French miniature ships exhibit at U.S. Naval Academy

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.

Lord Horatio Nelson at USNA

Richard L’Heureux and Juliana L’Heureux at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, alongside a statue of Lord Horatio Nelson, a famous British naval officer who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

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.

Miniature ships

Miniature ships exhibit in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum

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).

French POW figure at USNA Museum

French POW miniature ships model makers, exhibit figure, in the U.S. Naval Academy museum, Annapolis MD.

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.

USNA wall mural

Story boards and a wall mural painting describe the history of the miniature ships exhibit,at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis MD

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:

Visits to the US Naval Academy Museum can be scheduled at this site:

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.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.