In 1797 an act of Congress created the United States Navy and authorized the construction of six frigates to fill the role of its capital ships. Three of the frigates were designed to be the heaviest and most powerfully armed ships of their type ever built. They were President, United States, and Constitution. A fourth, Chesapeake, was planned, but later reduced in size during construction. Named by President Washington they included innovative designs in their framing, were built of materials including southern live oak, and carried (by design) 44 guns, though in practice they each carried many more. The ships were the centerpiece of a fleet built to protect American trade from the depredations of the Barbary Pirates, signaling national determination to end the shame of paying tribute to Islamic terrorists of the seas.
The young American Navy performed well against French privateers and warships during the Quasi-War with revolutionary France; ended the piracy in the Mediterranean against American trade; challenged the British Royal Navy over the latter’s practice of conscripting sailors on the high seas. During the War of 1812 American victories against British ships, formerly believed to be invincible, were a source of national pride and boosted American morale. Chief among the heroes of the War of 1812 were the officers of the American navy, and USS Constitution gained immortality for its exploits at sea, both in battle and in eluding superior British squadrons. Constitution, enshrined in Boston Harbor, remains a symbol of pride for the United States, and the Navy which it served so valiantly. Here are 10 reasons why.
10. The ship was a triumph of American shipbuilding and design
The design of Constitution and its sister ships was innovative and controversial in its day. The United States Navy was using the frigate design for its heaviest ships, rather than the larger and more powerfully armed ship of the line. Designer Joshua Humphreys envisioned frigates carrying heavier guns than the typical design of the day, and more of them. It was his intent that the American frigates could outgun ships of their class, and outrun those more powerful. He designed a hull supported by diagonal beams running fore and aft, which supported heavier planking on the outer hull, heavier decks above, and a longer hull which delivered more speed through the water but did not sag or hog (flex inordinately) as a result of the pressures upon the keel.
The design was controversial among conservative shipbuilders, and the construction was plagued with cost overruns, the beginning of another US Navy tradition which has endured over time. Working with live oak proved difficult. Boston shipbuilder Edmund Hartt consumed about 60 acres of trees building the ship and its lower masts, under the supervision of US Navy Captain Samuel Nicholson. The hull was sheathed with copper, forged by Boston’s Paul Revere. Most of the wood used in completing the ship came from South Carolina and Georgia’s swamps. When the ship was ready for launch in 1797, it proved too heavy to slide down the ways. Three separate attempts were required before the ship successfully entered the waters of Boston Harbor on October 21, 1797.
9. Constitution encountered difficulties in completing the ship and its early cruises
Sailing ships were launched with only their lower masts installed, and top hamper – topmasts, topgallant masts, yards, and all the necessary rigging – needed completion before the ship was seaworthy. It also needed to be armed. The forty-four guns which the ship was designed to carry, thirty 24 pound cannons on its gun deck and fourteen 32 pound carronades on the spar deck above, were not available during its initial cruise. In May 1798, Constitution and the other ships of the Navy were ordered to sea to protect American ships from the privateers and naval vessels of Revolutionary France, which was at war with Great Britain. Constitution was forced to borrow cannon from the Army, taking 16 guns from the fort on Castle Island in Boston Harbor.
The borrowed guns were 18 pounders, rendering the weight of metal Constitution could unleash upon an enemy vessel considerably less than as designed. Nonetheless, the ship put to sea under Captain Nicholson in July, patrolling the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. In August the ship took the first prize of its career, a ship sailing with a French crew, though allegedly under British orders. The United States government later apologized and paid Great Britain restitution. The following year Nicholson encountered another British vessel which had been captured by the French. Under the rules of war it was a legitimate prize for Constitution, but Nicholson released the vessel, possibly confused by the politics of the earlier incident. For the rest of the Quasi-War, Constitution performed routine patrols in company of other ships of the growing US Navy.
8. The First Barbary War was a response the seizure of hostages for ransom
In October of 1802 Constitution was placed in ordinary – laid up – in Boston, with the vessel’s upper masts removed, tenting covering the decks, and no crew aboard. During the preceding year the Bashaw of Tripoli, to whom the United States paid tribute to prevent his ships from preying on American vessels, learned that he was receiving less money than the United States was paying the Bey of Algiers for similar reasons. Extremely put off at the perceived insult, he demanded an increase, and to reinforce his demand Tripolitan ships began seizing American, and holding their crews and passengers hostage. In response, President Jefferson ordered a naval squadron to the Mediterranean to protect American shipping and force a treaty on the Bashaw, under which no further tribute would be paid.
