- Historic Sites
School For Sailors
A novelist and historian takes us on a tour of the Academy at Annapolis, where American history encompasses the history of the world.
April 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 3
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.