1845: The Naval School in Annapolis Opens its Doors

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Apr 8, 2018
Bellingham, WA
I am writing a book about Oliver Ambrose Batcheller, from a village north of Saratoga Springs, NY, who reported as a first-year plebe to the United States Naval Academy in December 1859, three days before the execution of John Brown in Charles Town, VA. What follows is a draft excerpt from the book, which is far from finished. Constructive criticism of these opening paragraphs for this chapter (to be located in the middle of the book) is welcome. Thank you.
"When the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis opened its doors on October 10, 1845—it was initially known as the “naval school”—the U.S. Navy bore little resemblance to the global force it would become by the end of the Civil War. There were numerous problems confronting senior navy leadership, and the politicians in Congress who held the purse strings to correct them were reluctant to act.

The naval service was bogged down by an aging officer corps mired in stagnant careers, rapidly aging ships of the line, and, critically, a lack of a professional training pipeline for aspiring naval officers requiring working knowledge of emerging technologies like steam propulsion and new gunnery systems. The country, and the world at large, was rapidly changing; America’s military needed upgrading to successfully cope with these new realities. The advent of technology necessitated standardization, innovation, and investment in personnel by the navy, all of which were noticeably lacking on navy waterfronts at home and aboard their warships at sea. The navy was not ready to effectively respond to any significant national crisis.

Many years later Admiral George Dewey wrote, “there was a saying in the 1860s that the men of 1840 in our navy would have been more at home in the ships of [Sir Francis] Drake’s fleet or in those of Spain’s Invincible Armada than in the ironclads of the Civil War; and I think that it is also safe to say that the men brought up to service in such a vessel as the Mississippi, in which I saw my first service in the Civil War, would be more at home in Armada than in a ship of the Dreadnought class. The inauguration of steam made naval science one of continual change and development, which it still remains.[1]” In May 1863 Dewey was the Executive Officer on the unwieldy double-paddle wheeler USS Mississippi which was abandoned and blown up by its own crew after the ship ran aground in the course of losing a brutal, close-in firefight with a Rebel shore battery. The ship was ordered destroyed by its Captain to prevent capture during the Battle of Port Hudson. Despite storied achievements like Commodore O.H. Perry’s opening Japan to American commerce in 1853, and its glorious history stretching back a half-century, the ‘Old Navy’ in the 1840s and 1850s, was just that.

“Beginning with John Paul Jones, the story of the Old Navy is that of a succession of single-ship encounters in which sturdy American ships and their heroic crews duelled [sic] all who would sully American honor . . . Like knights-errant, America’s sea captains were quick to rile, always ready to fight, and never willing to surrender.[2]” Over the first few decades of the nineteenth century, canals, steam ships, and railroads began dotting the American landscape for the first time. The positive impact on the spirit, energy, and economic-well-being of the American people is hard to overstate. This progress was fed by innovation, feeding the momentum of emerging markets needing products manufactories from Northern states were only too happy to sell them. However, the United States Navy was not innovating alongside the awakening American economy, neither with its equipment nor its personnel.

“The problems in the navy’s commissioned ranks reflected its near total lack of standards for the selection and education of officers and for weeding out the unfit. Midshipmen appointments were the prerogative of ship captains, the secretary of the navy, and the president. Political influence counted heavily.[3]” Whereas New England had once supplied most of the navy’s officers, by 1842 44 percent of midshipmen appointments were from Maryland and Virginia.[4]” “The Old Navy, then, was a pre-professional organization, unable to regulate its members or their conduct, lacking an adequate system of education, and uninterested in making a science of the art of war. It reflected the Jacksonians’ distrust of a professional officer corps which smacked of the British, particularly the Royal Navy.[5]” If flexing its muscles to acquire new territory was the new aim of American diplomacy in the 1840s, her navy was ill-prepared to help in the effort. American warships were showing the flag in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and they were crisscrossing the Atlantic in search of illegal slave trading vessels. Yet many of these naval warships were outdated and the number of operating units were insufficient to absorb sustained attacks by a well-equipped aggressor at sea.

