Miniature ships drop anchor in Naval Academy gallery ANNAPOLIS/SOUTH COUNTY--Davidsonville * Edgewater * Shady Side * Deale

March 01, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

The tiny warship was carved crudely from pieces of bone, its gun holes scraped out with fragments of glass, its rigging strung with human hair.

It was fashioned from primitive materials, yet the miniature ship behind glass at the U.S. Naval Academy is a testimony to the human spirit. French prisoners of war built the model of a 44-gun frigate while being held captive by the British during the Anglo-French Wars between 1756 and 1815.

"They turned their hardship into opportunity," said Maj. Grant H. Walker, a history instructor at the Naval Academy. "At first, these were very crude, not accurate replicas of the ship, but just a best guess. Later on, the prisoners got to the point where they actually had assembly lines."

A half dozen of the intricately crafted vessels ranging from less than a foot to about 4 feet long, carved from the bones of the prisoners' beef rations, are on display in the Class of 1951 Gallery of Ships, a new wing at the academy museum.

The recently opened gallery in the museum basement also houses 25 miniature wooden battleships, including many "dockyard models," which were built to scale after British Navy vessels from 1600 to the 1830s.

Henry H. Rogers, a colonel in the Army and a wealthy industrialist, became fascinated by the historic model ships during World War I. He bought his first three from an English antique dealer in 1917 and steadily increased his collection over the next decade.

By the time of his death in 1935, he owned more than 100 miniature ships. Among them were 40 dockyard models, representing British warships of the 1700s and 1800s. He also collected 19th-century clipper ships and whalers, as well as many of the French prisoner-of-war models.

"In many cases, the [models] were built absolutely to scale, so if someone from the Navy board wanted to see how the ship was going [during construction], he could look at the model," said Kenneth J. Hagan, a history professor and museum director.

Major Walker said the ships "did have a utilitarian purpose," but they quickly became collectors items.

Congress gave the Rogers collection together with a valuable series of maritime prints to the academy in 1938. The model ships were displayed in buildings across the Annapolis campus until the Class of 1951 gave the academy $210,000 to build the museum wing. The alumni group also donated a $350,000 sustaining endowment.

Robert F. Sumrall, the curator, displayed the models to show the changes in British warships over the years.

At the entrance of the gallery are three models that illustrate the trends in battleships. The first two have elaborate baroque designs made of gold. But as seen in the third model, the Navy became concerned about the cost of the gold paint and intricate carvings and ordered captains in 1703 to cut back on the trimmings.

One of the most brilliantly carved ships on display is a model of the 1773 Princess Royal. Every detail, from the officers' cabins to the latrines, has been included.

The Gallery of Ships is at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, Gate 3 in Annapolis. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

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