Every spring, crowds gather in front of the U.S. Naval Academy chapel to watch members of that academic year’s plebe class attempt to climb a 21-foot-tall gray granite obelisk that upperclassmen had slathered in lard. Known as the “plebes-no-more” ceremony, fourth-class midshipmen symbolically end their rigorous first year by successfully scaling the column to replace a plebe “dixie-cup” cap with a “combination cover” at the pyramidal top. Academy lore has it that the individual who makes the switch—while standing on the clustered bodies of his or her classmates—will be the first in the class to achieve flag rank.
It is a festive occasion that never fails to draw large throngs of spectators and media who come to see how long it will take this latest class to make the switch—sometimes minutes, sometimes hours. It is largely seen as a form of college high jinks and a chance to let off some steam—in other words, just plain fun.
But—lest we forget—the stone monument that serves as the centerpiece of this fun also serves as a reminder of a great tragedy and memorializes one of the values at the heart of the Academy’s seagoing traditions—the responsibility that accompanies the authority of command.
On 7 September 1857, the commercial mail steamer SS Central America departed Havana, Cuba, with nearly 600 passengers and crew embarked and 15 tons of gold in her hold. Although privately owned she was under government contract to move gold from California to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia and was commanded by an American naval officer.
William L. Herndon had been in the Navy since 1828, serving in a variety of assignments, including command of an exploring expedition up the Amazon River and a brig during the Mexican-American War. He had been the Central America’s captain for two years when the side-wheel steamer began this fateful voyage.
Two days out, the ship was caught in the throes of a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas. Winds above 100 miles per hour tore at the ship, shredding her sails and driving water into her hull until her boiler lost fires. With no means of propulsion and her pumps no longer able to function, the ship began to founder. Despite the chaos and impending danger, Herndon remained calm and in command in the finest sense of the word. He was able to transfer most of the women and children to a West Indian brig that came to the doomed ship’s aid, but there was not enough room for the entire contingent of passengers and crew, and more than 400 souls were ultimately lost.
In sharp contrast to some more recent tragedies at sea, survivors reported seeing Herndon, dressed in full uniform, still at his post as the ship went down.
It was described at the time as the worst American maritime disaster, owing not only to the terrible loss of life but to the lost gold—valued at more than $50 million in today’s currency—which significantly contributed to the economic “Panic of 1857.”
But despite the tragedy, Commander Herndon’s comportment in the face of mortal danger was remembered as an inspirational example of devotion to duty. As a result, two Navy ships and towns in both Virginia and Pennsylvania were named for him. But perhaps most fitting of all is the “Herndon Monument” at the Naval Academy that each year challenges a fresh group of young Americans to scale its slick sides as an early lesson in the importance of teamwork and the value of perseverance. Commander Herndon would likely be pleased.