Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Annapolis, the Naval Academy, and the Civil War

This past Sunday my wife took the boys and me to Annapolis for a Father's Day outing.  I've been to Maryland's state capital several times over the years, but am embarrassed to admit that I never had the opportunity to visit the U.S. Naval Academy.  This time, I made sure to stop by the school for a look around.  After consuming my fair share of crab at the Federal House Bar & Grill along the waterfront, we headed a short distance down the street to the Naval Academy.

Annapolis was a relatively young institution at the outbreak of the Civil War. President James Polk's Secretary of the Navy, George Bancroft, was instrumental in establishing the academy. In 1845 the new "Naval School" opened on the site of Ft. Severn, a 10-acre Army installation in Annapolis. Franklin Buchanan, who would later go on to become the Confederate commander at Mobile Bay, served as the first superintendent. The school was rechristened the U.S. Naval Academy in 1850.

View of the Naval Academy published in the March 1853 edition of the New York Illustrated News (courtesy of Wikipedia).  Old Ft. Severn is visible in the middle of the engraving.

A few vestiges of the antebellum era at the academy remain, including the Mexican War Monument, the Herndon Monument, and the Tripoli Monument.  A historical marker also indicates the spot where Ft. Severn was located.

The Mexican War Monument was erected in 1848 to honor four midshipmen who died in the Mexican War (1846-48).  Ironically, the four men never set foot in the Naval Academy.
The Herndon Monument, located near the Naval Academy Chapel, was erected in 1860 to honor Commodore William Lewis Herndon, who gave his own life saving others during a hurricane off Hatteras on September 12, 1857.   In the end, Herndon went down with his ship, the mail steamer Central America.  Today, the monument is the site of the "Herndon Climb," where first year plebes scale the lard-covered monument to retrieve a plebe's hat and replace it with an upperclassman's one.  The side of the monument pictured above is marked with the date of the fateful hurricane.

The Tripoli Monument, located behind the Naval Academy Museum, was carved in 1806 and is the nation's oldest military monument.  It is dedicated to six U.S. Navy officers who lost their lives during the First Barbary War (1801-05).  The monument was originally located at the Navy Yard in Washington, moved to the west terrace of the Capitol in 1831, and finally relocated to Annapolis in 1860.
A few markers at Bancroft Hall commemorate Ft. Severn, which was constructed in 1808.  (For more information on the text, see here and here.)  During the War of 1812, the garrison prepared for a British attack that never materialized.  The fort was later transferred from the War Department to the Navy Department in connection with the establishment of the Naval School.
Tensions mounted in the border state of Maryland as the Civil War unfolded.  It didn't take long for the Naval Academy to feel the effects of the conflict.  Following the Baltimore Riot on April 19, 1861, pro-Confederate Marylanders took action to stop the movement of Union volunteers through the city on their way to Washington.  Telegraph wires were cut, and railroad bridges were destroyed.  Brigadier General Benjamin Butler, accompanying the 8th Massachusetts, learned of the troubles and decided to bypass Baltimore altogether by transporting his troops to Annapolis, and from there by another rail link to Washington.  He loaded the 8th Massachusetts onto the railroad ferry Maryland and arrived at Annapolis on the night of April 20, 1861.  Within a day or so, Butler was joined offshore by the 7th New York.  Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks attempted to stop Butler from disembarking, but Butler refused and informed Hicks that landing on federal property at the Naval Academy would be "entirely proper." (OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 590.) 

The 8th Massachusetts and 7th New York marched off their transports at the Naval Academy on April 22.  From there, Butler set to work repairing the Annapolis & Elk Ridge Railroad, which connected to the Baltimore & Ohio at Annapolis Junction.  The railroad had earlier been damaged by Southern sympathizers.  Within a few days, the two regiments were on their way to Washington.   A historical marker on the grounds of the Naval Academy commemorates Butler's actions.

The marker at Annapolis dedicated to Benjamin Butler, located in front of Luce Hall along the Severn River.  The date of the arrival of the 8th Massachusetts at Annapolis is given as April 21, 1861.  Sources differ as to whether the regiment got to Annapolis on April 20 or 21.  Butler's own memoirs, Butler's Book (1892), would seem to put the actual event as falling at some point during the night of April 20-21.
Even with the arrival of Union troops, Superintendent George S. Blake remained concerned about a Confederate attempt to occupy the Naval Academy and decided to relocate the school.   On April 25, the Academy's midshipmen set sail for Newport, Rhode Island aboard the famed frigate, USS Constitution. (For more about this fascinating episode in the Naval Academy's history, see here.)  The Army took over Annapolis and constructed a sprawling hospital complex on the property. This hospital treated soldiers from the front lines, as well as paroled Union prisoners suffering from various illnesses.  The Naval Academy would remain in Newport for the duration of the war and only return in August 1865. According to the Naval Academy's website, "400 graduates served in the Union Navy, 95 in the Confederate Navy; 23 graduates were killed in battle or died of wounds."

Following a walk around the grounds looking at markers and monuments, my wife and kids relaxed under the shade of some ancient trees near the Chapel, and I headed to the Naval Academy Museum for a quick visit.  I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of interesting exhibits highlighting our nation's naval history from the Revolution through the present.  The Civil War part of the museum contained many artifacts, including a piece of the USS Monitor and a wheel from Admiral David Farragut's USS Hartford.  I also examined the models of ironclads and ships.  I left having only touched the surface, so a return visit is definitely in order.

Wheel from the USS Hartford, Farragut's flagship at Mobile Bay in 1864.
As we drove back to Virginia, I reflected on how much my Civil War studies have focused on the land war.  A tour of Annapolis was the perfect way to renew my efforts to learn more about the naval side of the conflict.  I am soon headed to the Outer Banks, where I will be able to tour Civil War Trails sites associated with the naval war.  And my beach reading?  Strangling the Confederacy: Coastal Operations in the American Civil War, of course!

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