Where Naval Tradition Lives

By Eric Mills

The history-motivated traveler, then, finds a superabundance of riches in Annapolis. It can't be done in a day. Fortunately, it is a town that realizes its rich past is a large part of its present allure, and it is exceedingly accommodating to the tourist who seeks the gleanings of yesteryear. With tercentenary celebrations going on throughout 2008, now is an optimum time to pay a visit.

How Annapolis Came to Be

While 1708 is the magic year being toasted in 2008 (just as it was with great fanfare in 1908, as depicted on the cover of this issue), the roots of Annapolis run even deeper. Expatriate Virginia tobacco farmers established the original settlement on the Severn in 1649; they called it Providence. After pulling up stakes and moving across the river to a better harbor spot, they renamed the fresh location a couple of times before settling on Anne Arundel's Towne, in honor of Lord Baltimore's wife. In 1694 Maryland Governor Sir Thomas Nicholson decided to move the colonial capital here from the less centrally located original capital of St. Mary's City. In honor of Princess (soon-to-be Queen) Anne, Nicholson redubbed the new capital "Anne's City," in classical fashion, that is: Annapolis.

In 1708 Governor John Seymour, exercising his authority as royal representative, granted Annapolis its charter in the name of the queen. There weren't many such officially incorporated towns or cities in colonial America at the time. In addition to that, the new municipal charter called for an elected city council. In colonial Maryland, governed from above by nonelected officials (even down to the county level), it was a milestone, marking the birth of representative government at the grassroots level.

Annapolis prospered through the 18th century, a hub for politics, mercantilism, and fashion. The bewigged literary gents of the (in)famous Tuesday Club defined elegant debauchery, 1700s-style. Ropecording, sailmaking, and seafood harvesting, in addition to exports-imports, thrived. The karmic stain on this early golden age was a flourishing slave trade, for which the Annapolis City Council offered an official retroactive apology in 2007. At the epicenter of the City Dock area, the Kunta Kinte—Alex Haley Memorial offers a reminder of this remorseful chapter. The bronze statue grouping depicts the Roots author reading to children along the water's edge, where Haley's bestseller describes the arrival of Kunta Kinte from slave ship to auction block.

Where Ships Were Built

Long after the tobacco-export bubble burst, another early Annapolis economic mainstay, shipbuilding, continued to be a defining aspect of the town's identity into modern times. From Thomas Todd's original 1651 shipyard to the sleek Gemini catamarans crafted today, the Maryland capital has been a locus of shipbuilding renown. The presidential yacht Sequoia was built here, as were Coast Guard rumrunner-chasers of the Prohibition era, Navy PT boats of World War II, Navy minesweepers of the Korean War, Navy Nasty-class fast gunboats of the Vietnam War, and the classic Trumpy luxury yachts that are still coveted by well-heeled aficionados worldwide.

In the 18th century, the Ship Carpenter's Lot near City Dock was the shipbuilding nerve center of Annapolis, while other shipyards dotted the surrounding Chesapeake shorelines. On the West River, for example, Thomas Steward's shipyard engaged in Revolutionary nautical design—please note the capital "R." Steward was building gunboats to harass British warships when, in 1781, King George's marines launched a punitive raid, the only local land engagement of the Revolutionary War (see "Shipbuilding in South County,'" pages 20-21).

Annapolis had kicked off the Revolutionary years in enthusiastic fashion, staging a copycat "Boston Tea Party" of its own in 1774 as an act of sympatico solidarity with the Sons of Liberty shaking societal foundations up north. But the Annapolitans took it further. Whereas the Boston Tea Partyers had dumped the tea and spared the ship, their Annapolis imitators went all the way, burning the offending tea-carrying craft, the brigantine Peggy Stewart, to a crisp. Add to their greater destructiveness an equally greater brazenness, for while the Boston boys pillaged incognito, the Annapolis patriots who ordered the torching of the Peggy Stewart not only didn't hide their identities, they had their names listed proudly in the local paper.

