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School For Sailors

April 2024
17min read

A novelist and historian takes us on a tour of the Academy at Annapolis, where American history encompasses the history of the world.

Watery is the first word that comes to mind as you enter the main gate of the U.S. Naval Academy, at the foot of the Maryland town that has become the school’s other name, Annapolis. The broad Severn River greets the sea reaches of Chesapeake Bay a few hundred yards away. A few miles farther out is the Atlantic. Just across Prince George Street is Annapolis harbor, crammed with sloops and power boats. This is obviously a good place for a school for sailors, a nursery of admirals.

Prince George Street evokes echoes of the colonial past, when a fringe of Americans on the eastern edge of an unexplored continent depended on a mother country and a paternal king for protection. On the winding streets of the once-busy tobacco port, whose uneven brick sidewalks will scuff the toes of your shoes if you are not careful, the eighteenth-century houses huddle together as if seeking protection. Inside the Academy gate a different atmosphere prevails: here is spaciousness, serenity, a monumental confidence. The dominant architectural mode shifts from Georgian to expansive Beaux-Arts.

A novelist and historian takes us on a tour of the Academy at Annapolis, where American history encompasses the history of the world

The difference is rooted in far more than changes in architectural taste. The monuments, the paintings, the names of the buildings and playing fields at the Naval Academy commemorate men who were at the forefront of an independent America’s impact on the world, from the sailors who challenged imperial Britain in the Revolution to the men who catapulted the nation to international power in the Spanish-American War to the admirals of World War II, who commanded the mightiest fleets ever seen on the oceans. Few schools owe as much to history—and to historians—as Annapolis.


The heart of the Academy is Tecumseh Court, the wide plaza before Bancroft Hall. Here is where the brigade of midshipmen assembles for noon formation on every day when the temperature is above fifty-five degrees. The Hall itself, known as “Mother B” to the midshipmen, is the world’s largest dormitory. It houses all forty-six hundred members of the brigade, many uncomfortably living three to a room while they await a long-promised forty-five-million-dollar expansion that will make Mother B even more immense. She currently boasts thirty-three acres of floor space and 4.8 miles of corridors.

This ultimate Grand Hotel (though the midshipmen wouldn’t call it that) is named after George Bancroft, the nineteenth-century historian who as Secretary of the Navy under President James K. Polk founded the Naval Academy virtually single-handedly. A half-dozen previous Secretaries had urged the institution on Congress, but a pinchpenny philosophy and opposition within the Navy combined to frustrate them. Bancroft outmaneuvered everybody by persuading the Secretary of War to let him have the abandoned Fort Severn, on the eastern edge of Annapolis, for nothing. Then he fired most of the twenty-five schoolmasters the Navy had hired to teach midshipmen afloat and converted their salaries into a budget for the “Naval School.” Congress, delighted by such painless funding, approved, and fifty-six midshipmen arrived at Annapolis in the fall of 1845 to launch the experiment.

In Elizabethan days midshipmen were simply reliable veterans stationed amidships to convey orders from bow to stern in battle or storm. In the seventeenth century the term became attached to boys, often as young as twelve, from good families who shipped out in the British navy to become officers. They slept amidships, separate from both crew and officers, and were haphazardly educated by the captain or sometimes by a schoolmaster on board.

In contrast, the French educated their future naval officers in schools on land. Most early American naval commanders favored the British system; after all, the Royal Navy regularly thrashed the French. Were it not for Bancroft the Navy would have backed educating midshipmen afloat until doomsday.

The midshipmen who gathered at Annapolis in 1845 were as dubious about learning their trade on land as were many of their naval superiors. They were intensely conscious of being sailors. Since the Phoenicians land had been where sailors concentrated on having a good time. How could anyone expect a sailor to learn anything ashore except bad habits?

Their new home in Fort Severn consisted of some seven buildings in various states of disrepair on nine swampy acres. The faculty was no more thrilled with the site than the midshipmen. Annapolis was (and remains) the capital of Maryland, but in 1845 Baltimore had long since eclipsed it as the state’s major city. One officer who turned down a chance to join the faculty described the no-longer-flourishing tobacco port as “the dullest and most horrible place in the U. States … [It] is finished and will not improve.”

