In 1845, the U.S. Naval Academy had just been established at Annapolis, and many of its graduates came to the Naval Observatory as their first assignment. The practice made sense. These would become the officers who would command their own vessels. Some would be navigators. And whether captain or navigator, celestial navigation would, by necessity, become second nature. What better place to learn the rudiments of celestial navigation than the Naval Observatory with its telescopes, chronometers, and sextants--and astronomers to be their teachers?
When the Civil War came in 1861, these officers would find themselves commanding ships in two navies--Union and Confederate. One such officer, a Floridian named John Brooke, became a protégée of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the Observatory's superintendent, and developed a deep-sea sounding device while at the facility. Following the attack on Fort Sumter, Brooke would resign his U.S. Navy commission and join the Confederate Navy.
His most famous assignment was to raise USS Merrimack where fleeing Union forces had burned and scuttled it at the Gosport Navy yard in Norfolk, Virginia. After removing what remained of her burned masts and decks, Brooke would convert the former steam frigate into an ironclad and rename her CSS Virginia.
Working beside Brooke under the Observatory's roof was John Worden. Hailing from New York, Worden would remain loyal to the Union. His most famous assignment in the Union Navy was as commanding officer of USS Monitor, the so-called "Yankee cheese box on a raft." One hundred fifty years ago today, both ironclads would fight it out in Hampton Roads. Even though the battle ended several hours later with no clear victor, the age of wooden warships was over.