Skip to main content

The Navy Department Library

Related Content
Document Type
Wars & Conflicts
File Formats
  • Image (gif, jpg, tiff)
Location of Archival Materials


America's Naval Heritage

A Catalog of Early Imprints from the Navy Department Library

Near the center of the Washington Navy Yard, nestled in the Dudley Knox building complex, known as the Naval Historical Center, is a 19th-century vault. Within that vault rest the rare books and manuscripts of the Navy Department Library. Cared for and managed by Librarian Jean Hort and her faithful staff, hundreds of printed works of American and foreign origin await discovery.

As might be expected, among the books and documents are a number of rare early imprints related to the founding of the American Navy. Author Thomas Truxtun Moebs, named for his famous ancestor, Captain Thomas Truxtun, U.S. Navy, and himself a prodigious sailor who has crossed the Atlantic Ocean more than once in his sloop, has captured over three hundred titles in this masterfully created catalog. Its pages yield the early treasures in the collection, such as Truxtun's Remarks, Instructions, and Examples Relating to the Latitude & Longitude, the first published work of an American naval officer describing the professional duties of his shipmates, and the first to print a likeness of a 44-gun frigate. Congress authorized construction of three of these frigates in 1794, the very year Truxtun's work was published.

The collection contains the exceedingly rare first printed American signal book, Instructions, Signals, and Explanations, Ordered for the United States Fleet, published by Truxtun in 1797 - apparently the author's copy with his signature, manuscript notes, and several pages illustrated with hand-colored signals. A manuscript entry in Truxtun's hand states that it was with him in the frigate Constellation on April 3, 1797, five months before she was launched in Baltimore!

Tom Moebs' thorough cataloging has identified a number of uncommon documents, including the 1798 Plan for Establishing a General Marine Society that also contains "Remarks on the Establishment of the Navy of the United States, and of the Plan for Recording and Registering the Seamen Thereof"; Thomas Paine's 1801 Compact Maritime that harbors a treatise . . . for the Protection of Neutral Commerce, and Securing the Liberty of the Seas, and ordinary seaman John Rea's 1802 remarkable dissertation, A Letter to William Bainbridge, Esqr., Formerly Commander of the United States Ship George Washington: Relative to Some Transactions, On Board Said Ship, alleging Bainbridge's mistreatment of the crew in the frigate George Washington during her infamous 1800 Mediterranean voyage transporting tribute to the Dey of Algiers.

The collection of early governmental rules, regulations, and instructions for the Navy features the first separately printed regulations approved by Congress, Naval Regulations Issued by the Command of the President of the United States of America, January 25, 1802, signed in manuscript by Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith; a unique manuscript of hand-colored flags with associated instructions relative to the Gulf navy titled A Code of Signals, by David Porter, Commanding Officer, New Orleans Stations, Adopted There by Authority of the Navy Department in 1809; and the rare Regulations for the Navy of the Confederate States, first printed in Richmond, Virginia, in 1862.

To these treasures add the first treatise on military medicine published by American naval surgeon Edward Cutbush, the 1808 Observations of the Means of Preserving the Health of Soldiers, and Sailors; and on the Duties of the Medical Department of the Army and Navy; a previously unrecorded, firsthand account of the Mexican War action, the Siege and Bombardment of Vera Cruz, and Surrender of That City . . . 29th March, 1847, whose author, J.M.G., participated in that battle as a crewmember in the frigate Potomac, and Boatswain William Brady's The Naval Apprentice's Kedge Anchor; or Young Sailor's Assistant, the scarce 1841 first edition of a ubiquitous manual for American naval apprentices reprinted in no less than eighteen editions over the next half century.

The catalog represents a milestone for the Naval Historical Center as it presents to the public exciting samples heretofore unrecorded in any similar bibliography. From unique manuscript cruise journals of the early sailing navy to original blueprints for the first successful U.S. submarine design,from the original rules and regulations adopted for the Naval Academy at Annapolis to the 1895 laws regulating the first naval reserve, the rare books and manuscripts of the Navy Department Library present an eclectic mix of titles on the United States Navy.

George W. Emery
Vice Admiral
U.S. Navy (Retired)

Published: Thu Sep 15 12:22:26 EDT 2016