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Divided loyalties within and armed mobs without plunge the United States Naval Academy into a sea of uncertainty.

Two figures emerged onto the roof of the Executive Mansion, their silhouettes small against the cloudless immensity of blue spring sky as they surveyed the scene before them. This Sunday, April 21, 1861, dawned fine and fair in Washington. The cold rain that blew in following Fort Sumter’s surrender the week before had cleared out, but the gathering war clouds still cast a shadow over the capital. Few of the city’s 61,000 inhabitants stirred on the streets below, despite the pleasant Sabbath weather. Many households had already evacuated the women and children. All activities seemed focused on barricading the main thoroughfares, preparing ships at the Navy Yard to up-anchor, and fortifying the Treasury Building as a stronghold for a last-ditch defense. To John Hay, the president’s assistant secretary, Washington displayed all the signs of a city under siege.

And since Sumter, that vise had grown tighter with each day’s news. First, neighboring Virginia joined the expanding list of states in rebellion. Next, Federal forces abandoned the arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry. Then a Maryland mob of Southern sympathizers assaulted troops of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry traveling through Baltimore on its way to the capital, leaving four soldiers and a dozen citizens dead in the streets. As a grim finale to the week’s events, the Navy scuttled 10 ships in evacuating the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Va. With its massive dry dock and vast stockpile of valuable stores, the loss of the shipyard, in the words of the New York Tribune’s Horace Greeley was “the most shameful, cowardly, disastrous performance that stains the annals of the American Navy.”

Hay watched as his boss silently stared down at the sparkling water of the Potomac River. He knew it was the current state of affairs at another port that weighed on Abraham Lincoln’s mind. Just 40 miles to the east, past the unfinished iron dome of the Capitol where the battered Bay State volunteers billeted, sat Annapolis, capital of Maryland and home to the U.S. Naval Academy. On the Severn River at its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay, the academy now offered the best alternative route for Northern reinforcements to reach Washington without inciting more violence—or secession—from the pro-Southern populace of Baltimore.

In fact, Lincoln had endured a meeting on that very issue with yet another delegation from Baltimore before escaping to the roof for some fresh air. If the secessionist spirit boiled over from its riot-wracked streets to the rest of divided Maryland, the 10-square-mile District of Columbia would truly be surrounded. Isolated. Cut off from the Union.

Lincoln agreed that while it was in everyone’s best interest to bypass Baltimore, he asserted that the transit of more troops was imperative to ensure the safety of the nation’s capital. With more regiments already on the march, that meant transporting them by water to Annapolis.

Being an old pol, Lincoln could not help but be painfully aware he was relying on the continuing loyalty of Annapolis, capital of a state that gave him just 2,294 votes out of 92,441 ballots cast in November’s election. And the Navy’s recent performance at Norfolk provided little reassurance of keeping the academy firmly in federal hands. Another odd thought might have added to the president’s anxiety: He was also resting the fate of Washington—and perhaps the Union—on the security of an institution that was established as the result of a mutiny.

In late 1842, the newly commissioned brig USS Somers was bound for home from West Africa in its trial voyage as a trainer for young naval apprentices. Officers noted a steady decline in morale and a growing unrest as the ship neared the Caribbean. On November 26, the ship’s captain ordered the arrest of Midshipman Philip Spencer, the black-sheep son of Secretary of War John Canfield Spencer, for inciting mutiny.

The next day, two more crewmen were clapped in irons. An investigation revealed Spencer had discussed plans to gain control, murder the officers and throw the loyal crew to the sharks, then embark on a buccaneering career in the West Indies. Although Spencer admitted the conversations, he claimed they had only been “pretending piracy.” A council of officers unanimously reached the verdict that the plotters were guilty of “a determined attempt to commit mutiny.” All three were hanged from the yardarm on December 1. To this day, the Somers is the only U.S. Navy warship to experience a mutiny that ended in executions.

A naval court of inquiry exonerated the captain for his actions, but the tragic “Somers Affair” shocked the public. In its test run as a floating classroom where midshipmen learned on the job, the tiny brig had been crammed with 120 sailors—mostly teenage boys—and only nine skilled seamen. In the wake of the debate came a united call for reforming traditional methods of instructing future naval officers at sea. The U.S. Navy needed its own version of West Point.

On August 15, 1845, the War Department transferred to the Navy an old army post at the tip of a pie-shaped peninsula on the eastern edge of Annapolis. Built in 1808, Fort Severn consisted of the masonry fortress with a brick magazine and seven other buildings situated on nine acres along the bank of the Severn River. A high wall enclosed the grounds on the landward side, which some said would prove a valuable asset—for keeping high-spirited students inside rather than keeping the public out.

