By the beginning of the 19th century, the young United States Navy had already produced a respectable number of colorful, courageous and expert captains. Names such as Barry, Dale, Decatur, Rodgers, Truxtun and more come to mind. Not until Ambassador Gordon S. Brown came forth with his magnificently researched work has justice been done to one who should rank with those greats: Thomas Tingey.
Tingey captained a ship during the Quasi-War with France but then, at the personal request of the secretary of the Navy, took charge of building a navy yard in Washington. He thereby became the first commandant of the Washington Navy Yard and held that assignment from 1801, when the District was little more than hills, swamp, a few buildings and minuscule population, until his death on the job in 1829. By that time, the neighborhood of the yard, Navy Hill, had become the center of vibrant manufacturing and commercial enterprise.
Along the way, Tingey survived several changes of national administration, numerous shifts in attitudes toward the need for a standing navy and the War of 1812. It was from his actions during that war that the title of this book derives. When the British invaded Washington, Commodore Tingey was the one who gave the order to burn the ships on the building ways and also burn the stores and buildings in the Navy Yard to save them from capture by the enemy. Under his leadership, the yard recovered, however, and soon became the leading industrial establishment of the District of Columbia, a position it held for many years.
Long before ethics rules were established, political favoritism, kickbacks and contracting irregularities (all at the expense of the taxpayer) were not uncommon. The author has dug into such goings-on and, despite the advent of new regulations every few years, from reading the news media of today one might conclude that not much has changed, albeit now it happens less frequently and less openly. Nevertheless, to Tingey’s credit, he seems to have been much more honest and straightforward than most.
Before union rules and today’s rules for the civil service, the life of an artisan or workman was hardly what it is today. If it rained or snowed, one didn’t work and didn’t get paid. If one were injured on the job, there was no pay. If there was no work, there was no pay. Many of the workers had families living nearby, and scraping together a livelihood was not always easy, especially if the breadwinner was prone to celebrate the paycheck with a bit of alcohol. Tingey worked hard to treat all his workers fairly and often helped those in special need, but times and prevailing attitudes didn’t always lend themselves to that.
Of particular interest, whites and blacks worked side by side, at least in the beginning. Skilled free blacks were especially valuable in certain trades, but there also were slaves. Curiously, slave owners who might themselves work in the yard could hire out their slaves and then pocket the slaves’ pay as well as their own. The descriptions of the average wage earner’s working conditions and family life, so well researched by the author, in themselves make the book worth reading.
While the original purpose of the yard was to build ships for the growing U.S. Navy, the rapid silting up of the mouth of the Eastern Branch, today’s Anacostia River, created a bar over which only the smaller ships could be floated. Thus, the Navy Yard gradually evolved from a shipbuilding yard into a place where specialty components such as anchors, chain and guns could be manufactured and then shipped to other deeper-water ports such as New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk, Va. As a matter of interest, in the tradition established by Tingey, the Navy Yard continued to manufacture important ship components and equipment through World War II. Today, the yard continues as an important location for numerous Navy headquarters activities and as the site of the National Museum of the United States Navy.
For more than two decades, in war and in peace, Thomas Tingey led and managed what at the time was a critical component of support for the U.S. Navy. He raised a family, entered into Washington society and contributed significantly to what eventually became a vibrant capital city. This book fills a need to tell those stories and will be of interest and value not only to aspiring naval historians but to those who want to know more about the early days of the District of Columbia.
The research on which “The Captain Who Burned His Ships” has been based is exhaustive and detailed. Unfortunately, the author has included a plethora of that research, making for tedium in some passages and leading to a tendency for the reader to give up; but don’t do it. Solid composition soon follows, and overall, the read is most rewarding.
One additional note to the reader might be an explanation of the dichotomy between the use in the title of the term “Captain” while in the work Tingey invariably is referred to as a commodore. In general, the term commodore was an honorific even while the uniform insignia and pay were that of a captain. However, while head of the Navy Yard, Tingey received a commodore’s pay and was referred to as “Commodore” even though he wore captain’s rank.
Tingey’s legacy survives in the District of Columbia to this day. The ornate Eighth Street Gate to the Navy Yard on M Street SE was built under Tingey’s aegis. The Marine Barracks at 18th and I streets Southeast were established while Tingey was the commandant of the Navy Yard. The house in the Navy Yard now occupied by chiefs of naval operations was first occupied by Commodore Tingey and his family. His legacy continues.
“The Captain Who Burned His Ships” is a most valuable contribution to both Navy literature and the history of Washington. It should be added to many libraries, and it undoubtedly will garner a wide readership.
Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is the president of the Naval Historical Foundation.