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Entries in Military/Naval Hist (20)


Off the Beaten Path Museums: the Navy Museum

So much gets written about the great museums of the Mall, you might think they were the only show in town. Of course the Smithsonian's are unparalleled cultural wonder, unique in scale and accessibility worldwide, but that doesn't mean they're the only show in town. I'm not talking about the National Gallery of Art, so close they're often confused with the Smithsonian. Nor am I talking about the plethora of high quality pay museums that have been popping up like mushrooms after a rain storm the last decade or so. I'm talking about these little, quirky, never heard of museums that would be cultural icon somewhere else but get starved for oxygen in the shadow of the Smithsonian (I like to mix my metaphors, so stuff it).

Therefore, from time to time, I'm going to try to highlight some of these off the beaten path museums. Some are footsteps away from things you paid hundreds of dollars in airline tickets to come visit. Others require more advanced planning to get to. In picking which ones to highlight, I'm asking two questions. Do they provide enough detail that a buff might consider making a special trip here to visit it? And does it provide enough general interest that someone who has never before given a damn about, say, beads, that they will walk out of there with a new found interest?

Without further ado, let's chat about one of my favorite museums in DC, the Navy Museum. My half dozen or so devout fans no doubt remember I have a little Naval experience under my belt, so I certainly fall into the first of my two categories. I first came across the Museum in my college days when I wrote my thesis about the Navy in Vietnam and wandered over from the nearby Navy History and Heritage Command's archives to check out the Swift boat on display. Yes, the very same for those of you with fond (or not so fond) memories of the 2004 Presidential Campaign.

So clearly the Museum is a hit for people who tend to bore their spouses with arcane trivia about the conversion from sail to steam and the relevance of Mahan in today's world. But what about the rest of us, er uhm, I mean, you?

All I can say is that the Museum has quite a bit to offer non-Navy folks as well. The history of the Navy in many ways shadows the growth of the United States and its emergence on the world scene. As the Navy was a principal agent for America to represent itself overseas, much of the exhibits detail this early international role. It's an interesting perspective to take a look at. Naturally, the Navy's role in our wars is documented as well. In particular, take a look at the Civil War section. They have a chunk of the USS Kearsarge's stern post there, with an unexploded shell from the CSS Alabama still in it. An important lesson in keeping our powder dry for all of us.

I strongly recommend spending some time exploring the park and grounds outside, especially for kids. When I give a tour to middle schoolers and they've maxed out their "well behaved" time in DC, I try to schedule a swing by the Navy Yard and give them an hour or so to detox from all these old people (including myself) yelling at them and telling them not to talk. It's a lovely park along the Anacostia river, with the ex-USS Barry open for visits. For being littered with artifacts of death and destruction it's a surprisingly calming place.

The Navy Museum is located in the Washington Navy Yard, and active military installation. Please make sure you bring government issued ID cards if you are over 16, and be prepared to have large bags and parcels checked. The Museum is open from 9-5 on weekdays, and 10-5 on weekends and holidays.

To get there take the Green Line to Navy Yard and walk several blocks up M Street to the 6th ST Entrance, where the guard will give you directions. Alternatively, if you're already on the Orange/Blue line, I'd get off at Eastern Market and walk south on 8th Street about a half a mile. The Circulator picks up right at the Metro stop if you'd prefer not to walk and lets off at the 6th St Entrance (M-F). For more details about security, directions, or, God forbid, parking, visit here.

ex-USS Barry


The Kennedy Curse Continues

Once I've taken visitors to the various Kennedy grave sites, an inevitable question arises: Where's John John buried? Why is he not with his father?

Those of you who read my discussion of President Kennedy's grave, may remember that although the site work was paid for by the Kennedy family and the 3.2 acres is dedicated to his remembrance, the plot remains the property of the U.S. Government and part of Arlington National Cemetery. As such, JFK, Jr. would have had to meet the eligibility requirements on his own to be buried with his parents, and as he was not a minor child nor a permanently dependent one, he would not have, much less his wife and her sister, who both died with him in a plane crash off Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts on July 16th, 1999. While certainly the Kennedy family could have asked for an exemption, it doesn't appear that this was ever considered.