Two months later the Naval School officially opened with 50 midshipmen. Its faculty of seven professors taught mathematics, chemistry, natural philosophy, English and French, as well as subjects specific to the sea service—navigation, steam and gunnery.

The acquisition of more land in 1847 and a landfill extension of the shoreline in 1853 launched a period of expansion at the institution. The decade also saw sweeping program improvements and reforms, beginning with a change of name to the United States Naval Academy in 1850. Most significantly, the reorganization prescribed four years of consecutive classroom instruction with brief practice cruises replacing the previously required seven years, which included three intervening years at sea between studies.

Construction continued apace during the late antebellum years, but still the school had trouble keeping up with enrollment. The Class of 1860 was the largest to date with 62 members. At first, the sloop Plymouth provided quarters for fourth-class midshipmen, but proved inadequate to the growing demand. So the most famous ship in the Navy, the USS Constitution—“Old Ironsides”— was converted into a floating classroom and recommissioned in August 1860.

As a member of the incoming Class of 1864, Charles E. Clark was one of the first to be quartered on the old frigate for his plebe year. The 17- year-old Vermonter observed the increasing tension of secession among his fellow midshipmen. “Ever since my class entered the academy in September, the growing unrest and trouble of the country had been disturbing the equilibrium of our little world. There was much wrangling and many arguments between the boys, but no real quarreling. In the general sense of upheaval, no one—this was especially true of Northerners— felt certain enough of the ground under his feet to take an assured position. In fact, the youngsters at the academy were in about as bad a muddle as the country at large.”

Fellow Northerner Roswell H. Lamson, who entered the academy in 1858, wrote his cousin Kate Buckingham following Lincoln’s election in November, noting “…There is a good deal of political excitement among the students, and as most all of our crew are warm Southroners, we do not agree very well as to what is right, and what wrong.”

The resulting trickle of resignations among Southern midshipmen became a raging torrent with news of the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 three- month volunteers to suppress the insurrection. During April, 38 midshipmen went south. Yet there were those Southerners who remained faithful to the flag, even in the face of overbearing family opposition. Poor Robley D. Evans, a Virginian in the Class of 1864, was forced to prove to the Navy that he indeed was a true Unionist who wanted to serve his country after his mother had put the midshipman in an awkward position by resigning for him.

Meanwhile, the academy’s superintendent did not stand idly by while sectional differences threatened his institution. Captain George S. Blake possessed a reputation as a solid old shellback when appointed superintendent in 1857. Born in Worcester, Mass., the 15-year-old George had entered the Navy as a midshipman in 1818, long before anyone believed a formal naval school a necessity. Whether fighting pirates or hurricanes, he learned on the job, earning commendations for his conduct. He was especially noted for his zeal and fidelity. Blake quietly began preparing against hostilities in early 1861.

“Movements are going on here so quietly that they are noticed by few but which show that we are to be ready for action at any moment,” Midshipman Lamson observed in a letter to another cousin, Flora Lamson, dated January 15.

“With scarcely anyone being aware of it the Constitution has been watered and provisioned for sea, the light artillery battery and boat howitzers embarked, ostensibly for practice but most of them have been stowed below; the ammunition transferred form the Battery magazine to the ships, and the vessel put in as complete order as possible. A store ship is expected soon with guns to replace those in our Battery which are worn out, when she will throw just a few 68 pdrs and 11 inch shell guns on board for practice. Of course the officers keep their own counsel, but it is plain to me that we are to be ready to take the Constitution out as soon as safety requires it and I learn from good authority that our class and the first class will be sent on board in such an emergency. These preparations are absolutely necessary as those in this vicinity in favor of Secession are extremely anxious to get possession of her. The seceding states have no navy as yet though they are purchasing merchant vessels for that purpose, and the possession of a new first class frigate with the prestige of Old Ironsides would please them exceedingly. Fort Madison, too, on the opposite bank of the Severn commands the harbor; and a battery of heavy guns thrown in it would prevent the ship’s going out unless previously prepared.

“This movement will certainly be necessary when this state secedes if not before and we are then to be sent to the vessels of the Home Squadron…”

Although Maryland continued a precarious commitment to the federal government, Blake made further changes to enhance the academy’s defenses. In March, he replaced the showy Zouave drill, modeled on French colonial North African infantry troops, with more howitzer exercises. Artillery practice was more practical since the light field pieces could be carried aboard ship and landed ashore—and easily employed against an angry rabble.

Within six weeks, those howitzers had been detailed to the gates in response to rumors that Southern sympathizers in the area, emboldened by Sumter’s surrender, planned to seize the academy. All academic instruction ended. Fearing Maryland would cast its lot with Dixie, Blake lost no time putting the institution on a war footing. He ordered Fort Severn’s heavy battery transferred to the Constitution, and all her guns double-shotted. More students climbed aboard to man Old Ironsides. Guns were trained on the long, narrow gangway to sweep it free of invaders. A strong guard was kept around the clock on the ship as well as shore, and those midshipmen not on watch slept with their small arms in their quarters. Picket boats plied the bay, alert for an attack by sea.

