Ports in a storm

Addressing the contentious debate about the ‘true’ birthplace of the Navy

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / October 12, 2010

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I enjoy bogus assertions of historical primacy as much as the next person. For instance, can you believe that there are people who say a young Canadian working at Boston University invented the telephone? Oh, wait . . .

Beverly native David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, will be at the Charlestown Navy Yard tomorrow, stirring the pot for Navy Day. Ferriero will address the contentious dispute about the “true’’ birthplace of the Navy, with Beverly, Marblehead, Gloucester, Providence, Philadelphia, Whitehall, N.Y., and Machias, Maine, all laying claims.

The various assertions are impossibly arcane. Providence and Philadelphia both issued calls to build a Navy. Benedict Arnold used some ships for marauding purposes while fighting the British in northern New York. Shipbuilders in Machias assembled a sloop that the British promptly captured. No one likes to mention that the Navy didn’t exist at the time, and whatever boats the fledgling American republic had were under Army command. In fact, their heroic captains were little more than pirates, wannabe Jack Sparrows pursuing oceangoing prizes in an undeclared war. “I suppose you could call them that,’’ Ferriero allows. “But they were on our side — doesn’t that color it?’’

The Marblehead vs. Beverly claims concern the “Hannah’’ and the “Lee,’’ which were commissioned in one town but sailed from the other. Or vice-versa — who knows? The ships occasionally put into Gloucester as well. Ferriero chooses his words carefully on the question of the Navy’s true birthplace but leans toward his hometown: “I’m from Beverly — what do you expect?’’

Naval War College history professor John Hattendorf, who has written extensively about the Continental Navy, argues that you can’t have a Navy without national authorization. That means that the Navy was really born in Philadelphia, where Congress voted to equip fighting ships. “There was a lot of opposition,’’ Hattendorf told me by phone from Newport, R.I. “A lot of people argued, ‘Why should we further antagonize the British by going after their navy?’ ’’

With Navy Day upon us, it seems worth mentioning that Ferriero, like my mother, served in the wartime Navy, he as a corpsman in Vietnam, she as a WAVE in Hawaii. As the right-wing talk-show hosts like to say: We salute their service.

Arms and the Facebook man
Of course you have noticed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s uncontrollable tic — quoting from Virgil’s “Aeneid.’’ He did it twice during a long New Yorker interview and more recently in Wired magazine, where he popped — in Latin — what might be the epic’s most famous line: “A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this’’ (trans. Robert Fagles). Those are Aeneas’s consoling words to his battered, shipwrecked comrades. In the poem, various gods assure the Trojan hero that he will found “an empire without bound,’’ i.e. Rome, which is more or less what Zuckerberg has done. Facebook has more than 500 million active users and counting.

Inquiring minds want to know: Where did Zucko imbibe the foundational epic of the Roman empire? Not at Harvard, I am told. He majored in computer science and split after two years. Like many other high schools, Zuckerberg’s alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy, teaches the “Aeneid’’ in fourth-year Latin, more or less preparing its students for the “Virgil AP,’’ which more than 4,000 students take each year.

Exeter and Facebook are closed-mouth on the subject of Zuckerberg’s classical training, but my investigation continues, sub rosa.

Heard on the beat
“I am the webbiest guy I know,’’ New York Times media critic David Carr told an audience at the MIT Communications Forum last week. Carr, who lives in New Jersey, has four newspapers delivered to his door each morning. “I enjoy the music of print,’’ he said. Play on!

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is