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Rare Navy documents are unveiled as Old Ironsides marks 223rd birthday

Cmdr. John A. Benda, 76th commanding officer of the USS Constitution removed his hat as reboarded the ship.
Cmdr. John A. Benda, 76th commanding officer of the USS Constitution removed his hat as reboarded the ship.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The USS Constitution celebrated its 223rd birthday with a very special gift: a trove of rare Navy documents related to the ship’s earliest years.

The collection, which was purchased at auction, was unveiled during the ship’s virtual birthday celebration that was broadcast on Facebook Live on Wednesday.

Anne Grimes Rand, the president and chief executive officer of the USS Constitution Museum, said the papers shed light on previously unknown aspects of the construction and first movements of Old Ironsides, which was first launched on Oct. 21, 1797.

Chart of the private signals used between U.S. ships and friendly British ships to identify each other during the quasi-War with France.
Chart of the private signals used between U.S. ships and friendly British ships to identify each other during the quasi-War with France.Image courtesy USS Constitution Museum

“These are documents from the earliest days of Constitution’s history,” she said. “They haven’t been in the public for over 220 years.”

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She pulled out two of the documents and read from them during the broadcast. One was a piece of correspondence from Jan. 3, 1801 that was written by Silas Talbot, the commander of the USS Constitution, to his friend, Captain James Sever, the commander of the USS Congress, which was sent to the Caribbean to protect American merchant ships from French privateers.

Letter from Silas Talbot, Commander of Constitution, to Capt. James Sever, Commander of Congress.
Letter from Silas Talbot, Commander of Constitution, to Capt. James Sever, Commander of Congress.Image courtesy USS Constitution Museum

“He is ordering his friend in command of Congress to sail through the waters in the Caribbean,” she said. “So he’s saying to another US warship, let’s be out there and protect our commerce — the same as what we’re doing today.”

The collection of more than 150 documents originally belonged to Sever, who was the first commander of the USS Congress, a frigate that was built around the same time as Old Ironsides in the 1790s.

The collection also includes handwritten correspondence and papers from Henry Knox, who was appointed Secretary of War by George Washington and oversaw the appropriations for the construction of the USS Constitution; Benjamin Stoddert, Secretary of the Navy who led during the Quasi-War, which was an undeclared naval war with France from 1798 to 1800; and Toussaint Louverture, the formerly enslaved leader of the early Haitian Revolution who corresponded with Navy commanders about US support of his government.

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Museum officials plan to digitize the documents and share them via e-mail newsletters, social media posts, and on the museum’s website, usscm.org.

“In the coming weeks and months,” said the museum’s Grimes Rand, “we will be taking these documents, one by one, highlighting them, and telling the story [and] sharing the stories of Constitution as we learn from this tremendous collection.”

The virtual birthday celebration on Wednesday included a guided tour showcasing the history of the USS Constitution, which earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812 when British cannonballs were seen bouncing off the ship’s wooden hull. According to the Navy, the USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.

The ship is currently open to the public from Friday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and live virtual tours are available Monday to Thursday at 10 a.m. on the ship’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/ussconstitutionofficial. For more information, visit usscm.org.



Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.