Increasing the midshipmen’s doubts was the unabashed way Bancroft and the handful of officers who backed him announced the course would be “identical” to that of the U.S. Military Academy, except for calculus, which they thought a midshipman could do without. They took this tack partly to impress Congress and partly because they meant it. West Point, in its forty-fourth year, had made its reputation turning out expert engineers who were also good soldiers. But this announcement only sharpened the midshipmen’s determination to prove that sailors were different from soldiers.

The midshipmen soon demonstrated their nautical proclivities. One particular dormitory was so quiet at night it was nicknamed the Abbey. Much too late the superintendent, Franklin Buchanan, found out why silence reigned: the Abbey’s residents had managed to tunnel through the wall behind the building and were “trenching out” each night to enjoy themselves in Annapolis’s numerous taverns.

Most surprising, considering the severity that long prevailed at West Point, was the way the Naval Academy’s superintendents tolerated the mid-shipmen’s inclination to frolic. One group organized a sort of fraternity, the Spirits Club, which met in a tavern on Main Street every Saturday night to drink whiskey punch. Another drinking club called the Ballsegurs specialized in such pranks as firing the morning gun at midnight. If caught, they were penalized with plenty of demerits—another idea acquired from West Point—but no one tried to disband these clubs. The superintendents were sailors too.

For the first five years the Navy clung to its instinctive feeling that midshipmen needed training at sea as well as on land. The course consisted of two years at Annapolis, three years on shipboard, and a final year (later increased to two) at Annapolis before the weary midshipman got his diploma. But in 1851 enough old sea dogs had retired to permit progressives to create a four-year course, interspersed with summer cruises, a routine that has prevailed to this day. The names of the classes were borrowed from West Point. Freshmen were fourth classmen, sophomores third classmen, and so on. Also from West Point came the fourth classmen’s nickname, plebes. A final change was a new name: from Naval School to Naval Academy.

Watching today’s midshipmen muster briskly by companies in Tecumseh Court and march smartly to lunch, a visitor admires the confident military style. On Wednesday afternoons in the spring and fall, the brigade performs on Worden Field (named after Commodore John L. Worden, captain of the USS Monitor in its famous bout with the Confederate ironclad Merrimack). Here they march with even more flair in a full-scale dress parade. One would never dream, watching the flawless execution of complicated drill-field commands, that their predecessors of the 1840s regarded drill as a blot on their nautical honor.

One officer turned down a chance to join the faculty of the fledgling Academy because Annapolis was “the dullest and most horrible place in the U. States.”

They named their first drill instructor, a former West Pointer, the “Shore Warrior” and his drill periods “pig driving”; they shuffled to the left flank and the right flank like somnambulists; when the instructor borrowed a half-dozen sixpounders from the Army and added them to the drill-field routine, they dismantled the guns.

Nevertheless, superintendents persisted in making drill part of the course. They sensed the school needed a military tone to maintain some semblance of discipline. Knowing how to maneuver men on a battlefield also made sense in that era of gunboat diplomacy, when naval officers often had to lead parties ashore to protect American citizens or punish a hostile local ruler. Not until after the Civil War did a canny superintendent, David Dixon Porter, figure out how to make the midshipmen like parading. He gave them a superb marching band. Soon, on a summer cruise, they challenged West Point to a drill competition on the West Point grounds and won.


That ancient spirit of opposition to the Army lives on in Tecumseh Court, personified in many ways by the big bronze bust of the Indian chief who presides over the area. Originally a wooden figurehead from the USS Delaware, a seventy-four-gun ship of the line that was burned in Norfolk Harbor in 1861 to prevent the Confederates from seizing her, Tecumseh started life as Tamanend, a friendly Delaware chief, and worked his way through several other monickers before the midshipmen decided they liked the name of the Shawnee chief who had terrorized the U.S. frontier in 1812. Did it have anything to do with the fact that for a while Tecumseh humiliated the U.S. Army?