On April 15, the superintendent wrote his superior, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, to report his preparations and request further instructions, expressing his concern that the academy’s campus was too extensive to defend with his force of about 250 midshipmen, “many of whom are little boys, and some of whom are citizens of the seceded States.” If attacked, he would order any remaining guns spiked, ammunition destroyed and everyone under his command aboard the Constitution. From there Blake intended to either defend Annapolis from the harbor, or in the face of overwhelming force, tow the Constitution into the wider bay and put to sea for Philadelphia or New York.

The spring sun rose and set over Annapolis. Strange signal lights seen. Alarms raised. Tension grew taut as a kedge line. Again and again the small battalion of boys turned out to repel boarders. But no attack materialized. While awaiting word from Welles or threatening developments, Blake issued an order allowing any midshipman to resign and leave immediately, with the acceptance to be forwarded. More than a dozen took advantage of the offer.

“It is sad, sad to think that we are obliged to arm ourselves against our Countrymen and I cannot tell you how heartsick I feel when I look at my arms and think I will probably be obliged to use them against those who till recently I regarded as brothers,” Lamson informed cousin Flora. “But as long as there’s a star in the flag I stand by it. I have seen a little fighting without any flag and now if it must come I’ll not flinch under it.” Even those still struggling with their divided feelings, like Parker, knew where their loyalty lay while still wearing the blue uniform. “I do not hesitate to say,” noted Parker, “that had we been attacked I would have… done my duty by the school. I was still an officer of the Navy.”

Then on April 20, the day after Baltimore’s bloody street brawl, the telegraph flashed an order from Secretary Welles: “Defend the Constitution at all hazards. If it cannot be done, destroy her.”

Although its oak hull remained as stout as when the sailing ship won its nickname in the War of 1812, Old Ironsides had been deemed obsolete by the modern steam Navy. Yet the Constitution’s armament, including four 32-pounders, was not—and would provide some formidable firepower for a new Rebel navy. And the beloved old frigate, which had defeated five enemy warships, would prove a symbolic prize as a prestigious flagship for the fledgling Confederate flotilla.

That very evening Blake heard of an imminent expedition from Baltimore to capture the ship. It remained helpless at its moorings without assistance to get to deeper waters, away from the opposite high bank where artillery could drop a plunging fire onto its deck. Until then, the only choices left were its defense or destruction. So when the schooner Rainbow returned from reconnaissance to report a strange steamer standing in down the bay, the Constitution’s makeshift company beat to quarters. A nervous sentry fired at a boatload of armed men who ignored the order to “Heave to!” as they passed the wharf. Assuring the officers they were peaceable citizens who had no hostile intentions toward the academy, they were not detained. (It was later learned the party landed above Annapolis and completed its actual mission of tearing up the railroad track.) Later, the shadow of a large vessel loomed out of the darkness, heading straight for the harbor. Signal rockets from the guard boat ripped the midnight sky with streaks of flame. Every crewman manned his battle station. The guns were trained on the unknown ship. Sweaty hands gripped the lanyards. Blake withheld the order to fire until a boat launched with Lieutenant Edmund O. Matthews could investigate. Minutes ticked by as the sun rose on April 21. Matthews arrived safely back on board with good news: It was friend, not foe.

Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler had commandeered the ferryboat Maryland to transport his 8th Massachusetts when Rebel-burned railroad bridges forced the infantry to detrain in Perryville, Md., on their way from Philadelphia to Washington. He steamed out of the mouth of the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake intending to bypass Baltimore, land in Annapolis and travel overland to relieve the capital, just as Lincoln had foreseen. Now, on the same day the president gazed east from his perch on the roof, wondering “Why don’t they come?” Union troops prepared to answer him. And more would arrive the next day in the form of the 7th New York Infantry aboard the steamer Boston.

But first there was the matter of the Constitution’s safety. When the superintendent asked whether Butler had come to save the Constitution, the politico-turned-general thought Blake meant the founding document, replying, “Yes, that is just what I am here for.”

“Are those your orders?” Blake exclaimed. “Then the old ship is safe!”

Realizing there had been some misunderstanding, Butler explained, “I have no orders. I am carrying on war now on my own hook; I cut loose from orders when I left Philadelphia. What do you want me to do to save the Constitution?”

