In bid to attract donors, U.S.F. Constellation Foundation changes its name

May 16, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

Hoping to win over maritime purists and reluctant potential donors, the U.S.F. Constellation Foundation has formally dumped the "U.S.F." -- for United States Frigate -- from its name.

The name change signals an end to more than 40 years of alterations to the ship and now-discredited historical research designed by the ship's former promoters to portray the vessel as a frigate built in 1797.

The foundation's recently reconstituted board has committed itself instead to restoring and presenting the ship on much sounder historical grounds -- as a sloop-of-war built in 1854, the last all-sail warship built for the Navy and the only one surviving from the Civil War era.

"The whole frigate thing is like a dead skunk around our necks, especially with the historical community," said Louis F. Linden, the foundation's executive director.

"It's very important that people understand that we're under new management, and that we are absolutely committed to historical accuracy and integrity," he said. "There is no question in my mind that the misinterpretation -- or as some people termed it, the 'frigate fraud' -- has been a serious impediment to obtaining funding."

The foundation is about to embark on a $3 million national fund-raising campaign to aid in restoration of the ship. A Navy inspection in 1993 found that its structure has badly deteriorated.

For decades, the Constellation's former protectors and promoters worked to portray the ship as the 1797 frigate. That would make it a few months older than the U.S.S. Constitution, in Boston, and the oldest U.S. Naval ship afloat.

They made structural changes to the ship to make it look more like an 18th-century frigate.

The changes only created a weird hybrid, however. They never fooled the experts and may have weakened the ship's structure.

The decision to embrace the ship's 1854 identity is a wise move, according to Patrick J. Hauck, program associate with the Mid-Atlantic regional office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The trust last fall designated the Constellation one of the nation's 11 most-endangered historic places.

"There have been some concerns [among potential donors] about misidentification of the history of the ship, and that the significance of the ship was somehow based on . . . misconceptions of its history," he said.

Promoting the ship as a Civil War relic should also win it support among the large and active community of Civil War buffs.

"The Quasi War with France doesn't quite evoke the same emotions that the Civil War does," Mr. Linden said.

The 1797 frigate Constellation first saw action in 1799 skirmishes with French warships in the Caribbean, called the "Quasi War."

Most naval historians now agree that the frigate was scrapped in 1854 in the same Portsmouth, Va., naval yard where the sloop-of-war Constellation was being built to replace it.

The new ship later joined an international squadron assigned to stop the slave trade in West Africa. And in May 1861, the Constellation made the first naval capture of the Civil War, stopping the slave ship Triton, out of Charleston, S.C., as it sailed in West African waters.

The crew didn't know it yet, but the war had begun at Fort Sumter 5 1/2 weeks earlier.

There is little, if any, dispute that the ship now docked at Pier 1 in Baltimore is the same Constellation built in 1854.

Although much of its planking, beams and decking have been replaced, most of its original frames have survived.

Despite the foundation's name change, the organization is not yet ready to change its telephone number -- 539-1797.

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