By Joshua L. Wick, Naval History and Heritage Command
From Commander-in-Chief of the British Squadron off Newfoundland to architect and superintendent of the Navy Yard in Washington D.C., Commodore Thomas Tingey might not have had a gallant naval career but his experiences and knowledge of the sea surely set him up to become a distinguished and notable leader in our Navy’s history. This is especially true today at the Washington Navy Yard on the 215th anniversary of its establishment.
With the establishment of the United States Navy in 1794, Tingey started his naval career with his commissioning as a captain on Sept. 3, 1798. This, however, isn’t where his seafaring career began.
Born Sept. 11, 1750, the London native joined the British navy as a midshipman in 1771. He rose through the ranks and held several commands before leaving the Royal Navy for a career as a merchant trader commanding ships in the West Indies. Just prior to the Revolutionary War, Tingey immigrated to the British colony calling itself the United States. He was married in 1777.
His 1798 commission was signed by President John Adams and shortly thereafter, Tingey fought in the Quasi-War with France and Spain.
Tingey’s legacy in the U.S. Navy wasn’t made on the sea, but instead on land – the shores of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, to be exact.
On Jan. 22, 1800, Tingey was appointed superintendent of the newly-purchased Navy Yard at Washington, D.C. Among his jobs was to lay out and command the first naval base for the new republic.
This project became almost a labor of love for Tingey. At the age of 51, Tingey was discharged from the Navy in 1801, but not from the Navy Yard. He remained as superintendent.
Four years later he was recommissioned, again a captain, and gained the title of commandant of the Navy Yard. After 14 years building his beloved yard, Tingey was ordered to burn it in 1814 to keep the British from using it when they invaded Washington during the War of 1812.
Reluctantly he followed the order.
“I was the last officer who quitted the city after the enemy had possession of it, having fully performed all orders received, in which was included that myself retiring, and not to fall into their possession. I was also the first who returned and the only one who ventured in on the day on which they were peaceably masters of it”. – Letter to his daughter Sept. 17, 1814.
His home had been spared from the flames, and he once again took up residence in Quarters A (now known as Tingey House and home to the Chief of Naval Operations). Within a few years, the Navy Yard was rebuilt and Tingey commanded it until his death Feb. 23, 1829.
Commodore Tingey was buried in what was described as with “unusual military honors” in the Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
Although the Washington Navy Yard never regained its prominence as a shipbuilding facility after its burning in 1812, the facility was revived as the Naval Gun Factory in the 1900s through World War II. Today it is the headquarters for numerous commands, including the Naval Sea Systems Command, Commander, Navy Installations Command, Military Sealift Command, U.S. Navy Band, and the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Tingey’s service to the Navy did not go unnoticed by his progeny. A grandson and a great-grandson, both named Thomas Tingey Craven, each rose to the rank of admiral, one in the Civil War and the other during World I and World War II. Tingey himself had three ships carry his name: USS Tingey (TB 34) (DD 272) and (DD 539).