For some reason the midshipmen soon believed Tecumseh had supernatural powers. Midshipmen on the verge of “bilging” (flunking out) tossed him pennies in the hope that he would give them a passing 2.0 average. When his wooden version started to deteriorate in the 1920s, the class of 1891 raised the money to cast him in bronze—carefully inserting some pieces of the original in the metal to retain his magic.

When football became the Academy’s favorite sport in the early years of this century, Tecumseh became even more important. Before every game, but above all on the eve of the annual clash with Army, pep rallies implore the chief’s help. For the Army game he is decorated in his war paint to guarantee a Navy victory.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, the man who helped to create the modern Navy, was miserable after his first two years at the Naval Academy.

When Tecumseh’s football magic works, the focus of attention shifts to the bells flanking the Bancroft Hall steps. The Japanese bell is a replica of a relic from Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1854 voyage to Japan, which opened that country to the modern world. The Enterprise bell, from the World War II carrier that launched the first air attack on Tokyo, is rung from the moment news of a Navy victory over Army reaches Annapolis until the brigade returns. Then the score is rung on the Japanese bell.

Just inside Bancroft Hall, up the broad steps, is Memorial Hall, a place as reverentially still as Tecumseh Court is frequently tumultuous with voices and footsteps of forty-six hundred vigorous youngsters. In gold on the far wall are inscribed the names of all the Annapolis graduates who have died in America’s wars. In many ways this abrupt shift from youthful high spirits to solemn memories and symbols is typical of the Naval Academy. It underscores one of its fascinations for visitors, as they wander the curving paths of the Yard, the Navy name for the 338-acre campus. History speaks to the stroller without any attempt at chronology, but almost always in dramatic terms.

Ambling east along Stribling Walk from Tecumseh Court, one encounters the Macedonian Monument, commemorating the victory of the USS United States, commanded by Capt. Stephen Decatur, over the British frigate of that name in the War of 1812. The monument is a replica of the figurehead of the Macedonian, and the cannon at the base were taken from her.

Just up Decatur Road is the ornate Tripoli Monument, on which Decatur’s name appears again, along with the names of five officers who died fighting the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean between 1801 and 1804. Decatur’s exploits in that undeclared war included a feat that Lord Nelson called the “most daring act of the age.” With eighty men disguised as local seamen, he sailed into Tripoli Harbor, which was crowded with enemy men-of-war backed by batteries of shore-based cannon, and stormed and burned the captured American frigate Philadelphia. At the age of twenty-five he was promoted from lieutenant to captain, becoming the youngest man ever to hold the rank.

Other names witness the Academy’s reverence for these early fighting sailors. Lawrence Field, where the varsity plays baseball, pays tribute to Capt. James Lawrence, who lost a brutal fight with a British frigate in 1813 but won immortality with his dying words, “Don’t give up the ship.” Macdonough Hall, home of several athletic teams, recalls Thomas Macdonough, victor in the battle on Lake Champlain in 1814 that persuaded the British to abandon the war.

The most important of these early monuments is not visible to the stroller. It is beneath the chapel, whose soaring dome makes it the most visible architecture in the Yard. There rests the father of the American Navy, Capt. John Paul Jones. His remains were discovered in Paris in 1905 and were carried to Annapolis aboard a warship. Alas, Congress balked at putting up the money for a projected crypt beneath the chapel, and Jones had to be stored beneath the main staircase of Bancroft Hall for six years. The midshipmen were soon singing a song about him:

Everybody works but John Paul Jones! He lies around all day, Body pickled in alcohol On a permanent jag, they say.

Congress finally relented and voted the cash to give the hero a decent burial.

Above the crypt is the 1908 chapel, equally rich in history and beauty. It originally was built in the square form of a Greek cross, but the nave has been extended to a Roman cross to seat a vastly larger academy. The anchors at the doors were made for the Navy’s first armored cruiser, New York, and weigh 10,500 pounds each. Inside, the stained-glass windows commemorate heroes such as Adm. David Farragut, whose seizure of New Orleans in 1862 changed the course of the Civil War, and biblical sea figures, such as Noah and Jonah. Behind the altar is a magnificent stained-glass window of Christ walking on the water. High in the dome is the opening line of the Navy hymn, often heard from these pews:

Eternal Father strong to save. Whose arm hath bent the restless wave. Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep Its own appointed limits keep. Oh hear us when we cry to Thee. For those in peril on the sea!


The chapel as well as almost every building in the present Academy might never have been built if it were not for the genius of another historian. His name adorns a single nearby building, but his spirit presides over the entire school. Mahan Hall, formerly the school library, now used for visiting lectures and theatrical presentations, is named for Alfred Thayer Mahan, the austere scholar who rescued the American Navy from second-class status and made it and the Academy a permanent force in American life.

After the Civil War the Navy sank into what looked like terminal decline. It was a familiar, demoralizing story. The Continental Congress had beached the Continental Navy as soon as independence was won. (John Paul Jones wound up fighting for the Russians.) President Thomas Jefferson starved the Navy that fought the victorious quasi-war with France from 1798 to 1800, only red-facedly to revive it to fight the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean. The naval victories on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain in the War of 1812 were followed by three decades of neglect.


In the 1880s, while the rest of the world’s powerful countries were building steel ships, American sailors floated around in a dwindling number of wooden ones. So few appointments were open to midshipmen that they were urged to resign on graduation—a practice that did little for morale or discipline. As if to emphasize their sinking status, Congress decreed that midshipmen would now be known as “naval cadets.” Some graduates joined the Army. One, Henry L. Hawthorne, became the first Annapolis man to win the Medal of Honor, fighting the Sioux as an Army lieutenant.

Enter Mahan. He was the son of Dennis Hart Mahan, the most famous teacher on West Point’s faculty in the nineteenth century. Alfred chose Annapolis against his father’s advice, enrolling in 1856. The man who did so much to create the modern Navy was miserable after his first two years at the Academy. Imbued with West Point’s severity from birth, he was repelled by the tradition that a midshipman never put a member of his own class on report. As a first captain in his final year he began reporting fellow firsties. His classmates retaliated by putting him in Coventry—refusing to acknowledge his existence, another tradition inherited from West Point, where it was called the Silence. Thenceforth Mahan had few close friends in the Navy.

Nevertheless, in the stagnant post-Civil War years Mahan put his formidable intellect to work to justify the Navy’s existence to a nation that saw little need for one. At the newly established Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, Mahan gave a series of lectures, soon published as a book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, which seized the attention of politicians around the world. In essence Mahan argued that the traditional French (and American) naval strategy of commerce raiding was a waste of men and ships. The British strategy of concentrating to defeat an enemy’s fleet and win command of the sea was the key to victory. Even more convincing was his second book, The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812, in which he demonstrated how England’s superiority at sea enabled her to defeat a far more powerful France.

Today some historians argue that Mahan’s thesis was greeted with acclamation, particularly in England and Germany, because it justified costly naval expansion programs already under way. But even they will grudgingly admit that few if any historians have had such an impact on their times as this aloof scholar. Lionized around the world, Mahan was frequently consulted by President Theodore Roosevelt while his administration built the Great White Fleet.

It may be no accident that the men who commanded the fleets of World War II came to Annapolis in the heady atmosphere of triumphant Mahanism. The Spanish-American War seemed to prove everything Mahan maintained and made it look easy in the bargain. Of course there was that near-collapse of the U.S. Army in Cuba and the nasty four-year war the soldiers fought to pacify the Philippines—but the Spanish had surrendered when Adms. George Dewey and William T. Sampson destroyed their third-rate fleet in Manila Bay and off Santiago.

