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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

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 6

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

The Navy without a Naval Academy

The victory of Captain Isaac Hull in the Constitution over the Guerrière aroused the enthusiasm of American people for their Navy; Congress responded with generous appropriations. In January, 1813, the construction of four 74‑gun ships of the line was authorized, and a school-master was provided for each, at a salary of $25 per month. Three years later additional ships and school-masters were provided. During the winter of 1814‑15, at Sacketts Harbor, Commodore Chauncey organized a naval school under Chaplain Cheever Felch, who taught mathematics to one hundred officers and as many ship's boys. Felch was placed in charge of the naval school at Boston Navy Yard the following year. In the autumn of 1814 the Secretary of the Navy requested the views of Captains Bainbridge, Decatur, Hull, Morris, Perry, Porter, Stewart, Tingey, Evans, Shaw, and Warrington on measures to improve the Navy. Captain Tingey, already familiar with the naval schools conducted at the Washington Navy Yard, and Captain Evans recommended the establishment of a naval school ashore.

Captain Charles Stewart vigorously opposed a school ashore. Distinguished in three wars, Stewart had a lofty conception of duty and of the future of our Navy, but he was sincerely convinced that "The best school for the instruction of youth in the [naval] profession is the deck of a ship. . . . The pride of command, the sensitiveness of rank,  p33 and the high bearing so essential to a gallant officer must necessarily become impaired by employment on shore. . . . Only an active and devoted career in his own service and on his own element [the sea] can constitute the accomplished seaman and skilled commander."​1 The remaining captains expressed no opinion. Captains Bainbridge and Porter conducted classes for their midshipmen in Tripoli prison; Captain Bainbridge sponsored the first practice cruise for midshipmen on the Prometheus in 1817; Captain Porter recommended an academy ashore in 1816; and Captain Warrington subsequently supported the school at Annapolis. The silence of other captains did not necessarily imply opposition to a naval school, only their preoccupation with measures immediately necessary to the prosecution of the war.

In November, 1814, Congress established a Board of Navy Commissioners to administer the Navy. Commodores John Rodgers, Isaac Hull, and David Porter, members of the first board, continued the Department's efforts to secure a uniform system of interior organization in naval ships and shore establishments. In this task they drew upon their own experience but did not hesitate to adopt features of British and French naval administration suited to the customs of American seamen and needed in the American Navy.

Late in 1814 Secretary Jones recommended the establishment of a naval academy to instruct officers in mathematics, experimental philosophy (physics), gunnery, naval architecture, and the art of mechanical drawing. The Board of Commissioners, at the request of Congress, submitted a well-considered plan for a naval academy ashore, emphasizing the fact that the time was opportune because the advent of peace would relieve a number of young officers of their  p34 active duties and permit them to acquire the scientific attainments hitherto denied them. Aware that some older officers in the Navy had been scantily educated, the Board recommended that the facilities of the proposed school be available to any officer who wished to attend.

The suggested course included writing, arithmetic, gunnery, fortifications, drawing, navigation, mathematics useful to the profession, French, and sword exercise. No scholar would remain at the school less than two years unless his services were required at sea, and none could remain longer than three years or after he was nineteen years of age. In effect, the maximum age of entrance was fixed at sixteen; there was no minimum age limit. Scholars were encouraged to enter at an early age. The provision for sword exercise obviously anticipated young scholars; it read: "When a scholar is of sufficient age and strength he shall be taught the sword exercise." Commodore Rodgers, who signed this report, had gone to sea at thirteen, was first mate before he was eighteen and in command of an ocean-going ship before he was twenty.

The routine and discipline recommended smacked of a man-of‑war. The scholars would rise with the sun in winter and summer, at the beat of a drum, breakfast at 8 A.M., dine at noon, and sup at 8 P.M. At five o'clock in summer and four in winter they were to be dismissed for exercise, but were not allowed out of the grounds after nine o'clock in the summer and eight in the winter. The usual punishment for minor offenses was extra duty or confinement, both naval punishments; for more heinous offenses they would be expelled, and any one expelled would be forever precluded from becoming an officer in the Navy.

When scholars were sufficiently grounded in the rudiments of their profession, two days in each week were assigned to practical work — in fitting and rigging ship; in the  p35 economy of store-houses, sail lofts, and similar establishments which might be connected with their profession. The Commissioners also anticipated stationing a ship in ordinary of a small rate near the academy to permit the students to rig and unrig her, and providing two guns with furniture and ammunition, that students might occasionally practice gunnery.

