As the U.S. Navy became more technologically advanced with the introduction of steam propulsion in the early to mid-1800s, greater scientific and technical knowledge on the part of naval officers was necessary. The science of steam engineering was far more complex than the art of sailing, and it became clear that the traditional “on the job” methods of education no longer would be adequate. The Navy needed a dedicated academy to provide future officers with a disciplined environment conducive to learning the new naval trade. This academy be- came the centerpiece of George Bancroft’s service as Secretary of the Navy.
While Secretary Bancroft was the Academy’s originator, American naval hero John Paul Jones had the original idea. During the Revolutionary War, Jones proposed the idea of establishing several small academies “at each Dockyard under proper Masters, who’es [sic] duty it should be to instruct the officers of the Fleet. . .
Legislation for the establishment of a naval academy was introduced to Congress more than 20 times from 1800 to 1845 with no result. Congress simply saw no need to change a system of education that it believed to be adequate for the Navy. Naval heroes of the War of 1812 such as Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, and Oliver Hazard Perry were considered outstanding officers and refined gentlemen despite their lack of formal, academy-style schooling.2
The year 1842 would prove to be an important year for naval education. Yale alumnus William Chauvenet became head of the Philadelphia Naval Asylum school, one of several small schools that were established for midshipmen studying for promotion exams. Envisioning these schools as becoming more than glorified study halls, Chauvenet fought for the establishment of a real curriculum, frequent evaluation of the midshipmen’s performance, a full-time faculty, and regular class schedules. Navy Secretary John Y. Mason rejected Chauvenet’s plan. In 1845, George Bancroft became Secretary of the Navy. Realizing that Bancroft was a scholar and an experienced educator,’ Chauvenet presented him with a copy of the educational reform plan that Secretary Mason had rejected. Although Bancroft was not interested in supporting a plan that already had been rejected, Chauvenet was successful in sparking Bancroft’s interest in the education of naval officers.4 Bancroft began to look into the Navy’s education system by requesting a report from the faculty of the Philadelphia naval school on “the nature of the duties” they performed at the school, including the number of hours per day they taught and any suggestions they had for improving the Navy’s system of education.4 In Bancroft’s mind, scholarship and higher learning must be applied to military operations; military training alone was not sufficient.6
Overcoming the Obstacles
In 1845 the Navy’s reputation was poor in the eyes of both the government and the public. Lack of formal education, lack of gentlemanly manners, indecisiveness, and a lack of initiative plagued the naval officer corps.7 The Navy’s image was marred by reports of immorality, drunkenness, and extreme brutality on the part of its officers. The Somers affair, in which an allegedly mutinous midshipman was hanged from the yardarm of a Navy training ship, further tarnished the Navy’s reputation.8
At the same time, the recent introduction of steam- propelled naval vessels required greater mechanical and scientific knowledge on the part of naval officers than operating sailing ships. Steam engineering simply could not be taught effectively aboard ships.9 The Navy’s poor image and the use of steam propulsion facilitated Bancroft’s endeavor to found a college for the Navy.
