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#16 Norwich University and the Naval Service

Bicentennial Admin 200 Things about Norwich, Military Milestones

Admiral George Dewey

Admiral George Dewey

By Gary Lord, Professor of History
The following is an excerpt from an article originally published in the December 1982 issue of The Record.

Although Norwich University has not been closely or prominently identified with naval affairs, a long and important tradition of naval education does exist, and many Norwich alumni have distinguished themselves in naval service. For example, Admiral George Dewey, a student at the University between 1851-1854, became an enormously popular hero during the Spanish American War because of his stunning victory at Manila Bay.

Many have considered Dewey an anomaly and have assumed that practically all Norwich alumni demonstrated a preference for the Army over naval service. George Dewey was, in fact, the third Norwich alumnus to command a fleet in the Far East. He was preceded by Commodore Josiah Tattnall, NU 1823, and Rear Admiral Charles Carpenter, NU 1850. Furthermore it can be noted that even though a large number of Norwich-educated Army officers participated in the Mexican and Civil Wars, a significant number of alumni also served with distinction in the Navy. The latter group includes three rear admirals, six commodores, three captains and three commanders.

The founder of Norwich University, Alden Partridge, is generally recognized for the important role he played as an educational reformer during the first half of the 19th century and he is credited with originating the concept upon which the Reserve Officer Training Corps is based. Unfortunately, his contributions to naval education largely have been overlooked.

Partridge first proposed a plan for improved naval education in 1815 while serving as superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. His scheme for improving naval education was part of a larger, highly innovative plan which involved the creation of a national system of academies which would prepare both Army and Navy officers.

The Partridge plan called for the creation of two new academies: one in the vicinity of Washington, DC, the other in a western state. The academy at West Point, also part of the projected system, was designated for a thorough reformation. Regarding the existing course of studies at West Point was inadequate, Partridge proposed a significant broadening of the curriculum.

Partridge’s system of military academies was designed to serve all elements of the American military establishment. The academies would furnish the Army with officers, but the same institutions would also supply the Navy with well educated midshipmen. Captain Partridge’s proposals for remodeling West Point and the expansion of the national system of military education won the approval of his superiors and key politicians, but ultimately failed to attract sufficient support from a parsimonious congress.

After he left West Point in 1817, Alden Partridge remained strongly committed to his plan for educational reform, naval education included. He returned to his home town of Norwich, Vermont, where in 1819 he established the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy, later known as Norwich University. There Partridge implemented his progressive “American System of Education” which broadened the prevailing classical curriculum by including instruction in such subjects as engineering, modern languages, political science, economics, and military science. In addition, Partridge successfully advanced his plan for educating naval officers—a quarter of a century before the United States Naval Academy opened in Annapolis.

In an effort to attract the attention of prospective students with an interest in naval service, Captain Partridge observed in an early catalog that “young gentlemen…destined for the Navy, can here be instructed in the scientific part of their profession, and at the same time obtain a correct knowledge of fortification, and of military operations generally.” Students with naval interests seem to have been particularly attracted to the courses offered in mathematics, navigation, gunnery, fortifications, and modern languages.

Numerous Navy personnel took leave from active duty to improve themselves at Partridge’s academy. For example, of a total of 480 students in attendance at the academy through the middle of 1825, twenty were commissioned or warrant officers in the U.S. Navy, including four lieutenants, one surgeon, and fifteen midshipmen.

Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy

Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy

Some of Partridge’s students were veterans of the War of 1812. Josiah Tattnall had served as a midshipman in the frigate Constellation between 1812 and 1814. He enrolled in the Vermont institution to study French and Italian and to hear Captain Partridge’s military lectures. Tattnall’s high opinion of Partridge’s school apparently prompted Gideon Welles, later Secretary of the Navy under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson, to attend. Lieutenant Hiram Paulding, later a rear admiral, had served under Commodore Thomas Macdonough and had seen considerable action on Lake Champlain. Subsequently Paulding had a long and distinguished naval career. Lieutenant William Carpenter, later a commodore, was another veteran of the War of 1812 who attended the academy at Norwich in the early 1820’s.

Two of Alden Partridge’s protégés were destined to have an important impact on the early development of the U.S. Naval Academy. James Harmon Ward was regarded as one of the best educated officers in the Navy when the academy was established in 1845. A highly competent and energetic officer, Ward was appointed the first executive officer and president of the academic board. Some of his lectures were published as Instructions on Naval Ordnance and Gunnery (1845). It is tempting to speculate that Ward’s interest in the subject was sparked by his mentor, Alden Partridge, who did pioneering studies in the field of ballistics. Ward also published a Manual of Naval Tactics (1858) which was used as a Naval Academy text for decades. Captain Ward had the unfortunate distinction of being the first Union naval officer killed in the Civil War.

Rear Admiral Thomas Craven, another of Partridge’s students served through much of the decade of the 1850’s as the commandant of midshipmen at Annapolis. He is credited with establishing the summer cruise as a practical training experience. A very able officer, Craven was referred to by one historian of the academy as the “arch-seaman of the navy.” Craven and Rear Admiral Charles Boggs, yet another student of Partridge, were two of Admiral Farragut’s stalwart commanders and were conspicuous for their bravery and skill in the Union assault on Confederate forces on the lower Mississippi River in 1862.

Captain George M. Colvocoresses left Alden Partridge’s School in 1831 and subsequently was attached to the Wilkes expedition to the Pacific and Antarctic Oceans. Colvocoresses recorded his experience in Four Years in a Government Exploring Expedition (1852). A son, Rear Admiral George Partridge Colvocoresses (named after Alden Partridge), finished a one-year stint at Norwich University in 1866 and subsequently compiled a forty-five year career in the Navy. During the Battle of Manila Bay he served as the executive officer in Admiral Dewey’s flagship Olympia.

BG Hiram I. Bearss

BG Hiram I. Bearss

In the first half of the 20th century equestrian training, not seamanship, was central in the training program of the Norwich Corps of Cadets. Nevertheless, a significant number of Norwich men did serve in the Navy, including Rear Admirals Frank C. Dunham, NU 1914, and Clifton A. F. Sprague, NU 1917. Donald P. Loker, NU 1927 was one of approximately forty Norwich alumni who served as naval officers during World War II. Loker is perhaps best known as actor Don Terry, who played the leading role in the popular film series Don Winslow of the Navy.

No account of Norwich alumni in the naval service would be complete without mention of the Marine Corps. In recent years a growing number of Norwich students have been commissioned as Marine officers. They have become part of a truly impressive tradition of served to the Marine Corps which includes officers such as Brigadier General Hiram I. Bearss, NU 1898, and Major General Jonas M. Platt, NU 1940. Bearss was awarded a Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism in combat in the Philippines in 1901 and received an equally impressive cluster of decorations for his meritorious service in World War I. During his thirty-year military career, General Platt saw action as an infantry officer in World War II, and in Korea and Vietnam. He has received numerous decorations for his distinguished service.