A recent Washington Post profile of John McCain’s years at the Naval Academy portrayed him as an unruly, fun-loving, under-achieving Midshipman struggling with his obligation to live up to his family’s brilliant military legacy. It was “a four-year course of insubordination and rebellion,” McCain later wrote. McCain graduated 894th out of 899 in 1958, five spots above the “Anchorman,” the lowest-ranking midshipman. In this respect he did uphold one family tradition; his similarly rebellious father Jack, who would rise to the rank of Admiral and was the Pacific Command CINC while his son was being held prisoner in Hanoi, had graduated 424th of 441.
Some have suggested that McCain’s low class ranking reflects negatively on his fitness to lead the country. But there is no clear relationship between Academy class rank and leadership qualities. For example, Jimmy Carter, the only Naval Academy graduate to serve as president to date, graduated 59th out of a class of 820, so draw your own conclusions. Seventeen class anchors have attained flag rank, and many low-ranking graduates have gone on to brilliant careers. This tracks with the thesis I developed in my book Last in Their Class; the bottom of the class tends to produce a different kind of leader than the top. Those who wind up at the foot are often there by choice. They could do better if they studied, but they would rather trade class ranking for other pursuits. They tend to be the risk takers, the innovators, usually very well liked and in their own way driven. They know how to get into trouble, and more importantly how to get out of it. They also tend to have more than their share of luck. The “Anchormen” of Annapolis are of the same breed as the “Goats” of West Point, and both can appreciate the humor in the comment, “There, but for the grace of God, walks a civilian.”
Charles William “Savez” Read was one such officer, the anchor of the USNA Class of 1860. A Mississippian, Read took a commission in the Confederate Navy when the Civil War broke out, and quickly established himself as a daring and resourceful sailor. Read seized so many Federal vessels (twenty two in three weeks) that a special task force was assembled just to find him. One of his most noteworthy exploits took place on June 27, 1863, when he slipped into the harbor at Portland, Maine aboard the prize schooner Archer, and seized the U.S. revenue cutter Caleb Cushing. Read had planned to set fire to the other Union ships in port but his plan unraveled, and Read had to flee to open waters. He was apprehended and imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor (coincidentally along with Major Harold Borland, the West Point Goat of 1860). Read tried to escape many times before he was finally exchanged, and the end of the war found him still trying to ply his trade as a Confederate raider two weeks after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. He fully earned his nickname “The Sea Wolf of the Confederacy.”
Commander Aeneas Armstrong of Georgia, anchorman of 1856, also served with the Confederate Navy. He was on a patrol on the James River on the picket boat Hornet January 26, 1865, when his vessel was accidentally rammed by the flag of truce steamer “William Allison.” The Hornet was split in tow and immediately sank, throwing the crew into the icy waters of the James. The crew of the Allison immediately rendered assistance, and had picked up four of the six men in the river when they heard the voice of one of the crew.
“For God’s sake, captain, let me go, or both of us will be lost!” the man cried.
“Well if either is to be drowned, let it be me,” Armstrong said. “Save yourself if you can.” The rescuers made their way towards the sound of the voices, managed to located the fifth sailor and bring him aboard. Commander Armstrong’s voice rose from the darkness, “I’m numb, for God’s sake, be quick.” Armstrong went under as the rescuers neared him. He surfaced again briefly a few yards distant, muttered, “It is too late, I’m gone,” and sank a final time. The rescue party searched for his body but could not find it, and the James froze over that night. Other searches also proved fruitless. Armstrong’s body was discovered months later in the ocean near Bermuda, hundreds of miles out to sea.