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Chapter 3

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.

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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Early Education of Midshipmen

John Paul Jones had recommended an academy for junior officers of the Navy in 1777. Alexander Hamilton proposed an "academy for military and naval instruction" in 1798. Secretary of War McHenry recommended a slightly modified plan in 1800, which was revived but not acted upon by President Jefferson in 1808. While the discussion of an academy continued, the Navy Department, on its own initiative, provided school-masters for midshipmen and fixed their pay at thirty dollars a month and two rations. Before there was a military academy at West Point, thirty naval students, mainly midshipmen, were regularly attending school on the frigate Boston, where they were taught navigation and other naval sciences. On ships without school-masters, chaplains were required by Navy Regulations to instruct the junior officers.1

After the Barbary Wars many men-of‑war were laid up and there were few berths for the midshipmen. Those entering, and many already in, were advised to make voyages to the West Indies, East Indies, or Europe in merchant ships in order to become proficient in seaman­ship, and no midshipman received half pay unless he spent at least four months of the year at sea. While they were serving in the merchant service, midshipmen were forbidden to wear their  p25 naval uniform or to draw any advance pay from the government.

The actions and correspondence of Honorable Robert A. Smith, who succeeded Secretary Stoddert, proved his interest in the midshipmen. During the reduction to the Peace Establishment in 1801, he rid the Navy of the less deserving, and after the reduction was effected no appointment was made without a preliminary investigation of the candidate's qualifications. To each appointee the Secretary forwarded a copy of the Navy Regulations, a Mariner's Dictionary, and a copy of the midshipman's uniform. The young gentleman was then given a furlough without pay, with orders to report to the Secretary when he was ready to be examined in navigation. If he passed and a vacancy existed on a man-of‑war, the midshipman was ordered to fill it.

As early as 1803, when the Barbary War was at its height and when Major Jonathan Williams was struggling to establish a military academy at West Point, Secretary Smith ordered Robert Thompson, Chaplain, United States Navy, to establish a school in mathematics and navigation at the Washington Navy Yard and offered its facilities to any midshipman or other officer who wanted to attend. Chaplain Thompson continued on this duty until 1810, gradually extending the system until it embraced New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk Navy Yards, thus carrying out the recommendation of John Paul Jones. The chaplain's task was no sinecure: his orders in 1807 were "to attend at your rooms of instruction from sunrise to sunset, and to ten o'clock at night as Captain Gordon shall tell you the service will most conveniently admit." By 1810 the system was well established, the chaplain spending three months on the Constitution, then in succession for a similar period of time on the President, the United States, and the Essex,  p26 to "instruct young officers in the theory of navigation and lunars."2

In 1811 Chaplain Thompson was succeeded by Chaplain Andrew Hunter, who had served as chaplain in the Continental Army, and as professor of mathematics at Princeton. By 1813 Chaplain Hunter had instructed more than one hundred midshipmen, averaging fifty per annum at one school. He enlarged the course until it included arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, logarithms, astronomy, navigation, geography and the use of globes, English, a short course of history and chronology, together with parts of natural philosophy, particularly mechanics, hydraulics, and some selections of chemistry and electricity. All these subjects could not be absorbed by the midshipmen during their short stay, but the interest of some was stirred and they studied these subjects at a more convenient season.

The Navy has always possessed a few studious officers whose intellectual curiosity has kept them abreast of current knowledge. But most midshipmen, including many ardent spirits who later distinguished themselves in their chosen profession, desired to learn only enough to pass their examinations and become proficient naval officers. Their lack of interest in learning for learning's sake excited the direst forebodings in the pious pedagogue, who said that his pupils wanted only "a kind of mechanical knowledge" and who hoped that Divine Providence would direct the helm when they were in command, otherwise "the ship and crew will go to ruin." Professors and even officer instructors have entertained these same apprehensions of each succeeding generation of midshipmen, and yet almost all the incorrigible youngsters who never were enamored of books have managed to absorb enough theoretical knowledge to become efficient junior officers of the Navy.  p27 Chaplain Hunter's young gentlemen were more interested in practical methods of navigation than in nautical astronomy, and fortunately they could keep their ships afloat if they were thoroughly acquainted with the practical formulas and could use the logarithm tables.

The Peace Establishment of 1806 provided for 153 midshipmen, but so many ships were decommissioned that there were not enough berths for them on Navy ships. Secretary Smith insisted that those not employed in the Navy should obtain berths in the merchant marine, and he facilitated their instruction in mathematics and navigation. Their instruction was neither systematic nor comprehensive and their training in the merchant marine was not the equivalent of that in the Navy, but an ambitious midshipman could obtain an adequate knowledge of mathematics and navigation in naval schools as early as 1803 and could become a competent sailor‑man aboard the smartly handled American merchant ships. Serving in merchant ships, attending schools, doing odd jobs ashore, the midshipmen spent the humiliating days between the Chesapeake-Leopard encounter and the War of 1812. They felt the mortifications more keenly than their seniors and got greater satisfaction from Captain Rodgers' avenging of the Chesapeake by firing into the Little Belt.

Many American midshipmen distinguished themselves during the War of 1812. The great majority behaved with credit, some were barely respectable, and a few proved unworthy. The deserving were promoted rapidly.​3 David G. Farragut, the midshipman of 1812 whom the nation and the Navy honors most, was denied his fully earned  p28 promotion because his foster-father, Captain David Porter, thought he was too young to be made a lieutenant, although he had commanded one of Porter's prizes at twelve, which made him the youngest commanding officer on record. The youth of Midshipmen Isaacs and Ogden, messmates of Farragut, likewise delayed their commissions.