So, now that Arlington was out, the Kennedy and Bessette families were faced with a new problem. Part of the attraction that Arlington Cemetery has for high profile burials is the idea that as it is directly controlled by the military, a sense of decorum will be preserved. As it is today. Millions of visitors have come by the Kennedy graves, thousands with me alone, and everyone from cemetery officials, security guards, tour guides, teachers, parents, and (sometimes) school kids keeps this in mind when they visit. Jackie was very wise to give her husband to the people; it relieved the family from what would have been an incredible logistical challenge: keeping her husbands grave secure and respected.

And in many ways, that's what the Kennedy family faced again. Without the U.S. Army guarding it, how would John F. Kennedy, Jr's grave remain untrammeled by thousand of well wishing but overwhelming visitors? Sometimes it's good to be the king, and if the family faced a unique problem, they were capable of unique solutions. Sen. Edward Kennedy reached out to the Defense Department and asked for a favor; a burial at sea. In of itself, unremarkable, the Navy handles thousands of these a year, the circumstances certainly were in this case. Even though JFK Jr had no military experience, a provision exists for for non-veterans who have made notable or outstanding contributions to the United States, as was ruled the case here.

And so the USS Briscoe was dispatched from Norfolk, Virginia to host members of the Kennedy and Bessette families to say good by to their loved ones. Although the Navy handled much of the details, the service was not a military one and did not include the traditional trappings such a the three round volley or the playing of taps that accompanies military and navel funerals. The family committed to the deep, to use the appropriate terminology, the remains of Kennedy and his wife and sister in law.

I myself reported aboard the good ship Briscoe a few months after the funeral, where stories abounded of the event. Someday, I might share some of them with you, but for now let me note on bit of the aftermath that followed the burial.

While, the burial was in keeping with regulations, the speed in which it was carried out bothered the families of many veterans whose remains had yet to be buried. As they had a good point, the Navy sought to clear the backlog as rapidly as possible, so we spent a good portion of 2000 bringing the ship to bare steerage way, donning our whites, and sending many old salts to the briny deep. It was a fun time to be the roommate of the burial officer, and we shared our stateroom had many new residents taking their last sea cruise until we could work through the backlog.

So, back to Arlington Cemetery, how do I answer the question? I normally hold off until walking back from the Tomb of the Unknowns along Roosevelt Drive. Just after you pass McClellan Drive on the left is the grave of Admiral Briscoe, pictured below. He is the namesake of the ship that buried John John, buried himself here at Arlington.

Adm Briscoe's grave


"Oh say, can you see?"

Having finished smacking down the unruly upstarts, the British began the process of withdrawing from Washington, DC, and returning to their ships in the Patuxant River. Had it not been for the incoherent nature of American leadership at that point, the British were horribly overexposed and could have had a difficult time retreating, a thought very much on General Ross's mind. He had been reluctant of the whole venture, and the Naval commander, Admiral Cockburn had to coax him into it. Fortunately for him, he had little to fear.

On the afternoon of the 25th, a fierce summer storm hit Washington, knocking chimneys off roofs and men off horses. Shredding what little remained of discipline in the Americans, it allowed the British to withdraw without incident, despite the several injuries it caused to their own. So quietly was it done, that many American's thought they had snuck away. Presumably, we were just unused to the difference between "professional army" and "traveling circus".

In their wake, the British left behind a shattered city and an outraged country. As Washingtonians struggled to rebuild, the British set their eyes on the early nineteenth Century's version of Somalia: Baltimore. Eager to rid themselves of what they considered a "nest of pirates", the English planned to destroy the port of Baltimore, guarded, of course, by Ft. McHenry. Furious at the destruction of their Capitol, Americans flooded Baltimore to defend her, and under the able leadership of Major General Samuel Smith, were ultimately successful. You know this part of the story, right? Remember "bombs bursting in air" and "rockets red glare"? Yeah, you don't need my help here.

