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Special Collections & Archives

The rare or unique holdings of Nimitz Library.

Refined Soirees and Tea Fights: a history of dancing at the US Naval Academy - Part I

by Samuel Limneos on 2020-12-21T10:44:00-05:00 in Special Collections & Archives | Comments
Hop Committee drawing

"Show me the man who can’t dance, and you point to a man who is not up in all branches of his profession.”  Rear Admiral Edward Simpson included the above statement during a speech at the first reunion of Naval Academy graduates in 1886. Simpson, one of the first students to graduate from the academy, was doubtlessly influenced by the first formal ball held on January 15, 1846, if it was like one antebellum gala described by academy historian Edward C. Marshall as a “refined soiree held under banners and trophies captured in blood.” Although interrupted by war, dancing ultimately became a key component of academy training and life, featuring some its most cherished traditions at the end of the nineteenth century. 

Franklin Buchanan, 1820s.

When the Naval Academy was founded in 1845, ballroom dancing was considered equally a refined practice of high culture and a celebratory event. The school’s early system of governance and professional training emphasized gentlemanly behavior and subordination to a strict system of discipline. Midshipmen of the mid-to-latter nineteenth century were referred to as “young gentlemen,” who were expected to have the social  skills to navigate the ballroom floor in the company of high society.  In 1845, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, in correspondence with the school’s first superintendent, Commander Franklin Buchanan, wrote of the importance of culture in the midshipman’s education, “placed by their profession in connection with the world, visiting in their career or service every climate and every leading people, the officers of the American navy, if they gain but opportunity for scientific instruction, may make themselves as distinguished for culture as they have been for gallant conduct.”

From 1845 to 1865, excepting the four years of Civil War, successive superintendents either supported  or opposed dancing. Buchanan was open to holding formal balls on the school’s grounds. Buchanan, a local Annapolitan who owned a house just outside the academy’s gates, hosted dances that were attended by all the local prominent  families, as he was a part of one such family - the Lloyds - through marriage. 

"Dreams of Youngsterdom"

Simpson’s ball, held in the academy’s newly opened mess hall, featured the United States Marine Band from Washington, DC and the daughters of Annapolis high society who, according to academy historian Thomas G. Ford, “if they could not be won by the sailor’s blarney, a lace shawl or a family of canaries from Madeira, a Spanish mantilla, a straw bonnet from Leghorn, a velvet cloak from Genoa, a silk dress pattern from Lyons, a box of gloves from Paris, or an amber necklace from Constantinople was used with telling effect.” The next day, the Officer of the Day recorded “no recitations today” and “all hands being employed repairing damages after the ball,” perhaps referring to the return of normal room furnishings and the taking down of decorations

Midshipmen continued the tradition , the following year when the Officer of the Day noted “19 mechanics and 7 laborers employed preparing the new Mess Hall for [a] grand Naval Ball.” The ball occurred on the following day - Wednesday, January 20, 1847 - and, according to the Officer of the Day, was preceded by “a salute of 17 guns in honor of a visit from the Honorable Secretary of the Navy and the Naval Committee from both Houses.” Twelve midshipmen are listed as managers on the formal invitation to this second ball, which constitutes the first evidence of public recognition of midshipmen as leaders of extracurricular activities. Buchanan and his executive officer, Commandant of Midshipmen James H. Ward head the managerial list. 

A midshipman signing a young lady's dance card

The new tradition was met with immediate resistance. Later that year, the Board of Examiners, the body tasked with annually inquiring and reporting on the state of the Naval Academy, wrote that the annual ball was “productive of much evil rather than good - it imposes upon many of the midshipmen expenses which they can not afford to incur and injuriously absorbs a portion of their important time, which would otherwise be devoted to useful studies.” The two superintendents succeeding Buchanan reflected this attitude.

Louis Goldsborough

From 1847-1850, Superintendent George P. Upshur was absorbed in more serious matters of midshipman misconduct than entertainment including “wanton dissipation, rampant and debauched behavior,” during unauthorized liberty in Annapolis, gambling, duelling, and even the hanging of disliked professors in effigy. At the outset of Commander Cornelius K. Stribling’s superintendency in July 1850 new regulations abolished troublesome midshipman clubs, dueling, firearm possession, card-playing, alcohol, tobacco, cooking in the dormitories, and incurring debts, which greatly improved the school’s discipline. Dancing, however, did not find the superintendent’s favor. According to a 1941 article in Shipmate about the academy’s hops and balls, Stribling, “thought dancing an invention of the devil, although he was an otherwise genial man."Stribling’s successor, Commander Louis M. Goldsborough, took command in 1853, advanced the character of the academic program, and revived enthusiasm for organized entertainments. The Naval Academy Band, established in 1852 and arriving at the academy in May 1853, greatly enhanced the quality and availability of music at the school, reinvigorating excitement for the annual Winter Ball that had lapsed under the more puritan leadership of Upshur and Stribling. 