Many other midshipmen of 1812 carried on in a manner that would have delighted John Paul Jones. Midshipman Sigourney commanded a three‑gun schooner that was attacked by armed boats; although he was severely wounded, he would not go below but went on encouraging his men to fight, until he was killed. Midshipman Yorick Baker led the boarders from the Wasp to the deck of the Frolic. In the tops of the Wasp, Midshipmen Henry Langdon and Frank Toscan, mortally wounded, stuck to their posts and directed the musketry fire that broke up the gallant effort of Captain Manners to relieve his defeat by boarding. Other midshipmen performed more unpleasant tasks with equal determination. When their gun crews on the Chesapeake flinched from their guns, Midshipmen Ballard and Cox drove them back with their swords. Midshipman Berry in the Chesapeake's mizzentop fought single-handed against three Royal Marines who tried to throw him overboard.

Midshipman Gregory was detected in an attempt to explode a torpedo against the British ship St. Lawrence in the North River. Rowing away in his small boat, he threw overboard an English lieutenant he had captured, and while the pursuing British boats stopped to recover the lieutenant, Midshipman Gregory made good his escape. Midshipman Isaac Mayo saw much hard fighting: he was on the sloops-of‑war Wasp, Argus, and Hornet and served also on the Ohio, Dolphin, and Franklin. He was in the actions between the Hornet and Peacock and the Hornet and Penguin, was aboard when the Hornet was chased by  p29 the 74‑gun Ramilles, and again when it was chased and almost cut to pieces by the 74‑gun Cornwallis. He was promoted lieutenant in February, 1815, and remained a lieutenant for seventeen years, as did his contemporaries during the long peace that followed the war. Thomas A. Conover, appointed midshipman in January, 1812, served on the Essex; later, as an acting lieutenant, he distinguished himself in the Battle of Lake Champlain, in command of the galley Borer. Acting Lieutenant Breese displayed conspicuous courage in command of the Netley during this same engagement, and Midshipman Hiram Paulding was on the Ticonderoga under Lieutenant-Commander Cassin. The behavior of the officers and crew of the Ticonderoga excited the admiration of all beholders; when her battery fired, the nearest vessels thought she was afire, for a solid blaze came from the muzzles of her guns.

The most unusual duty performed by midshipmen during the War of 1812 fell to midshipmen Feltus and Clapp, who were put ashore on the Island of Nooaheevah in the Marquesas, in a fort erected to protect three of Captain Porter's parties. The fort was commanded by Lieutenant John M. Gamble of the Marine Corps, with a garrison of twenty‑one volunteers from the crew. As soon as the Essex sailed, the natives attacked. Some of the crew mutinied and fired upon their officers. Midshipman Feltus and three men were killed. When the Essex did not return, Lieutenant Gamble sailed for the Sandwich Islands, with a crew of eight men and Midshipman Clapp, only to fall in with the British sloop Cherub and be taken prisoner on arrival.

The United States Navy was scarcely fourteen years old when it began the War of 1812. Its captains were in their late twenties and early thirties. Half its lieutenants had had less than six years naval service. Some of its youthful midshipmen had served as mates in merchant ships, but many  p30 others came directly from their homes to the quarter-deck, often on a father's, brother's, or uncle's ship. The senior midshipmen had served in the Barbary Wars. Henry Adams declared that Americans developed "in the course of twenty years a surprising degree of skill in naval affairs." Cooper attributed American successes to their aptitude for the sea. Unquestionably it was the experience gained in the French and Barbary wars that enabled the United States Navy to offer the resistance it did to the largest navy in the world. A British historian gave very strong testimony to the deadliness of American gunners; William James asserted that "the slaughtered crews and the shattered hulks" of the British ships taken proved the British did not lack their old fighting qualities. Their American opponents would ungrudgingly confirm this statement. Henry Adams added that there was nothing to indicate that Nelson's ships, frigates, or sloops fought any better than the Macedonian and Java, the Avon and Reindeer.

Two important facts concerning the War of 1812 should be remembered. First, not our frigates, nor our sloops-of‑war, nor our privateersmen, certainly not our land militia, but the hard-fighting squadrons of Perry and Macdonough preserved the United States from serious British invasion. Those hardy frontiersmen who scorned a Navy and boasted of their riflemen would have been driven into the Ohio River except for Perry's squadron on Lake Erie. The second fact is more important: the United States lost the War of 1812, and was saved from the consequences of the defeat only by the action of Czar Alexander, who informed Castlereagh at Vienna that he took the American view of impressment and the right of visit and search. This hint was immediately communicated to the British Cabinet, who had received a report from Wellington that control of Lake Champlain would be essential to an advance along  p31 the Hudson. The victory of Macdonough gave that control to the American forces. Confronted with another hard campaign to secure their gains and the possible hostility of their ally Russia, the British cabinet decided for peace. They gave up their claims to United States territory, although they controlled Maine east of the Penobscot River and held Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Island. They did not abandon their asserted claim to impress seamen or abate any of the belligerent rights they had enforced on the high seas. The administration of Madison hastened to accept the terms.4

The Author's Notes:

1 Oscar C. Paullin, "Beginnings of United States Naval Academy," United States Naval Institute Proceedings (February, 1924).

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2 The method of determining longitude was known as "lunars."

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3 Three Shubricks, John T., Edward, and William; two Perrys, Raymond and Matthew C.; Silas Stringham, W. A. C. Farragut, William H. Allen, David Conner, John D. Sloat, John Y. Yarnell, Stephen Champlain, Catesby Jones, and John H. Aulick were among those who earned their commissions as lieutenants.

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4 Mahan, War of 1812.

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