More than a Cram School: The Civilian Academics Who Founded the Naval Academy

By Commander BJ Armstrong ’99, USN

When graduates reflect on the founding of the Naval School at Annapolis, MD, the officers involved in its creation and the senior leadership who drove it through the halls of power in Washington, DC, tend to be the first figures  we remember. The Secretary of the Navy and the first Superintendent are the figures who immediately leap from the recesses of our minds, stocked with little details included in our Reef Points as plebes. We remember these men for their efforts in founding the institution at Fort Severn, but we should not overlook the fact that a significant portion of the staff that built the Naval Academy in the early years were civilians. They were academics who dedicated themselves to the education and improvement of the naval officer corps, scholars whom the officers relied on to understand the learning required on the banks of the Severn River. Professors William Chauvenet, Henry Lockwood, Arsene Girault and Navy Chaplain George Jones were the central figures in the academic founding of the school in Annapolis.

In 1845, just as it is today, the civilian scholars who dedicated their lives to developing midshipmen were the keel on which the new institution was built.

Higher education requires both consistency and a knowledge of pedagogy and method, or as military officers might understand it: the tactics, techniques and procedures of learning. Commander Franklin Buchanan and his Executive Officer Lieutenant James Ward (a position that was renamed Commandant in 1850) were accomplished officers. Buchanan had decades of service and command on his resume and a solid reputation in the fleet. Ward was one of those odd officers who managed to combine practical skill at sea with academic accomplishments of his own, having graduated from the military academy at Norwich, VT (modern day Norwich University) and completing a year of post-graduate work at Washington College (modern day Trinity College) in Hartford, CT.

Yet, because they were officers, it was clear that neither of them would spend more than a few years in Annapolis. After initial service setting up the school, both rotated to new orders, which eventually led to their disparate fates during the Civil War.

In order to maintain consistency and build an elite academic program, the officers who helped found the Naval Academy relied on a group of civilian academics who brought years of scholarly experience. Three civilian professors, Chauvenet, Lockwood and Girault, spent decades building the academic organization of the Naval Academy and chairing its earliest departments. Joined by Navy Chaplain and accomplished literary figure Jones, they laid the foundation of the elite liberal arts curriculum we know today.

At the age of 16, Chauvenet entered Yale College and graduated in 1840 with a developed interest in science and mathematics. Scholarship and academia drew him in, and his first position after Yale was as a research assistant to Professor Alexander Dallas Bache, who was doing groundbreaking research on magnetism in Philadelphia, PA. In the 1840s, the U.S. Navy occasionally hired civilians to go to sea and teach midshipmen on the larger frigates and ships of the line that deployed. Chauvenet obtained one of these billets and he went to sea aboard the steam frigate Mississippi in 1841. He quickly realized the Navy’s approach to education was inconsistent. He founded a voluntary school at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and developed a curriculum to prepare midshipmen for their lieutenants’ exams. The success of this school quickly brought him to the attention of George Bancroft, a historian and professor himself before President James K. Polk appointed him Secretary of the Navy. Chauvenet was the first member of the staff appointed to the new school in Annapolis.

Chauvenet took to his new position with dedication. He quickly identified that the two-year program the Navy wanted was insufficient and became the central figure in the development of the four-year curriculum. Leading the department of mathematics and navigation, he built an astronomical observatory to allow both instructors and midshipmen to conduct their own research and introduced an elite level of science to the Yard. As the historians Charles Lewis, Henry Sturdy and Louis Bolander wrote, “he probably did more than anyone to establish the Naval Academy on a firm scientific basis.” Today, the academic building named for him is the home of many of the departments in the school of mathematics and sciences.

Henry Hayes Lockwood came to the Naval Academy as a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy who fought in the Second Seminole War before he decided an Army uniform was not for him. Like Chauvenet, his first experience with the Navy came when he landed a billet as a “professor of mathematics” and went to sea aboard the frigate United States. He was quickly recognized for his talent in connecting with the midshipmen and encouraging their natural interests in learning. The Navy assigned him to the Philadelphia school Chauvenet founded, where he also met Ward, who was moonlighting as a gunnery instructor. Alongside his colleagues, he moved to Annapolis in 1845 to help build the new school.

