The Navy’s Century Old Hall of Fame: A Survey of the Relics, Records and Work of a Little Known Library Which the Government Established in 1794


From the Navy Department Library, opposite the White House, to salt water is a distance of twenty-five miles. From the heart of a sailor at sea, whether he be the captain of the Delaware, the greatest battleship afloat, or an enlisted man aboard any smaller ship, the distance to the most interesting library in the United States is but the measure of a thought.

This is true because sailors of the United States Navy, and of the navies of many foreign countries, know that the navy library, established in 1794, contains the best records in the United States of the achievements of the man-o’war’s man from the old days of romance are chronicled.

Tourists come and go in Washington. They pass the navy library by. They do not know that they miss the most interesting library in the United States. This storehouse of relics of forgotten sea fights, and drawings and plans of the most terrible engines of modern war, gazes benignantly down upon the modern White House, shining in the sun across the street. All the glamour of the old and the modern romance meets within the walls of this library so much older and so much more modern than many present day Washington institutions.

Mr. Charles W. Stewart, the present navy librarian, who was a member of the class of 1881 at Annapolis that was legislated out of existence, tells of the meeting of the old and new in his library at times. There the voices of navy grandsons call the roll of what has been termed “the illustrious dead” when they come to ask for their grandfathers’ records and to be permitted to see their grandfathers’ swords and the logs of their ships.

All is light and life and color in this modern navy library as midshipmen and ensigns come in for this, that and the other research work in regard to their forbears and the men they fought with, mentioning to Mr. Stewart that they have been ordered to Washington to study the new system of detonating caps being manufactured at the Washington Navy Yard, the proper way to hoop a six inch gun gone out of fashion two years ago or some other modern contrivance that, as these middies and ensigns say, would make their fathers turn over in their graves could they see what their sons were doing.

Established a Century Ago

This comparatively unknown library had its beginnings more than a century ago, when the Naval Bureau was a part of the War Department, in 1794. For the purposes of this article Mr. Stewart pointed out the other day that after the Navy Department was authorized by an act of Congress in 1798 to maintain a library the War Department practically “fired it out” of the government building in Philadelphia.

“Consisting mostly of books,” Mr. Stewart said to the writer, discussing the organization of which he is in charge, “when it was kicked out of the War Department in Philadelphia it traveled to Trenton, N.J., and was there established in a tavern. When the capital was moved to Washington the naval books and records were hauled there by wagon and the office furniture was transported to Georgetown by Schooner. Georgetown was then a seaport.

“Some of these old books are in good condition still and many of the old charts have been placed in the great collection of maps in the Library of Congress, as these charts were of historical interest only to map makers and engineers.

“Piecemeal and without any definite plan, however, the Navy Library grew here in Washington. It became a part of the office of the Secretary of the Navy. Occasionally rare and beautiful volumes were donated to the library, but the bulk of the collection was upon the subjects of naval tactics, history, biography, architectural construction (marine), ordnance, explorations and voyages.

“In 1882 the various bureaus and officers of the department added to the library those volumes not needed for the transaction of current business, proper space was assigned to the library in the then new State, War and Navy Building, and the collection was placed in charge of the historian, Professor James Russell Soley, U.S.N., who became Assistant Secretary of the Navy in President Harrison’s administration, and is now a well known lawyer in New York City. Professor Soley was succeeded in turn by Commander Wise, Commander Rush, Professor Rawson and then I took charge.”

Mr. Stewart, like all present or former naval officers wishes to subordinate himself to his work. But everyone in Washington and at sea knows him and his work in the navy library. His Annapolis class of 1881 is famous for its reunions, good fellowship and good dinners. He is the secretary of the class and keeps in touch with its members, no matter where they may be in the five seas.

It was provided by act of Congress in 1882 that only the first ten members of the 1881 Annapolis class should be retained on final graduation in 1883. Commander E. E. Capehart, assistant chief of the Bureau of Navigation; Commander H. B. Wilson, assistant chief of the Bureau of Navigation, and Commander H. B. Hoogewerff, on duty with the General Board, are the only line officers of the 1881 class still on the active list of the navy. These naval officers forgather with Mr. Stewart in the navy library from day to day to talk over with him the conduct of the library. They are as much interested in gathering relics, old logs and rare naval books as is Mr. Stewart himself. They belong to Mr. Stewart’s class at Annapolis, and that is all there is to it. So does Admiral Uriu of the Japanese Navy, and from the latter many a manuscript has come to the navy library.

Representative John W. Weeks, of Massachusetts, and Mr. W. W. Russell, Minister to Venezuela, also members of the Annapolis class of 1881, are also contributors of documents and other material for the navy library. In June of this year another reunion of the class of 1881 will be held, and the members of it will come from the four quarters of the globe, Mr. Stewart expects, bringing new treasures for the library of which he is in charge.

