As America celebrates the birthday of the US Navy, historically documented as October 13, 1775, my husband and I learned about some French Napoleonic history at the US Naval Academy Museum.
Keeping my eyes open for French history is naturally a hobby of mine.
Therefore, when my husband and I travel, it’s rare when I don’t find something about the French culture to write about. Frankly, French history and culture are usually found close to the surface in nearly everyplace we’ve ever visited. Such was the case when we recently visited the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.
An interesting and one of the most well-know exhibits of the Naval Academy Museum is the collection of more than 20 model ships constructed almost entirely of bone by French prisoners of war, during the Napoleonic Wars (under the French leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte fought between circa 1800-1815).
Although not specifically U.S. Navy history, the miniature ships collection, nevertheless, helps to set the stage for understanding the conditions into which the American Navy was born. The U.S. Navy traces its roots back to the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), when privateers were hired by the colonies to attack British commerce, in the early days of growing conflict with England.
On Oct. 13, 1775, the Continental Congress established an official naval force, hoping a small fleet of boats would be able to offset the seemingly intractable sea power of the British.
Story boards in the Naval Academy Museum provided the French history behind the miniature ships exhibit.
Following the American Revolution, a series Wars of the French Revolution and Empire (1793-1815), caused thousands of French sailors and soldiers to be captured and taken to England. They were incarcerated in often deplorable conditions, for years on end. To pass the time during their captivity, many of the French began hand-crafting trinkets from materials they found in the prison yards. British officials encouraged the practice, permitting them to sell their wares to members of the public at open-air markets in the prison courtyards or in nearby villages.
With their profits, the prisoners bought food or clothing from town merchants.
In fact, the French prisoners of war (POWs) made a variety of objects from the simplest of materials like wood, straw and the bones from their beef rations. They held their constructed crafts together with hide glue and tiny tacks. Their work was done alone or in teams, producing decorative boxes, straw hats, game boards and toys such as miniature spinning wheels and even tiny guillotines.
Among the most detailed of the French creations were the countless ship models constructed while in captivity. These ranged in size from impossibly tiny gems to large and imposing models, more than four feet long. In the Naval Academy Museum collection are nearly every size and style of ship model produced by the ingenious French prisoners.
The following description about the collecton is posted on the US Naval Academy Museum website: https://www.usna.edu/Museum/collections/rogers/index.php
Visits to the US Naval Academy Museum can be scheduled at this site: https://www.usna.edu/Museum/Visitors.php
This museum is beautifully maintained. Entry is free and open to the public when visitors are received on the campus, or by appointments. My husband and I were there during a campus open house weekend.