Don’t Give Up the Ship

In September of 1842, the brig U.S.S. Somers set sail out of New York under the command of Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie.  The Somers was a training vessel for teenaged naval apprentices and one of the midshipmen on board was Philip Spencer, the delinquent 19-year-old son of Secretary of War, John C. Spencer.

Ten weeks into the voyage, Captain Mackenzie heard that there was a mutiny being planned by Philip Spencer, allegedly to turn the ship to pirating.  They searched Spencer’s belongings and found a list, in Greek, of who would get what position once the mutiny was successful.  Spencer claimed that the whole mutiny/pirate thing was a joke, but a court of inquiry held on board found him guilty and recommended that he and two co-conspirators be executed.  They were hung and their bodies dropped into the sea.  There’s a print of the U.S.S. Somers, artist unknown, with bodies hanging off the yard arms (photograph courtesy of the Department of the Navy Naval Historical Center).


The Navy concluded, from what would become known as the Somers Affair, that training midshipmen solely at sea was a bad idea, and decided to establish a land-based training facility.  A naval school at Annapolis, the capitol of Maryland, was established in 1845.  In 1850, it became the U.S. Naval Academy.   Today, the Academy is an undergraduate institution with about 4000 students who attend the Academy with the goal of becoming Navy or Marine officers.  Graduates also have the option of joining the Army or Air Force and (don’t tell anyone I told you this, said our tour guide) each year a few do.

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The 338-acre Academy grounds and some its buildings are open to the public, 9 to 5 (to 4 in January and February) and anyone with an ID can come in and roam around.  It has a large collection of Beaux Art buildings and the entire campus is a National Historic Landmark.  It is located in the middle of downtown Annapolis, a quaint little colonial town worth a tour for itself.

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I chose to take the campus tour.   “The tours aren’t canned,” said our guide.  “There’s certain important things we have to mention, but other than those, we’re free to say what we want.”  So on our way to our first stop, LeJeune Hall, the guide pointed out a bronze statue of Billy the Academy mascot and said,  “The upperclassmen make the lower classmen polish his privates. That’s why they’re so much shinier than the rest of him.”  Something I bet is not mentioned by many other Academy tour guides.

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LeJeune Hall is a modern mega-building that houses the athletic department.  It’s also a shrine to Academy athletes, including San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson (Class of 87) and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach (Class of 64).  Once midshipmen commit to their junior year, they’re required to serve 5 years in the military – more if they go on to flight school or other post-graduate study.  David Robinson grew too tall to be a regular naval line officer so he went into the reserves instead – I think that there was other finagling going on as well – and was able to move on to the NBA after two years of service.  Staubach did his five years before joining the Cowboys.

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The tour hit the two most impressive buildings on campus: Bancroft Hall and the Main Chapel.  Both were designed by the Academy’s primary architect, Ernest Flagg.

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Bancroft Hall is the largest  of the Academy’s buildings.  Dining hall, gym, post office, administrative offices, gyms, housing for all 4000 midshipmen – Bancroft Hall has it all.  It even has its own zip code (21412).

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The guide said, “Let’s go up the ladder to the deck.”   She meant up the stairs to first floor of the building.  The Academy never speaks civilian when it can speak Navy.

Inside Bancroft we saw an exhibit of a dorm room, which actually belonged to either (I don’t remember which) Ross Perot (Class of 53) or his running mate James Stockdale (Class of 47, as was President Jimmy Carter).

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Also at Bancroft Hall: Memorial Hall, that honors all Academy graduates who died in service.

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The second building of architectural note is the Main Chapel.  It holds Protestant and Catholic services.  We started in the sanctuary, with its Tiffany windows, but its main attraction was below deck.

John Paul Jones, Revolutionary War Naval hero, is interred in the chapel crypt.  Unemployed after the Revolution (when Congress disbanded the Navy), he went into the service of Catherine II of Russia before retiring to Paris.  When he died there in 1792, a French admirer donated the money to preserve Jones’ body in alcohol and buried it in a lead coffin, “in the event that the United States decides to claim the remains, so that it may be more easily recognized.”

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And that’s exactly what happened.  In the late 1800s, the US decided that they wanted the body back but by then, the cemetery was lost.  The US Ambassador to France spent years, with a team that included an archeologist, searching for Jones’ grave.

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Eventually they found the cemetery, dug up some coffins, and identified Jones by comparing his well-preserved face to a bust he had commissioned from Jean-Antoine Houdon. The body was brought back to the States and interred, in 1913, in a marble sarcophagus in the lower level of the chapel.

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Up until fairly recently, there was an honor guard on duty 24/7 at the crypt.  They were originally Marines, but when the Marines were pulled out in 2006, the Academy’s midshipman took their place.  There was no guard there on Monday.  The guide told us, “The previous commandant of the Academy put a stop to it.”

Tours take about an hour and a half.  Where they go depends on the events of the day, so if you have your heart set on seeing a certain building, make sure that it’s open (the chapel closes for weddings and other services, for example).  The tour costs $10 which, our guide said, goes toward preservation efforts.

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6 Responses to Don’t Give Up the Ship

  1. alesiablogs says:

    Wow. I felt like I was right there with you..Even the polishing of the private parts of the mascot! Too funny….

  2. Wow! I’ve been there in a cursory manner and had no idea there were such juicy stories all around! Definitely will do the tour now, and go to the chapel. An awesome post!

  3. Isn’t it great getting personal tours? We had a guide to ourselves when we went round the archaeology site in Carteia a couple of years ago, and it was brilliant. Superb buildings there, it looks very impressive. How nice to study in an environment like that – I do think it makes a difference. Interesting use of space there in the dorm room too. Wonderful tomb for JPJ.

    • Personalized tours are great. There was only two of us on this one, so I think she felt free to throw things out there that she might not have done had we had a larger group. And the whole things was more of a conversation among three people, than a tour.

      One funny story about the dorm room that i didn’t include because my rule is to keep the narrative to under 1000 words: the guide had a nephew who went to the academy. He was always being punished because he couldn’t make his bed correctly. So he hid a sleeping bag in the ceiling and would sleep in it, on the floor, so he wouldn’t have to mess up his bed.

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