Constitution was ordered to join the squadron in 1803, but after its period of inactivity it required extensive maintenance before the ship was seaworthy. Its copper sheathing was replaced, with sheets from Revere’s new rolling mill in North Boston. Under the command of Captain (later Commodore) Edward Preble, Constitution entered the Mediterranean in September 1803, after a voyage in which it encountered a British vessel in the dark and narrowly avoided exchanging shots in a confused incident of misidentification. Preble first arranged a treaty with the Sultan of Morocco at Tangiers, his demands backed by Constitution’s guns, before sailing with the American squadron to Tripoli, where he found the Tripolitans more intransigent than the Moroccans.
7. Preble established America’s first naval support facilities in the Mediterranean
With Constitution serving as the flagship of the American Navy for much of the Barbary War, support bases were needed for refitting and resupplying the American fleet. Preble established such facilities at Syracuse, Malta, and other ports. Constitution remained in the Mediterranean, under different commanders, until 1807. During the relative period of peace following the treaty with Tripoli in 1805, Constitution remained in the region with a greatly reduced American squadron ensuring the terms were enforced. Meanwhile the Napoleonic wars intensified, and the British need for sailors to crew their ships led them to stop ships of all neutral countries, including the United States, to search for British born seamen and press them into service.
In 1807 USS Chesapeake sailed from Norfolk to relieve Constitution, encountered HMS Leopard at sea, and was fired into by the British ship when it refused to stop and be searched. When Constitution learned of the incident at Malaga, its commander, Captain Hugh Campbell, began preparations for war with Great Britain. Its crew, weary of the long deployment, mutinied by refusing to work the ship bound for any destination other than the United States. Campbell suppressed the mutiny by ordering the ship’s officers and Marines to fire the carronades at the assembled crew. The mutinous seamen complied grudgingly with their orders, and the closest thing to a full mutiny ever to occur on a US Naval ship ended without violence. In September Constitution was ordered home, and the ship arrived in Boston in October after a commission of over four years.
6. Constitution’s great escape in the summer of 1812
Constitution remained in commission for most of the remaining years before the outbreak of the War of 1812. In 1810 Captain Isaac Hull assumed command, carrying the newly appointed American Ambassador to France, Joel Barlow, to that country. While closely watched by British ships engaged in the blockade of the European coast, Hull prepared his ship for war with sailing and gunnery drills. By early 1812 the ship was in Annapolis, where it remained until war was declared by the United States in June. Hull put to sea in July, ordered to rendezvous with an American squadron under the command of Commodore John Rodgers. Instead, the ship encountered a squadron of British ships, a ship of the line and four frigates. Shortly after the sighting the ships were becalmed.
The British ships bore down on Constitution using their boats to tow them, and the Americans attempted to escape in the same manner. The British held the advantage of being able to replace oarsmen of their lead frigates with crew of the larger ships, which remained behind to await the wind. Hull used his boats to haul the ship’s anchors forward, drop them, and then the crew aboard Constitution used the capstan to pull the ship ahead. He also opened fire on the British boats, and pumped most of his ship’s drinking water over the side. On July 19, after a back breaking pursuit of nearly sixty hours, Constitution caught the wind, and the lightened ship out-sailed the British pursuit, arriving at the safety of Boston on July 27. One of the British ships which vainly participated in the chase was HMS Guerriere.
5. Constitution earns the nickname “Old Ironsides”
Hull did not remain in Boston for long, replenishing his water and other supplies and putting to sea on August 2, bound for the British convoy routes off Halifax, and then towards Bermuda. On August 19 a single British frigate, Guerriere, was sighted and Constitution maneuvered to engage the enemy. Guerriere fired several broadsides as Constitution closed, with most missing entirely, and the shots which struck bounced off the stout oak sides of the American ship. According to tradition, an American crewman cried out the sides were made of iron, and the nickname Old Ironsides was born. The tale is likely apocryphal and the name was probably introduced by florid press accounts of the battle later that summer.
Constitution rapidly reduced the British ship to a floating wreck, dismasted, holed below the waterline, and unable to maneuver. For a time the ships were entwined, with the British bowsprit tangled in Constitution’s rigging, but the heavy seas prevented either side from boarding the other. The British surrendered, an almost unheard of action in 19th century naval affairs. Hull badly wanted to take his prize into Boston, but it was too heavily damaged from the shot of his guns, and the British ship was burned. Constitution’s hull may have been impenetrable, but its masts were not, and Hull was forced to bring his ship back to Boston for repairs, with the lower masks weakened from British shot. The news of the improbable victory against the British navy spread across the nation in a frenzy; Isaac Hull was an immediate national hero, and Constitution became the focus of intense national pride and patriotic furor.
