The Naval History of Washington, D.C.
By Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
There are very few places in our country that can make you feel more patriotic than being in the center of it all—Washington, D.C. A visit to our nation’s capital will transport you back in time and bring to life the rich history of our relatively young country. There are so many places to visit which allow you to take an even closer look to explore the U.S. Navy’s contributions to establishing our country’s independence.
National Museum of the United States Navy
If you are ever in the D.C. area and want to learn more about your U.S. Navy, make sure to visit the National Museum of the United States Navy (NMUSN). Located on the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast D.C., the museum was established in 1961 and houses displays of naval art and artifacts which trace the Navy’s history from the Revolutionary War to the present day. It is one of 14 Navy museums throughout the country. Today, the NMUSN is the only naval museum to chronicle the history of the U.S. Navy from its creation to the present, featuring a collection that dates back to the 1800s. Some of the artifacts you’ll see at the NMUSN are the USS Constitution’s fighting top, the world’s deepest diving submersible, Trieste, and the khaki uniform of former Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
The Washington Navy Yard
The Washington Navy Yard, established in 1799, is the Navy’s oldest shore base. It evolved from a shipbuilding center in the 1800s, to an ordnance plant until the mid-1960s, and now serves as the ceremonial and administrative center for the Navy. The Yard is home to the Chief of Naval Operations, headquarters for the Naval History and Heritage Command, and numerous naval commands.
In retrospect, the Navy Yard has certainly had its fair share of fame. The first years saw the Washington Navy Yard become the Navy’s largest shipbuilding and shipfitting facility. Even USS Constitution came to the Yard in 1812 to refit and prepare for combat action.
During the War of 1812, the Washington Navy Yard was important not only as a support facility but also as a vital strategic link in the defense of the capital city. On Aug. 24, 1814, however, as the British marched into Washington and Americans began to flee, defending the Yard became impossible. Commodore of the Navy Yard Thomas Tingey, seeing the smoke from the burning Capitol, ordered the Yard’s vessels and stores be burned to prevent its capture by the enemy.
During the Civil War, the Navy Yard once again became an integral part of the defense of Washington. President Abraham Lincoln was a frequent visitor at the Yard. The famous ironclad Monitor was repaired at the Yard after her historic battle with CSS Virginia. The Lincoln assassination conspirators were brought to the Yard following their capture. The body of John Wilkes Booth was examined and identified on the monitor Saugus, moored at the Yard.
Following the Civil War, the Navy Yard continued to be the scene of technological advances. In 1886, the Yard was designated the manufacturing center for all ordnance in the Navy. Ordnance production continued as the Yard manufactured armament for the Great White Fleet and the World War I Navy. The 14-inch naval railway guns used in France during World War I were manufactured at the Yard.
By World War II, the Yard was the largest naval ordnance plant in the world. The weapons designed and built there were used in every war in which the United States fought until the 1960s. In December 1945 the Navy Yard was renamed the U.S. Naval Gun Factory. Ordnance work continued for some years after World War II until it was finally phased out in 1961. Three years later the activity was redesignated the Washington Navy Yard and the deserted factory buildings began to be converted to office use.
United States Naval Observatory
Located in Washington, D.C., the United States Naval Observatory (USNO) open in 1844 and originally located just north of the Lincoln Memorial and west of the White House. In 1893, USNO moved to its present-day location in Northwest Washington, D.C. President John Adams signed the bill for the creation of a national observatory, and today, the USNO operates to strengthen national security and critical infrastructure by serving as DoD’s authoritative source for the positions and motion of celestial bodies, motions of the Earth, and precise time. The USNO provides tailored products, performs research, develops leading edge technologies and instrumentation, and operates state of the art systems in support of the U.S. Navy, DoD, federal agencies, international partners, and the general public. Some of the products generated at the USNO support activities in astrometry, astronomical data and phenomena, earth orientation, and maintaining precise time for the Department of Defense. The official residence of the vice president of the United States is also located on the grounds.
United States Navy Memorial
The United States Navy Memorial, located on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol, celebrates the rich heritage of the U.S. Navy. While the Navy Memorial was dedicated on the Oct. 13, 1987 (the Navy’s 212th birthday), it was actually the product of a centuries-old vision of Pierre L’Enfant, the architect who designed the plans for Washington, D.C. in 1791. L’Enfant, in his work designing our capital city, hoped to have a memorial where the U.S. Navy could be recognized. Today, the Navy Memorial welcomes visitors from around the world to walk through interactive exhibits, watch films, and view artifacts that help tell the story of the U.S. Navy.
Farragut Square is located north of the White House along Connecticut Avenue and pays tribute to the U.S. Navy’s first admiral, David Farragut. President Abraham Lincoln promoted this Civil War hero to the rank of rear admiral in 1864. Farragut began his service as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy at the age of nine, following the footsteps of his father who served during the Revolutionary War. The nation honored its first admiral with a statue in Washington, D.C. The statue is made from bronze salvaged from the propeller from Admiral Farragut’s Civil War flagship, USS Hartford.
Though Admiral Farragut was not a native of Washington, D.C., there are a few notable service members who were born in our nation’s capital. Interestingly enough, they both served in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps!
If you’ve ever been to a military ceremony, watched an Independence Day celebration, or know anything about famous composers, chances are you’ve heard of John Phillip Sousa. The “March King” born in Washington, D.C., in 1854, in his family’s home near Marine Barracks Washington where his father was a musician in the Marine Band. His father enlisted him as an apprentice in the Marine Band at the age of 13 to keep Sousa from being persuaded into joining a circus band. He was discharged from the Marine Corps at the age of 20, stayed around D.C. for a short while to work on personal music projects, then accepted an offer to lead the Marine Band and reported for duty in 1880. Among his best-known marches are “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (National March of the United States of America), “Semper Fidelis” (official march of the United States Marine Corps). As though serving in one branch of the U.S. military wasn’t patriotic in itself, Sousa served as the Navy bandmaster during World War I from 1917 to 1919 (at the record age of 62) after pursuing a career with his own civilian band. He was the first Navy musician to become a commissioned officer.
Another D.C. native who had a stint in both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps was John William Warner, who was born in D.C. in 1927. Warner enlisted in the Navy during World War II, shortly before his 18th birthday. He served until the following year, leaving as a petty officer third class. After the outbreak of the Korean War, Warner joined the U.S. Marine Corps in October 1950 and served in Korea as a ground aircraft maintenance officer with the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. He continued in the Marine Corps Reserves after the war, eventually reaching the rank of captain. Warner went on to serve as Secretary of the Navy from 1972 to 1974 and was a five-term Republican U.S. Senator from Virginia from 1979 to 2009.
Despite Washington D.C.’s centuries-old ties with the U.S. Navy, there’s but one U.S. Navy vessel named after our nation’s capital—USS Columbia, the first ship in a new class of ballistic missile submarines. In 2014, it was announced that the first ship of the new fleet ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), formerly known as the Ohio-class replacement, will be named USS Columbia (SSBN 826) in honor of the District of Columbia. Ballistic missile submarines are critical, stabilizing and efficient elements of the U.S. nuclear deterrence and assurance policy, carrying the majority of deployed U.S. nuclear warheads. Columbia-class SSBNs incorporate advanced technology and will provide the most survivable leg of the Nation’s strategic triad. Construction of USS Columbia (SSBN 826) is scheduled to begin in 2021, with delivery to the fleet set for 2028, and a first patrol planned for 2031.
Check out our infographic for more information on the Sailors, ships, and places in Washington, D.C., with ties to naval history and heritage!