- 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
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:
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: