The sun was shining down on Charlestown Thursday as it commemorated Bunker Hill Day, the anniversary of the American Revolution’s Battle of Bunker Hill. This occasion was special for a two reasons. First, it was taking place in person after 15 months of the pandemic. And, second, three historic guestbooks dating back to the Civil War made their homecoming back to the Bunker Hill Monument.
In April, the Boston Globe reported that a collection of Bunker Hill guestbooks, signed by Mary Todd Lincoln and other high profile Civil War figures, were being sold at an auction. As the Globe noted, this came as a surprise to Charlestown historians and the Bunker Hill Monument Association itself, which didn’t realize the artifacts were “no longer in its possession.”
Today, three of those guestbooks returned home, thanks to a “patriotic philanthropist” named David Rubenstein, an attorney and co-founder of The Carlyle Group, an investment group headquartered in Washington, D.C. Rubenstein bought the books at auction with the goal of donating them back to be displayed at the Bunker Hill Museum.
In a ceremony at the foot of the Bunker Hill Monument, Julie Hall, president of the Charlestown Historical Society, explained that the books, with their prominent signatures, were kept at the monument to keep a log of important guests.
“This monument was so important that people like presidents and senators and people of great importance would come and actually write their name — they were a part of history,” she said.
Seth Kaller, a historic document dealer from New York, facilitated Rubenstein’s purchase. He presented the guestbooks to Arthur Hurley, president of the Bunker Hill Monument Association, saying he hopes the gift will increase awareness of American history.
“The real reason David Rubenstein immediately said yes [to buying the books and donating them] is because they’re meaningful here,” he said. “This is a place that is important to all of America and therefore important to the whole world.”
The ceremony featured several speakers who touched on the historic theme of “forming a perfect union,” including Rep. Daniel Ryan, who represents Charlestown in the State House.
“The founding fathers knew they didn’t have it right,” he said. “But they set the foundation so we could continue to build a more perfect union in which everybody is involved and everyone is represented.”
Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards used the occasion to acknowledge another important holiday, celebrating Black freedom.
“If you’ve been in Charlestown for more than 5 minutes ever, you’ll hear the same saying: ‘There is no 4th of July without Bunker Hill Day, June 17th,’” Edwards said. “You’ll hear that over and over again. But I also want to say... not only is there no July 4th, there’s also no June 19th, which is Juneteenth, without Bunker Hill Day as well.”
Charlestown resident and military veteran Christiane Wolff was at the ceremony, and said she hopes the books’ homecoming will inspire students to learn more about American history.
“As a former teacher, I just don’t think they’re teaching enough in the schools… events like this — history becomes alive,” she said. “The little kids see it and it makes a really dramatic impression.”