The United States Naval Academy is and was located in Annapolis, Md., and that posed a problem with the advent of the Civil War in 1861.
Maryland, a border state with many Southern sympathizers, was plausibly within striking distance of Confederate forces. To protect and continue the Naval Academy, the U.S. Navy moved it from Annapolis to Newport, R.I., for the duration of the Civil War.
Though the Naval Academy only spent four years in Newport, its presence would have a lasting impact on the city. One of the academy’s instructors noted the advantages of Narragansett Bay while there, and he later established the Naval War College in Newport.
The U.S. Naval Academy had existed for only about 15 years when the Civil War broke out. It was the brainchild of George Bancroft, a historian and statesman appointed Secretary of the Navy in 1845. While serving in that post, he saw the need for training naval officers and founded the U.S. Naval Academy.
The academy began classes on Oct. 10, 1845 in Annapolis with Commander Franklin Buchanan as its first superintendent. It had seven professors and 50 midshipmen. Interestingly enough, that same Buchanan resigned his commission when the Civil War started, and he went on to command the Confederate Naval Force at Mobile, Ala.
On a brighter note, Bancroft must have been delighted to see the Naval Academy move to Newport even temporarily. Since 1852 he had spent his summers at Rose Cliff, literally down the street on Bellevue Avenue from the newly transferred school. A mansion called Rosecliff replaced Bancroft’s cottage, and the movie The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford, was filmed there.
Capt. George S. Blake, the Academy’s superintendent, made the decision to move the Naval Academy to a northern site. Not only did he have concerns about the safety of his staff and officer candidates, he knew the Academy’s training ship was a tempting target for the Confederates. For the Naval Academy had been using as a training vessel the most famous ship in the Navy – Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution.
Just weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter, the midshipmen and the academy staff packed up lock, stock and barrel. Then 130 midshipmen boarded Old Ironsides and were towed to safety in New York by the steamer Baltic.
They arrived in Newport Harbor by May 8, 1861. The townspeople gave a warm musical welcome to Superintendent Blake, his staff and the student body. Fort Adams gave Old Ironsides a 24-gun salute as she sailed past, and she returned their salute.
The Ladies of Newport
John C. Pegram was a midshipman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis when they packed up Old Ironsides and sailed north. Pegram wrote about his experience in a book, Recollections of the U.S. Naval Academy.
According to his account, they passed Beavertail in Jamestown and then arrived at their destination: Fort Adams. A flotilla of people in small boats met them.
Captain George Rodgers, aboard the Constitution, recognized one older man and two young ladies. He hailed them saying, “How are the ladies of Newport?” To which the man in the small boat replied,” The ladies are for the union, to a man.”
Once they moved into Fort Adams, the midshipmen conducted a dress parade each morning on the parade ground. That attracted many onlookers. Old Ironsides also attracted considerable attention. So much so that the onlookers developed into an annoying distraction to the students who took classes on her gun decks. They especially annoyed the plebes – the youngest class — who slept aboard the old ship.
The onlookers weren’t the worst of it. As Midshipman Park Benjamin, a member of the class of 1867, wrote,
Nothing could be more desolate to the plebe whose first experience brought him to these school ships. During the day he sat and studied at one of the desks, long rows of which extended up and down the gun deck, and occasionally marched ashore to the windy recitation rooms, where he contracted bad colds along with a knowledge of arithmetic. The commissary department was always more or less out of gear, and the meals eaten in the blackness of the birth deck by the light of a few ill smelling oil lamps were wretched.
Fort Adams itself proved such a dark and dank environment that the staff and midshipmen soon started moving to homes scattered about the city. As a result, the Naval Academy negotiated to lease the state-of-the-art Atlantic House Hotel at the corner of Pelham Street and Bellevue Avenue.
Move to Luxury
The move must have been a godsend. Pegram described it as a move into luxury. Two men to a room, iron framed beds, bureaus, a table and two chairs. A far cry from sleeping in hammocks aboard the ship. They moved in their books, instruments and arms. Their campus boundaries were Touro Park and the surrounding streets, a small world.
Each day they marched to open fields on the outskirts of Newport to conduct their parade marches. Pegram said it was not uncommon for the city’s people to see midshipmen doing a double-quick pace down Bellevue Avenue back to their hotel residence.
In October 1862, the USS Santee arrived in Newport to serve as a working school for the academy. And later still, the Navy assigned the schooner/yacht America to Newport as a training vessel.
At the conclusion of the Civil War and after four years in Newport, the Naval Academy moved back to its original home in Annapolis, Md., on Aug. 9, 1865.
One man by the name of Stephen B. Luce had arrived in Newport in January 1862. A lieutenant commander, he received an appointment as head of the Department of Seamanship. Luce became well acquainted with Newport and its harbor.
In 1881, Luce, then a commodore, returned to Newport to command the Navy Training Squadron. Having seen the advantages of Narragansett Bay, he was instrumental in establishing the Newport Naval Training Center. Then in 1884, he founded the Naval War College and served as its first president.
Today, Newport remains a major facility for training and the home of the Naval War College, where naval officers come from all over the world for advanced education.
The Atlantic House Hotel was torn down in 1877 and the Parkgate Building was constructed in its place. The Parkgate today has a plaque commemorating the Naval Academy’s presence in Newport.
Leo Caisse, the author of this story about the Naval Academy’s move from Annapolis, passed away in 2020. He had published The Civilian Conservation Corps: A Guide to Their Works in Rhode Island. He also published a number of historical articles, including Ears On the World in America in World War II Magazine, October, 2017. Leo earned a B.A. and M.A. in American History from Providence College and he lived in East Providence, R.I.
This story was updated in 2021.