To achieve his objective of establishing a naval academy, Bancroft had to overcome two obstacles: opposition to an academy from within the Navy’s officer corps, and funding it without having to petition Congress for more appropriations, thereby necessitating Congress’ permission.10 Most naval officers saw no need for an academy and thought the idea of establishing a school ashore to educate midshipmen was ridiculous. Captain Charles Stewart articulated this viewpoint by stating, “the best school for the instruction of youth in the [naval] profession is the deck of a ship.’’11
In June 1845 Bancroft ordered Commodore George Read, the head of the Navy’s Board of Examiners in Philadelphia, to form a special committee composed of officers from the Board of Examiners to report on how a naval academy should be organized.12 (The Board of Examiners was responsible for administering midshipman exams.) The report of the committee, which included Read, Commodore Matthew Perry, Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones, Captain A. F. Lavallette, and Captain Isaac Mayo, outlined the following provisions:
► The establishment of the grade of naval cadet below that of midshipman
► The appointment of naval cadets in the same manner as West Point cadets
► A $20 salary to each naval cadet for food and clothing
► Appropriation of a steam-powered training ship and training frigate for steam engineering studies and gunnery practice
The committee devised a number of faculty and officer positions at the academy, a curriculum, and a system of examinations to measure the performance of midshipmen.13 In addition, the committee recommended the seaport town of Annapolis, Maryland (the hometown of Captain Mayo), as the best location for the new academy. Bancroft displayed a measure of shrewdness by not asking committee members to report on whether an academy should be established, but instead asking them to focus on how and where it should be established.14
Again displaying his cleverness, Bancroft formed a second committee to examine the naval academy question. While the first committee had been composed of senior naval officers, the second was made up of younger naval officers. Bancroft’s goal in forming this second committee was to obtain the support of the younger element of the Navy’s officer corps. Bancroft charged this younger committee, which included Commander Samuel Du Pont, Commander Franklin Buchanan, and Commander William McKean, with reporting on their views in regard to a site for the academy and how the faculty should be appointed. This committee concurred with its more senior counterpart that Annapolis was an ideal location. As for the faculty, the committee recommended three of the Philadelphia naval school’s best instructors.15 By having two officer committees examine and seemingly support the plan for an academy, Bancroft was able to, for the most part, silence opposition to an academy within the Navy’s officer corps.16
Bancroft then turned his attention to maneuvering around opposition from Congress, which opposed the founding of a naval academy for several reasons. The first was that Congress feared that a naval academy would simply add to the patronage power the President already enjoyed in granting appointments to West Point, founded in 1802. This argument was not entirely sound, however, because appointments as Navy midshipmen already were granted through political patronage. Congress also wanted to avoid the hassle that inevitably would result from the competition among senators and congressmen to have their state become the naval academy’s permanent home. Since the War of 1812, Congress had argued that a war requiring extensive naval operations was inconceivable in the country’s future. This argument was shortsighted, as tensions with Great Britain over the Oregon boundary and with Mexico over American annexation of Texas indicated the possibility of a future two-front war for the United States.17 It also was feared that a naval academy would create a class system within the Navy in which only academy graduates would hold the highest ranking positions. Still, the most basic reason for congressional opposition was money. The cost of establishing a second service academy was deemed too expensive for something that was not a necessity.18
Knowing that going through Congress to establish an academy would be a waste of time and effort, Bancroft instead decided to found an academy using only his own authority as Secretary of the Navy. After a personal inspection tour, Bancroft agreed that Annapolis was the best location for the proposed academy—specifically, at Fort Severn, an Army installation on the Severn River. Annapolis was considered ideal because it lacked the numerous distractions of a large city or active navy yard. Though in a state of disrepair, the fort itself was ideal for the academy. Built in 1808, it was surrounded by a high stone wall that would restrain “the spirits of the young officer- to-be.”19 In addition, the fort provided easy access to Chesapeake Bay for training exercises. Once the question of where the academy would be located was answered, Bancroft sent Navy Professor Henry Lockwood and Passed Midshipman Samuel Marcy, an assistant to William Chauvenet at the Philadelphia naval school, to West Point to study the curriculum and training methods of the Army’s college. The two men were to report to Bancroft on their findings and make recommendations for the naval academy.20
Bancroft Seeks Allies
Bancroft next focused on securing the support of Secretary of War William Marcy for the planned naval academy. Bancroft wrote to Marcy informing him of his desire to found a naval academy at Fort Severn, and if Marcy agreed, requesting the Secretary of War’s cooperation in transferring control of the fort to the Navy. Bancroft enlisted the aid of General Winfield Scott in securing the fort for the Navy. Scott’s remarks were added to the back of Bancroft’s letter: “Believing Fort Severn, for the purpose stated, may be more valuable to the country in the hands of the Navy, than in those of the Army, I respectfully concur in the transfer asked for.”21 Once it was decided that Fort Severn was obsolete as a fort and Marcy was made aware of its benefits as a naval school by his son, Samuel, Secretary of War Marcy agreed to the transfer of the fort for the purposes of establishing a naval academy.22
As it turned out, Bancroft did not need Secretary Marcy’s approval. During the summer of 1845, most of Washington’s politicians, including Marcy, had left the nation’s capital to escape the heat. Bancroft remained in Washington and was named acting Secretary of War in Marcy’s absence. Because Congress was not in session, Bancroft used this temporary authority to transfer control of Fort Severn to himself as Secretary of the Navy.23 With the acquisition of Fort Severn complete, Bancroft appointed the naval academy’s first superintendent, Commander Franklin Buchanan, who had a reputation for his disciplined and organized approach to leadership. In addition, Buchanan brought 19 years of experience at sea to the academy.
Having acquired a campus and a superintendent, Bancroft shifted his attention to the organization and course of studies for the school, in addition to ensuring that the academy would be opened without requiring any additional appropriations from Congress. Bancroft outlined his plans in a 7 August 1845 letter to Commander Buchanan. In this letter, Bancroft explained his goal for the naval academy—to make midshipmen “as distinguished for culture as they have been for gallant conduct”—and asked Buchanan to develop a plan for the naval academy’s organization.24
Buchanan quickly provided Bancroft with his “Plan for a Naval School at Annapolis.” The document defined the role of the superintendent, declared that a set of rules and regulations approved by the Secretary of the Navy would form “the internal government of the school,” and provided for the establishment of an academic board comprised of professors to conduct the business of the school, administer midshipman exams, and propose suggestions for improvements to the school. To prevent the awarding of appointments to unqualified applicants, Buchanan proposed that each applicant must possess good moral character, be between the ages of 13 and 17, pass a medical examination by the school’s surgeon to ensure that he was fit for sea duty, and be able to read and to understand basic arithmetic and geography. Buchanan also included his recommendations regarding the school’s course of studies, which was to include classes in science, mathematics, humanities, and naval science in addition to practical training at sea.25 Bancroft approved Buchanan’s plan immediately. With the organizational plan for the naval academy set, Bancroft decided on appointments to the school’s first faculty, which included four naval officers and three civilian professors.
The Naval School Is Born
Fort Severn officially was transferred from the War Department to the Navy Department on 15 August 1845. Bancroft ordered all midshipmen arriving from sea duty to report to Annapolis. The U.S. Naval School opened its doors on 10 October 1845. Buchanan wrote to Bancroft shortly after to describe the day’s events. As told by Buchanan, the superintendent stressed to the midshipmen that they must tend to their studies in a serious and responsible manner and must obey all Navy and school regulations just as they would on a ship. Buchanan stated, “I am highly gratified at the dispositions shown by the young gentlemen to apply themselves with energy and zeal to their studies.”26
With studies at Annapolis under way, Bancroft prepared his annual report to Congress. When he took office in March, almost $30,000 was appropriated to pay the salaries of the 25 instructors and schoolmasters employed by the Navy. Regulations stipulated that the instructors were paid only while they actively were engaged in teaching. The devious Bancroft took advantage of this stipulation and saved thousands of dollars by placing all of the instructors, with the exception of those assigned to Annapolis, on waiting orders.27 In December, Bancroft reported to Congress that he had established the naval academy and that the school was operating efficiently with funds already appropriated to the Navy Department’s education budget.
Finally yielding to the fight for a permanent and structured naval school, Congress agreed to Bancroft’s plan. The House Ways and Means Committee voted to use the money Bancroft saved to improve the dilapidated buildings that made up the former Fort Severn.28
The Naval Academy would prove to be George Bancroft’s greatest legacy as Secretary of the Navy. One of the long-term effects of the Naval Academy was a steady growth in the professionalism of the Navy in the late 1800s. This was because the Academy provided officers with an educational standard that in turn provided a basis for the naval profession. One of the fruits of this growth in professionalism was the founding of the U.S. Naval Institute in 1873 as a forum for the advancement of professional knowledge of sea power.29 Bancroft’s Naval Academy continues to prepare young people for careers as officers in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps by combining an education in the arts and sciences with naval science, engineering, and practical training at sea. It is therefore appropriate that the home of all midshipmen and the largest building on the U.S. Naval Academy Yard is Bancroft Hall.
1. John Paul Jones, “A Plan for the Regulation and Equipment of the Navy Drawn Up at the Request of the Honorable the President of Congress,” in Mrs. Reginald DeKoven, The Life and Letters of John Paul Jones (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), vol. 1, p. 187.
2. F. M. Brown, “A Half Century of Frustration: A Study of the Failure of Naval Academy Legislation between 1800 and 1845,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1954, pp. 631-32.
3. Bancroft, a Ph.D. by age 20 and author of the first comprehensive history of the United States, had previously founded and taught at the Round Hill School, a private school for boys in Northampton, Massachusetts.
4. Jack Sweetman, The U.S. Naval Academy: An Illustrated History (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1979), p. 15.
5. George Bancroft to the Faculty of the Philadelphia Naval School, 1 May 1845, Letters Received by the Superintendent, 1845-87, U.S. Naval Academy Archives, Annapolis.
6. John W. Masland and Laurence I. Rad way, Soldiers and Schobrs: Military Education and National Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 85.
7. Russel B. Nye, George Bancroft: Brahmin Rebel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1944), p. 143.
8. Henry Francis Sturdy, “The Founding of the Naval Academy by Bancroft and Buchanan,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1935, p. 1368.
9. Charles Todorich, The Spirited Years: A History of the Antebellum Naval Academy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. 12; George R. Clark, et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1927), p. 218.
10. Walter B. Norris, Annapolis: Its Colonial and Naval Story (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1925), pp. 249-50.
11. Stewart quoted in Robert Greenhalgh Albion, Makers of Naval Policy, 1798-1947 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1980), p. 193.
12. John Crane and James F. Kieley, United States Naval Academy: The First Hundred Years (New York: Whittlesey House, 1945), pp. 20-21.
13. Committee report printed in James Russell Soley, Historical Sketch of the United States Naval Academy (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1876), pp. 44-49.
14. Albion, p. 194.
15. Crane and Kieley, p. 21.
16. Sturdy, p. 1369.
17. Brown, pp. 634-35.
18. Paolo E. Coletta, The American Naval Heritage in Brief (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1978), p. 109.
19. Norris, pp. 246, 249.
20. Henry Francis Sturdy, “The Establishment of the Naval School at Annapolis,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, April 1946, pp. 10-11.
21. George Bancroft to William Marcy, 6 June 1845,
22. Letters Received by the Superintendent, 1845-87, U.S. Naval Academy Archives, Annapolis.
23. Edward L. Beach, The United States Navy: 200 Years (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1986), p. 194.
24. Stephen Howarth, To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775-1991 (New York: Random House, 1991), pp. 157-58. Howarth does not mention that Bancroft received Marcy’s permission prior to transferring the fort. Howarth’s account gives the impression that Bancroft simply transferred the fort on his own initiative. The documentary evidence cited above proves that this was not the case. “George Bancroft to Franklin Buchanan, 7 August 1845, printed in Soley, pp. 51-54.
25. Franklin Buchanan, “Plan for a Naval School at Annapolis,” attached to Franklin Buchanan to George Bancroft, 14 August 1845, Franklin Buchanan Letter- book, Special Collections, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis.
26. Franklin Buchanan to George Bancroft, 13 October 1845, Franklin Buchanan Letterbook.
27. Crane and Kieley, p. 20.
28. K. Jack Bauer, “George Bancroft," in American Secretaries of Navy, ed. Paolo E. Coletta (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1980), vol. 1, p. 221.
29. John B. Hattendorf, B. Mitchell Simpson III, and John R. Wadleigh, Sailors and Scholars: The Centennial History of the U.S. Naval War College (Newport, R.I.: Naval War College Press, 1984), p. 5.