What is this?
Personal letter from Lt. John Contee to Lewis Bush, recounting the death of Bush’s brother, Lt. William Sharp Bush, during Constitution’s engagement with HMS Guerriere.
When is it from?
Letter dated September 13th, 1812.
Why is it Important?
This is a poignant firsthand account of the wartime bravery and sacrifice of an officer during one of USS Constitution‘s greatest battles. The letter, addressed to the brother of Marine lieutenant William Bush, was written shortly after the event.
William Sharp 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 hostilities between the United States and Great Britain, he joined the crew of the Constitution and became the commander of its Marine complement. His junior officer was 2nd Lieutenant John Contee, a Maryland native and descendant of Richard Snowden, once the colony’s largest landholder. He was just 17 years old, and his high rank at such a young age was likely due to his family influence. On August 19, Constitution met and defeated British frigate HMSGuerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia. During the battle, Bush was shot and killed. He was buried at sea the next day, three weeks after his 26th birthday. Constitution returned to Boston Harbor on August 30, 1812 to unload its wounded and prisoners, as well as to repair and refit the ship for its next voyage. It was during this stay in Boston that Lewis Bush and Contee exchanged letters about Lt. Bush’s death.
Contee, who fought alongside Lt. Bush during Constitution‘s engagement with Guerriere, gives an account of Bush’s death in this short letter. Written in response to a query by Lt. Bush’s brother, Lewis Bush, Contee first expresses regret at having let more than a month pass since relating the circumstances of Lt. Bush’s death. His admiration for the man is obvious, describing him as “gallant,” “illustrious,” and “beloved” by all. At one point in the battle, the two warships unexpectedly came together, affording a chance for the marines to board the enemy ship and engage them in hand-to-hand combat. According to Contee’s account, as Lt. Bush leapt onto the taffrail and shouted “Shall I board her,” he received a fatal shot from a sniper’s musket and died.
The letter also addresses a more mundane aspect of the death of a soldier at war; Contee promises to return Lt. Bush’s belongings to the family soon. By the time he writes, Contee, who affixes his rank of “Lt. Marines” below his signature, has succeeded Lt. Bush as commander of Constitution‘s marines. He remained with Constitution, serving in the important victory against HMS Java in December 1812. Lewis Bush was presented William Bush’s posthumous Congressional Silver Medal for his service in the battle with Guerriere.
Contee resigned from the military in 1813 and returned to private life. He earned a Congressional Silver Medal for each of the two battles in which he served, and was awarded the honorific title of Colonel. In 1824, Contee married Anna Louisa Snowden, another member of that prominent Maryland lineage. He became a wealthy landowner and slaveholder, purchasing a tobacco plantation in the 1820s in present-day Edgewater, Maryland and listing 86 slaves as property in the 1840 census. The estate became known as the Java Plantation, a name which commemorated the ship whose capture in battle provided Contee enough bounty money to afford the land. The Contee mansion and farm complex, where ruins remain, is now an active Smithsonian archaeological and ecological research site. 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. After his death in 1839, his son, also John Contee, became a Navy lieutenant, and, like his father, was commended by Maryland for his gallantry in battle during the Mexican-American War.
8” x 10.” Handwritten letter in ink with one vertical crease and two horizontal creases; writing appears on both sides. Ink has faded somewhat, but is still legible. Some tears and stains on edges. Yellowed throughout, but especially on the left half of the front side, which has Lewis Bush’s address and was presumably facing outward when the letter was folded. It was reportedly valued so highly that a descendant of Bush carried it around folded in his pocket. The letter has undergone repairs to mend tears and clean stains and grime.
Correspondence Archives (PDF download)