Part of the enduring popularity of the Star Spangled Banner came from this sense, that after being so humiliatingly defeated at Washington, our defense of Ft. McHenry recaptured some of our pride. It was possible for American soldiers, properly led and inspired to stand up to the British Lion and tweak his tail. But, as this is DC, and not Baltimore, Like a Local what do we care? Because, the Star Spangled Banner is here in DC, of course. The centerpiece of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History; it occupies a new and specially designed gallery directly across the foyer as you come in the Mall Entrance. And, if you catch the timing right, flag creator Mary Pickersgill will take the time to explain how she made it.

But that's all in the future. Back in the summer of 1814, Congress reconvened in Blodgett's Hotel, then the site of the Patent Office. The British had spared it as the head of the Patent Office, Dr. William Thornton, had argued that while the building was public, the patent models inside were private property of the inventors. Impressed with the argument, short of time, and probably just wanting the annoying man to go away, the British spared the building. Congress resisted calls to move the capital elsewhere (New York and Cincinnati were suggested), and rebuilding soon commenced under architect Benjamin Latrobe. Blodgett's Hotel burned many years later (on it's own, without British help) and become the site of the General Post Office, now the Hotel Monaco.

Down Pennsylvania Avenue from the rebuilding Capitol, Jemmy and Dolley were similarly unable to occupy the gutted White House and took up residence in the nearby, and still-standing, Octagon House, also designed by Dr. Thornton. The mansion's owner, Col. John Tayloe (technically his wife), ensured the building's survival by hosting the French Ambassador, thereby making the building, albeit temporarily, a diplomatic residence. It would be in it's study, a year and a half later on February 17th, 1816, that President Madison would sign the Treaty of Ghent, officially ending the increasingly poorly-named War of 1812.


"a most magnificant ruin"

As the British marched down Baldensburg Pike (now US 1) and turned south on North Capitol Street they entered a largely deserted "City" of Washington. Most of it's 8,000 inhabitants had either run off or were in hiding. Except for small scale looting, the British troops were largely unhindered as they went about their tasks by the light of the burning Navy Yard.

Largely, but not entirely, unhindered, that is. As the column of Redcoats approached the Capitol, shots rang out from what is now none as the Sewall-Belmont House (above), on the corner of Maryland Ave, Constitution Ave, and 2nd St NE. Ironically, the target was the British commanders, General Ross and Admiral Cockburn, heading in under a flag of truce to provide a guarantee against the destruction of private property of "all those who remained quiet in their homes". One British soldier was killed, as well as General Ross's horse. The mysterious gunman of the Sewall home most certainly not remaining quiet, the British set fire to the house.

Like so many visitors after them, the British felt that having come so far, it wouldn't be a trip to DC if they didn't see the Capitol. The Capitol Building, not even envisioned as the grand edifice you see today, was at that time two unfinished buildings; a Senate and House chamber connected by a wooden walkway. As difficult as it was to destroy a stone building with an iron clad roof, British soldiers showed considerable ingenuity in attempting to do so, piling up, among other things, the books of the new Library of Congress, to build their fires. Had it not been for a fierce rainstorm, they might have succeeded completely. As it was, it was left as "a most magnificent ruin" in the words of Architect of the Capitol Benjamin Latrobe.

General Ross and Admiral Cockburn sent detachments out to destroy other public buildings and military works, such as the Arsenal at Greenleef's point (now Ft. McNair), the Navy Yard, and, of course, the White House. Ross and Cockburn personally led the detachment to the White House, sitting down at the table that had been set earlier that day when it was still considered doubtful that the British would enter the capital. Toasting the health of "Jemmy" Madison, Admiral Cockburn took as a memento, Dolley Madison's seat cushion, so as to "remember her seat". Once a sailor, always a sailor.

