The Navy Yard at Washington D.C. does indeed have a long and illustrious history. It has always been a fine and impressive location to work at in full view of the wonders of our democracy, and the strength and the superb traditions of the United States Navy. The reason behind my posting this today — the attack Monday by a deranged mad-man upon the people who work there in order to assist our Navy in keeping us free and the world safe — is a truly sad reason to be mentioning this fine and venerable place. But I want to remind my readers of the tradition and history of this place before the tales of Monday’s tragic events become so ingrained in our minds that we think of little else. I hope that in the future, we think of the history and honored service of this place and not just the actions one sick man.
The Washington Navy Yard Goes Waaaaay Back…
In the photo above, King George V and Queen Elizabeth arrive on June 6, 1939 to accompany President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a cruise down the Potomac River to Mt. Vernon, Virginia to see the home of England’s one-time arch enemy, George Washington. And that time was very recent when the base was established in the very year of the death of George Washington – 1799. President John Adams had approved the use of public land for the site and the construction of the base on the Western banks of the Anacostia River, a small tributary of the Potomac, was officially approved on
Oct. 2, 1799. And it was built a mere 3.5 miles from the White House. Thomas Jefferson liked this position- ing in the heart Washington because it would keep the military right within physical sight of the civilian authority, which was important to him with his distrust of militarism. But this unfortunately placed the Navy Yard along with the rest of the new capitol city right in the path of destruction when the British invaded the United States, and burned most of the public buildings in Washington, including the White House. The Americans were obliged to burn the Navy Yard ahead of the advancing Brits under Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, to prevent it’s supplies and ships from falling into British hands. Up into flames went three older frigates, a sloop, and the new 44 gun frigate, the U.S.S. Columbia (above).
The Change from Ship Building….
It soon became apparent that the Anacostia River was too shallow for major ship building opera-tions, so gradually the Navy Yard became a center for armaments manufacture and supply. Once the steam frigate Minnesota was launched ad completed in May of 1857, the Navy Yard (pictured above, circa 1861) built and installed machinery for several ships and continued to do repairs. But no further ship construction was done there; it’s focus became that of ordnance manufacture and testing. But is also served as an important headquarters for Naval planning and even diplomacy. Below is thee official photo taken in May of 1860 at the Navy Yard of the first Japanese Embassy to the
United States. The Japanese Ambassador is seated third from the left. Standing directly behind him is the Navy Yard’s Commandant, Captain Franklin Buchanan who would soon dessert the U.S. to join the Confederacy, and who would command the first Ironclad warship, the C.S.S. Merrimack in her losing combat against the U.S.S. Monitor on March 9 of 1862. Throughout the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was a frequent visitor to the Navy Yard, as the new Commandant was John H. Dahlgren whom Lincoln held in great esteem.
The Civil War would have it’s dreadful conclusion nearby and in the Washington Navy Yard. The escape route for President Lincoln’s murderer John Wiles Booth and his accomplice David Herold was the Navy Yard Bridge (below). They chose that point
as their escape route on the evening of April 14, 1865 because it was the one route into the back country of Maryland away from the manhunt for him in Washington D.C. But this was a crazed gunman who would be quickly killed and brought back to the Yard to have his body examined, as well as his accomplices photographed aboard the Ironclad Monitor U.S.S. Montauck, which was docked in the Navy Yard.
Post Civil War to the Present….
Following the Civil War the Washington Navy Yard continued as a site of testing and development of naval ordnance, being used to manufacture some oft he big 14 inch guns that were sent to France during World War I, as well as torpedoes which were developed and tested there. Also during this period the Yard was extended both to the east and the west, until it nearly doubled its previous dimensions. Mother Nature periodically would interrupt the function of the Navy Yard by flooding the banks of the Anacostia (below) until a modern high-water-mark was established in 1942.
Since the 1920’s the Washington Navy Yard has served a function as a kind of ceremonial entrance to our nation’s capitol. When Col. Charles A. Lindberg returned from his successful Trans-Atlantic crossing he returned through the Navy Yard. In 1921, the body of the Unknown Soldier from World War I was received there (pictured below).
And of course, the King and Queen of Great Britain were received there in 1939 as they made a good-will visit to the United States on the eve of what would turn out to be World War II, in which the United States and Britain would stand as allies with a friendship that was cemented on these grounds.
The Washington Navy Yard currently serves not only ceremonial functions but also a variety of administrative purposes as well. Ina addition to more classified services, it serves as the Home of the Chief of Naval Operations, and is also the HQ for Naval Sea Systems Command. Also housed there are the Marine Corps Institute, the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps an even the U.S. Navy Band. The U.S. Navy Yard (pictured below, circa 1985) of course is also the workplace (as it has been since it’s very inception) of several thousand civilian workers. These citizens tragically wound up being the only fatalities of the shooting of September 16, 2013. It is to them and their grieving families, as well as to their long and honorable service on our nation’s behalf, that I would like to dedicate this posting. May they rest in peace.
“The Naval War of 1812” Ed. by Robert Gardiner, Chatham Publ. Co., Great Britain, 1998.
“Picture History of the U.S. Navy” by T. Roscoe & F. Freeman, Bonanza Books, New York, 1956.
“Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly, Henry Holt & Co., LLC, New York, 2011.
Brits burn Washington = http://faculty.isi.org/catalog/resource/view/id/993
Japanese Embassy = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_Embassy_to_the_United_States_(1860)
Navy Yard, circa 1861 = http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/images/h51000/h51928k.jpg
Navy Yard Bridge = http://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln36.html