But Annapolis' most important Revolutionary role actually came after the fighting ended. From 1783 to 1784, the city served as the capital of the newly born American republic. It was in the Maryland State House at Annapolis that the Continental Congress formally ratified the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the Revolutionary War. And it was here, on 23 December 1783, in a chamber still hallowed by the event, that a clearly emotional General George Washington stood before Congress and a capacity-filled audience gallery, eloquently tendering his resignation as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. "Having now finished the work assigned me," he said, "I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life."

All the employments of public life? Not so fast, general—I mean, Mr. President. . . .

The State House soon played host to another event of national significance: the Annapolis Convention of 1786, which James Madison summoned into being because the Articles of Confederation were failing to suffice as national glue. Attendance was sparse, as delegates from only five states showed up. But the outcome was to have profound historic significance. From it arose a report, drafted by attendee Alexander Hamilton, invoking delegates to meet in Philadelphia in 1787. They did, of course, and came up with something called the U.S. Constitution.

When the Navy Came to Town

After the epochal post-Revolutionary period, Annapolis quietly dozed off, as one historian put it, "in genteel eclipse." But it was roused from its suspended animation in 1845, the year the Navy came to town.

Originally, the sea service's answer to West Point was just called the Naval School. Fort Severn, which housed the school, had been built in 1808. Its high surrounding wall, so it was said, had made it a desirable location, not so much for keeping anyone out but for keeping high-spirited young blades in. Navy Secretary George Bancroft appointed Commander Franklin Buchanan as first superintendent of the school. Buchanan, the Marylander destined later to become the highest-ranking officer in the Confederate States Navy, had much to do with shaping the school, which became known as the U.S. Naval Academy in 1850.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, as Maryland lay along the fault line of a nation being ripped in two, midshipmen at the Naval Academy were learning the ropes on as famous a training vessel as a young American could ask for—"Old Ironsides" herself, the USS Constitution . The problem was that Southern sentiments ran high in the surrounding area. The threat of Maryland secessionists to the Naval Academy was imminent. If the state ended up casting its lot with Dixie—and in the spring of 1861, that was a strongly feared possibility—Confederate sympathizers would be bound to try to take the strategically situated campus and to capture the Constitution. To commandeer Old Ironsides would be both a tactical and a highly symbolic coup.

Thus, on 20 April 1861, one day after massive Baltimore unrest resulted in the ripping up of all the rail lines linking Washington to the Northern states, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wired the Naval Academy: "Defend the Constitution at all hazards. If this cannot be done, destroy her." (All hail the unintended double-entendre.) At just this perilous moment, the Constitution was aground at her moorings, needful of a towing into the wider bay, away from the threat of riverside troublemakers. She had firepower, but no mobility.

Late that night, a steamer hove to off Annapolis. The Academy officers braced for an attack from Baltimore Rebels down to seize the naval grounds. General quarters was sounded on the Constitution, and her four 32-pounders were run out at the stern. Gunnery crews manned battle stations.

But it was friend, not foe: the ferryboat Maryland, down from the head of the Chesapeake with Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler and more than 700 tightly crowded men of the 8th Massachusetts Volunteers. Butler's regiment had traveled by train as far as Philadelphia before finding the route to Washington thwarted by Rebel-destroyed rails. Butler's troops had marched to the mouth of the Susquehanna River, squeezed aboard the steamer, and headed down the Chesapeake, reaching Annapolis by midnight.

According to an apocryphal account too good not to be true, a teary-eyed Academy Superintendent Captain George S. Blake supposedly hailed General Butler: "Thank God! Thank God! Won't you save the Constitution?"

The lawyer-turned-general, thinking Blake was referring to the document not the ship, said, "Yes, that is just what I am here for."

The venerable fighting frigate was towed free, and four days later, on 24 April 1861, the Naval Academy midshipmen from states still true to the Union boarded the Constitution and shipped out of the Chesapeake; the Academy was moving to Newport, Rhode Island, for the duration of the war.