This academy would be the sole source of officers for the United States Navy. "When there shall be a call for the employment of an additional number of Midshipmen, the selection is to be made from those [scholars] who are best qualified." To ascertain the "qualifications," the Headmaster semi-annually would furnish the Commissioners with the name, conduct, character, and peculiar genius of each scholar, and would particularly state whether the scholars revealed "an aptitude or an aversion to the sea service." The Master was enjoined to treat every "scholar with equal attention, and never on any occasion to make any distinction, but what was due to merit and capacity."

The Master was clothed with ample authority, but the Commissioners constituted themselves a Board of Visitors to inspect the school, to be present at the examinations, and to note the progress of the scholars. They specifically reserved the right to fix the policy and make interior changes in the school. The Board prepared to keep a close watch on the school, which they designed to be the cradle of the Navy.

Commodore Rodgers remained at the head of the Board of Commissioners for the next ten years. In 1826, when commanding in the Mediterranean, he was still interested in a naval academy. In 1831, again President of the Board, he recommended an academy at Annapolis, where regular instruction in modern languages, mathematics, surveying, navigation, drawing, and fencing should be given; a small  p36 ship-rigged vessel, armed with several cannon, would be stationed at the school to train the youngsters in seaman­ship and gunnery.​2 From 1815 until his death in 1838, Commodore Rodgers, Commodore Truxtun's first lieutenant on the Constitution, was the most influential officer in the Navy. During all this time he was in favor of a naval academy ashore, and, except for Commodore Charles Stewart, he had the support of the leading officers of the Navy and of practically every Secretary of the Navy.

During the decade following the war of 1812, the Navy gradually cast off the last rough and ready methods of discipline it had inherited from the merchant service, in favor of the more severe but regular naval discipline.

During the Revolutionary War, John Paul Jones recorded in the log of the Ariel that he had kicked Midshipman Fanning; such action excited no comment, for it was customary. In 1817, Captain Oliver H. Perry was court-martialed and given a private reprimand for "giving a blow" to a captain of Marine. Another captain had been acquitted of a charge of striking a midshipman the previous year. Ward-room officers and midshipmen memorialized Congress, stating that American officers had actually been struck by their commanding officers. Congress wisely ignored the memorial. The action of the naval court-martial in awarding a private reprimand to the hero of Lake Erie reminded other captains that, while the authority of a commanding officer can not be questioned, his punishments are limited to those prescribed by the regulations, and he can be held responsible for abuse of his authority. This transition to naval discipline improved the status and fixed the position of midshipmen in the naval hierarchy.

As early as 1817, the Niles Register recorded: "Efficiency of the Mediterranean Squadron is universally admitted . . .  p37 it is everywhere treated with respect . . .. . . and is the best school in the world for the acquirement of nautical knowledge." Although required to stand frequent watches, drill morning and afternoon, study navigation, ordnance, and seaman­ship, and keep a "note-book," midshipmen generally managed to have a jolly time. In 1816, Midshipman James A. Perry, younger brother of Captain Oliver Perry of the Java, wrote of his midshipmen mess-mates: "We are happy as the day is long . . . there is a‑plenty of girls, but the devil of it is we can't speak their language." For himself, Midshipman Perry determined to learn the French language.

Congress increased the number of school-masters and chaplains in a genuine effort to improve the educational facilities of the Navy; and in spite of its many other tasks, the Board of Commissioners in 1817 fitted out the brig Prometheus as a midshipmen's practice ship, under Captain Wadsworth, to cruise along the New England coast. The midshipmen performed the duties of seamen, holystoning the decks, steering, making and furling sail. In addition, they served as junior officers, handled the brig under sails, navigated and made a marine (running) survey of the harbor of Portsmouth. This first practice cruise of American midshipmen embraced the essential features of all future practice cruises under sail.

The Regulations of 1818 prescribed the duties of midshipmen in general terms and recommended them again to the "fostering care" of their captains. The Board fixed a higher standard for promotion to lieutenant, which automatically compelled greater exertions by midshipmen who aspired to a commission. They were examined in arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, navigation, and astronomical calculations; further, they must have served at sea for two years and be acquainted with the rigging and stowing of a  p38 ship and the management of artillery at sea before being promoted. In compensation, practically all vacancies among lieutenants were reserved for midshipmen, which did them little good, as few vacancies occurred.

