Bathed in brilliant June sun and backed by “huzzahs,” the stewards of the Bunker Hill Monument on Thursday welcomed home three guestbooks that had gone missing with the Civil War-era names of 42,000 visitors.
Ranging from a 6-year-old boy who lived in Brookline to Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the president, the names found their way back to Charlestown through the quick-moving generosity of David Rubenstein, a billionaire philanthropist who bought the guestbooks in April after learning they would be auctioned the following day.
His $17,000 purchase was a godsend.
Until shortly before the sale, the Bunker Hill Monument Association didn’t even know it had lost the books sometime over the past 160 years. Its stunned members did not have enough time to raise a competitive bid.
But on Thursday, association president Arthur Hurley was presented with one of the guestbooks and lifted it aloft as a crowd of 300 people cheered near the base of the soaring granite obelisk. On the 246th anniversary of the famed Revolutionary War battle, Bunker Hill Day had something extra to celebrate.
“They’re part of our history now and they’re where they belong, not in some closet somewhere,” Hurley said afterward.
“It means so much,” concurred Julie Hall, president of the Charlestown Historical Society. “I’m glad that they’re back with their brothers and sisters.”
Rubenstein was represented by Seth Kaller, a major dealer in Americana. Kaller had approached Rubenstein after being contacted by the owner of a Connecticut auction house that was poised to sell the guestbooks.
“It was an easy decision. I thought it was appropriate to do,” said Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest private investment companies.
The catalyst for returning the guestbooks came from a Boston Globe story, which reported in April that association members were startled to discover the guestbooks had slipped from their grasp, possibly through illegal means.
John Reznikoff, who owns University Archives in Wilton, Conn., said his auction house had done due diligence in determining the provenance of the guestbooks, which were assembled by one consigner and came from two sources.
However, Rubenstein said in an interview, the chance that the guestbooks might have been stolen at some point factored into his decision.
“It’s part of American history,” he said. “Had the Battle of Bunker Hill gone differently, who knows what would have happened.”
Although the battle was technically a defeat for the Colonists who defended the high ground in Charlestown, the staggering British loss of 1,054 killed or wounded troops — more than twice the American losses — was a major morale boost for the Colonials.
Rubenstein, who also is chairman of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, has a lengthy portfolio of historical philanthropy.
In addition to donations for renovation and restoration of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, Rubenstein has provided the federal government with long-term loans of his copies of the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Emancipation Proclamation.
Kaller said that the guestbooks are being loaned for the short term but soon will be donated to the Bunker Hill Monument Association, a 198-year-old organization that built the obelisk with 3,000 blocks of Quincy granite. The group’s 61 other guestbooks are stored with the National Park Service, which in 1976 assumed control of the monument from the state.
Under state supervision, which began in 1919, many of the association’s artifacts and records were dispersed among the group’s members.
Michael Creasey, general superintendent of the National Parks of Boston, said after the ceremony that maintaining continuity in historical collections is important for a better understanding of the past.
During the event, Creasey told the audience that momentous events such as the Battle of Bunker Hill, even 246 years later, can serve as platforms for dialogue. More than 100 soldiers of African or Native American descent, some of them enslaved, fought among the 1,200 rebels that day.
“History is not a tightly bound, single, unchanging story,“ Creasey said. “Equality and liberty are not yet fully achieved for everyone.”
State Representative Daniel Ryan of Charlestown echoed the theme that American government and society are expected to change and evolve.
“The Founding Fathers knew they didn’t have it right, but they set the foundations,” Ryan said.
Kaller said he hopes the saga of the guestbooks will draw more of the public and other collectors to the American story.
“History, to be meaningful, has to change, and it needs new people to become interested and involved,” Kaller said. “The monument is a place that is important to all of America and therefore to the whole world.”
Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, whose district includes Charlestown, reflected on the sacrifice of the farmers and others who fell at Bunker Hill, and the need for today’s Americans to rise beyond their political differences.
“We are bigger and stronger than a political moment,” Edwards said, “and we need to be reminded of that.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.