Letter from John Contee to Lewis Bush, September 13, 1812
This short, handwritten letter is a poignant firsthand account of one officer’s bravery and sacrifice during USS Constitution‘s first battle in the War of 1812. The letter, from Marine Lieutenant John Contee to Lewis Bush, recounts the death of Lewis’ brother, Lt. William Sharp Bush, on August 19, 1812 during Constitution‘s battle with HMS Guerriere. Lt. Bush was the first United States Marine Corps officer to be killed in combat.
William Bush, a native of Wilmington, Delaware, was born in 1786. He was educated by a private tutor and originally apprenticed to be a merchant, but opted for farming instead. Farming soon lost its luster, however, and Bush joined the state militia in 1807, ascending to the rank of First Lieutenant in the Marine Corps by 1811. In June 1812, just a week before the formal declaration of war between the United States and Great Britain, he joined Constitution’s crew and took command of the Marine complement. His junior officer was 2nd Lieutenant John Contee, a Maryland native and descendant of Richard Snowden, once the colony’s largest landholder. Contee was just 17 years old, and his high rank at such a young age was likely due to his family influence.
On August 19, 1812, Constitution met and defeated the British frigate HMS Guerriere 600 miles east of Boston. During the battle, the two warships unexpectedly came together, affording a chance for Constitution’s Marines to board the enemy ship and engage in hand-to-hand combat. Lt. Bush was shot and killed while attempting to board. He was buried at sea the next day, three weeks after his 26th birthday. Constitution returned to Boston Harbor on August 30, 1812. It was during this stay in Boston that Lewis Bush and Contee exchanged letters.
Written in response to a query from Lewis Bush, Contee first expresses regret at having let more than a month pass since relating the circumstances of Lt. Bush’s death. Contee, who fought alongside the late Lieutenant during the engagement, goes on to describe how Bush leapt onto the taffrail and shouted “Shall I board her” before receiving a fatal shot to his left cheek bone from a sniper’s musket. Contee promises to return Lt. Bush’s belongings to the family soon.
By the time he wrote this letter, Contee had succeeded Lt. Bush as commander of Constitution‘s marines. He remained with Constitution and served in the victorious battle against HMS Java in December 1812. He earned a Congressional Silver Medal for each of the two battles and was awarded the honorific title of Colonel. Contee resigned from the military in 1813 and returned to private life. In 1824, he married Anna Louisa Snowden. He became a wealthy landowner and slaveholder, purchasing a tobacco plantation in the 1820s in present-day Edgewater, Maryland. The estate became known as the Java Plantation, a name that commemorated the ship whose capture provided Contee with enough prize money to afford the land. In 1830, the legislature of Maryland passed a unanimous resolution expressing its “high sense of the gallantry of John Contee” and granting him an honorary sword for his service. He died in 1839. The land in Maryland once owned by Contee is now part of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
Lewis Bush was presented with his brother’s posthumous Congressional Silver Medal for his service in the battle with Guerriere.