In 1818 there were four hundred midshipmen, a greater number than during the war with France. Special legislation provided for the promotion of seventy Midshipmen in 1825, most of whom had served during the War of 1812; they then stagnated in the lieutenants' list. In 1827, of 374 midshipmen, nineteen for whom there were no vacancies had passed for promotion. To improve this condition, Congress gave them, after three years at sea or five in the Navy, a new title, "passed midshipmen," and increased their pay from $20 to $25 per month, with an additional daily ration. In 1835 the pay of all midshipmen was again increased. In 1836 there were 199 passed midshipmen and 251 midshipmen. By 1840 some passed midshipmen had been in the Navy sixteen years. In 1841 the largest number of midshipmen, 219, ever appointed in one year, was warranted on account of the war scare with Great Britain; 186 of them were still in the service in 1845, and 136 graduated from the naval school in 1847‑50. In August, 1842, there were 490 midshipmen in service, which led Congress to limit the number by law; only a dozen were appointed in 1842 and none in 1843 or 1844.

Piecemeal legislation could not improve the lot of midshipmen when there was no means of removing senior officers except by death, court-martial, or resignation. The only remedy was a steady flow of promotion. It is not surprising that Congress hesitated to establish a naval academy to educate midshipmen to become lieutenants when there were no vacancies in the lieutenant's grade for passed midshipmen already qualified for promotion.

The Mediterranean Squadron was the favorite station of  p39 young American officers, and it was nearly always the "smart" squadron. Chaplain E. C. Wines served in it during 1829, 1830, and 1831, mainly on the Constellation, Captain A. S. Wadsworth commanding, and he has left an excellent account of the station.​3 The ships were famed for their cleanliness and excellent organization, which Wines said resulted from the indefatigable training of their crews to a thorough practical knowledge of their duties and the ready obedience paid by inferior officers and men to the orders of their superiors. American naval officers with scarcely an exception were good seamen; native enterprise and sagacity were their usual characteristics. They were not finished mathematicians or acquainted with languages, but there were libraries on every ship and many officers were fond of reading. The library on the North Carolina was purchased with voluntary subscriptions from the officers. They maintained a military discipline of a very high order, and American ships surpassed those of other nations, including Great Britain.

This description of the officers of the Mediterranean Squadron was written by an educated clergyman serving temporarily in the Navy, where he saw the officers under actual service conditions. The traits he noted had been developed by actual service at sea on their own men-of‑war before there was a naval academy. Officers realized that they were the product of a sea‑going environment. They were self-reliant and resourceful, and had measured themselves, their frigates, sloops-of‑war, and gunboats against their British cousins, reputed masters of the sea, and were not ashamed of the record. They bore themselves proudly. Many of them feared the effect of sending midshipmen to shore school during their formative years. When the school was eventually established, these same apprehensions caused  p40 the officers to keep the Academy under naval control so that it could be made a proper cradle for sea‑going officers.

The midshipmen of the 1830's had few comforts: their mess was allowed one servant; wood for cooking their meals was always scarce; twice a week they had butter and fresh bread; only their active exercise and the vigor of their digestive apparatus prevented them from ruining their health. They were deprived of grog-money in 1842. Their pay was small. Many of them were improvident and not a few were ruined at the monte tables at Mahon. One of the reasons midshipmen were given so little shore leave was their perpetual poverty. Few of them had a complete civilian wardrobe, and before going ashore a midshipman usually borrowed raiment from his messmates; it was not difficult to obtain clothes, for never were more than half of them allowed ashore at one time. The youth, high spirits, and natural gaiety of midshipmen enabled most of them to endure and enjoy their hardships afloat. Those who could not stand sea‑going resigned. Midshipmen continued to be improvident and to share their shore-going clothes, at least until 1904. They usually owned a complete set of uniforms, but one particularly reckless midshipman, who subsequently became a distinguished aviator, was reduced to his full dress trousers. He met the situation by removing the gold stripe for daily wear and pinning it on for Sunday inspections.

Chaplain Wines gave a detailed description of the highly trained crews, who handled the sails and guns more smartly than the British, their nearest competitors. The men were an odd assortment — generous with a sort of grumbling contentment with their lot, susceptible to kindness. Their chief characteristics were a mixture of credulity and skepticism, with a superstitious dread of imaginary and a contempt of real dangers, an imperturbable effrontery in lying, an insatiable  p41 thirst for strong drink, and shocking profanity. If one of the crew of the Constellation, chosen at random from Davy Jones' locker, were questioned, he would unblushingly admit that the Sky Pilot of 1830 had made a shrewd estimate of his character. The good chaplain believed that, though debased, sailors still had some generous traits in their characters; he was convinced they could be reformed, and he labored earnestly with his shipmates on the Constellation. He recommended that use of the "colt," a small whip made of three-inch rope, unlaid, with three knotted tails, should be limited to the captain and first lieutenant, and the "cat," a short wooden stick covered with baize, with nine tails of tough knotted cord about two feet long, be authorized only by a court-martial. At that time, the captain could award a punishment of twelve lashes of the cat, and officers could authorize the use of the colt by a petty officer to hasten the movements of laggards. On some ships it was customary to give a couple of lashes with the colt to the last man aloft before an evolution and the last to reach the deck after completion. Chaplain Wines was ahead of his time; the cat was abolished in 1850, and until other means of enforcing discipline had been developed, there was a noticeable falling off in the behavior of the old‑timers who dreaded nothing but the cat.

