The USS Constitution is a sailing ship that fought in the War of 1812 and is still in active duty today.
What’s That Story?
The USS Constitution is America’s oldest and most famous ship. It is a wooden-hulled frigate with three masts. It was given the name of Constitution by George Washington after the document. Today, she is the oldest commissioned war vessel still afloat in the world. Ordered November 1st, 1794, she was launched October 21st, 1797, and set sail on her maiden voyage on July 22nd, 1798. She has sailed the world, fought in many battles, and today rests on display in the Charlestown Navy Yard in the harbor of Boston, Massachusetts. Today, the mission of the USS Constitution is to promote understanding of the Navy’s role in war and peace through educational outreach, historical demonstration, and active participation in public events. All officers and crew are active-duty, though assignment to the vessel is considered special duty.
In the mid 1780’s, Barbary Pirates from the Ottoman Empire began to seize merchant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. To address this problem, the United States provided funding to construct six frigates through the Naval Act of 1794. Joshua Humphrey was contracted to design the ships and proposed an unusual design. The ship was to have a long keel (backbone) that measures 150 feet long and narrow beam (or width) of 43 feet 6 inches, along with mounts for very heavy guns. This design utilized diagonal scantling (or ribbing) to restrict the among of hog and sag while allowing the ship to have heavy planking. Overall, this design allowed for a significantly lighter ship with greater strength. This light but strong design was Humphreys idea for the US Navy to combat the size and strength of the European Navies.
The USS Constitution gained international fame during the War of 1812 when under the command of Captain Isaac Hull, it took down the HMS Guerrire. The HMS Guerrire was a 38-gun frigate that originated with the French Navy, but was later captured and captained by the British in 1806. Once in range of the Constitution, the Guerrire opened fire and did little damage. The two ships circled each other exchanging fire until the Constitution opened up a full double-broadside round of grape-shot and round-shot that took out the Guerrire’s mast, limiting her movability and drug behind her in the water. The two ships then collided and tangled up together. While locked together, both captains ordered boarding parties into action, but the waves prevented either crew from boarding the other ships. While they were tangled, the Constitution to continued firing into the Guerrire. Two more masts went down.
To the astonishment of the British, the Constitution had been carrying heavier guns than the typical frigate of her size, and the ship appeared to not take damage as cannonballs bounced off her sides. Allegedly, an American sailor witnessing the battle proclaimed, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” and the Constitution gained the name “Old Ironsides”.
Once the smoke settled, the Guerriere was so badly damaged that she wasn’t worth hauling back as a prize, so the boat was abandoned and burned. Upon arriving back at port, Captain Hull and his crew were hailed as heroes. Over the course of the War of 1812, Old Ironsides went on to defeat the HMS Java, the HMS Cyane, and the HMS Levant.
The Constitution was built in an era where the average lifespan of usefulness in service of a ship was 10-15 years. When rumors began circulating in 1830 that the US Navy intended to scrap the Constitution, Oliver Wendell Holmes published his poem “Old Ironsides” and received national recognition as the public displayed displeasure with the rumor and started campaigns to save Old Ironsides. Her sister ship, the USS Congress was not spared, and was scrapped unceremoniously in 1835.
Old Ironsides was dry-docked in June of 1833 and began reconstruction under the command of Captain Jesse Elliott. While many parts of the ship were in dire need of repair, the pieces removed from the ship were crafted into souvenirs. Isaac Hull ordered walking canes, picture frames, and a phaeton (carriage) that was presented to President Andrew Jackson.
Meanwhile, Elliot had a new figurehead installed on the Constitution of President Jackson under the bowsprit, which was an unpopular move in Boston at the time. Elliot was a strong Jacksonian Democrat and received death threats for this action. Rumors began circulating that a mob would storm the shipyard and remove the figurehead themselves. Elliot had guards on duty to guard the Constitution, but a local merchant captain named Samuel Dewey accepted a small bet that he could still remove the figurehead. One night, under the cover of a storm, he rowed a small boat out to the Constitution and sawed off the head of Jackson. The severed head made its way through local taverns and remained on Dewey’s library shelf until he personally returned it to the Secretary of the Navy, Malhon Dickerson, many years later.
Between 1844 and 1846, the Constitution set sail for an Around-the-World Cruise, sailing 52,370.5 miles before returning for repairs in Boston. On August 1, 1849, Pope Pius IX set foot on the Constitution in Gaeta, Italy, meaning that since the USS Constitution is consider American Soil no matter where it is in the world, the Pope had set foot in America without having ever set foot in America. Along with the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II would also tour the ship many years later.
The 1900 restoration of the Constitution was initially led by the Massachusetts Society of the United Daughters of the War of 1812 but they did not succeed. In 1903, the Massachusetts Historical Society launched a campaign to have Congress fund the restoration. However, some members of the government had other plans. Secretary of the Navy Charles Joseph Bonaparte suggested the Constitution be towed out to sea and used as target practice before being allowed to sink. This word got out through the papers and businessman Moses H. Gulesian offered to buy the ship for $10,000 (equivalent to over a quarter million dollars today) but Congress refused. Another national campaign to save the ship began that spilled all over the country. By 1907, Congress had agreed to allot $100,000 ($2.5 M today) to restore the ship and it began service as a museum ship. She was renamed Old Constitution in 1917 as new ships were being built, however when the Washington Naval Treaty of 1923 was passed, the new ships were scrapped and the Constitution got her name back in 1925.
Since its launch over 220 years ago, the Constitution has undergone many restorations and repairs. According to the museum website, it is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the ship’s fabric is composed of timber installed between 1795 and 1797. The “original” wood includes the ship’s keel, lower futtocks, and the deadwood at the stem and stern.
Though the US Navy strives to keep the Constitution as close as practical to its original design, no one knows for sure what the ship looked like when it first set sail. The original draughts of the ship still exist, but it is known that the architects strayed from the blueprint over the years. The first known image of Old Ironsides is an artist’s rendering by Michel Felice Corné in 1803. The earliest known models didn’t emerge until 1812.
In 1997, on her 200th anniversary, the Constitution set sail unassisted for the first time in 116 years. She sailed for 40 minutes with true wind speeds of 4 knots (6.9 mph). Today, he is open for free tours to the public year round, and a privately run museum is seated nearby. Visitors can find the Constitution berthed at Pier One of the former Charlestown Navy yard at the end of Boston’s Freedom Trail.
- The USS Constitution can be visited, liberated, and flown across Boston in Bethesda’s hit videogame Fallout 4.
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