shunning the society of the dissolute and idle, and by cherishing the wish to deserve and hope of receiving the approbation of your country, you can alone render yourselves able to occupy with honor the high standing in the Navy to which many of you are destined.

"I feel confident that all of you attached to this institution will endeavor to hold a high rank in the service by your application, zeal, intelligence, and correct deportment; and I shall deeply regret to hear that any individual among you has brought disgrace upon himself or upon his associates.

"Every indulgence, consistent with the rules and regulations of the institution, will be granted to those who merit it. The laws of the Navy point out the punishment of those who violate orders; and no commander is justified in over­looking offenses against those laws, however painful it may be to him to enforce them. There is no discretionary power granted to him, although that power is sometimes exercised from necessity; the responsibility resting with the commander, from which he can only be relieved by the Secretary of the Navy of the President of the United States.

"It is at all times an unpleasant duty to a commander to be compelled to punish the misconduct of his juniors; but as an omission on his part to do his duty makes him as culpable as the offender himself, no officer who feels a proper respect for the service or himself will subject himself to so unpleasant a situation. We have no right as individuals to do that which may involve others in our misfortunes; and when we, as naval men, intentionally violate the laws that govern us, we cannot without dishonor to ourselves expect to escape punishment by making others responsible for our crimes.

 p40  "Having thus briefly given you my views on the subject of discipline, and the importance I attach to a strict compliance with all laws, orders, and regulations, I submit them to you all with the hope that you may be benefited by them."

Less than a week before these formalities took place, Buchanan had convened his faculty as an academic board to draw up the detailed schedule of operation for the school. They arranged the classes of midshipmen, laid out the courses of instruction, fixed the hours of recitation, and took care of other details that were to become part of the daily routine of the school. The main subjects to be taught, it was decided, would be mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, ordnance, gunnery, the use of steam, history, geography, English grammar, French, and Spanish.

The midshipmen were divided into two main groups, called the junior and senior classes. The juniors, those just appointed as midshipmen, who had no sea experience, were to study arithmetic, elements of algebra and geometry, navigation, geography, English grammar and composition, and French or Spanish. They were to attend also the lectures in natural philosophy, ordnance, and chemistry delivered to the senior class.

The seniors, those entitled to examination for the grade of passed midshipman at the end of the academic year, were to study algebra, geometry, plane and spherical trigonometry, nautical astronomy, navigation, descriptive astronomy, mechanics, optics, magnetism, electricity, ordnance, gunnery, the use of side, history, composition, French or Spanish.

The delay schedule for midshipmen was arranged to discover 14 hours, to run as follows:

School from 8 A.M. to 12 M.

Recreation and dinner from 12 M. to 1:30 P.M.

School from 1:30 to 4:30 P.M., except on Saturday.

Recreation and r from 4:30 to 6 P.M.

Study from 6 to 10 P.M.

 p41  While this plan was simple enough for a small institution just making its start, there were several circumstances that served to complicate it. First was the wide range that midshipmen, instead of entering by classes, could be detailed individually and at various times to the school. This made it difficult to fit them into a schedule of classes already in progress. Third, midshipmen were to be detached from the school at any time as the needs of the service required.

The naval school course was originally set at five years. One year was to be spent at the school, three years at sea, and a final year back at the school before graduation.

During the first five years of operation the faculty of the school encountered increasing difficulty because of the irregularities of admissions, attendance, and graduation. Hardly a pair of midshipmen could be found in the school who were abreast of each other in their studies. The Navy Department finally gave heed to the pleas from Annapolis and authorized the Academic Board to reorganize the whole plan of operation of the school. The results of the Board's efforts went into effect with the academic year beginning July 1, 1850, when the institution became known for the first time as the United States Naval Academy.

The new plan provided first that examinations for admission would be conducted only once a year — between Oct. 1 and 5. Acting midshipmen admitted to the Academy were to remain there for two years and then were to be detached and sent to sea. Three years later they were to return to the Academy and complete a final two years' course. Thus the entire course was extended to seven years.

The long period of three years of sea duty breaking into the schedule of a midshipman's studies at the Academy was tolerated as a concession to officers of the service who were still somewhat opposed to a straight course of study ashore. A year later, however, the Academic Board made bold to recommend to the Navy Department that the sea duty requirement be eliminated in favor of summer practice cruises. Secretary of the Navy William A. Graham approved this plan on Nov. 15, 1851, thus establishing the continuous four-year course which has since remained in effect except for temporary wartime modifications.

Accordingly, the first summer practice cruise was made in 1851 aboard the U. S. S. John Hancock, a steamer, which took midshipmen on a brief trip into Chesapeake Bay. Later in the summer a somewhat longer cruise was taken along the coast of Maine in the sloop of war Preble.

The most extensive changes in the courses of study and life in general at the Naval Academy were undoubtedly those introduced by Vice Admiral David Dixon Porter when he became superintendent at the close of the Civil War. The energetic hero of Fort Fisher first acted promptly to remove all traces of the Army's occupation of the Naval Academy grounds. Then he went to work on the curriculum and introduced two distinct courses of study — one for engineers and the other for line officers. (The distinction was removed in 1899.) He also brought to the faculty many of the young progressive officers who had served with him during the war.

