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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

From the Mexican War to the Civil War

The presence of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, its accessible harbor, and its proximity to the national capital soon made Annapolis Roads the official gateway to Washington. In the spring of 1852, midshipmen of the Royal Netherlands Navy on the frigate Prince of Orange, the forerunner of men-of‑war from many navies, anchored in the Roads for an exchange of official and social visits. In the autumn the steam frigate Mississippi, flying the broad pennant of Commodore M. C. Perry, arrived. During his visit the commodore made final arrangements for his voyage to the Far East, and President Fillmore, Secretary Kennedy, and other distinguished officials came aboard to wish him success in his forthcoming effort to open Japan to western trade. The Academy officials took advantage of the Mississippi's visit to conduct the midshipmen over our first sea‑going steam frigate.

It was not all work for the midshipmen of the fifties; they were given a holiday when a circus came to town, and before 1855 they had a bowling alley and a boat-house, which suggest bowling teams and boat crews. During 1846 a formal ball was given, which became an annual affair, often attended by the highest government officials. Informal dances, called "hops," were frequently given by midshipmen, dancing being one of the exercises taught at the Academy.

Dewey and Mahan have given different accounts of  p89 Naval Academy life in the fifties. Dewey said it was a steady, hard grind, with no amusements except "stag" hops; Mahan describes many hops, with girls in plenty, and emphasizes the friendly relations between midshipmen and families of officers and professors and the sociable, humanizing atmosphere of the Academy. Dewey was the first of his family to enter the naval service; he probably had few friends among the officers and professors and was certainly unaccustomed to discipline. Mahan, who had been raised in the stricter régime at West Point, did not find Annapolis irksome, and on account of his family he had numerous friends among the officers and professors at Annapolis. Dewey was obliged to study harder than Mahan, who was better prepared when he entered and learned easily. Undoubtedly Dewey found life at the Academy less pleasant than did Mahan, who was welcomed at most of the homes of the officers, easily stood second in his class, and spent much of his time reading novels and flirting with the Annapolis girls.

Dewey states in his autobiography​a that what his class knew they knew well. The system of daily recitations and relentless monthly and semi-annual examinations permitted "no subterfuge of mental agility" and no superficial familiarity with a variety of subjects to take the place of exact knowledge of a limited number of subjects. And although he found his four years at the Academy at times very bleak, as many other midshipmen have done, Dewey states flatly: "I think I may say that no four-year course in any institution gives its students more in mind and character than the school from which the officers of our navy are drawn."1

 p90  Dewey stated in his autobiography that hazing was rife; Mahan is equally positive that it did not exist. Dewey wrote from memory many years afterwards, Mahan from letters he had written as a midshipman. Other evidence supports Mahan's statement. There was considerable class distinction, and Senior Classmen did not report violations of the regulations by their classmates, but hazing of underclassmen came in either at Newport or when Admiral Porter tried to change the Naval Academy into a military "college" in 1865‑69.

In the autumn of 1848 the Superintendent delivered letters of reprimand to three midshipmen who participated in a duel within the grounds of the naval school, probably the last at the school. During the late 1850's personal difficulties between midshipmen began to be settled by prearranged fights with bare fists under an American version of the Queensberry rules. Later, gloves were worn. With or without gloves, the rules were simple. Opponents must be of approximately the same weight; if there was a substantial difference in size, a friend substituted for one of the belligerents. If the fight was between midshipmen of different classes, class officers arranged the preliminaries and provided a substitute when necessary. Contests usually took place just before reveille, and frequently the contestants knew little of boxing; they simply slugged, with little effort to ward off blows. After a contest both contestants needed a few stitches from a surgeon.