According to Ford, in the summer of 1853, a dancing master appeared at the academy each Saturday afternoon to teach the midshipmen, and “stag hops” were held in the lyceum above the Mess Hall, and the basement of the Recitation Hall during the evening. These events were enjoyed by not only the midshipmen, but also by Goldsborough himself, “whose commanding figure was not infrequently seen ‘heaving around the Capstan,’ by which term he designated the graceful waltz.” The midshipmen were wary of the superintendent’s six-foot-four-inch, 300-pound frame, and as Ford relates, “made it a point to give him a wide berth, knowing well that their slim timbers would be shivered in a collision with his line-of-battle ship weight.” In April 1856, the academy hosted a grand naval ball after a gunnery demonstration by batteries of the newly commissioned steam frigate USS Merrimac. In addition to academy officers and midshipmen, the ball was attended by the naval affairs committee of Congress, the Secretary of the Navy, and President Franklin Pierce. 

The USS Constitution berthed at the Naval Academy wharf. Spring, 1861.

The coming of the Civil War in the summer of 1861 interrupted the academy’s dancing traditions. According to available evidence, the last formal dancing event held at the academy prior to the Civil War was a third class hop on April 13, 1861, aboard the school ship USS Constitution. This hop was interrupted by a messenger bringing news of the bombardment of Fort Sumter by the South Carolina militia that began earlier that day. According to one youngster’s description in an April 1864 article of United Service, that night, 


the rain poured in torrents and only a few ladies were present. The band was on the berth deck, and before dancing commenced, some of us made them play ‘Hail Columbia,’ and ‘Yankee Doodle,’ all standing with uncovered heads. Then came the news from Charleston. No one could believe it, and all went on as before, though there was something of a feeling which clouded the festivities, and the party broke up very early. I recollect one great tall fellow from Winsconsin, whom I discovered in tears, and, on asking the cause, was answered thus, ‘To think of those people dancing down below, when our flag has been so dishonored.

The USS Constitution continued to host “occasional hops” after the academy’s relocation to Newport, Rhode Island, for the duration of the Civil War, recollected John C. Pegram of the class of 1864, “which were attended by the beauty and chivalry not only of Newport, but of Providence and other cities and towns.” There are no records, however, to suggest that dancing instruction or grand annual balls continued during the period

Illustration from class of 1867 alumnus Park Benjamin's Shakings, depicting a hop held in the second story of the academy's mess hall between 1865 and 1867. The adjacent room held the school's library, used here as a social room. 
David D. Porter

It was not until after the Civil War that dancing was formally incorporated into the academy’s course of instruction. Shortly after the academy’s return to Annapolis in October 1865, Rear Admiral David D. Porter assumed command and petitioned the Secretary of the Navy that formal dancing be added to the curriculum, stating he “believed [the hops] to have a very refining influence upon the young gentlemen.” A civilian “Professor of Dancing,” also referred to as the “Dancing Master,” was hired to instruct the second, third, and fourth classes. Porter instituted the practice of holding hops each month in Fort Severn, which he had converted into a gymnasium. During early January of each year the academy’s first class gave a formal ball, followed two months later by a second class dress ball. A formal ball was also held each year during June Week. 

Due to Porter’s close watch and political influence, these events were exuberant and grandiose affairs often attended by the social elite of Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington DC, members of Congress, cabinet officers, foreign dignitaries, and on very special occasions, US presidents. A January 19, 1867, article in the Army and Navy Journal described the annual first class ball of that year as a “perfect success … the finest affair, of the kind, recorded in the annals of the Naval Academy.” According to the article, “the dancing commenced at ten o’clock in the evening,” and after a short dining break, “resumed and continued till the warning voice of the morning gun, at half-past six.” Included in the order of dances was the, “‘Lancers,’ and ‘Polka Redowa,’ by Allen Dodworth;  ‘Village Swallows of Austria,’  and ‘Quadrille’ by Josef Strauss; the ‘Mabel Waltz,’ by Gottfried; ‘Dreams of the Ocean,’ by Joseph Gungl; the ball concluded with ‘The German’ waltz.

The First Class Formal Ball held in the interior of Fort Severn, January 9, 1869.

Porter’s order dated January 6, 1868, entitled, “for carriages etc., on the evening of the 9th of January,” reflects the grandiose nature of the first-class’s formal ball, as well as the superintendent’s close attention to detail in preparation for the event,

The carriages will enter by the main or upper gate and drive along the sea wall past the pistol gallery and around the battery and drawn up in front of the steps. After leaving their passengers they will turn and go out following the road through the middle gate. The Captain of the Watch will be at the steps to see that this order is carried out, and a man will be stationed at the door of the pistol gallery to see that the carriages pass on around the battery. When the carriages assemble to take away the guests, they can draw up near the road next to the battery. 

There will be a chambermaid at each of the ladies dressing rooms to take charge of things, and attend, and the orderlies will be stationed in the gentleman's dressing room who will take charge of cloaks, caps, etc, and give checks for the same. Two orderlies will be stationed in the sup-room, to keep order and quiet among the servants. The Coxswain will give his whole attention to the lights, and see that no unauthorized servants or men are allowed in the eating room. There will be an orderly placed in the pistol gallery to look out for [Maryland Governor] Mr. Swann’s things and to preserve order. 

                         Ball in honor of Mrs. Admiral Porter, June 4, 1869 - Illustration from Frank Leslie's Newspaper.

With Porter’s term as superintendent drawing to a close, the midshipmen organized a complimentary ball on June 4, 1869, in honor of the admiral’s wife. This ball was attended by many distinguished guests, including President Ulysses S. Grant, his wife and daughter, the Secretary of the Navy, the Postmaster General, and General William Tecumseh Sherman, a mutual friend of the superintendent and president. An article of the New York Herald remarked on the occasion, “General Sherman was unquestionably the best and most graceful dancer among the gentlemen, while Mrs. Admiral Porter excelled among the ladies. The President did not seem to be entirely aufait. He got bewildered, and it kept Mrs. Porter busy leading him through the figures.” According to Ford, former superintendent Louis Goldsborough later scoffed at the grand nature of what he termed, “Porter’s Dancing Academy,” and remarked in personal correspondence, “in my time we educated the head. Now, by Neptune, they educate the heels!”

Graduation Ball, 1878

An annual program of balls and hops developed at the academy shortly after Porter’s term. Planning and execution of the events were administered by committees of midshipmen, as evidenced by mentions of the Hop and June Ball committees in early editions of the academy’s Lucky Bag and invitation cards in the archives. The first Farewell Ball was held on June 2, 1871, when second class midshipmen invited the graduating class to a formal ball. 

Although dancing instruction was introduced in the 1850s, it first appears in the Annual Register of the United States Naval Academy’s course of instruction during the 1874-1875 academic year, under the auspices of the Department of Seamanship.  Dancing instruction was only given to fourth classmen. Distinguished graduate of the Class of 1873 and namesake of Michelson Hall, Albert A. Michelson, received 3 demerits on March 7, 1873 for “dancing with fourth class when Officer of the Day.” There is no mention of dancing in the course of instruction from 1883 to 1890. The Department of Physical Training provided thirty-six weeks of dancing instruction to plebes during the 1891-1892 academic year. 

Photograph of a Naval Academy Ball in Fort Severn, 1890s

By the end of the nineteenth century dancing instruction survived the Civil War and flourished at the academy. Stay tuned for part-two of this history featuring the new challenges and traditions that emerged in the twentieth century. 




A.W. and V. M. “The Naval Academy Ball.” Army and Navy Journal (New York, NY),  January 19, 1867. Reference File -  Balls and Hops. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Bancroft, George, Secretary of the Navy to Franklin Buchanan, Letter, “Relating to the establishment of the Naval School at Fort Severn, August 7, 1845.” in Edward P. Lull, edt., Description and History of the U.S. Naval Academy, From its Origin to the Present Time. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Academy, 1869. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Benjamin, Park. The United States Naval Academy. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900. 

Board of Visitors, United States Naval Academy. “Report of the Board of Visitors to the United States Naval Academy, 1847.” Reference File - Midshipmen - Balls and Hops. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Conduct Log of Cadet Midshipman Albert A. Michelson, Class of 1873. Entry 85: Registers of Delinquencies (“Conduct Roll,” “Conduct Roll of Cadets”), 1846-1882. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Ford, Thomas G. History of the U.S. Naval Academy - Chapter 10: Class of ‘40. Part of an unpublished manuscript in MS 448: Thomas G. Ford Manuscript on the History of the United States Naval Academy.

Hanner, David, Jim Cunninham and Pat Sarracco. The History of the United States Naval Academy Band. 

Marshall, Edward Chauncey. History of the United States Naval Academy, with biographical sketches, and the names of all the superintendents, professors and graduates, to which is added a record of some of the earliest votes by Congress, of thanks, medals, and swords to naval officers. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1862.  Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Pegram, John C. Recollections of the United States Naval Academy. Providence, Rhode Island Historical Society, 1891. 

Todorich, Charles. The Spirited Years: A History of the Antebellum Naval Academy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1984.

Tyde, High (pseudonym). “When Hops Were Balls at the U.S. Naval Academy.” Shipmate Vol. 4, No. 5 (May, 1941).  Reference File - Midshipmen - Balls and Hops. Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy. 

United States Naval Academy Alumni Association. Minutes of the First 4 Annual Reunions. Annapolis and Baltimore, 1886-1890.

United States Naval Academy. Annual Registers of the United States Naval Academy. Digital Collection. Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy. 

United States Naval Academy. Journal of the Officer of the Day. Office of the Commandant of Midshipmen, Entry 151d: Watch Logs and Reports. Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy. 
United Service, April, 1864.

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