Captain Wadsworth encouraged his men to commute their rum ration, and two‑thirds of the crew did. On the John Adams it is reported that not a man of the ship drew grog, and that throughout the entire squadron two‑thirds of the crew were "stop grogs." Commodore Truxtun asserted that a "drunkard ought never to be employed." Commodore John Rodgers was a teetotaler and refused a ship to a distinguished captain because he was intemperate. Commander Buchanan and many others did not tolerate intemperance.  p42 But there were "broadside officers," as they styled themselves, who drank freely. Mahan states on second-hand authority that in 1832, in this very Mediterranean Squadron, a sloop-of‑war was put under two reefed topsails on Christmas Eve in a two‑knot breeze and the whole ship's company, officers and men, celebrated the entire night. This same sloop later stood into the harbor of Malta under all sail, royal and studding, and made a flying moor. Within fifteen minutes the sloop was moored, sails furled, and yards squared. The Navy differed in its drinking habits, but drinking was not allowed to prevent smartness.

Between 1815 and 1850, the Navy was a mixture of "license and smartness," and so were its midshipmen. But through the darkest days of the naval stagnation, Mahan, who knew some of the leading characters when he was a midshipman and was familiar with the era by oral tradition and study of the records, asserted that "the high sense of duty and of professional integrity" was never wanting in the United States Navy.4

Chaplain Wines wished to establish a naval school ashore similar to West Point; he said that the existing system produced good sailors but not thorough navigators. Schools afloat were subject to interruptions and irregularities; other duties took precedence. Arrival in port was always fatal to school, for midshipmen not on duty were trying to get ashore and those on duty could not attend. Wines testified that there was no lack of talent or enterprise among the midshipmen but that it was difficult to "train the mind to systematic thinking and philosophical reasoning on board ship." Most midshipmen did not aspire to "philosophical  p43 reasoning" and would have accepted Mahan's statement that "the object of a naval education is to make a naval officer."

Captain M. C. Perry, commanding the Brandywine in 1832, not only directed the studies of his midshipmen, but advised them what books to read and gave them hints on how to live as gentlemen on small salaries. In every way he sought to elevate the ideals of his officers. All captains were not as interested in the development of their midshipmen as Perry and Wadsworth, but many of them were, and at no time has the Navy been without a group of leaders to set the tone of the service.

Chaplain George Jones corroborates the testimony of Chaplain Wines in his description of the school on the Constitution: "In a short time study was all the go through the steerage, extending itself into the wardroom. The cobwebs were soon brushed from their brains, and a more diligent, and I may add successful set of pupils will nowhere be found, than in a few weeks were those of our ship. Thus it continued through the summer." The course included Bowditch, algebra, and geometry. Jones stated emphatically that he "did not know what older officers thought but the rest cry for a naval school and resent the preference shown the Army in West Point." Perhaps some of his pupils yearned for more education, but the chances are the majority wanted the exact amount necessary to make them proficient lieutenants. They bitterly complained of the moderate restrictions of the naval school at Philadelphia when they got it.

Chaplain Jones took extraordinary interest in the establishment of a naval school ashore. When the school at the Naval Asylum started, he recommended the expansion of the course to include mathematics, gunnery, seaman­ship, natural philosophy (physics), belles-lettres, languages, and  p44 drawing. He noted that the Secretary had authority to establish a school ashore by assembling in one place the professors scattered throughout the Navy and ordering midshipmen not employed at sea to attend. He convinced Commodore Lewis Warrington, one of the Commissioners, and Secretary Upshur that the Department possessed the necessary authority, but the Secretary, although in favor of the school, refused to exercise this authority without the express approbation of Congress.

In the spring of 1836, fifty-five officers of the Constitution memorialized Congress to establish a naval academy; officers of the Vandalia supported their recommendation. Neither group specifically recommended a school ashore, and Lieutenant Maury, an outspoken advocate of a school, recommended that it be established aboard a 74‑gun ship of the line, on which the duties of the school would take precedence over all others. Midshipmen would be assembled aboard the school ship, and every officer aboard would take part in the instruction as follows:

The captain, ex officio president and tactical officer.