Sailors left, and Soldiers took their place. In the Civil War's Eastern theater, Annapolis became the main center for receiving released Federal prisoners of war, exchanged or paroled from Confederate POW camps and brought to the Naval Academy wharf in increasing numbers as the battles grew larger and the war dragged on. Wounded, starved to the extreme of skeletal emaciation, maimed, dying, they arrived as many as 6,000 at a time. An Army surgeon on site reported, "I only generalize them when I say their external appearance was wretched in the extreme."

The Naval Academy grounds became covered with long rows of hospital buildings; this was USA General Hospital, Division Number 1. Adjacent to the Academy, the campus green of old St. John's College was transformed into a sea of tents and barracks; USA General Hospital, Division Number 2. Three miles west of Annapolis, a camp was established to process paroled Soldiers awaiting back pay, recuperating from prison-camp life but not needing serious medical attention. It was called Camp Parole, and this section of the Annapolis outskirts is known to this day as Parole.

When the war ended, Annapolis erupted into a jubilant street party from the State House to the City Dock. The brass bands of the Army hospitals belted forth in song. The Army soon evacuated, and the Naval Academy returned by October 1865.

It has never again been ordered to relocate, and through the years it has imbued its host city's name with an inseparable naval connotation. To ears far and wide, "Annapolis" means Navy as "West Point" means Army. Academy lore and mystique have accrued to dynamic degrees over time. The arrival with great fanfare of the remains of John Paul Jones here in 1906 solidified the campus as the nerve center of Navy tradition.

What Visitors Need to Know

Visiting Annapolis with the intention of delving into history creates a pleasant dilemma: There's so much to take in, where do you begin? Since 2006, the answer has been easy: The St. Clair Wright Center's HistoryQuest, located near City Dock at Main and Green streets, admirably lives up to its goal of being "History Tour Central." Several independent guided-tour outfits provide historically themed packages. Capital City Colonials, for example, offers everything from a condensed one-hour tour of the main historic sites to a popular new "food-and-history tour." Guides in authentic colonial garb are chock full of informational minutiae, local lore, and wit. Anyone who has walked the streets of Annapolis will recognize them as a familiar sight. There's also Discover Annapolis, which runs the quaint tour trolleys wending their way through downtown streets. Watermark, meanwhile, offers both costumed walking tours as well as boat excursions.

The beauty of HistoryQuest is that you can shop among almost all of these options at one convenient orientation hub. A HistoryQuest staffer can help you pick the right tour for you, depending on your specific area of interest, be it architectural history, African-American history, colonial history, or what have you. In addition, the facility houses worthwhile introductory exhibits, artifacts, and multi-media presentations to get you started. Run by the Historic Annapolis Foundation, HistoryQuest is an ideal first stop.

For the Naval History reader, first and foremost on the itinerary, of course, is the Naval Academy. As this is one of the essential pilgrimages for anybody who travels in search of sea history, it should be considered a separate tour in and of itself, regardless of what other downtown exploring you do. You can arrange a guided tour of the Academy at HistoryQuest, or for this leg of your Annapolis expedition, you can simply make for the Academy's Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center, located inside Gate 1, which runs its own tours. (Bear in mind that, post-9/11, to get on the Yard you'll need a photo ID if you're over 16, no vehicles are allowed through the gates without Department of Defense decals, and the driver must present an official military, staff, or faculty ID.)