The favorite midshipman song of the 1850's had a line, "Take your tobacco lively, And pass the plug around," and Dewey writes that few midshipmen resisted the invitation  p91 to enjoy the famous "Navy plug." Dewey admits indulging as a midshipman, but later he gave it up. The custom was so prevalent that the Academy authorities offered extra privileges to midshipmen who abstained from chewing. The custom persisted nevertheless, and several years after the Civil War a superintendent enjoyed the famous Navy plug and would unblushingly help himself to a generous quid whenever the spirit moved him, heedless of the horror of more refined observers. After the Spanish-American War, many of the senior officers continued the habit at sea, and they nearly all displayed a phobia against cigarettes, which began to compete with pipes and cigars. One particular captain would sit aft, in an easy chair on the snowy quarter-deck of his monitor, descanting on the filthiness of cigarettes, pausing only when it was necessary to expectorate in the general direction of a highly polished spit‑kid, the pride of the quarter-deck division, the captain's own. Much practise had made him extremely accurate, but in his indignant denunciation of the filthy cigarette habit he sometimes neglected to aim carefully, with disastrous results to the quarter-deck.

In 1856, the new steam frigate Merrimac visited Annapolis and was inspected by the midshipmen. President Pierce came down to attend the Naval Ball and visited the Merrimac. Pierce later returned to Annapolis Roads on the frigate Wabash, and was again entertained at the Academy. Midshipmen were also escorted on a tour of the Wabash. At this early date the Department began ordering new ships to the Academy so that midshipmen could see the latest developments in naval construction. On March 4, 1857, the first football made its appearance. Officers, instructors, and midshipmen kicked it around the parade ground; its instant appeal to all hands explains football's premier position in college athletics. In the following spring  p92 the class of 1858 organized the first midshipman literary society and named it for Lawrence.

During its first decade and a half, the Naval Academy graduated fifteen or more midshipmen annually. The number slowly increased to twenty-five in 1860. Officers at sea were skeptical of the new school but they welcomed the youngsters into the service, broke them in aboard ship, and asked many questions about the school. Flag Lieutenant Magaw of the Home Squadron expressed the misgivings of some officers to Midshipman Mahan in 1858; Magaw thought it was a mistake not to permit midshipmen to learn to drink liquor at the Academy, for when they went to sea and visited a foreign ship they would not be able to hold their own with foreigners. Magaw believed that too much time was given to French and Spanish — if he got into difficulty with a foreigner, he would send the despatch in the American language — and he feared midshipmen were not given enough seaman­ship. Magaw stated with pride that he could work alongside the ablest seaman on his ship, and do anything the sailor could do, and do it better. Such accomplishments can be carried to extremes, but our earliest officers earned their commissions by excelling their men in all branches of seaman­ship and gunnery. The obvious professional competence of officers soon gained the respect and eventually the ready obedience of their men.

Graduates of the Academy in the period prior to the Civil War proved their professional fitness, and when the problem of enlarging the Navy arose in 1861, the senior officers decided to promote the junior officers recently graduated and to graduate the midshipmen at the Academy early. Commodore Dupont was one of the officers responsible for the decision. The Board was convinced that midshipmen were better acquainted than merchant officers  p93 would be with the organization, battery, and equipment of a man-of‑war and that because of their youth they possessed greater ability to assimilate the military characteristics of the naval profession. The little cherub aloft who watches over the American Navy established the Naval Academy at just the right moment. If it had been established earlier, the characteristics of the naval officers who formed it would not have been fixed and they would not have established a proper academy; if it had been later, the expanded Navy of the Civil War would have been filled with officers of the merchant marine lacking naval discipline and training, and the Navy would have passed through another difficult period of adjustment.

The eras 1798‑1818 and 1852‑1861 profoundly influenced our Navy. During the first period naval officers recruited from our merchant marine established our Navy on a sound foundation. They had a more accurate appreciation of the future of the nation and of the Navy than contemporary statesmen. These former merchant officers realized that the Navy must be organized upon a different basis and, without abandoning their own seafaring virtues, discarded merchant ship discipline and customs. Similar wisdom and foresight were shown in the second period when senior officers, many of them scantily educated and self-taught, deliberately chose the educated graduates of Annapolis in preference to officers of the merchant marine. Older naval officers obtained their education the hard way, but they realized that it was better for the Navy to be officered by scientifically trained midshipmen. Senior officers were influenced in this decision by their experience with academy graduates, who convinced them that during their practice cruises midshipmen acquired the necessary sea habits without which no one can become an efficient sea‑going naval officer.

 p94  In the late 1850's the bitter feeling between the North and the South made itself felt at the Naval Academy. Mahan reports that as early as 1857 midshipmen from the South were reconciled to disunion. He quotes a conversation with a midshipman from North Carolina who referred to Buchanan as the last President of the United States. After the election of Lincoln and the secession of South Carolina, the Naval Academy still went at its accustomed pace. On November 3, 1860, the first of the season's informal "hops" was held, and the officer of the day logged it "a tasty and elegant affair" which "passed off to the intense satisfaction of all concerned." Two weeks later there was a more brilliant ball on the Constitution, which had arrived the previous summer to quarter the Fourth Classmen, and leave was granted midshipmen to escort the ladies home from the "soiree." A large number of midshipmen were granted permission to attend the 1861 New Year's Ball on the Constitution. On January 4th officers and midshipmen joined the nation in a day of fasting and prayer proclaimed by President Buchanan; the next day the midshipmen on the Constitution gave a hop, which was well attended by the ladies. Mississippi seceded on January 9th, Florida on the 10th, and Alabama on the 11th. Many midshipmen from southern states had already resigned, but on January 14th all midshipmen from Alabama resigned as a body.

Benjamin reports very affecting scenes between classmates who suddenly realized that they might be opposing each other soon in battle. Midshipmen are usually reserved, their dislike of scenes is proverbial. There was probably much banter about being kind to any taken prisoner, and many quiet assurances of personal esteem and extra hard handshakes at parting. Friendships made at Annapolis generally survived the Civil War, and many classmates who  p95 had fought against each other renewed their friendships after peace. Most graduates who "went South" fared badly after the war. Some entered the navies of Central and South America.

Annapolis was southern in sentiment, and there was loose talk in the town of seizing the Constitution for the Confederate States Navy. Her crew had been reduced and many of her guns removed to increase the accommodations for midshipmen; she was secured to the dock and at low water was grounded in the oozy bottom of the Severn. She would have been difficult to take but easy to destroy if a field battery were placed on the bluff across the river. Commodore Blake determined to hold the Constitution at all costs and the Academy as long as possible. On April 14th Sumter surrendered; the next day the commodore informed Secretary Welles of his plan of action. Academic activities had been suspended; the midshipmen were armed and were garrisoning the Academy; the reduced crew on the Constitution was alert and her guns had been double shotted; an armed schooner patrolled the approaches to the harbor. If compelled to evacuate, the commodore proposed to load all ammunition and stores possible on the Constitution, destroy the remainder, embark the officers and midshipmen, and sail for Philadelphia.

On April 17th Virginia seceded, and Lieutenant William H. Parker, head of the Department of Navigation, left for Richmond where he established the Confederate Naval Academy. Commodore Blake had two stalwart assistants, Lieutenant C. R. P. Rodgers, the Commandant of Midshipmen, and Lieutenant George W. Rodgers, a nephew of Oliver Perry, in command of the Constitution.

On April 20th the Norfolk Navy Yard was evacuated by Union forces, and the commodore redoubled his vigilance. On the 21st the patrol schooner challenged a steamer  p96 coming down the bay, which proved to be the ferry steamer Maryland with part of a Massachusetts regiment aboard under General B. F. Butler. Commodore Blake accepted the general's offer to tow the Constitution into the Roads, which was done the same day. The remainder of her guns were mounted, her skeleton crew reinforced by some Massachusetts soldiers, and her berth shifted to cover the landing of additional troops.

Annapolis was strategically located for an Army base. The Superintendent recommended, and the Secretary approved, the transfer of the Academy to Newport. The Constitution sailed for Newport via New York, arriving on May 9th, the same day the steamer Baltic arrived from Annapolis, bringing books, furniture, laboratory gear, navigation instruments, and other educational impedimenta. Four days later, under the vigorous direction of Lieutenant C. R. P. Rodgers, academic work was resumed in the casemates of Fort Adams. In addition to carrying on their classes, midshipmen were stationed and drilled at the army guns, to assist in the defense of Newport. Commodore Blake remained at Annapolis to complete the transfer of the Academy grounds to the Army, but he had demonstrated that the Naval Academy was a mobile institution, prepared to go where it was needed by the Navy.

