What is this?
This is a sword and scabbard whose inscription indicates that it was presented by the “Citizens of New York” to USS Constitution Lieutenant Beekman Verplaenk Hoffman for his role in the capture of the Guerriere in August 1812.
When is it from?
Why is it Important?
Beekman Hoffman’s sword is an excellent example of the eagle-head swords unique to the United States military in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These swords are now highly sought-after collectors’ items.
However, conclusive information on the donors, recipient, and manufacturer(s) of the sword is astonishingly hard to find, given the wealth of information available usually available on collectors’ items like these swords. An expert on swords might find it interesting to puzzle out its maker.
It is likely that Hoffman received the sword thanks as much to his social position as to his naval heroics. Beekman Verplaenk Hoffman (1789-1834) was a member of some of New York’s most prolific and well-connected Knickerbocker families, whose earliest antecedents arrived in New Amsterdam from the Holland and the Rhineland in the 1640s and 1650s. Beekmans, Verplaenks and Hoffmans are well-represented in histories of New Amsterdam and colonial New York.
Though Hoffman was later promoted to master and post-captain, his service as lieutenant on Constitution seems to have been the pinnacle of his career. He saw fifteen minutes of fame in 1813 when he clashed in print with Commodore William Bainbridge. As part of the ongoing debate in the American press over the true number of U.S. seamen impressed into Britain’s Royal Navy (Federalists claimed Republicans’ estimates were inflated), Hoffman swore that he encountered dozens on the Java as part of the boarding party when the ship was taken. Bainbridge, however, took exception to Hoffman’s statement, and forced him to issue a retraction. Both the initial statement and the retraction were printed in newspapers from Maine to South Carolina.
Beekman appeared in the press again in 1815 as prize-master of the Cyane, which he captained into New York Harbour to great fanfare from the Knickerbocker elite of New York. After the war, he captained several South American cruises before succumbing to a “dropsical affliction of the chest” (almost certainly edema due to congestive heart failure) at his home in Jamaica (Queens) in 1834. He was forty-six.
Considerable effort failed to turn up the identity of the donors of the sword.
The inscription on the sword describes the givers as the “citizens of New York,” but does not specify New York City or New York State, or some voluntary organization.
Given Hoffman’s social standing, his reception by Manhattan merchants on his return as prize-master of the Cyane, and his involvement in Manhattan banking after concluding his naval career, it seemed very plausible that the donors were the City of New York. At the time New York City was a private corporation much like London or the Hanse Towns, in which merchants purchased the “freedom of the city,” which brought with it full commercial privileges and representation in city governance. The term “citizen” in the English language was first used to describe members of a city, not a nation.
But though the City of New York was responsible for a number of presentation items for War of 1812 heroes, most of its gifts were gold boxes containing honorary “freedoms” of the city. Moreover, the Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, the corporation’s governing body, contain no reference to Hoffman, though they do authorize expenditure on gifts for several other War of 1812 heroes.
Reference to Beekman Hoffman and his sword are also absent in the Journals of the Assembly and Senate of the State of New York, which indicates that the state legislature did not authorize the manufacture of the sword. Resolutions authorizing expenditure on presentation items for Hull, Jones, Decatur, and Bainbridge were easily located. Contemporary newspapers offer no clue, either, though a Poughkeepsie newspaper noted in 1817 that prominent figures of Dutchess County, in upstate New York, presented him with “with a very handsome service of plate, as a testimonial of his gallantry in the late war.”
The makers of the sword remain equally mysterious. What is particularly odd is that the sword and scabbard show design elements characteristic of two well-known craftsmen who worked in different cities and were not known to collaborate.
An expert that the museum consulted in the early 1990s noted that the “grapevine motif” in the ferrule band around the mouth of the scabbard is characteristic of a Philadelphia manufacturer, F. W. Widmann who made many similar eagle-headed naval swords.
On the other hand, the knuckle guard on the sword itself is virtually identical to one manufactured by Manhattan metalworker John Targee (see Mowbray, p. 221). The shape is identical, and the lion head motif is very distinctive. Moreover, the Targee sword is one of twelve commissioned in 1814 by the State of New York for military leaders who had commanded troops within state boundaries. The Hoffman sword also shares the downturned shell on the hilt. The New York connection is suggestive, but not conclusive.
It is also worth noting that the relatively few American artisans who worked in precious metals frequently did collaborative work, so it is possible that both Widmann and Targee contributed to Beekman’s gift. Moritz Furst, the die-sinker responsible for engraving the dies for several of the congressional medals for War of 1812 heroes, probably engraved the images on several of the Targee swords, while Fletcher & Gardiner (of Hull urn fame) also collaborated with Targee on several items.
Text © 2010 USS Constitution Museum
The sword grip is made of carved ivory; the rest of the hilt is silver with gilt wash. The pommel is in the shape an eagle’s head, while the large and unusually ornate knuckle bow is decorated with a lion’s head and floral designs. The blade is steel with blue and gilt designs. Dimensions are a) D:36.75″ W: 3″ at handle; b)D:32.25″; both D:37.50.”
The scabbard is a hollow tube of bronze, heavily decorated on the obverse and divided into four major panels. The top panel bears the shorter of two inscriptions:
CITIZENS OF NEW YORK TO LIEUT. B. V. HOFFMAN
The second panel from the top has an engraving of Neptune, holding a trident, riding on a sleigh drawn by two sea horses, with small figures ahead blowing horns. The third panel has a relief design showing the Constitution and the Guerriere in action. The fourth and lowest panel bears a relief design of a large anchor and shield with battle trophies. An expert consulted when the museum acquired the sword suggested that this was the shield of Rhode Island.
The reverse bears the longer inscription:
THIS SWORD IS PRESENTED BY THE CITIZENS OF NEW YORK TO LIEUT. B. V. HOFFMAN OF THE UNITED STATES FRIGATE CONSTITUTION IN TESTIMONY OF HIS VALOUR WHEN ASSISTING IN THE CAPTURE OF THE BRITISH FRIGATE GUERRIERE IN THE EVER MEMORABLE 18TH DAY OF AUGUST, 1812 [sic].