A tour of the United States Naval Academy is a “must-do” on the Annapolis sightseeing list. Only one place on “The Yard,” however, offers the most diverse and captivating tales of midshipmen past and present and figures from other facets of U.S. naval history. It’s probably also the least known because it’s not your run-of-the-mill destination.

Here’s what usually takes place for a walking tour: After a short orientation film, guides lead groups around only parts of the southeastern quadrant of the Yard. 

Those in search of a completely different historical experience must be willing to make a larger time, and effort investment just to get there. They also must be willing to do without any “interactive” displays, too, in favor of what is literally chiseled in stone.

Visitors must walk from the museum on Decatur Road, across the College Creek/Dorsey Creek bridge, and turn right on Phythian Road to the hill at Hospital Point (the Academy’s highest land feature) for this self-guided journey. On top, to the right, is the entrance to the Naval Academy Cemetery and Columbarium, where tombstones and memorials tell not only the gripping and sometimes quirky stories of its occupants but also provide some historical background for how this plot of land became a graveyard in the first place. Unlikely as it may sound, it is a singularly stirring experience.

Naval Academy Tours Image courtesy of the author

Much of the credit for revealing the secrets behind this “unliving classroom” goes to the recently retired senior curator of the museum, James Cheevers. In fact, Jim has become so well known for his knowledge of the landscape, the Academy has made a Cheevers-narrated video available so that one can follow along as the expert darts from story to story and gravesite to the gravesite. Using this tool to plan your own tour could be a challenge because duplicating the Cheevers encyclopedic recitations of details—and keeping track of them all—is nearly impossible.

Naval Academy Tours

To get you started, after viewing the Jim Cheevers tour, see if you can identify the following people who are buried there by taking this quiz:   

  1. One of the most recent, well-publicized burials was for a former Vietnam War prisoner who went on to serve in the U.S. Senate, eventually twice being the Republican candidate for President.
  2. This graduate became the Chief of Naval Operations during the Vietnam War, ordering the spraying of the defoliant Agent Orange, which is blamed for the tragic death of his own son. This four-star admiral has a ship class named after him.
  3. This former midshipman went on to be a hero of World War II later served three terms as Chief of Naval Operations. This four-star admiral also has a ship class named after him.
  4. Both the composer and the lyricist of the Navy theme song, “Anchors Aweigh,” are buried here. Can you name both of them?
  5. This former Vietnam prisoner of war went on to become the running mate of presidential candidate Ross Perot.
  6. A lone gravestone can be seen from what is now the headquarters of the U.S. Naval Institute. It is the final resting place of a prolific Institute author, perhaps best known for his book, Run Silent, Run Deep, also a movie starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.

ANSWERS: John McCain, Elmo Zumwalt, Arleigh Burke, Charles Zimmermann, and Alfred Hart Miles, James Stockdale, Edward L. “Ned” Beach, Jr.

So if you're looking for a deeper experience, something that aids everything from your trivia team to your intellectual curiosity, make sure to check out this unexpected Naval Academy tour!