The 75-minute guided tour takes in the requisite Naval Academy must-sees, foremost among them being the awe-inspiring crypt of John Paul Jones. Words in marble on the floor before the sarcophagus say it all: "He gave our Navy its earliest traditions of heroism and victory." Jones' resting place is beneath the Naval Academy Chapel, the interior of which is breathtaking in its scale, rising loftily to what seems like Heaven itself—it's enough to make even Christopher Hitchens feel religious. You'll also see the rotunda of massive Bancroft Hall, the world's largest dormitory. Also open to the pubic in Bancroft is Memorial Hall (site of the 2007 Annapolis Peace Conference), with its roll call of Naval Academy war dead and Medal of Honor recipients. Encased in glass here is a replica (the original is under restoration) of Oliver Hazard Perry's iconic "Dont Give Up the Ship" flag from the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie—perhaps the closest thing to a sacred relic in the U.S. Navy. Beneath it is the Memorial Hall dedication plaque: "to the honor of those alumni who have been killed in action defending the ideals of their country. . . . They silently stand watch wherever Navy ships ply the waters of the globe."

While the guided tours cover such essential Academy sights, the Yard is filled with fascinating artifacts that help to tell the Navy story, a monument here, a cannon there, a ship's bell here, a statue there. The true naval history buff will want to take the time to branch off and see them all, with A Walk in the Yard: A Self-Guided Tour of the U.S. Naval Academy , by Taylor Baldwin Kiland and Jamie Howren, in hand. It's the best possible bring-along for such an excursion, and it's published by a most reputable house, a certain Yard resident known as the Naval Institute Press.

The only drawback to an Annapolis visit in 2008 is that, while it comes during the city's tricentennial year, it also comes at a time when the great Naval Academy Museum, located in Preble Hall, is closed for an extensive $17 million renovation. The museum shut its doors in December 2007 for an 18-month overhaul. It will be worth a return to Annapolis to see its grand reopening.

Beyond the Naval Academy gates, more sites abound for the American history devotee. Again unfortunately for visitors in 2008, the State House, including the Old Senate Chamber, the scene of Washington's resignation speech, is closing for nine months of restoration and preservation work after the legislative session closes in April. An interpretive exhibit on the history of the building, including several artifacts, will be on display in the House Office Building across the street from the State House until the work is done. Even if you're unable to get inside, a stroll around the exterior grounds of the State House is worthwhile.

Four Signers' Homes

Maryland had four Signers of the Declaration of Independence: William Paca (pronounced PAY-ca), Samuel Chase, Charles Carroll, and Thomas Stone (generations of Maryland school kids have memorized the quartet by way of the incantation, "Paca Chased Carroll with a Stone"). All of the Maryland signers' homes are extant and in the state capital city. Three of the four—the Charles Carroll House, the Chase-Lloyd House, and the William Paca House and Garden—are open to the public to one degree or another. For historical aura alone, they're of great interest; architecturally, they are exquisite marvels as well. Stone's residence, the Peggy Stewart House, is privately owned, but a tour guide can still point it out to you.

If the 18th-century grandeur of the Paca House and Carroll House grab you, then the 1774 Hammond-Harwood House also is highly recommended. It is one of the most popular colonial sites in Annapolis, ingeniously and elegantly designed, and a beautiful step back in time.

The nautically minded will find the relatively new Annapolis Maritime Museum of interest. Located across the drawbridge from City Dock in Eastport (the residents of which declared themselves a maritime republic when the bridge was closed for repairs a few years back), the museum interprets local shipbuilding and seafood-industry history, and is the embarkation point for boat tours to the historic Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. (See "Museum Report," p. 72.) Staffed by a dedicated crew, small but growing, the Annapolis Maritime Museum is a welcome addition to the local history scene.

While in Eastport, the self-guided Eastport walking tour is a nice way to immerse yourself in the aforementioned thriving shipbuilding legacy of the area. The walk takes in the former locations of three of the most historically significant 20th-century boatyards on the East Coast, where Navy contract vessels and elegant yachts came into being for more than half a century.

Entire books could be and have been written about the seemingly endless historic sites crammed into Annapolis. In scratching the surface here, we have indicated a few salient reasons why to visit—in terms of when to visit, what better time than when the city is in the midst of a year-long 300th birthday party?

Mr. Mills, director of Media Relations at Washington College, is the author of Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War (Cornell Maritime Press, 1996), Chesapeake Rumrunners of the Roaring Twenties (Cornell Maritime Press, 2000), and, forthcoming from the Naval Institute Press, The Spectral Tide: Great True Ghost Stories of the U.S. Navy .

