Editor’s note: This article is drawn from the authors’ new Naval Institute Press book, The Herndon Climb, which tells the story of the Naval Academy’s iconic tradition and what it has meant to many of the USNA classes.
It stands silently, an unyielding sentry, one of the oldest monuments on a campus that is rich in history and not poor in monuments.
It predates nearly every other structure on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy. It survived the Civil War and did its part in the battle on the home front in every other conflict since then, any time the Navy has gone into action. It stands ready, to this day, bearing no scars and no signs of weakening despite its extraordinary length of distinguished service.
The locals refer to it by that simple one-word designation, and they all know it. Any sort of official title beyond that has largely been forgotten, buried in dusty piles of old campus maps and well-thumbed but long-retired copies of midshipman handbooks. Civilians and tourists immediately identify themselves as such if they should refer to it as “the Herndon Monument” or inquire of anyone within a forty-mile radius of Annapolis where it might be found.
The name of Herndon hardly towers over the pages of American history and Navy lore in the manner of a Jones or Bancroft or Nimitz or McCain. Outside of Academy circles and the city of Annapolis, it is not a household name, even in many Navy homes. But Herndon, the monument, stands because of the bravery and sacrifice of Herndon, the man.
William Lewis Herndon was a man who earned his monument, as surely as the others. He commanded a warship, the USS Iris, assisting in the blockade of the coast of Mexico during the Mexican-American War; but his Navy career is primarily distinguished by his unique contributions as an explorer, scientist, writer, and extraordinarily able seaman. He virtually defined the concept of honor, in a bold sacrifice, while serving as captain of a merchant vessel that went to the bottom of the sea, a victim of a merciless Atlantic storm.
Herndon, the monument, stands in front of the Chapel and its spectacular, iconic dome and adjacent to the famous bandstand named for George Zimmerman, the Academy’s first and longest-serving bandmaster. The monument itself is a simple granite obelisk, much shorter than the Washington Monument, but similar in shape and design. Two sides are marked, in raised lettering, with “HERNDON” on one side and “September 12, 1857” on the opposite, stark and modest reminders of Commander Herndon and the date of his loss. The other two sides of the monument are perfectly smooth.
Twenty-one feet of sheer-sided granite might be as lost as a needle among the Academy’s haystack of offerings of architectural delight, vastness, artistic whimsy, and sheer size. But with a prominent and central location, standing apart but not isolated from the other grand buildings that don’t quite surround it, but rather are designed around it, that needle marks the spot where the Academy begins. A humble structure, but tall and strong, carved out of granite, named for a man whose name is synonymous with courage to those who know his story, the monument to William Lewis Herndon represents the values of the mission of the United States Navy.
But what gives this particular monument its special, iconic status?
One day, a second-year midshipman looked at it and said, “I have an idea! Let’s make the plebes climb it and put a cover on top!”
“That’s a great idea!” an overeager classmate exclaimed. “But first, let’s cover it with grease!”
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The annual ritual of the Herndon Climb, which has changed little in recent decades, arises from a progression of various earlier customs, all involving newly liberated plebes celebrating the end of the academic year and all centering around the monument, contributing to its special place in Annapolis lore and its own unique history.
In our book, we try to tell the story of Herndon, shared by the men and women, midshipmen, and their families whose lives were touched by Herndon, the man, the monument, and the Climb.
As a spectator sport, the annual Herndon Climb offers all the excitement of a clash on the gridiron or in the boxing ring, with the added benefit of seeing, at the end of the contest, that everyone emerges a winner. The participants themselves, those young men and women battling the final challenge at the end of a year full of them, experience nothing less than a life-changing event. What may happen throughout those lives, no one can say, and only time will tell; but one thing they will have in common is that the Climb is a pivot point in all of them.
If you have never watched a Herndon Climb in its entirety, we highly recommend the experience, and we expect that this book will convince you to seek it out. Video recordings of modern Climbs are readily available, but nothing beats attending the event in person. You don’t even need a ticket! But, be forewarned, early birds get the best viewing spaces, and they tend to arrive at first muster. But if you can’t make the trip to Annapolis during Commissioning Week, a live video feed is available online, and it’s the next-best thing to being there. If you’re not a former midshipman but you’ve seen the Climb or have some familiarity with it, reading our book will deepen your understanding of the profound significance of the ritual and show you just how widely held are the shared memories of overcoming that seemingly impossible challenge.
If you have experienced a Climb for yourself, along with your plebe class, recently or decades ago, we hope our book will help you relive some of the excitement of it, without all the sweat and grease and people standing on your shoulders.