Aside from the fact that the class of ’81 has had an important part in furnishing material for the library, it is a remarkable fact that with an appropriation of but $2,000 a year the library has been able to gather together some of the most important manuscripts and documents in the world. The beginning of the more modern work dates back seven or eight years. While Colonel Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Professor Rawson was librarian there began a classification or grouping of books, manuscripts and other data and relics which has been found to be of the utmost benefit to the research student. This work has progressed steadily and the 40,000 volumes now in the library are almost completely indexed.

Histories of the War of 1812, of the Mexican War, of the Tripolitan[ian] War, to speak only of American history, are to be found in the library in profusion, and while no great care has been given to collect merely standard works, such as are to be found in the Congressional library or, in the great libraries of New York or Boston or Chicago, it is on the shelves of the Navy Library that the rare books will be found on subjects affecting naval history. Of course the library is a public depository and receives all public documents and government publications which number many thousands and are not included among the 40,000 volumes noted as being in the library.

Many Valuable Collections

It was remarked in the library the other day that most of the rare and good things of life are given to us, inasmuch as the best things in life are free. So it has been with records of naval wars of the United States. Many of these manuscripts, logs and other relics were donated, although there was one instance of a purchase.

The library occupies the same rooms with the offices of Naval War Records, both being under one head. In compiling these war records the library had the advantage of having deposited with it the papers and collections of Farragut, Foote, Porter, Du Pont, Dahlgren, Davis, Lee, Flusser and many others among naval officers of the Union, while among Confederate officers the library had donated to it the papers and collections of Semmes, Buchanan, Wood, Tatnall, Waddell and Jones. Most of these papers are to remain in the custody of the government for all time, although some of them are merely loaned.

When Mr. Paul Morton was Secretary of the Navy he authorized the issuance of a circular requesting that naval manuscripts, logs, journals, maps and sketches, be deposited with the Office of the Library and Naval War Records. As a consequence of this circular many valuable collections have been received.

Probably the most important of these collections of papers is that of Commodore John Rodgers, a famous captain of the War of 1812 and for years the head of the old Board of Navy Commissioners, which dominated the Navy from 1815 to 1842. In the latter year the bureau system was established. Many officers on duty at the State, War and Navy Building consider Commodore Rodgers the “father of the new American navy,” inasmuch as he gave all his energies to organization and established a relation between authority and responsibility which has crystallized into the traditions and regulations of the navy. But around the Navy Department whenever any one says this, that or the other person was the father of the present navy the story is told of the speech Rear Admiral Hahan once made, responding to a toast to “the New navy.”

“It seems to me,” Admiral (then Captain) Mahan said, “that there is no new navy. It is only the old navy responding to new conditions.”

So it is with the library. The spirit of the old navy certainly continues in the new navy and in this library one may read of both the old and the new. A fair sample of how true this is might best be found in the examination of a day’s mail that comes into the library.

In the Navy Library are written or verified most of the naval histories, articles and other manuscripts produced in this country, to say nothing of the work done there by foreign attachés. Admiral Mahan, Professor Soley, Dr. Paullin, Mr. Neeser and other historians are constant users of the collections. The logs and journals of the old days, original documents in many cases, hold the research worker silent, and it is with reverence in every case that he turns the musty yellow pages. The log of the Monitor is among the most interesting of all these old relics.

Some Interesting Old Relics

This log was almost miraculously preserved by Captain Louis N. Stodder, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and by him recently restored to the Navy Department, to which it rightfully belongs. The collection of logs of Confederate vessels in the Navy Library is the largest in existence. Here also are to be found the rolls of the Confederate States Navy, from which is obtained the testimony to establish the service of veterans and obtain for them the homes or pensions now provided by many of the Southern States. Here are also to be found Revolutionary rolls and records of Continental naval vessels and privateers, which have made many persons sons and daughters of the different societies of daughters and sons of the Revolution.

Original records of American pensioners of the War of 1812 rub elbows with those of the British pensioners. Alongside these records are the original lists of the prisoners at Jamaica, Halifax and the Barbados. These latter lists were purchased for a small sum from Mr. Harwood, a gold leaf merchant of Springfield, Mass., who bought them in England as old paper.

Then come copies of the British court martial records in the case of defeats of British officers or vessels, in the battles of Lake Erie and Lake Champlain, the fight between the Macedonian and the Guerriere. There is a sword over the main library mantelpiece, a relic of the Lake Champlain fight, carefully balanced on a clock.. It is a claymore, in an etched copper scabbard. It is said in the library that it once belonged to a young British officer who was wounded aboard the Confiance in the battle on the lake of September 11, 1814. This young officer, whose name is lost to history, was nursed at the home of a clergyman at Plattsburg until his death.

Efforts have constantly been made to ascertain the name and rank of this officer so that the sword might be returned to his family, but his beautiful weapon and scabbard, nearly a century old, engraved with designs of heather and bagpipes, remains in the Navy Department.