Shipbuilding in 'South County'

By Lyman Hall

A property just off Muddy Creek Road not far south of Annapolis, in what locals call "South County," is a former shipyard attacked by British marines in the Revolutionary War, and remnants of it are still there. A young Scotsman, Stephen Steward, purchased the parcel in 1751. By the time the American Revolution began, Steward had established himself as a premiere shipwright, producing quality oceangoing merchant ships.

The newly formed Annapolis Council of Safety's first priority was the protection of the Chesapeake Bay. The council selected Steward as an agent and sent him to Philadelphia to review construction of ships being built for the defense of the Delaware River and to make subsequent recommendations to the council. He returned not only with recommendations, but also presented plans for two major vessels. One was called the Mashen, a barge that would be anchored at the mouth of the Severn River to protect Annapolis. The floating sentinel was to be 108 feet long by 32 feet wide, drawing 5 ½ tons, and outfitted with 20 18-pounder cannon. But the council never approved the design.

Steward's second plans were for construction of a warship designed to operate in the bay. While these plans were approved and contracts awarded to several shipwrights, a description of Steward's warship has never been recovered. However, based on the ships he was building at the time, it was likely a galley gunboat adapted for the bay. Steward also built two large warships, the Johnson and the Conqueror, both over 100 feet on the deck.

Steward's Shipyard became the Maryland State Colonial Shipyard, where he built warships, converted merchant ships, surveyed captured warships, supplied captains and crew members, purchased food, and stocked ships. Expeditions were planned and put into operation from the yard. One source even shows Steward as captain of Maryland's ship, the Defense. He also served as a courier and in one case ran the British blockade, transporting money to patriot John Hancock. Steward was appointed medical procurement officer by the Annapolis Council of Safety, and he was one of the first elected delegates from the state's Anne Arundel County.
On 31 March 1781, 100 British marines attacked and burned the shipyard, the only battle to take place in the county during the Revolutionary War. The yard survived the attack and was still in operation at the end of the war.

Among Stephen Steward's greatest achievements was passing on his patriotism to his children. His oldest son, John, joined the Maryland Independent Army in February 1776 and fought his way from the Battle of Long Island—one of the Maryland 400 to survive that engagement—to the Battle of Yorktown.

Steward's daughter, Elizabeth, married a local boy named Fredrick Skinner, and the couple had two sons, Henry and John. The latter served with Joshua Barney and became known as "Maryland's Paul Revere" after riding his horse from St. Leonard's Creek to warn President James Madison that the British were coming. He also accompanied Francis Scott Key to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, who was being held prisoner by the British. After the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, it was Skinner whom Francis Scott Key first showed his work known today as "The Star Spangled Banner." Documentation also exists that he was the one who had it published. 

In 1810 Captain William Norman purchased the remnants of the Steward shipyard. Using the old shipyard as his home base, Norman led the West River Militia against the British at the Battle of Kirby's Mill, the only battle in the War of 1812 to take place in southern Anne Arundel County. Thus, the property today is known as Norman's Retreat.

Mr. Hall is the current owner of Norman's Retreat and is writing a book on the history of the property.


Annapolis Alive! Celebrating Three Amazing Centuries

Special events have been ongoing for the past few months and are continuing. Some upcoming highlights include:

• CharterFest, featuring a maritime heritage festival, a regatta, street festivities, and the National Town Crier Competition—1-4 May
• Memorial Day Parade, honoring three centuries of veterans' service—26 May
• "Looking Back, Planning Ahead," a public symposium at St. John's College with international history scholars examining Annapolis' past and the significance of the Annapolis Charter—6-7 June
• Annapolis Alive! Independence Day, with a naturalization ceremony for 50 new U.S. citizens at the home of Declaration signer William Paca, which will also host a public Independence Day celebration that includes a Revolutionary War reenactment in the William Paca Garden; a 4th of July parade down West and Main streets to City Dock; a concert by the U.S. Naval Academy Band, followed by fireworks; patriotic crafts and games at HistoryQuest; and more—all on, you guessed it, 4 July
• And all summer long, visits from historic vessels at City Dock: sail training vessels, historical craft, modern naval and maritime ships—open for tours.

