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A History Geek Geeks Out

You may know that I collect early nineteenth century fashion plates and other ephemera. As items to collect, these are pretty harmless. They aren’t expensive, don’t take up vast amounts of space in my house, are easy to care for…and they’re fun. The best part is when they come with text—not only the descriptions of the plates themselves, but other articles and features and commentary on what was happening in the world. To us, those pages in old magazines are history. To the people of the past, it was what was happening in the moment.

I was reading through the text that came with one of my prints, from the April 1813 Ackermann’s Repository. It included part of an article about Napoleon’s having given one of his generals the title of Prince of Moscow, and an article about the agricultural outlook for the spring. And then there was this brief item, which I’ll quote in full:


It is with feelings of more than the keenest grief, we have to pollute our pages with the record of another victory of the Americans over the proud, the hitherto invincible navy of Great Britain. By American journals recently arrived, we learn, that, on the 29th Dec. last, at about ten leagues from the coast of the Brazils, our frigate the Java, Captain Lambert, in her way to the East Indies, was met by the American frigate Constitution, Commodore Bainbridge. An action of nearly two hours duration ensued, in which the British frigate lost 60 killed and 101 wounded; had her bowsprit and every mast and spar shot away; was altogether reduced to an unmanageable wreck, and compelled to strike to the enemy, whose loss is stated not to have exceeded nine killed and twenty-five wounded. The British commander, Captain Lambert, is reported mortally wounded, and among the prisoners who were released on parole, is Lieutenant-General Hislop and his staff, who were proceeding to Bombay in the Java.”

Sounds pretty boring apart from the hyperbolic language in the first sentence. But were you paying close attention? The American ship mentioned in this two hundred and eleven-year-old article was the Constitution…which this very day is still a commissioned ship in the United States Navy, her home berth being Boston Harbor, about twenty miles from where I sit typing this. You might also know her by her nick-name “Old Ironsides.” She was one of the newly-independent United States’s first naval vessels. Think about that. It’s not often that a two hundred year old news item still resonates so materially through the intervening centuries, is it?


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