While the USS Constitution Museum’s collection contains many objects that inspire heartfelt affection, not too many of them conjure images of romantic dalliances or burning desire. All of that changed when we acquired a love letter written by none other than Captain John Rodgers. Rodgers joined the U.S. Navy in 1798, commanded USS Constitution at the end of the Barbary Wars, commanded the USS President when it battered the hapless Little Belt in 1811, barely missed capturing a British frigate at the outbreak of the War of 1812, and rendered some heroic service during the British invasion of the Chesapeake in 1814. In later years, he served as head of the Navy Board of Commissioners, commanded the U.S. Mediterranean squadron, and even spent a short stint as Secretary of the Navy.
In the winter of 1804, all of this was in the future, and all the 30-year-old Rodgers could think of was a dark-eyed beauty named Minerva Denison. The pair had first met at a party in 1802. Her first impression of the naval officer was not particularly favorable. Her mother thought “his countenance was dreadful, and that those black and heavy eyebrows gave him such a forbidding look that it made her tremble to look at him.”1
A few days later, Mrs. Denison met the captain again, and admitted that her first impression had been all wrong. He was “in fact so very kind,” and “his eyes and teeth were splendid, and … when in conversation his whole appearance was so bright it made him very fascinating.” The younger Denison apparently thought so too, and she soon encouraged Rodgers’ attentions. For her part, Denison must have been a real charmer. According to Charles Oscar Paullin in his 1910 biography of Rodgers, the 17-year-old Denison “was a most comely and amiable young woman, a blonde with ‘pretty yellow hair,’ and rather short in stature. She sang remarkably well, preferring the old ballads; and played the piano-forte with much skill and spirit. Of the English poets, she was partial to Gray, Thomson, and Pope.”2
Unfortunately, duty soon called and the smitten Rodgers was forced to sail to the Mediterranean in command of the frigate John Adams. For the next 13 months, his only contact with Denison was a series of passionate letters, in which he expressed his undying devotion to her. He returned to the United States in December 1803, and must have headed for Denison’s house as soon as he could. Evidently the young lady agreed to marry, but insisted that they had to wait a year. At the beginning of January, Rodgers reported for duty at the Washington Navy Yard. The next day, he sat down to pen a letter to his sweetheart:3
Washington Jany 2nd 1804
Ever Charming Girl
I arriv’d here on Sunday the First day of the present year, and now acknowledge with no less pride, than gratitude, that the Fair, chaste, unartful and Generous sentiments you express’d at our last parting can only be portray’d in your own likeness; and be assured that I shall forever set a Value on them such as Time, variety and a change of scenes, will assist me in appreciating with that unbounded respect and admiration which will always elevate you above every sordid View or earthly influence; and my Dear Minerva I do declare before the supreme altar of heaven that I would prefer ten thousand execrating Deaths sooner than knowingly subject myself to conduct which can in any way give you pain, or reason ever to repent your condescention to my wishes; I make those confessions, not only because it affords me pleasure, but to prove that I know how to estimate your Submission to my prayers; but I have still one request to make, which is, that you will have the condescention to consider whether it is necessary that a long twelve months should Elapse before I have the honor and happiness to receive your fair hand; If there is a real necessity for such postponement, I will patiently submit, yet permit me to entreat you to have compassion, as I now, Involuntarily, feel myself placed in the situation of a Fond lover with all the cares and anxieties of a doating husband when separated from a wife that is dearer to him than his own existence –Washington is, at present, very gay; yet I have been very little in the circle of gaiety since I saw you last, as all my leisure moments from my Duty (to my country) are solely engrosed by contemplations of you; every thing I do or hear becomes more and more indifferent when compared with the interest I feel in every thing that concerns you — I am so immersed in thought that I am scarcely able to write or, even, to speak; I therefore beg you to pardon this short scrawl and the next shall be better-
I am my Dear Minerva with all the Tender regards of a fond lover
PS Pray present my best regards to your good Mother and I would request you to do the same for me to Kitty Thomas if it was not inconsistent, for I love Kitty because I believe she loves you
Despite Rodgers’ entreaties, marriage had to wait until 1806. Even though the captain was frequently away at sea, the couple managed to have 11 children, several of whom went on to illustrious careers in the U.S. Navy. The family made their home at Sion Hill, the charming country house near Havre de Grace, Maryland, that Denison inherited from her father. John Rodgers died in 1838. Minerva outlived him by 40 years, and finally died in 1877 at the age of 93.
1 Paullin, Charles Oscar, Commodore John Rodgers: Captain, Commodore, and Senior Officer of the American Navy, 1773-1838. Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1910.
2 Paullin, Charles Oscar, Commodore John Rodgers: Captain, Commodore, and Senior Officer of the American Navy, 1773-1838. Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1910.
3 Letter from John Rodgers to Minerva Denison, January 2 1804. USS Constitution Museum Collection.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.