Before the Constitution sailed from Annapolis, ten midshipmen of the Senior Class were ordered to active duty. Soon after arrival at Newport the remainder of the class which entered in 1857 was ordered to sea; these were quickly followed by the classes which entered in 1858 and 1859, leaving at the school only the class that entered in 1860. To fill the vacancies, Congressmen were given two appointments. About two hundred midshipmen entered and were quartered on the Constitution which was moored at the dock at Goat Island. The casemates were inadequate  p97 for quarters for the staff and midshipmen, and a summer hotel, the Atlantic House, leased by the government, served as the Academy until the return to Annapolis.

During the Civil War, midshipmen educated at the Academy met their first test of war. An account of a few of those who distinguished themselves in the United States Navy and the Confederate State Navy is offered to show that their education ashore had not adversely affected their skill or courage.

William B. Cushing, Samuel W. Preston, and Benjamin H. Porter entered the Academy in 1857, 1858, and 1859 respectively. Their records alone would prove that the Naval Academy had not diluted the audacity that characterized early American midshipmen. Cushing and a classmate, William F. Stewart, operating in small armed boats, destroyed Confederate schooners in the Virginia creeks around Quantico during the spring and summer of 1861 almost under the bows of larger and heavier armed enemy ships. From that time Cushing displayed ingenuity, resourcefulness, and an ardent desire to participate in the most dangerous enterprises. He was as practical and resourceful as he was zealous and soon gained the confidence of his seniors. When he proposed a plan to torpedo the Albemarle, Cushing not only displayed the indomitable determination to persist to the end on which the old Navy prided itself most, but also that very rare trait — the ability to think clearly in critical situations. When he discovered a protective "boom" of logs around the Albemarle, he was already under fire of the Confederate sentries, and some of the Albemarle's guns were ready to fire upon his unprotected launch. Circling in a  p98 wide arc until his boat was going full speed, he steered directly for the Confederate ship, partly hurdled the boom, and got his launch near enough to the overhang of the Albemarle for the spar torpedo to reach her side. Not until the torpedo pressed against the side of the Albemarle did he pull the lanyard which detonated the percussion cap in the war head.

Commodore Dupont reports that Samuel W. Preston, his flag lieutenant, displayed throughout the day when Port Royal was captured "an undisturbed intelligence which proved very useful." This was the same rare trait which Cushing revealed and it was the distinguishing characteristic of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, the finest soldier of his generation. Preston served on the Louisiana and helped to fit her up as an "infernal" modeled after Somers' Intrepid. The Louisiana was as unsuccessful as her predecessor.

In the capture of Roanoke Island, Midshipman Richard H. Porter commanded a battery of six naval howitzers that had been landed to support the Army corps of General Foster. The support of his howitzers had much to do with the success of the Army operation.

Cushing, Preston, and Porter led the Naval battalion into action at Fort Fisher. Preston was struck down on one side and Porter on the other; Cushing alone of that heroic trio survived, and he did not live to become a flag officer, dying as a commander. All three of these young graduates gave great promise, and the short career of Cushing indicated that he would have made a superb flag officer.

In sinking the Albemarle, Cushing avenged the death of his former commanding officer, the gallant Charles W. Flusser, date of 1847, who laid his gunboat Miami almost alongside the Albemarle in the hope that his guns could penetrate her armor, only to be killed by a fragment from  p99 one of his own projectiles which rebounded from the side of the enemy ship.

William T. Sampson, a classmate of Cushing, was second in command of the Patapsco when she was sunk off Charleston so suddenly that he barely had time to step from the top of the turret into the water. Dewey was executive of the Mississippi when she was stranded and burned off Port Hudson. The two victorious admirals in the Spanish-American War were trained in adversity.

Lieutenants Sproston, date of 1846, J. H. Russell, 1841, Francis B. Blake, 1853, and Midshipmen Steece, Moreau Forrest, and F. J. Higginson distinguished themselves in a boat expedition from the Colorado, sent to capture the privateer Judith at Pensacola, Florida. In the attack on Forts St. Philip and Jackson in Farragut's capture of New Orleans, Midshipman Woodward earned the approbation of Captain Bailey, while Midshipman Stewart gallantly worked the gun on the topgallant forecastle. Lieutenant James O'Kane, severely wounded, would not go below until he had primed, sighted, and fired two ranging shots.

