History for the Rest of Us

USS Constitution

USS Constitution

Mar 13, 2013

The USS Constitution was one of the original six frigates of the United States Navy and is perhaps the most famous ship in US History. US President John Adams was in attendance when it first launched from Edmund Hartts shipyard in Boston Massachusetts on October 21, 1797. The ship was named in honor of the then-new US Constitution by President George Washington. The copper bolts and breasthooks of the ship were forged by Paul Revere.

In Battle
The Constitution captured the French merchant ship Niger during the Quasi-War and was involved in the defeat of the Barbary pirates in the First Barbary War. During the War of 1812 the Constitution defeated four British warships: HMS Guerriere, HMS Java, HMS Cyane, and HMS Levant. She was given the nickname of ‘Old Ironsides’ after her encounter with the HMS Guerriere. To the astonishment of the crew, during the battle many of the shots from the Guerriere rebounded harmlessly off the hull of the Constitution’s hull. Reportedly, an American sailor shouted, “Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!”.

USS Constitution Attack on Tripoli

Depiction of Commodore Edward Preble's squadron engaging the Tripolitan gunboats and fortifications during the afternoon of 3 August 1804. U.S. Navy vessels shown in the foreground are, from left to right: schooner Enterprise, schooner Nautilus, brig Argus, brig Siren (or Syren), schooner Vixen, mortar boat Dent, gunboat Somers, frigate Constitution (Preble's flagship), mortar boat Robinson, and gunboat Blake. Attacking the enemy flotilla in the center background are Lieutenant Stephen Decatur's three gunboats and a gunboat commanded by Lieutenant James Decatur, who was killed in this action.

Saved from being Scrapped
On September 16, 1830, a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was published as a tribute to the USS Constitution. Two days earlier, an article had appeared in the Boston Advertiser claiming that the Navy intended to scrap the Constitution. Public indignation was ignited and efforts to save ‘Old Ironsides’ were successful. The poem written by Holmes is as follows:

Aye tear her tattered ensign down
long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon’s roar;–
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
Or know the conquered knee;–
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!’

The Constitution made a circumnavigation of the globe in the 1840s and served as a training ship for the United States Naval Academy during the American Civil War. She was designated a museum ship in 1907. In 1931 she made a three-year, 90-port tour of the United States. To celebrate her 200th anniversary in 1997, a proposal was approved to prepare her to sail under her own power for the first time in 116 years. On July 20, 1997 ‘Old Ironsides’ sailed with embarked dignitaries that included the Secretary of the Navy, US Senators Kennedy and Kerry and journalist Walter Cronkite.

'Old Ironsides' sails for the first time in 116 years

'Old Ironsides' sails for the first time in 116 years with a fly-over by the Blue Angels.

Old Ironsides

'Old Ironsides' as seen from the accompanying destroyer USS Ramage as it sets sail in July 1997.

NOTE: The author had the privilege of sailing in the USS Ramage, the destroyer that accompanied ‘Old Ironsides’ on her bicentennial voyage in 1997, and is a descendant of Commodore Edward Preble.