Monday, June 20, 2011

National Museum of the U.S. Navy, American Revolution Exhibit

I walked into the National Museum of the U.S. Navy the first time in the summer of 2004. During that time, I was an intern with the Ships History Branch collecting notes from the ship's logs at the National Archives and writing the history for Bear. When I visited, I spent most of my time idling without any particular purpose. Now, seven years later, I went there for this blog's inaugural museum visit. It might be sentimental, but I find it one of the most overlooked museums in the D.C. area. Even the walk from the gate to the museum has a scattering of artifacts, like shells from the guns on Navy vessels.

Military history is, perhaps, the area that serves as the best example of history becoming myth. The Trojan War is both history and myth, and no one would deny that it engages people even long after the events. Likewise, the sea captures the imagination. From the Argonauts to "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," there's a reason that maps featured sea serpents, dragons and mysterious islands. It was an area awash where stories can grow into their own. New worlds were being discovered, trade was opening, commerce springing up. The sea was the path to the future, and for us, it is a path well-worn with history. 

For the military, history is more than just facts and myth. It is a tradition to be proud of. Navy Adm. George Anderson said, “The Navy has both a tradition and a future, and we look with pride and confidence in both directions.” For a more British perspective, Winston Churchill quotes British Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Brown Cunningham in “The Second World War: The Grand Alliance” that: “It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition.”* Tradition is as good a word for that extra layer of meaning history provides.
The Navy Museum's American Revolution exhibit. (Photos by Matt Sablan) 
While outside you can find the display ship Barry and a park with cannon and larger artifacts; inside are more than 20 exhibits that tell the history of the U.S. Navy that covers Navy tradition from the institution's establishment on Oct. 13, 1775, to today. Most places in D.C. have bits of history surrounding them; the museum is no different.

The museum itself is an artifact,” an employee explained. It has stood at the Navy Yard for 50 years; before airplanes, the Navy Yard was the traditional arrival point for diplomats. They would then ride a carriage to the White House. Remembering that helps to place the importance of the Navy Yard throughout our history.

While history is not chronology, the beginning is important to understand any subject. The Navy grew out of necessity. The American Revolution was a desperate time; American naval power at the time was faced with the greatest naval force on the planet. Compared to the British Empire, America was outgunned on pretty much every front. Till the end, America would rely upon its French and other allies to augment its forces and resources. These alliances were pivotal on land and at sea, and the exhibit does an excellent job showing just how America earned and maintained those critical alliances.

A pistol from the museum. (Photos by Matt Sablan)
This naval history also fits nicely for our purposes, since it carries importance both in history and in the myth-history built up around the Revolution. The exhibit houses a remarkable model of the Bonhomme Richard, along with several artifacts of its famous captain, John Paul Jones. It was a desperate fight; when offered the safety of surrender against the uncertainty of his burning ship, Jones reportedly shouted out: “I have not yet begun to fight!”
A model of the Bonhomme Richard.

A painting in the museum captures the mood of the fight, with the Bonhomme Richard aflame thick with smoke. Yet, despite the odds, Jones turned the tables on the British and captured Serapis, though the Bonhomme Richard was ultimately lost. Jones' success demonstrated America's resolve, strength and determination, and it is one of the most well-known American naval victories. The museum includes a pocket watch inscribed for Jones; the transcription, when translated, calls him the “celebrated sailor of Scotland.”

"The celebrated sailor of Scotland."
Another hero, one who doesn't usually appear when teaching the American Revolution, is Commodore John Hazelwood (whose name also graces Navy ships.) Hazelwood was commander during the Defense of the Delaware River, and his actions were noted by Congress. Of the 15 swords Congress awarded for valor, Hazelwood was the only naval officer to receive one. His sword is on display at the exhibit, and there is plenty of information about his defense of the river as well.

Stories like these build national myths out of history; the essential truth remaining and becoming part of the culture. The historical actors take on heroic proportions. When we look back, Hazelwood and Jones have become more than just men. They are part of a tradition and a history; ships bear their names to remind future generations of their deeds.

The artifacts and exhibits do more than describe decisive victories that enabled a successful campaign against the British. They describe a tradition continued forward from 1775 to today. Naval heroes from the Revolution are remembered for their histories and, sometimes, for their myths, which speak to a different kind of truth.

The few anecdotes related about the museum's artifacts touch highlights some of the Revolution's naval actions, but it does not encompass the entirety of what the museum offers for this era. If you have time, visit the museum to see some of the artifacts not pictured here and to view the exhibits that explore other eras in the Navy's history.

Late addition: I meant to have this posted earlier, but I received an email about Girls Make History Day, and wanted to include it.

Hazelwood's sword.

Getting there: Taking the Metro to the Navy Yard museum is probably the best bet. It is inside the Washington Navy Yard, so make sure to bring identification.

Other details: Artifacts and data about actions at Valcour Island, the Penobscot Bay Expedition and the Defense of the Delaware River.

Some artifacts I don't have pictures of: Iron six-pounder from the Massachusetts privateer Defense, destroyed by her crew Aug. 14, 1779. to avoid capture and later restored by MIT and the Navy; a pistol rumored to have belonged to the Marquis de Lafayette.

Other model ships can be found in the museum, and this exhibit includes a model of Rattlesnake and Wasp. Several paintings depicting historic events, such as the first official salute to the American flag aboard an American warship in a foreign port by Phillip Melville, are also housed here.

*Oddly enough, it appears Churchill himself may have been less than idealistic in matters related to British naval tradition.

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