The chaplain, instructor in languages.

The purser, instructor in small sword and single stick exercise.

The surgeon, teacher of chemistry and naval history.

The lieutenants, instructors in mathematics, astronomy, navigation, natural philosophy (physics), geometry, pyrotechnics (a branch of ordnance), etc.

Maury was convinced that four years aboard a school ship would qualify midshipmen for their ordinary duties and indoctrinate them in the leading sciences. Maury, a natural student, suggested that a naval officer's education include cultural subjects, but he wanted midshipmen taught aboard ship — moored to the dock, to be sure, but afloat. Three months each year this ship would go to sea on a  p45 practice cruise. Lieutenant L. M. Powell's conception of a school was the same as Maury's, but he thought a small sloop-of‑war would serve instead of a ship of the line. The essential idea of Maury and Powell was that the education and training of midshipmen should take place at sea and be paramount to any other duties. By a curious coincidence, as American opinion was veering toward a school afloat or ashore, the British abandoned their naval academy at Portsmouth as a failure and resorted to the system of sea‑going instructors and schools at navy yards, which the American Navy was about to discard.

As late as 1842, Commodore Stewart reiterated his objections to a school ashore. Some congressional opposition arose from the same high motives as those of Commodore Stewart. Senator Woodbury asserted in debate that "the deck of a ship was the best schoolhouse or academy. The naval officer should be a sailor; an informed, intelligent, moral and intellectual sailor, but still a sailor — a son of the ocean, — dedicated for life to all its arduous duties." Other senators opposed on the ground of expense. Senator Smith of Connecticut declared that an academy would stimulate one class of individuals at the expense of others. Senator Allen was typical of a group who opposed the establishment of a naval academy because it would "degenerate like West Point" into a nursery for wealthy young men who obtained their education at the public expense. It required the Mexican War and General W. S. Scott's public testimony to the value of West Point graduates to silence a formidable group in Congress which was determined to abolish West Point. This same group had resolved to prevent the establishment of a naval school, and it is entirely possible that Secretary Bancroft's infant school would have been snuffed out, except for the Mexican War.

The mutiny on the Somers in 1842,​a led by Midshipman  p46 Spencer, a son of the Secretary of War, is sometimes credited with hastening the establishment of the naval academy on the assumption that it revealed a deplorable morale among midshipmen and created a demand for a naval school ashore. This theory will not bear analysis. The naval school at Philadelphia had attracted the favourable attention of the Navy and the Navy Department before the mutiny occurred.

The Navy knew that Midshipman Spencer had served only one year and was in no way representative of the corps of midshipmen. During his short service, he had been recommended to be dropped, but through his father's influence had been retained. When he attempted to incite a mutiny his plot was frustrated, and after a court-martial, he and two other conspirators were run up to the yard‑arm by the crew he had attempted to seduce, which then "cheered ship." The prompt and decisive manner in which the attempted mutiny was suppressed revealed the inherent discipline of the Navy, but the conduct of Spencer affords no evidence of the morale existing among other midshipmen and certainly had no effect on the establishment of a naval school.

The introduction of the screw propeller on the gunboat Princeton by Captain Stockton in 1843 vitiated many of the arguments against educating midshipmen ashore. The paddles of paddle-wheel steamers were extremely vulnerable to gun‑fire, and the unwieldy wheels required so much space that there was little room for guns. Conservative officers could reasonably argue that paddle-wheel steamers would never displace sailing ships on the high seas. And they never did. But no such argument could be brought against the screw-propelled man-of‑war, whose propeller and shaft were compact, well submerged, and protected, whose unencumbered decks provided more room for guns than sailing  p47 ships did. Plainly steam was the motive power of the future, and midshipmen could only study steam ashore, for there were practically no steam-propelled men-of‑war on which midshipmen could be instructed afloat.

The Author's Notes:

1 Captains' Letters, Navy Department.

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2 Oscar C. Paullin, Commodore John Rodgers, p391.

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3 Two Years and a Half in The American Navy (1832) Vol. I Vol. II.

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4 This fact should be emphasized. Park Benjamin's History of The Naval Academy, Chapter VI, leaves the impression that the Navy had been developed by a set of drunken tyrants who bullied one generation of midshipmen, who in their turn grew up to be dissipated martinets and abused the next generation of midshipmen.

Thayer's Note:

a George R. Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, pp214‑218; more argumentatively, Holden A. Evans, One Man's Fight for a Better Navy, pp155‑158.

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