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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of

W. D. Puleston

published by
D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc.
New York • London

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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please let me know!


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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Genealogy of the Naval Academy

During the summer months of any non‑emergency year, groups of alert-looking young Americans, hailing from every state in the Union, converge upon the Main Gate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Following literally in the footsteps of their predecessors, they proceed down Maryland Avenue between two small brick guard-houses which shelter a squad of uniformed guards known to midshipmen as Jimmylegs. There is more than a suggestion of a military barracks in the thick brick walls and bronze gates; sensitive youngsters get a distinct impression of prison walls, which, fortunately, is soon dispelled. The majority are sufficiently awed as the bronze gates click behind them, but they are all over the first and most difficult hurdle: they have passed the entrance examination and have planted both feet on the lowest rung of the naval ladder. They know that the climb to the top will be long and arduous, but they are not terrified by the prospect.

There is no immediate suggestion of the Navy in the low, solid-looking buildings on either side of Maryland Avenue. The neat brick sidewalks and the concrete roads that lead off the avenue between attractive lawns resemble those in any well-kept government station. Not until the Severn River breaks into view is there a real suggestion of the Navy, which is quickly reinforced by the handsome figurehead of the Macedonian at the foot of Stribling Row. A closer investigation of adjacent monuments will confirm  p2 the impression, and a glimpse of Dewey Basin crowded with small craft will convince the arriving plebes that they are at last in the Naval Academy.

On the tip of this peninsula, formed by the mouth of the Severn and the Chesapeake, Uncle Sam has invested over forty million dollars in grounds, buildings, and equipment to exercise, shelter, and instruct his midshipmen. These brick and granite structures merge so naturally with the flat tide-water land that they have an unearned air of age. Only the modest little guard-houses go back fifty years; the remainder were built after the Spanish-American War. Even for our young country, these buildings are new. The Academy itself has not celebrated its centenary; compared with its venerable neighbor, St. John's College, it is a mere stripling.

The Academy may be a child, but its midshipmen date back to the colonial era. They appeared first in the colonial navies maintained by Massachusetts, Virginia, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. A few entered the Royal Navy. Midshipmen appeared spontaneously in the Continental Navy and the states' navies to fight for our independence. They reappeared immediately on the threat of war in 1793‑94. Midshipmen behaved so well during our first four wars, responded so readily to their meager education — the severe but unsystematic training given them at sea — that some of our finest officers considered the quarter-deck of an American man-of‑war the only proper school for midshipmen.

Advocates of training and educating midshipmen afloat could offer many excellent reasons for their convictions. The most convincing evidence they advanced was the records of the lieutenants and captains that the system of training at sea provided during the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812. A system that produced officers like David  p3 Porter, Stephen Decatur, Jr., Richard Somers, Oliver H. Perry, and Thomas Macdonough could not be lightly discarded. The opponents of a school ashore delayed the establishment of the Academy until 1845. For approximately one‑third of its life, including its golden age, the Navy got along without a naval academy. During that time, midshipmen were trained and educated at sea and at naval schools in navy yards, in a most haphazard fashion. The Navy protected itself from uneducated lieutenants by very severe examinations; midshipmen who were not well grounded in seaman­ship and navigation, and later in gunnery, could not pass the examination.

Although not always examined in gunnery, midshipmen were trained assiduously at every type of gun — 32‑ 24‑ 18‑ 12‑ and 6‑pounders, boat and ship howitzers, and the carronades. The gunnery results during the War of 1812 proved that they were well taught. In addition, they served in the "powder-division," which supplied the ammunition, and were in command of the sharpshooters and grenade-throwers, the sea‑going grenadiers, who manned the fighting tops. Midshipmen were trained by oral instruction and example, as opportunity and helpful seniors provided; those who could not, by their own initiative, fill in the gaps and become all‑round officers were dropped.

The advocates of a school ashore for midshipmen did not contemplate a college, and that term has never been applied to the Navy's school. They advocated a school where midshipmen and instructors would be congregated and would pursue certain subjects essential to the training of naval officers. The opponents and advocates both kept a weather eye on the Academy after it was founded to make sure that it was not turned into a college and that it stuck to its task of preparing young Americans to be junior officers of the Navy.

 p4  In a restricted sense, the Naval Academy is less than a hundred years old; in a real sense, the United States Naval Academy goes back to colonial times when has made were brought up at sea by their senior officers. And to understand the present‑day Academy, it is necessary to recall the colonial atmosphere and to review the methods of training midshipmen in the early naval wars. This retrospect may suggest a sketchy history of our early Navy. It is really family history, which might have been recorded in a Navy Family Bible. it is the genealogy of American midshipmen.

As the plebes of each new class proceed up Stribling Row to Bancroft Hall and through its almost endless corridors to their rooms, they will encounter the first suggestion of an American man-of‑war, a sense of order. When they enter their plainly furnished rooms, they will be impressed with the feeling that every piece of furniture is in its exact place. When they obtain their outfit of clothes, they will be given a plan of stowage, and every article from a handkerchief to working clothes has its proper place in the locker. A visitor on a modern man-of‑war, inspecting the lockers of the crew, will see the same neat arrangement of a sailor‑man's clothes. To the initiated, the Academy to‑day will furnish abundant proof that it evolved from early American squadrons and is still a sea‑going institution with only one foot ashore. The entering plebe, who naturally is striving to understand his new home, should not be content with learning about the present‑day Academy; he must know something of his naval forebears, something of colonial midshipmen, of the midshipmen of the Revolution, and of that brilliant group of midshipmen who appeared as if by magic in our early naval wars. He will hold his head a little higher and fight harder when he gets acquainted with his professional progenitors.

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Page updated: 10 Nov 20