Admiral Porter was also responsible for developing the social life at the Academy, to such an extent, in fact, that the institution was tagged "Porter's Dancing Academy" by wits of the day. The Admiral also introduced the honor system among midshipmen and encouraged athletic contests, especially rowing and baseball. His colorful administration as superintendent ended in 1869.

Football had been introduced at the Academy as early as 1857. The first football game between the Naval Academy and an outside team was played with the clifton Club of Baltimore on Nov. 30, 1882. The first game between the Naval Academy and the  p43 Military Academy was played on Nov. 29, 1890. The Navy won, 24 to 0.

Naval Academy midshipmen have not always been so well disciplined as now. The fine start made by Commander Buchanan in the 17 months of his administration as the first superintendent was of little advantage to his successor, Commander George P. Upshur, who had just come up from the rank of lieutenant. Upshur proved to be so easygoing that discipline was practically relaxed, Midshipman fell into the practice of giving parties in their rooms at night, bringing Gubbio, liquor, and tobacco in from town. Often they would wander through Annapolis, visiting the local drinking places and at times getting into brawls with the townspeople. Some of them were bold enough to leave their rooms strewn with empty bottles, partly smoked cigars, and leftover food in defiance of the inspecting officer. They sometimes appeared for breakfast in their dressing gowns and wore their uniforms only when they felt like doing so.

Succeeding superintendents ruled with a firmer hand. Closer regulation of admissions together with the introduction of the consecutive four-year course in 1851 served to get midshipmen down to business.

The physical aspect of the Naval Academy has completely changed in the century of its existence. The original site acquired by transfer from the War Department in 1845 was a point of land totaling nine acres, adjacent to the city of Annapolis. On the tip of the tract jutting out into the Severn River, called Windmill Point, stood the circular battery of masonwork that was built by the War Department as the principal fortification soon after the government purchased the property from the city of Annapolis and the heirs of Walter Dulany in 1808. Seven other principal buildings stood on the grounds at that time. As used by the Army they were the commandant's quarters, a block of officers' quarters, the quartermaster's office, hospital, quarters for unmarried  p44 enlisted men, quarters for married enlisted men, and a bakery. One of the most prominent features of the landscape was a huge old mulberry tree that stood close to the water front and remained a familiar sight for many years.

The house that had been used by the Army commandant was assigned to Superintendent Buchanan when the Navy Department took over the property. This was a brick residence that had been built in the first half of the eighteenth century. The four brick houses behind the superintendent's house, which had been occupied by officers of the Army post, were turned over to members of the Naval School faculty. A small structure of two rooms on the west side of the grounds was used as midshipmen's quarters and was dubbed "The Abbey."​a The two second-floor rooms of the unmarried enlisted men's barracks were used as recitation rooms, and the two first-floor rooms were used as the midshipmen's kitchen and mess.

The building that the Army had used as married enlisted men's quarters was one of those converted to midshipmen's quarters and became known as "Apollo Row."​b The old post hospital building, which also housed midshipmen, was called "Rowdy Row" because it seemed to provide shelter for the most boisterous element of the school. The bake shop, occupied by midshipmen who had just completed a cruise around Cape Horn in the frigate Brandywine,​c received the name "Brandywine Cottage."

A small brick structure that had been used as the quartermaster's office was taken over by the superintend and the professors for office use. Several midshipmen were housed in the loft above the offices. At the beginning of 1846 the need for living space became so great that an old building which had been used as the carpenter's and blacksmith's shop was converted into quarters for eight midshipmen. This building received the title "Gas House" from the reputation of its occupants as conversationalists.

The first addition to the original Fort Severn tract was made in  p45 1847 when Commander Upshur negotiated the purchase of three lots between Scott Street, Annapolis, and the Severn River. In 1853 two more parcels were added to the property. One consisted of land between Scott Street, Governor Street, Hanover Street, and Northeast Street. The other was a tract lying along the Severn River on the opposite side of Northeast Street.

Also, in 1853, the city of Annapolis ceded Scott Street and Northeast Street between Hanover Street and the river, to the Academy. In return, the government laid a pavement and curb on one side of the bounding streets and later opened Hanover Street as far as the Academy wall through the purchase of another strip of land in 1858.

During the administration of Admiral Porter, in 1866, the Academy acquired — through purchase — the old official mansion of the Governors of Maryland with four acres of land. This brought Governor Street within the grounds of the Academy.

George Bancroft launched his naval school project with a slim fund of $28,200 in 1845. Since then the government has spent millions on the Naval Academy to make it the finest institution of its kind in the world. The dividends from that investment have been returned, through the years, in the form of inspired and competent leader­ship for the Navy which has now become the largest in the nation's history and the greatest fighting force afloat.

Thayer's Notes:

a A rather amusing origin of the name is given by Charles Lee Lewis, Admiral Franklin Buchanan, p57.

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b An apparent origin of the name is given by Puleston, Annapolis, p57.

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c This was the cruise under the command of Commodore Foxhall Parker that brought the United States' first envoy to China in 1844: Old China Trade, pp192194.

Page updated: 28 Sep 21