4. “Her thunders shook the mighty deep…”
The British largely sniffed at the loss of Guerriere and the American victory, claiming that the ship was in a poor state of readiness and barely seaworthy when the encounter occurred. In September 1812 William Bainbridge took command of Constitution and sailed on October 27, unaware that two days earlier USS United States, under Stephen Decatur, had defeated another British frigate, HMS Macedonian, and taken it as a prize into the United States Navy. On December 29, after cruising for several weeks off the coast of Brazil, Constitution encountered the British frigate HMS Java. Constitution had its helm shot away and suffered severe damage to its rigging during the early part of the action, but managed to shoot away Java’s mizzenmast, and withdraw for emergency repairs.
Once the rigging was repaired, Constitution again closed with its opponent, which had been severely damaged during the earlier fighting. Seeing the big American frigate returning to finish the action the British Captain, Henry Lambert, surrendered. Bainbridge had been wounded twice in the battle. His officers surveyed the British ship and reported to him that Java was too badly damaged to be taken into port. Bainbridge ordered the British ship burned, deposited its crew as prisoners under parole at Sao Salvador, and returned in Constitution to Boston, arriving on February 15, 1813. The third American victory over British frigates in ship to ship actions created near delirium in the United States, and orders in the British navy to avoid single ship actions with the big American frigates.
3. Another close escape and blockade in Boston
Constitution required extensive refitting after the engagement with Java, but supplies in Boston were scarce due to the shipping being built on the Great Lakes in 1813. In July command of the frigate was assigned to Charles Stewart, who was not able to complete his ship’s repair and man its crew until December. He sailed on New Year’s Eve and in three months captured five British merchant and supply ships, as well as the schooner HMS Pictou, the third enemy warship to fall to Constitution during the war. A damaged mainmast forced Stewart to return to port, pursued by British frigates. With a damaged vessel and outgunned, Stewart was unable to engage the enemy.
His escape required him to pump his drinking water over the side, followed by food stores, and then, to the considerable chagrin of the crew, the ship’s supply of rum and brandy. As Constitution arrived at Marblehead the citizens of the town rallied to defend it, moving available cannons to Fort Sewall. Faced with the daunting prospect of facing the broadside of Constitution backed with shore based guns, the British ships withdrew. Stewart took advantage of their departure to slip into Boston in late April. The evidently charmed Constitution eluded the British blockade to enter Boston Harbor where the ship underwent repairs and awaited an opportunity to get out to sea yet again. It did not arrive until December.
2. Constitution defeated two additional British ships after the war was ended
Constitution went to sea in late December 1814, and captured additional prizes from the British merchant fleet, including Lord Nelson, which Stewart used to fully supply his own ship, having left Boston at the first opportunity offered by the weather, without completing his stores. In February 1815 Stewart learned of the signing of the treaty ending the war, but without news of its ratification rightly considered it was not officially over. On February 20 Stewart encountered two British warships, HMS Cyane and Levant, and set off in pursuit. Cyane mounted 34 guns, most of them short range carronades, and Levant carried twenty guns, while Constitution mounted 54 guns. The British, with two ships, had an advantage in maneuverability.
Nonetheless, Constitution outmaneuvered its adversaries, capturing first Cyane, then Levant in sharply contested actions and taking both prizes into port. When a more powerful British squadron appeared, Stewart took the three ships back to sea, though Levant was recaptured. Cyane, an American prize, reached New York safely, followed by Constitution in May, 1815, having made its third successful escape from a British force too powerful for it to fight alone. Constitution defeated five British ships during the War of 1812, captured or burned numerous merchant vessels, and tied up large elements of the British Navy blockading the ports in which it sheltered. When it arrived at New York on May 15, 1815, it was already the immortal symbol of the fighting spirit of the United States Navy.
1. Constitution escaped the ship breakers numerous times since the War of 1812
In 1830 a Boston newspaper reported that Constitution was slated to be broken up, though that decision had yet to be made. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. published, two days later, a poem entitled Old Ironsides, and the national indignation the poem instigated created pressure on the Navy Department to rebuild the ship. It served on slavery patrol in the Atlantic, as flagship of the Mediterranean squadron, and in the same role in the Pacific. During its Pacific duty it stopped at what later became Da Nang. It served as a barracks and training ship at Annapolis at the time of the Civil War, when it was moved to Newport, Rhode Island for the duration of the war (as was the Naval Academy).
It was rebuilt several times, both in active service and as a museum ship, most recently in a project started in 2015, completed two years later. In 1993 it was revealed the ship had over 14 inches of hogging in its hull. A review of the ship’s structure then in place revealed that the components insisted upon by its designer, Joshua Humphreys, to reduce hogging were no longer installed. They were restored as Constitution rested in drydock, which allowed the hull to settle in response to gravity, and hogging was reduced when the ship was returned to the water. Throughout its years of combat, patrol, showing the flag, training young officers, serving as a barracks, and as a working museum, Humphreys’ design of the late eighteenth century proved to be excellent.