- 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
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.