Check in frequently at www.annapolisalive.org/calendar for continually updated information on these events.

To the naval history enthusiast, Annapolis is one of the key places in America to visit, and revisit; if you haven't done so in a while, this celebratory year is a good time to chart a course for here again.
—Eric Mills


When You Visit

Even the most ardent Annapolitan civic booster will admit (with extra cursing optional) that the main bane to visiting this fair city is the parking situation, which can be pretty rough on a busy weekend. If your lodgings are downtown, then you are in luck and in walking distance of the main points of interest. If you are visiting by car, you can cruise for street parking, but your best bet is the Noah Hillman Parking Garage, with entrances at Duke of Gloucester and Gorman streets. Securing a space here puts you within a stone's throw of HistoryQuest (your best starting point) and within shoe-leather proximity of all downtown attractions. Call 410-263-9583.
Following is detailed contact information for specific sites discussed in the article:

99 Main Street
Phone: 410-267-8146
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.annapolis.org
Hours: Call for information

U.S. Naval Academy Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center
52 King George Street (inside Gate 1)
Phone: 410-263-6983
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.navyonline.com
Hours: March to Dec., 0900-1700; Jan. to Feb., 0900-1600, closed major holidays

State House Visitors Center
State Circle
Phone: 410-974-3400
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.msa.md.gov/msa/homepage/html/statehse.html
Hours: Interior closed nine months for renovation/restoration
Charles Carroll House
107 Duke of Gloucester Street
Phone: 410-269-1737
Web site: www.charlescarrollhouse.com
Hours: June to Oct.: Sat., 1000-1400, Sun., 1200-1600

Chase-Lloyd House
22 Maryland Avenue
Hours: Mon.-Sat.: 1400-1600; closed Jan. & Feb.; closed holidays

William Paca House and Garden
186 Prince George Street
Phone: 410-267-7619
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.annapolis.org
Hours: Apr. to Dec.: Mon.-Sat., 1000-1700, Sun., 1200-1700; Jan. to Mar.: Fri. & Sat., 1000-1700, Sun., 1200-1700

Hammond-Harwood House
19 Maryland Avenue
Phone: 410-263-4683
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.hammondharwoodhouse.org
Hours: 1 Apr. to 1 Oct.: Tues.-Sun., 1200-1700., last tour at 1600; 1 Nov. to 31 Mar., open for special events and group and school tours

Annapolis Maritime Museum
723 Second Street & Creek View Drive on Back Creek, Eastport
Phone: 410-295-0104
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.annapolismaritimemuseum.org
Hours: Sat., 1200-1600, Sun., 1300-1600


Eric Mills is the author of Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War and Chesapeake Rumrunners of the Roaring Twenties. His articles have appeared in Naval History, Proceedings, Chesapeake Bay Magazine, and other publications. He lives near Easton, MD.

More by this Author

The Spectral Tide
As Seen on "GHOST HUNTERS" on the Scy Fy Channel   Now, for the first time, comes a... Read More

Events and Conferences

Speaking Engagement & Signing
7:00pm, Read More
Book Signing
Noon-2:00pm, USNA Visitor Read More
Speaking Engagement & Signing
Noon, Read More
Speaking Engagement & Signing
6:00pm, "After Hours History," Hampton Roads Naval Museum, Waterside, Norfolk, VA Read More


Conferences and Events

WEST 2019

Wed, 2019-02-13 - Fri, 2019-02-15

Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally? Wednesday, 13 February - Friday, 15 February...

2019 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

23 January - Book Talk

Wed, 2019-01-23

9 February - Presentation

Sat, 2019-02-09

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership