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Watch: USS Constitution’s 223rd birthday includes unveiling of new 150-document collection acquired by naval ship’s museum

Old Ironsides, the U.S. Navy's oldest commissioned naval vessel afloat, returned to Boston waters on July 24, 2017 after two years of restorations. A crowd gathered to see the historic 219-year-old warship touch Boston waters after it was kept in the Charlestown Navy Yard's Dry Dock 1. (Kristin LaFratta | [email protected]/TNS)
October 24, 2020

From documentation of secret military signals to correspondences with formerly enslaved revolutionary leaders, hundreds of 200-plus-year-old papers recently acquired by the USS Constitution Museum are expected to be unveiled this week at the Boston-docked naval ship’s 223rd birthday.

The “outstanding” collection of documents was recently acquired by the museum that operates alongside the ship and will be unveiled during the vessel’s virtual birthday celebration over Facebook Live at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. The event is free and open to the public, according to a statement from the museum.


The historic papers include handwritten correspondences and documents that shed light on the early years of the USS Constitution’s career and the United States Navy’s involvement in the country’s first international conflict, the Quasi-War with France, the statement noted.

“I have been looking for collections for this museum for over 30 years and have never seen anything like it,” said Anne Grimes Rand, president and CEO of the museum. “The USS Constitution Museum is actively pursuing its mission in tough times by acquiring these documents that shed light on previously unknown aspects of the construction, outfitting and first movements of USS Constitution.”

The lot has changed hands for more than two centuries and is “exceedingly rare,” both in size and scope, according to the museum. The acquisition marks the largest the museum has made in nearly a decade.

“This is the best birthday present for the ship and museum we could have imagined,” Rand said.

“Old Ironsides,” as the vessel is called, is the country’s oldest commissioned naval ship. Docked in the Charlestown Navy Yard alongside World War II destroyer USS Cassin Young, the USS Constitution is operated as a historic site by the U.S. Navy and National Park Service.

Launched in 1797, the USS Constitution fought in battles against the British, the French and pirates off the Barbary coast in the Mediterranean in the 1700s and 1800s.

The ship and the USS Constitution Museum were closed to visitors in early March due to the coronavirus pandemic but opened back up in August to much fanfare.

The vessel remains open to the public 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday to Saturday, and the museum is open to visitors 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday to Saturday. Digital events are also being offered on the museum’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube pages as well as on its the website.

The roughly 225-year-old papers, which the museum recently acquired at an auction, belonged to Capt. James Sever, the first commander of the USS Congress.

Sever supervised construction of the ship, which served alongside the USS Constitution, and he was deployed to the Caribbean to protect U.S. merchant vessels from French privateers, according to the museum.

Among the papers featured in the collection are communications during the conflict between Sever and the USS Constitution’s commander at the time, Silas Talbot, the museum said.

The documents cover a diverse array of topics, including the construction of the first six frigates of the U.S. Navy, strategic plans in the Caribbean and secret signals used between the U.S. Navy and friendly British ships, according to the museum.

They also include handwritten correspondences with Henry Knox, the former secretary of war under then-President George Washington, Toussaint Louverture, the formerly enslaved leader of the early Haitian revolution, Dr. Edward Stevens, who served as the U.S. consul-general in St. Domingue and encouraged Haitian independence from the French, as well as other prominent historic figures.

Vice Admiral George W. Emery, a life trustee at the museum, pointed out the rarity of such an acquisition, claiming the documents “may be the best ‘find’ the Museum has ever, and will ever, discover.”

“The documents offer an opportunity to pursue previously unaddressed questions and fill in large gaps in current knowledge of Constitution and her sister ships,” the museum said.

The USS Constitution Museum will publicly share the papers via email and social media posts. The documents are currently being processed in the facility’s archival collection. Digitized copies will be made available on the museum’s website.


(c) 2020

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