Samuel Dana Greene, graduated in 1859, was the second on the Monitor and in command after Worden was disabled in the final phase of one of the decisive battles of the war.

Lamson, Roland, and Robertson graduated in May, 1861, and in November commanded the pivot guns and spar-deck batteries of the flagship Wabash directly under the observation of Commander Dupont, who reported that "they sustained the reputation and exhibited the benefits of the Naval Academy training . . . only which could make such valuable officers of such young men."

Among the Naval Academy graduates who went South, the following are among the better known: William H. Parker, who had been head of the seaman­ship department  p100 of the Naval Academy, established the Confederate States Naval Academy and commanded the gunboat Beaufort during the Battle of Hampton Roads. Lieutenant-Commander J. W. Alexander, class of 1857, commanded the gunboat Raleigh. W. B. Hall, class of 1855, commanded the Confederate school ship Patrick Henry. A. F. Warley, 1840, commanded the Albemarle, which had successfully resisted all Union attacks and was a menace to Union ships until torpedoed by Cushing. J. M. Kell, 1841, was executive officer for Captain Raphael Semmes on the Alabama. J. I. Waddell, of the same date, almost duplicated Porter's cruise in the Essex in 1813; in the Shenandoah in the winter of 1864‑65 he destroyed the American whaling industry in the Pacific. F. E. Shepard, 1849, commanded the C. S. S. Mobile in the Mississippi river. John T. Wood, 1847, commanded the Tallahassee on a nineteen‑day raid in the summer of 1864 and captured or destroyed twenty‑six vessels. Hunter Davidson, 1841, commanded the James River defense in front of Richmond; his electrically controlled mine field was a formidable barrier behind which Confederate vessels lay in 1864‑65, threatening to cut Grant's line of communication. Farragut was sent from Washington to take command and performed his last active duty opposite Davidson in the James River.

This list is not intended to be comprehensive, only to indicate the part played by Naval Academy graduates in the United States Navy and the Confederate States Navy.

Over two hundred of the older naval officers went South, including Samuel Barton, Raphael Semmes, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Josiah Tatnall, T. A. C. Jones, and Franklin Buchanan. They filled the most important naval positions in the Confederate States Navy. Franklin Buchanan, the first Superintendent of the Academy, probably had the most distinguished record in the Confederate Navy. He  p101 commanded the Merrimac in the first battle in Hampton Roads when she sank the Cumberland and Congress. With his flag on the Tennessee, he was in command of the Confederate squadron which fought against Farragut's squadron in Mobile Bay.2

The Author's Notes:

1 After graduation Dewey served on the Wabash, flagship of Commodore La Vallette, who had distinguished himself at Lake Champlain under Commodore Thomas Macdonough. Subsequently he was executive officer on the Mississippi in Farragut's squadron. As a young officer Dewey served under two flag officers who had served under Truxtun and Preble. Many officers still on the active list served under Dewey. The naval succession is direct and unbroken.

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2 The best descriptions of the Academy in the days before the Civil War are History of the United States Naval Academy by Edward Chauncey Marshall (1862); Historical Sketch of the United States Naval Academy by J. R. Soley (1876); History of the Naval Academy by Thomas G. Ford, Assistant Librarian before the Civil War, in manuscript in the Library at the Naval Academy. The flavor and atmosphere of the Academy are recorded in George Dewey, An Autobiography (1913); Samuel R. Franklin, Memories of a Rear Admiral (1898); A. T. Mahan, From Sail to Steam (1907); A. T. Mahan, Letters of Alfred Thayer Mahan to Samuel A'Court Ashe (1858‑1859), edited by Ross Pendleton Chiles. The account given by Park Benjamin, The United States Naval Academy (1900), is breezy and somewhat overdrawn.

Thayer's Note: See also C. L. Lewis's biography, Admiral Franklin Buchanan, chapter IX, "This is the Middies' School".

Thayer's Note:

a Autobiography, pp21‑22.

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