“For fifteen years prior to 1855, the various secretaries of the navy, presidents, naval officers, and other interested parties had advocated the establishment of a retired or reserved list for officers . . . By 1854 there were captains who had not been to sea for thirty years. Of the sixty-seven captains on the navy list, forty were on leave of absence pay. It was these officers, plus certain commanders and lieutenants who also seemed to be shirking sea duty that the Navy Efficiency Board was supposed to evaluate Midshipmen also came under their purview and were to be examined with regard to their ‘moral fitness’ as prospective commissioned officers . . . what swayed the Board were personal grudges and animosities . . . a further taint on the Board’s integrity was the charge that they had selected officers for dismissal or retirement with an eye towards improving their own prospects for promotion . . . Some 201 officers were directly affected. Seventy-one were placed on the retired list with furlough pay which amounted to one-half of leave-of-absence pay. 84 percent of the officers who challenged the findings of the Efficiency Board received some sort of mitigation of its verdict. Sixty-one officers, one-quarter of the total retired, were fully restored to active duty, while thirty-eight dismissed furloughed officers had their status upgraded and some of their pay restored.[6]” Even though the navy recognized their personnel problems, politics won out over the needs of the service. A second consideration was the traditional method of recruiting and training young officers would not suffice given the technological advancements in pre-Civil War America.

Prior to 1845, the time-honored tradition of training young midshipmen at sea, was the only path to commissioning for aspiring midshipmen. Young men, sometimes starting at age nine or ten—as was the case for future admirals David Farragut and David Dixon Porter, underwent rigorous on-the-job training to learn the rigging and stowing of a ship, management of artillery at sea, arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, navigation, and astronomical calculations. “A young man, usually with good family connections, was taken into the service and placed aboard ship as a midshipman . . . In the hierarchy of shipboard life this young man stood somewhere between the enlisted men in the forecastle [forward part of the ship] and the officers who lived aft. His job was to learn navigation, ship handling, and the other skills necessary to command at sea. After an appropriate but indefinite period of time he would receive his commission and move into the world of the naval officer.[7]” Performing ‘other duties as assigned,’ meant midshipmen responsibilities were considerable: “at quarters, at the guns, the midshipman acted as an assistant to the officer commanding the division, seeing to it that the men promptly and properly manned the several tackles [holders] for running the guns in and out, that boarders, pikemen, sail-trimmers, or firemen, as the case might be promptly responded when called away, and that the power-boys got a proper supply of cartridges, and did not indulge in fights among themselves at the powder scuttles. The midshipmen were also charged with the duty of overhauling the men’s clothes once a week or so, and seeing that they were in order and properly mended—an attention, by the way, which they very seldom gave to their own.[8]” At the appropriate time, when his Captain deemed a midshipman ready, the accumulated professional knowledge of the young man was formally tested.

[chapter continues . . .]
[1] Blue & Gray at Sea: Naval Memoirs of the Civil War, Brian M. Thompson, Ed., p.14.
[2] The Spirited Years: A History of the Antebellum Naval Academy, Charles Todorich, p.3.
[3] The Spirited Years: A History of the Antebellum Naval Academy, Charles Todorich, p.5.
[4] The Spirited Years: A History of the Antebellum Naval Academy, Charles Todorich, p.6. Citation taken from Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civilian-Military Relations (Cambridge: Harvard Univ Press, 1967), p.214.
[5] The Spirited Years: A History of the Antebellum Naval Academy, Charles Todorich, p.8.
[6] Rocks and Shoals: Order and Discipline In the Old Navy 1800-1861, pp.69-70.
[7] Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War, William M. Fowler, Jr., pp.17-18.
[8] The U.S. Naval Academy, Being The Yarn of the American Midshipman, by Park Benjamin, USNA Class of 1856, Kindle edition,
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