William F. Halsey, ’04, the admiral who fought the Japanese imperial fleet to a standstill in the narrow waters off Guadalcanal and smashed it for good off the Philippines two years later, was no scholar at Annapolis. He finished forty-third in a class of sixty-seven. But the headlong combat leader whose favorite word was attack was already visible. He was a starting fullback on the football team and won the Thompson Trophy as the best athlete in his class. He was also active on numerous committees and tremendously popular with his classmates.

In sharp contrast, thoughtful Raymond Spruance, ’06, the man who won the vital 1942 victory at Midway, was something of a loner who disliked almost everything about Annapolis, from the hazing of plebes, in which he refused to participate, to the teaching, which emphasized daily recitation over genuine understanding. Like West Point in this era, Annapolis had fallen far behind other schools intellectually. Barely opening a book, Spruance graduated 25th in a class of 209. In the Lucky Bag, the school yearbook, his classmates noted another peculiarity—Spruance was “a faithful supporter of the lee rail” on summer cruises. Throughout his career he was dogged by seasickness in heavy weather.

Chester Nimitz, the commander in the Pacific; Marc Mitscher, the admiral who led the fast carriers; and Ernest J. King, “Cominch” himself, commander-in-chief of all the ships on the world’s oceans, also graduated in these so-called Good Years. King, ’01, displayed both intellectual and military leadership at the Academy. He graduated fourth in his class and was commander of the battalion. In his cool-eyed graduation portrait one catches a glimpse of the admiral who ruled the Navy with ruthless severity during World War II, proving himself a master of sea power in a two-ocean war.

All these men were witnesses to a feud that began in a 1901 Annapolis textbook and tore the Navy apart for a decade. The book, a history of the U.S. Navy, accused Commodore Winfield Scott Schley of cowardice at the 1898 Battle of Santiago. Schley, already fuming because the commander of the fleet, Adm. William T. Sampson, had not even mentioned his name in his victory report, demanded a court of inquiry to clear his reputation. While headlines blossomed in the newspapers, the court delivered a split verdict, the majority supporting Sampson and the minority, led by Schley’s friend George Dewey, backing the commodore—and pointing out that Sampson had not reached the fray until the shooting was over and Schley had defeated the entire Spanish fleet.

The modern academy, with its thousand-member graduating classes, is a school that has managed to blend tradition and change with remarkable success.

Today Sampson Hall attests to the Academy’s acceptance of the court’s majority verdict. To find a trace of Commodore Schley, one must visit the Maryland State House, where a bust sits in lonely dignity in the main hall, with an inscription listing his many accomplishments (he was born in Maryland). Sampson Hall currently houses the Academy’s history department. As a Schley man I think this is carrying irony a bit too far.

While the controversy raged, a new Annapolis was rising. In the euphoria created by the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt and the Navy teamed up to persuade Congress to fund not only a new battleship a year but a complete rebuilding of the Academy in the opulent Beaux-Arts style that had seized America’s imagination at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. (They also eliminated the hated “naval cadet” title and restored the traditional “midshipman.”) All traces of the original Fort Severn vanished. Its only relics are two guardhouses at the Maryland Avenue gates. Dozens of acres were added along the Severn River with landfill. The number of midshipmen swiftly climbed from four hundred to two thousand to man the expanded fleet.


Today’s academy, with its thousand graduates a year going forth to man a 561-ship navy, is a school that has managed to blend tradition and change with remarkable success. At first glance the most startling change is the presence in the brigade of those exotic creatures for whom midshipmen once trenched out at the peril of their appointments—women. They have been marching beside men in the formations since 1976 and the phenomenon no longer evokes much surprise.

Like their counterparts at West Point, the women have demonstrated they can compete with men very nicely, especially in academics. But they are not a particularly visible presence: there are only about four hundred and fifty of them at any given time, some 10 percent of the brigade. On the parade ground and in other enmasse appearances, they pretty much disappear into the majority. This is also true of blacks and other minority midshipmen, who constitute roughly another 17 percent.