In John Paul Jones data the library is particularly rich. There are copies of the logs of the Bonhomme Richard, the Ranger, the Alliance, the Ariel and the Queen of France. The originals of the Bonhomme Richard and the Ranger remain in Douglas Castle, the home of the Selkirks, visited by Jones in 1778. The other originals are in the great naval collection of Captain John S. Barnes of New York. Many of Jones’ letters are in the library, and it was in the library that the beautiful book “In Commemoration of John Paul Jones” was compiled.

Constant calls are made upon the library for data for speeches by the Secretary of the Navy and other government officials who are obliged to speak on naval subjects. Here this work is done with painstaking and loving care, so that this little known, but most interesting library is coming to have a place of its own in the presentation of modern history as well as in the stories it has to tell of times gone by. At the time of Commander Sims’ recent “Blood is thicker than water” speech, calls were made upon the library for precedents as to speeches of this character among naval officers, and the photograph of Commodore Josiah Tattnall, who towed the British boats into action at the Taku Forts, China, June 18, 1859, was sent to the officers and officials asking for it with a statement of what he did. As far back as 1859 Tattnall said: - “Haul out your reserves into action. Blood is thicker than water.”

History does not say what happened to him for thus aiding the British, but the case of Commander Sims’ and his punishment is too recent to need repetition here.

Photographs of scenes of battle are comparatively rare, but the library has large collections of material of this character, among the most interesting pictures being forty taken at our fight with the Corean forts in 1870.The pictures show the boats loaded with armed sailors being towed to the attack. The smoke of battle can be seen throughout, and in one photograph there is a good representation of American sailors cheering upon the ramparts. There is also in this collection a picture of Lieutenant Winfield Scott Schley among his men, and another of Ensign Pillsbury at a council of war. There are also some unhappy pictures of mutilated bodies, burning buildings and the other horrors of war.

Many relics have been deposited in the Navy Library. The John Paul Jones sword, owned by Rear Admiral Nicholson, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, is one of these. With a piece of lumber from the Ranger it temporarily adorns the office of the Secretary of the Navy. There is a tradition that this sword was given to Jones by Mr. William Jones, of North Carolina, formerly a Representative in Congress, and was by Jones given to Theodosia Burr, the daughter of Aaron Burr.

Records of Buccaneers.
Slight, Henry. "True Stories of H.M. Ship Royal George: from 1746 to 1841." Ryde, Isle of Wright: E. Hartnall, 1841.

It is, however, in the private offices of the library, if one has a bit of imagination, that the saltier breath of the sea, even though it is twenty-five miles away from the capital of the United States, mingles best with one’s reflections. Here are the rarer books and prints. There are buccaneer books which tell of the pirates of the West Indies and those far famed, ill famed shores. There is to be found, behind locked doors, a tiny volume of naval history bound in wood taken from the British ship Royal George [see image at right], of whose memory so many stories have been told.

Here also are to be found a fragment of the Penn Treaty Tree, and a block from the chestnut tree that shaded Longfellow’s village smithy. In one corner stands an ornamented spear of Japanese make, with the stains still upon it to indicate the cruel uses to which it was originally put. Here also are the original drawings of the little brand new torpedo boat or launch from which Cushing blew up the Confederate iron clad Albermarle. These drawings, by the way, were one day found doing duty as screens before an open grate fire, where sparks burned holes in them and their tin casings.

To revert to John Paul Jones, and there is no reason why one should not, inasmuch as the whole navy is full of him and the sound of his name, there is to be found in the library the volume called his “Memoires,” written in English by him, and translated into French “under my eyes by Citoyen Andre.” This little book bears the date of the year VI. of the French Republic (1798 A.D.). This is Jones’ noted “Diary to the King,” prepared for Louis the XVI. Another Jones volume, a satire in French, bears the date of 1781, and predicts that some day Spain will be driven from the Western Hemisphere by the United States.


Source: “The Navy's Century Old Hall of Fame: A Survey of the Relics, Records and Work of a Little Known Library Which the Government Established in 1794." The New York Herald part 2 (26 February 1911): 9-10.


Note: The above article was written when the Navy Department Library also functioned as a document and photo archive, and as a museum, prior to the subsequent evolution of the Naval Historical Center. These non-book collections were later transferred to other offices which eventually became branches of the Naval Historical Center such as the Operational Archives Branch, Ships History Branch, Photographic Section of the Curator Branch, and the US Navy Museum. The unpublished records described above were transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC, where many of them are now located in Record group 45. Today the library continues to acquire manuscript materials on a regular basis – primarily from veterans, their families, scholars, and other donors. Much of this material is listed in finding aids and exhibits as part of the library’s Special Collections web page. In particular see the List of Historical Manuscripts and the US Navy Z Files.

The John Paul Jones sword mentioned above is now in the collection of the United States Naval Academy Museum, and is on display in the John Paul Jones Crypt in the United States Naval Academy Chapel.


Related Resources:

History of the Navy Department Library

Gifts and Donations to the Navy Department Library