USS Constellation IX-20
By Steve Shay (L-10,821)
Some of the joy of collecting naval covers comes from the stories that come from researching the cover. This cover presents a couple of interesting stories.
Today, the USS Constellation is a museum ship in Baltimore harbor. To this day there is some disagreement over whether the ship can trace her history to the frigate launched in 1797 or whether she is a new USS Constellation built as a sloop in 1854. For decades the Navy claimed that she was the original frigate USS Constellation rebuilt in 1854. Researchers in 1991 laid out research to show that the ship is indeed the second Constellation with the conclusion that the frigate and sloop were two different ships. A 2006 book, “USS Constellation: from frigate to sloop of war”, laid out more research to show that the frigate was indeed rebuilt into a sloop in 1854 and is the same ship as the frigate launched in 1797 albeit rebuilt and modified.
In either case, the current ship USS Constellation became a training ship in 1894 for the Naval Training Center in Newport, Rhode Island. She was designated as the relief flagship for Admiral Ernest J King on May 21, 1941 while he was Commander in Chief of the US Atlantic Fleet. With his appointment as Chief of Naval Operations at the beginning of 1942, the ship continued as the relief flagship for Vice Admiral Royal Ingersoll from January 19, 1942 until July 20, 1942 and then again during 1943-1944. The ship would be decommissioned in 1955 and eventually turned into the museum ship she is today.
This cover with the ship’s Type 3 cancel marks the first day of re-establishing the post office on board. (Constellation had postal service during the 1908-1919 period.) This event is noted by the mark to the left of the postmark and is noted in the stuffer enclosed in the envelope. The date, February 9, marked the 143 rd anniversary of the victory of the USS Constellation over the French Frigate Insurgente. The stuffer information notes that production of the cachet was limited to maintain the dignity of the occasion and that 5 would be reserved for each officer and 2 for each enlisted man serving on the Constellation.
When researching this cover, it was found in the Catalog of United States Naval Postmarks that the date of re-establishing the post office was noted as December 10, 1941. Correspondence with Dave Kent found that the Postal Bulletin did provide the December 10, 1941 date. Perhaps this is the official date and that in practice the post office began service on February 9. Compounding the mystery is that the Catalog also shows a December 10, 1941 date for the First Day of Postal Service with the Type 3 cancel. Dave found that the 1952 Billing Handbook was the first catalog to report this event and listed it as “Dec. 1941”. The republished “C” section in the 1960’s by Jim Russell upgraded the listing to “Dec. 10”. Research in the ANCS Navigators of the period found that the April-May 1942 issue reported a FDPS for Constellation of February 10. The March 1946 issue contained a Constellation cover in the auction listing as “Constellation, Type 3 A BTT 2/10/42. First day mail.” Who has a cover dated December 10, 1941 or February 10, 1942?
Also of interest is that the Type cancel was a “name” cancel and not a “US Navy” z type cancel thought it was clearly used 2months after the entry of the US into the war. The Catalog shows that Constellation was issued z type cancels in 1942. The type 3 used on the cover certainly is more appealing than a z type. And the mark to the left of the postmark? It was used as a postmark in 1947 with the addition of a date in the dial and the “Commemorating First Day of Post Office” wording moved to the left of the dial.