Post-World War II buildings have abandoned Beaux-Arts for a more modern look, but their names bind them to the Academy’s past. Michelson Hall is named for Albert A. Michelson, class of 1873, the first American to win the Nobel Prize—for measuring the speed of light, a feat he first performed while a physics instructor at the Academy. The place where he conducted his famous experiment is marked by a bronze disk in the plaza outside the building. The glossy home of the engineering department is Rickover Hall, named for Adm. Hyman Rickover, the controversial father of the nuclear Navy.

The most important difference between the old and new Annapolis is invisible; it is in the curriculum. Its genesis goes back to 1931, when the board of visitors in its annual report deplored the absence of courses in economics, social sciences, biology, government, ethics, foreign languages, and literature. The superintendent tried to remedy the situation by cutting back on professional naval education and adding courses in some of these areas. But the next superintendent eliminated them, claiming that the result was endangering the strictly naval side of the course.

This sort of academic Ping-Pong continued until 1968, when the youngest superintendent in the school’s history, the forty-seven-year-old Rear Adm. James C. Calvert, decided that the school’s mission was not to train each midshipman to do every job in the fleet but to prepare each class to supply the fleet with the know-how it needed to cope with the modern world. He retained the scientific core of the curriculum but offered qualified midshipmen a chance to major in no fewer than twenty-four different subjects.


The impact on the school was almost miraculous. In spite of the antimilitary atmosphere engendered by Vietnam, applications leaped. The number of applications has grown steadily since the majors program began in 1969. Today some fifteen thousand young men and women apply for the roughly thirteen hundred places available in the plebe class. This enables the Academy to select a pretty creamy crop. No less than 81 percent of the class of 1991 ranked in the top fifth of their high school classes.

Talking to midshipmen, one quickly grasps another aspect of Annapolis’s appeal. Compared with West Point and the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy offers a more interesting menu of career choices. One first classman majoring in computer science told me: “My father is an Air Force colonel. I’m here because in the Air Force you either fly a plane or sit at a desk. In the Navy you can go four different directions—surface warfare, submarines, air, or the Marines. A lot of guys like this variety.”

Each year about 16 percent of the first class chooses the Marines. Professor Jack Sweetman, who teaches history at the Academy, says the Corps appeals to two surprisingly different types. One is the standard gung-ho, can-do personality, who likes the implied challenge to his courage. The others are “military intellectuals,” often the brightest people in their class.

Though many midshipmen come from landlocked states beyond the smell of the sea, the Academy uses its watery environs to make sure that every one becomes a bona fide sailor. No visitor should fail to pay a visit to Santee Basin, where many of the Academy’s 219 sailing craft are docked. On almost any afternoon you will see midshipmen heading into the Chesapeake aboard everything from International 420s to forty-to sixty-foot racing sloops. The sailing team numbers 225 and is the largest varsity team at the Academy. For seven unprecedented years, 1977–83, they won the Leonard Fowle trophy, symbol of intercollegiate sailing supremacy.

Still another interesting nautical sight for the sea-wall stroller are the yard boats—sleek, powerful-looking patrol craft about the size of World War II torpedo boats, aboard which midshipmen get hands-on experience in navigation and ship handling three times a week. The six-ship flotilla operates like a destroyer squadron, with each ship under the command of a first or second classman.

Although the Beaux-Arts style has given way to a more modern look, the most important difference between the old and new Annapolis is invisible: the curriculum.

At the corner of the Severn and Chesapeake sea walls is a monument to remind the stroller that the Academy also values the achievements of more recent graduates. The Triton Light holds a glass ball containing waters from the twentytwo seas the nuclear submarine USS Triton crossed to circumnavigate the globe underwater in 1960.

The stroller whose appetite for history is not yet sated should press on to the Academy Museum, which, along with a great gathering of portraits and swords and uniforms, contains a remarkable collection of miniature warships and naval prints.

So much of the Academy is eloquent of its past. John Paul Jones lies in a twenty-one-ton sarcophagus of Pyrenees marble. More meaningful than the magnificence, though, are Jones’s famous words: “I wish to have no Connection with any Ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.” That is the essence of the American Navy’s tradition.

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