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10 Things You Didn’t Know About U.S. Naval Academy History

Nov 14, 2022 10:00:00 AM

So you’re familiar with the famed bandmaster Charles A. Zimmerman, who composed and performed the U.S. Naval Academy anthem “Anchors Aweigh”—and you know one of USNA’s most famous graduates is Jimmy Carter. Yet the Yard is full of history, and those facts just scratch the surface. 

Read on to find out more about the U.S. Naval Academy History: how the school came to be, what fascinating stories have happened in the hallowed place we know as the Yard, and what recent events have helped shape the history of the ever-evolving U.S. Naval Academy. I’m Bill, and I’ll be your official midshipgoat tour guide!

  1. The School Started on Ships: As recently as 178 years ago, there was no Naval Academy. In 1825, President John Quincy Adams recommended to Congress that a naval school be established. At the time, navy sailors were educated onboard frigates, with each crew being taught by a schoolmaster. Both the attendance and the quality of education were subpar. So in 1839, a naval school was founded at the Philadelphia Naval Asylum. In 1842 the famous mathematician William Chauvenet became the head of the school, and on October 10, 1845, the Secretary of the Navy (also educator and historian), George Bancroft, founded the school in Maryland. He chose "the healthy and secluded" Annapolis in order to deter midshipmen from "the temptations and distractions that necessarily connect with a large and populous city."

    Related: The U.S. Naval Academy’s Anniversary.
  2. It All Began with a plan for Mutiny: Why did Bancroft decide this? On September 13, 1842, the American brig USS Somers left the Brooklyn Navy Yard on a fateful cruise. It was one of the school’s ships that educated teenage naval apprentice volunteers, and it met a terrible end when Secretary of War, John Canfield Spencer’s 19 year-old son, Midshipman Philip Spencer, along with Boatswains Mate Samuel Cromwell and Seaman Elisha Small, were caught planning a mutiny. A court of inquiry found them guilty, and all three were hanged on the yardarm (the spar that crosses the mast) on the high seas as retribution. The practice of school ships was brought under serious scrutiny, as the entire country reeled from the news.

  3. The War Changed Everything: When the Civil War broke out, Superintendent Captain George S. Blake moved the Naval Academy to a new home in Newport, Rhode Island, via the frigate USS Constitution on April 25, 1861. Midshipmen, faculty, staff, the band, their families, the school library and any classroom and laboratory equipment they could fit were also brought up to Newport. The Academy conducted studies there through the war, returning after its end on August 9, 1865.

  4. Starting a Major Trend: The mechanical engineering course had its start at the U.S. Naval Academy not long after in 1874. It was later adopted by other higher education institutions throughout the country and is a popular major across the country today.

  5. The Speed of Light is Discovered: In June and July of 1879, professor and Naval Academy graduate Albert A. Michelson, Class of 1873, took just $10 of equipment up along the sea wall and accurately measured the speed of light. For this discovery, he was awarded the 1907 Nobel Prize in Physics, the first American (and USNA graduate) to earn one. 

  6. Going for the Gold (and Navy): Until 1892, each class selected its own colors. That year, however, the school officially named navy and gold as the school colors of the USNA. The U.S. Naval Academy logo and all uniforms, spiritwear, and gear proudly show off these bold and rich colors to this day. They’re the colors on the blanket that I wear to the football games to cheer on the midshipmen, and I couldn’t imagine the Academy without them.

  7. Making it Official with a Seal: In 1898, Park Benjamin, Class of 1867, designed the U.S. Naval Academy’s official seal with the motto “Ex Scientia Tridens,” or “From Knowledge, Seapower.” Since 1906, this detailed seal has graced the front of every class ring.

    Related: The Seal of the Naval Academy.

  8. Cap it Off: After the graduation of 1912, the seniors threw their caps (called covers) into the air at the end of the ceremony and a new and vibrant tradition was born. Now, other service academy graduates throw their caps up in a “hat toss” to celebrate their graduation. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a hat that was tossed with some money tucked into the lining. Graduates often do this for the kids in the audience (not the goat ones).

  9. Song of the Seas: The alma mater, “Navy Blue and Gold,” with verses by Lieutenant Roy Horn and music by Professor Joseph W. Crosley, was first performed at the inaugural Ring Dance, which occurred in 1925. Ring Dances continue to this day.  Second class midshipmen dip their rings in the waters of the Seven Seas and the Severn River to remind them of their four years spent together “where the Severn joins the sea.”

  10. The Bill Stops Here: Where am I, you ask? We’ll never tell! I’ve been in the witness protection program since someone (likely cadets from Army West Point), took some of my ancestors before the 2012 Army-Navy football game. The debauchery goes back to 1953, when the Black Knights first goat-napped me. They’re the prime perpetrators of a series of nappings, and the Zoomies of the U.S. Air Force Academy and the University of Maryland Terrapins have also joined in on the ruse. Now, only a few good goat handlers know my location, and we’re planning to keep it that way!

Those were just ten interesting tidbits of information, but history happens here every day. Come to the Yard and experience it yourself. Fascinating tours leave the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center almost every hour, and you can even find a customized driving or walking tour that explores a specific theme, from the Anchors Aweigh Music Tour to the USNA Tour and Tea. You might even see a statue of your favorite midshipgoat on your travels. Every time you take a tour—or eat on the Yard, shop at the shops and visit, you’re giving back to the midshipmen, since 100% of profits go directly to the Brigade. Want more fun U.S. Naval Academy history? Find it here on the Yard.


Discover History Here

Bill the Goat
Written by Bill the Goat

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