The United States Naval Academy: The Early Years

The United States Naval Academy The Early Years

Established in 1845 under Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, the United States Naval Academy (USNA) was established on the grounds of the former US Army post Fort Severn in Annapolis, Maryland, at the confluence of the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay. The USNA replaced Philadelphia Naval Asylum, in Philadelphia, that served as the first United States Naval Academy from 1838 to 1845.

The school opened on October 10 with fifty midshipman students and seven professors. The decision to establish an academy on land may have been in part a result of the Somers Affair, an alleged mutiny involving the secretary of war’s son that resulted in his execution at sea. Appalled that a midshipman would consider mutiny, senior naval officials ordered the creation of the academy so that midshipmen could receive a formal and supervised education in naval seamanship and related matters.

Commodore Matthew Perry had a considerable interest in naval education, supporting an apprentice system to train new seamen, and helped establish the curriculum for the United States Naval Academy. He was also a vocal proponent of modernization of the navy.

Originally a course of study for five years was prescribed. Only the first and last were spent at the school with the other three being passed at sea. The curriculum included mathematics and navigation, gunnery and steam, chemistry, English, natural philosophy, and French.

The present name was adopted when the school was reorganized in 1850 and placed under the supervision of the chief of the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography. Under the immediate charge of the superintendent, the course of study was extended to seven years with the first two and the last two to be spent at the school and the intervening three years at sea. The four years of study were made consecutive in 1851, and practice cruises were substituted for the three consecutive years at sea. The first class of naval academy students graduated on June 10, 1854.

The Civil War

When the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, the United States government made plans to move the Academy since Southern sympathy ran high in Maryland. However, the sudden outbreak of hostilities forced the US government to move the Academy sooner than anticipated. Almost immediately, the three upper classes were detached and ordered to sea, and the remaining elements of the academy were transported to Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island, by the USS Constitution in April 1861, where the academy was set up in temporary facilities and opened in May. The Annapolis campus, meanwhile, was turned into a United States Army Hospital.

When the war broke out, 24 percent of the US Navy’s officers resigned and joined the Confederate States Navy, including ninety-five graduates and fifty-nine midshipmen, as well as many key leaders involved with the founding and establishment of USNA:

  • The first superintendent, Admiral Franklin Buchanan, joined the Confederate States Navy as its first and primary admiral.
  • Captain Sidney Smith Lee, the second commandant of midshipmen, and older brother of Robert E. Lee, left federal service in 1861 for the Confederate States Navy.
  • Lieutenant William Harwar Parker, CSN, class of 1848, and instructor at USNA, joined the Virginia State Navy and then went on to become the superintendent of the Confederate States Naval Academy.
  • Lieutenant Charles “Savez” Read may have been anchor man (graduated last) in the class of 1860, but his later service to the Confederate States Navy included defending New Orleans, service on CSS Arkansas and CSS Florida, and command of a series of captured Union ships that culminated in seizing the US Revenue Cutter Caleb Cushing in Portland, Maine.
  • Lieutenant James Iredell Waddell, CSN, a former instructor at the US Naval Academy, commanded the CSS

By the end of the war, four hundred graduates served in the Union Navy, ninety-five in the Confederate Navy. Twenty-three graduates were killed in battle or died of wounds.

On August 9, 1865, the academy returned to Annapolis after four years in Newport.


Wikipedia. n.d. “United States Naval Academy.” Last modified November 3, 2016. Accessed November 3, 2016.

United States Naval Academy. n.d. “A Brief History of USNA.” Accessed November 3, 2016.



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