The British officers then ordered the mansion torched and withdrew across the street to a nearby tavern to dine by the light of the burning White House. Following the fire, the fire-weakened east and west walls were taken down to the basement level, as was all but the center section of the north side. Rebuilt to it's original specifications by original architect James Hoban, some of the original ornamentation was re-used, scorch marks and all.

We'll leave you here today, with Washington on fire. Join us tomorrow as we bid our British guests adieu and clean up from the party.


Run for it!

Latrobe Gate 2

When last we left them, our fearless American's were scampering down the Bladensburg Pike (now US 1) as fast as their little feet could take them. Naturally, upon their arrival in DC, those few residents who hadn't succumbed to full fledged panic felt this was a good moment to begin to do so.

But before we delve deeper into that panic, let's take a minute to discuss why our British friends decided to drop in for tea. Traditionally, in so far as the subject was even taught in school, we learn that the British were admonishing a brash young Republic, letting us know that we'll impress your seaman when and where we see fit and stir up Indians so your bold frontiersmen will live in fear. While not untrue, the full story, is, as is almost always the case, both more complex and more interesting.

It's not my intent to rehash the entire war here, but for a fascinating look at the origins of the war from the other side, take a look here. Specifically, two years into the poorly named War of 1812, the invasion of the mid-Atlantic region had several goals in mind, from diverting the Americans while operations were conducted in the north to attacking targets of opportunity. But in no small way, it was in direct retaliation for our burning of York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada (now Ontario). And this is what I find interesting. As much as our history pits the United States as the underdog against the world-bestriding British Empire, the Canadians view it as standing up to the mighty Americans threating them from the south, perhaps even making them pronounce the letter O.

Anyway, back to Washington, DC. Having initially dismissed an attack on Washington as unlikely, President Madison and several members of the Cabinet were in the unfortunate position of getting personally refuted by Admiral Cockburn and the British. Having poorly prepared to defend the Capital, certainly the Americans were not ready to evacuate it in an orderly fashion.

The most famous tale of the retreat has infused itself so deeply into American History that even school groups that look at me blankly when I mention the War of 1812, respond immediately and enthusiastically when I mention this story. It is, of course, the story of Dolley Madison and the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. You know the one on the one dollar bill? Anyway, I don't need to recount to the whole story to you (pdf), but suffice it to say, thanks to Dolley, who almost alone seemed immune to the prevailing panic, the original White House Gilbert Stuart hangs in the East Room, not that you will be allowed to see it while you're here. However, if you do want to see a Stuart painting of Washington, just stroll down F St.

So where did Dolley go? Like many residents, she initially fled to Georgetown. Then a separate town within the District of Columbia, Georgetown was on the high ground across Rock Creek to the West. Easily defensible, it was where Gen. Winder was attempting to rally his militia, with all the leadership and command presence he had displayed at Bladensburg. Dolley initially stopped at Dumbarton Oaks, the residence of Declaration signer Charles Carroll. Dumbarton still stands and is well worth the visit in your time here in Washington. In fact, if you're here this weekend, they're hosting Dolley herself to help commemorate the War of 1812.

But by far the most visible sign of the retreating Americans was the burning of the Washington Navy Yard. Desperate not to let the supplies stored there fall into the hands of the British, English-born Commodore Thomas Tingey waited until word came of the American defeat at Bladensburg came, and ordered the Yard burned. Over half a million dollars of buildings, supplies, and ships caught fire, most notably the 32 gun frigate Columbia, due to be launched in ten days. No doubt due to the large amounts of pitch and tar laden supplies, the glow of the fire that night was reported to be seen as far east at the British warships on the Patuxant River and as far west as Leesburg, Virginia. As destructive as it was, some buildings survived, most notably the Latrobe Gate, shown above. The Navy Yard, or at the very least the Navy Museum, is near the top of my list of under appreciated sites in Washington, DC.

Coming tomorrow, the British!