School For Sailors

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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.”