When the founders of the United States Naval Academy were looking for a suitable location, it was reported that then Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft decided to move the naval school to “the healthy and secluded” location of Annapolis in order to rescue midshipmen from “the temptations and distractions that necessarily connect with a large and populous city.” The Philadelphia Naval Asylum School was its predecessor. Four of the original seven faculty members came from Philadelphia. Other small naval schools in New York City, Norfolk, Va., and Boston, Mass. also existed in the early days of the United States.
The United States Navy was born during the American Revolution when the need for a naval force to match the Royal Navy became clear. But during the period immediately following the Revolution, the Continental Navy was demobilized in 1785 by an economy-minded Congress.
The dormancy of American seapower lasted barely a decade when, in 1794, President George Washington persuaded the Congress to authorize a new naval force to combat the growing menace of piracy on the high seas.
The first vessels of the new U.S. Navy were launched in 1797; among them were the United States, the Constellation, and the Constitution. In 1825, President John Quincy Adams urged Congress to establish a Naval Academy “for the formation of scientific and accomplished officers.” His proposal, however, was not acted upon until 20 years later.
On September 13, 1842, the American Brig Somers set sail from the Brooklyn Navy Yard on one of the most significant cruises in American naval history. It was a school ship for the training of teenage naval apprentice volunteers who would hopefully be inspired to make the Navy a career.
However, discipline deteriorated on the Somers and it was determined by a court of inquiry aboard ship that Midshipman Philip Spencer and his two chief confederates, Boatswains Mate Samuel Cromwell and Seaman Elisha Small, were guilty of a “determined attempt to commit a mutiny.”
The three were hanged at the yardarm and the incident cast doubt over the wisdom of sending midshipmen directly aboard ship to learn by doing. News of the Somers mutiny shocked the country.
Through the efforts of the Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, the Naval School was established without Congressional funding, at a 10-acre Army post named Fort Severn in Annapolis, Maryland, on October 10, 1845, with a class of 50 midshipmen and seven professors. The curriculum included mathematics and navigation, gunnery and steam, chemistry, English, natural philosophy, and French.
In 1850 the Naval School became the United States Naval Academy. A new curriculum went into effect requiring midshipmen to study at the Academy for four years and to train aboard ships each summer. That format is the basis of a far more advanced and sophisticated curriculum at the Naval Academy today. As the U.S. Navy grew over the years, the Academy expanded. The campus of 10 acres increased to 338. The original student body of 50 midshipmen grew to a brigade size of 4,000. Modern granite buildings replaced the old wooden structures of Fort Severn.
Congress authorized the Naval Academy to begin awarding bachelor of science degrees in 1933. The Academy later replaced a fixed curriculum taken by all midshipmen with the present core curriculum plus 18 major fields of study, a wide variety of elective courses and advanced study and research opportunities.
Since then, the development of the United States Naval Academy has reflected the history of the country. As America has changed culturally and technologically so has the Naval Academy. In just a few decades, the Navy moved from a fleet of sail and steam-powered ships to a high-tech fleet with nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships and supersonic aircraft. The academy has changed, too, giving midshipmen state-of- the-art academic and professional training they need to be effective naval officers in their future careers.
The Naval Academy first accepted women as midshipmen in 1976, when Congress authorized the admission of women to all of the service academies. Women comprise over 20 percent of entering plebes –or freshmen– and they pursue the same academic and professional training as do their male classmates.