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Historic Moment

What do Admiral George Dewey and Captain Brian O. Walden have in common?

By Senior Chief Musician Mike Bayes, Navy Band head archivist

Schley Court of Inquiry, 1901 Did I get your attention with the headline? Good, because there’s more about that later in this article. This is the first of what I intend to be a biweekly Navy Band archives blog. The Navy Band has a long and proud tradition of service and it is our intention to highlight that heritage here in this blog. The members of the archive team have been working very hard over the past few years in our efforts to preserve and maintain our history. We are very excited to bring some of our most treasured stories to you.

On March 4, 1925, the 68th Congress passed Public Law 611, Title 34, Section 596, which ordained, "That hereafter the band now stationed at the Navy Yard...and known as the Navy Yard Band, shall be designated as the United States Navy Band..." While we use this date as the official start of the Navy Band, we must not forget the heritage that precedes it. One of the more interesting stories of the very early years of the Navy Yard band has little to do with the band and more to do with our building.

The Sail Loft has been the home of the Navy Band since its inception (minus a few years-I will have more on this in a later blog post) and has proudly served as “The Quarterdeck of the Navy.” I am sure Navy Band alumni have fond memories of all that has happened in the Sail Loft through the years. From Navy Relief Balls, to Navy Hour programs, to rehearsals with great conductors like Arthur Fiedler and Frederick Fennell, to high profile ceremonies (most recently hosting President Barack Obama), the Sail Loft has seen it all.

The Sail Loft was built in 1901 in the area formerly known as Colson Square. The total cost of the building was $80, 800. Known as building 105, it was 206 ft. long, 60 ft. wide and 39 feet high. It had two stories and a floor space of 22, 408 square feet.

Originally a gunner’s workshop, known in the Navy as a Sail Loft, building 105 was a very busy and productive shop. By 1901, sails were no longer being made at the Navy Yard, so the large open area on the second floor of building 105 was where men sewed canvas bags, awnings for ships, leather gloves, protective gun covers, flags and pennants, etc. Additionally, there was an ordinance shop on the first floor. Here men worked with plastic and rubber to make items such as; elastic gas check pads, bumpers, “O” rings, washers, gaskets, firing key housing, electric firing contacts, junction boxes, firing cases, etc. Lastly, there was a rigging section on the first floor where all sizes of wire rope, cable, hoisting equipment, gun slings, etc. were made.

Schley Court of Inquiry, 1901 Shortly after construction completed on building 105, the Navy held its first historic event in the Sail Loft: an inquiry into events that occurred at the end of the Spanish-American War. This is known as the Schley Court of Inquiry and the presiding official was Admiral George Dewey. With its immense space, the Sail Loft was perfect for the job.

This inquiry was requested by Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Schley who felt slighted in not being fully recognized by his superior officer, Rear Admiral William T. Sampson in his report of the Navy’s victory over the Spanish squadron in Santiago, Cuba on July 3, 1898. During the absence of Sampson, who commanded the Navy’s squadron, the Spanish fleet attempted to squeeze by an American blockade. In the ensuing battle, Schley, accustomed to acting independently, assumed command and defeated the enemy. In his victory message, Sampson made no mention of Schley ; this omission was said to have been the result of Sampson’s frustration with Schley’s “insubordination.” This prompted his request for the inquiry, which lasted 40 days, and criticized him for “lack of enterprise.” However, he was praised for destroying the Spanish squadron.

This brings me back to the opening question: What do Admiral Dewey and Captain Walden have in common? The answer is the office space. Just over 110 years ago, on Dec. 14, 1901, Dewey sat at his desk and studied the evidence and testimony of the Schley Inquiry roughly in the same spot where Walden’s desk sits today. This was just the first in a long history of significant events that have taken place at “The Quarterdeck of the Navy.”