Lockwood was made head of the department of natural philosophy, a 19th-century name for what today we call physics, chemistry and the hard sciences. Because of his experience in the Army, Lockwood also developed the first military drill program at Annapolis, helping Ward with the military training of the prospective officers. He sailed with the Academy’s training cruises and gave practical physics lessons while teaching gunnery. Despite a brief leave of absence during the Civil War, where he served as a brigadier general in the U.S. Army and commanded a brigade at Gettysburg, he spent more than 26 years in Annapolis building the institution’s academic program and teaching midshipmen.

Sciences and the mathematics of navigation were fundamental to the preparation of the naval officer in the 1840s, just as they are today. However, the future officers also needed to understand the human world as well as the scientific. In order to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the officers of other navies, Americans would have to match the same deep knowledge and cosmopolitanism that aristocratic officers of other nations demonstrated in their diplomatic and economic missions. The study of history, literature and foreign languages was central to the liberal arts curriculum in Annapolis.

A key figure in this effort was Arsene Girault.

A French immigrant who had become an American citizen and an accomplished language tutor, he taught first at a private military school outside Philadelphia and wrote textbooks and biographies. He joined the staff in Annapolis in 1845 and became chair of the department of modern languages.

Girault brought a worldliness to the Yard and added to the scholarly outlook of the faculty. His impact was felt immediately. Only a month after the opening of the first classes, the Superintendent wrote to Secretary Bancroft of Girault’s “energy, zeal and talent” and how the midshipmen were already benefiting from his mentorship. He helped introduce French and Spanish, as well as the study of history, to the curriculum, and he served in his position until he retired when he was 64-years-old.

George Jones joined Girault in bringing a liberal arts balance to the Naval Academy curriculum in its early years. Jones was a graduate of Yale College, and continued his studies there to earn a master’s degree and taught at a private school for two years. Looking for something more adventurous, Jones signed on as Commodore Charles Morris’s secretary for a deployment aboard the frigate Brandywine and discovered a love of the sea and the Navy.

After returning from the cruise, he published a well-received book about his experience entitled Sketches of Naval Life. He moved back and forth between working in education and making deployments with the Navy as a chaplain. This dual expertise led him to write an article for The Naval Magazine in the 1830s calling for the establishment of a Naval Academy. In the summer of 1845, he received orders to join Chauvenet, Lockwood and Girault in building the course of study in Annapolis. Jones was named head of the department of English studies, which taught literature and history to the midshipmen, and later he was given orders to formally serve as the Academy’s Chaplain. 

The naval officers who helped found the Naval Academy were central figures to getting the school up and running, but they were only half of the team. Buchanan, Ward and Passed Midshipman Samuel Marcy, who served as Ward’s right-hand man, were certainly important, but they were also officers who left Annapolis for sea duty and other responsibilities. The civilian academic staff provided consistency and the deep knowledge of education that continues to be the bedrock of the Naval Academy’s mission. Today, just as in 1845, the Naval Academy boasts an accomplished civilian faculty. These men and women lead their fields of study nationally and dedicate their careers to the development of the future of the Navy. This is unlike the other service academies, where officers predominate, and it brings a level of research and scholarship to the Yard which is a great benefit for the development of future officers. To continue to do this, these scholars appreciate the Naval Academy community’s support for their research and their continued improvement of the education offered in Annapolis. The civilian faculty is part of what makes the Naval Academy unique among the service academies. In this anniversary year, we commemorate the legacy of Chauvenet, Lockwood and Girault as much as we do the more famous names like Bancroft and Buchanan.

Commander BJ Armstrong ’99, USN, is the associate chair of the history department at the Naval Academy. He earned his Ph.D. from King’s College, London, and is the author and editor of several books on American naval history, most recently including Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy.

Source: November-December 2020 Shipmate