With the confusion cleared, Blake sought help to secure its ship and get it afloat from its moorings. Butler immediately sent a crack company of Salem Zouaves aboard and placed some fishermen from Marblehead at the disposal of Lieutenant Christopher Raymond Rodgers, commandant of midshipmen. After some effort transferring the frigate’s upper-deck guns to the ferry, the Constitution’s lightened draft allowed the steamer to haul it over the bar. Although river mud and spring squalls almost accomplished what secessionists failed to do by running it aground, Old Ironsides finally floated free enough to have her guns restored and stand ready to cover the troop landing.

Brushing aside Governor Thomas Hicks’ misgivings that having Northern soldiers in Maryland would provoke secession, Butler began his operation. He ordered the New Yorkers to land first, since the Maryland had also run hard aground towing the helpless warship. Then he had the Boston ferry his own men to shore. As one soldier of the 7th reported to The New York Times, “At 4 o’clock P.M. of Monday, April 22, the Seventh Regiment first landed in a hostile State on a military errand and was disembarked at the dock of the Naval School at Annapolis. The men marched ashore by companies in good order, and formed in regimental line on the beautiful parade-ground in the rear of the Naval-school buildings.” Another observed his bunking place was “in what there is called a fort, which is a rickety structure that a lucifer match would set on fire, but furnished with imposing guns. I suppose it was merely built to practice the cadets, because as a defense it is worthless.”

As these first two regiments moved out to Washington, several more came to bivouac in the yard. The academy was quickly becoming an armed camp for soldiers, and the administration decided to put the mid- shipmen on the Constitution and move both out of harm’s way. Blake wrote Welles on April 24 recommending the school be relocated to a safer haven, such as Fort Adams, another unused old Army post at Newport, R.I.

That day the drums beat assembly. Twenty classmates who fell into formation would not be making the trip north; the Southerners had tendered their resignations. They all marched to the mess hall for a last supper together and afterward mustered in front of Recitation Hall where local ladies had gathered to bid adieu. The cadet brass band struck up “Hail Columbia” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the battalion marched to the wharf where it formed two lines to board the steamer. Then a hush came over the crowd when the eloquent Lieutenant Rodgers appeared to make a farewell address. Rodgers “said he had a few words to say to us before we parted, but his eyes filled and his voice trembled so he could only say ‘Be true to the flag’ ‘Be true to the flag’ ‘God bless you all.’ ‘Good bye,’” Lamson recalled. “He is a good man and a high-minded officer, and we loved him very much. The fellows stood bravely till Capt. [sic] R. spoke but then though there was not a sniffle in the ranks or a muscle moved yet the tears would run. One of the volunteer officers sang out, ‘Three cheers for the Midshipmen’ which were given with a will. After we embarked we gave three cheers for Capt. R. three for the troops, and for old friendship’s sake three for those of our number who intending to resign were requested not to go on board.

Some of my best friends were among them. This will be a sad, sad war. It will be more painful to strike than to be struck. Heaven help us for feeling must not interfere with duty.” Some of the soldiers who had been silently observing the solemn scene broke into the midshipmen’s ranks, offering handshakes and bear hugs to the young cadets, along with promises of a safe return to their beloved institution. “You’ll be coming back, boys! We’ll see that you get your school back!” Two days later, the Constitution set sail, soon followed by the steamer Baltic stuffed to the gunwales with officers, instructors, their families, the library and other academic materials needed for their new home. They anchored in Newport on May 9. That week, the Classes of 1862 and 1863, along with the remaining half of the Class of 1861 who had not shipped out with the first 10 members, were all ordered to active duty. By war’s end, 400 of the academy’s total 659 graduates served in the Union Navy, 95 in the Confederate Navy—including 59 midshipmen. Twenty-three graduates were killed in battle or died of wounds.

With the departure of the academy, the once strategic port of Annapolis literally became a backwater of the conflict. It served as a staging area for the embarkation of Ambrose Burnside’s North Carolina Expedition, but after the 30,000 troops assembled at the academy and nearby St. John’s College campus left for the joint Army-Navy operation, it became a quiet rear area for hospitals and receiving Federal soldiers paroled or exchanged from Confederate prison camps.

The U.S. Naval Academy remained in Rhode Island for the duration of the war. There the plebes continued training for roles as leaders in naval combat. In the school’s leased quarters at the Atlantic Hotel, the midshipmen passed under a relic of another war that had been transferred from Annapolis and reverently hung in the main hall. It was the flag of Oliver Perry emblazoned with the famous order, “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” And despite some political rumblings about not returning the institution to its Southern port, the Navy took Perry’s words to heart. The U.S. Naval Academy came home to Annapolis on August 9, 1865, where its proud tradition of preparing leaders for our nation’s sea service lives on.


Mike Clem earned a history degree from The College of William & Mary, but made his career in the media. He is a writer and editor from Libertytown in his native Maryland.

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.