She is the stuff of legends, a hero in her own right, a hull of iron, and undefeated in battle. A mighty sailing ship that spans the course of three centuries, and still able to move under her own power, she’s called Old Ironsides, but her real name is the USS Constitution. Forgive me waxing on the poetic but it’s the best introduction I could give to the first American entry into my War of 1812 project. Being Canadian I’ve been focusing very much on the Canadian side of the war and with the project extending through 2014 I will make an effort to start including more American personalities, events and locations into the project before its end to give a balanced feel to it. The Constitution’s history extends well before the War of 1812 and well after the conflict I will mostly be focusing on the events surrounding the War of 1812 as well as her restoration in the 20th century.
The Consitution sitting in the water at the Charlestown Navy Yards. She’s open to the public, just be sure to bring your Government ID.
By 1793 Piracy against American shipping interests had come to a head, eleven ships had been seized, their crew and cargo held for ransom by the Barbery Pirates. To combat this thread the Federal Government, still wary of any standing military force, authorized the construction of six frigates under the terms of the Naval Act of 1794. These new heavy frigates were designed to be faster than the heavy ships of the line, and outgun any existing frigates on the high-seas. The keel of the Constitution was laid down on November 1st, 1794 in Boston. But peace was reached with the pirates and Algiers in 1796 and under the terms of the Naval Act, constructions of the frigates were to cease. But President Washington seeing the value of these ships, and three nearly completed debated and funding continued for the three nearly completed ships. By the end of the 18th century the United States Navy commissioned three new Frigates. The USS Constitution, the USS United States, and the USS Constellation, the Constitution being commissioned on September 20th, 1797, and took to the water on October 21st of the same year.
Carronades on the top decks. Carronades were mostly used for close range combat.
Through the first decade of the 19th century the Constitution took part in several smaller conflicts against the French at the end of the 18th century and against the Barbery Pirates in 1805. She returned to Boston in 1807 to refit and repair. In 1811 she was tasked with bringing the new American ambassador to France and on her journey home she was shadowed by several British Warships. When war was declared in June of 1812 the Constitution put to sea to begin hunting British ships on the shipping lanes. In August 1812 the Constitution encountered and engaged the HMS Guerrier, a British fifth-rate frigate. Under Isaac Hull, the two ships engaged in fierce naval combat, eventually the Guerrier’s mizzine mast was taken out, and in close maneuvers the two ship’s riggings became entangled as they continued to fire broadsides into each other. But due to the unique construction of the Constitution the British shots bounced off her hull. Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron, came the cry from the crew. Both ship’s sent boarding parties aboard but neither side was able to take the other ship. With the Guerrier’s main mast also broken, the Constitution pulled off then returned once the Guerrier attempted to engage. Hull taking this a signal that they surrendered sent a party to the British ship. Upon arrival, the Guerrier’s captain responded to the surrender inquiry by saying Well, Sir, I don’t know. Our mizzen mast is gone, our fore and main masts are gone-I think on the whole you might say we have struck our flag. Prisoners were taken and the Guerrier was burned. Upon the Constitution’s return on Boston, the ship and crew were greeted as heroes, and the name Ironsides, stuck.
The Ship’s Wheel
The victory over the Guerrier was exactly the moral boost that the United States Navy needed. The mighty Royal Navy could in fact, be beaten at their own game. The Constitution continued to cause havoc among the ship’s of the Royal Navy, some more notable engagements against the RN was the HMS Java, HMS Cyane, and the HMS Levant. Upon receiving word that the war was over, the Constitution returned to her home port in Boston. Unlike her two sister ships, the Constitution was undefeated in battle. By 1820 she was refit for service as the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron to defend American shipping interests against piracy. After her tour she returned again the Boston in 1829. Through the mid-19th century she was used as a training vessel and by the end of the civil war was the only surviving ‘original six’ frigates. She was made sea-worthy again and sailed for Paris in 1878 for the Exposition. But upon her return she was laid up in the Charleston Navy Yards, unfit for service.
The Ship’s bell
Her future looked grim, but the Constitution, Old Ironsides, had taken upon a life of her own. She herself was the undefeated hero of the War of 1812. Congress agreed in 1900 that she should be restored but allocated no funds. In 1903 the Massachusetts Historical Society stated plainly that she should be restored to active service. The secretary of the Navy in 1905 went so far to state that the Constitution should be used as target practice and allowed to sink. The public outcry swept the nation in 1906 and money was raised and allocated for her restoration and in 1907 she was reopened as a museum ship. But by 1924 she was again given a death sentence, a national fundraising campaign was undertaken, and in 1927 she entered dry dock. Live Oak from a Florida Navy yard from an 1850 ship building project that never happened, tools from Maine, and skilled tradesman arrived in Boston to work on Old Ironsides. And on the 1st of July 1931 she was restored and re-commissioned in the United States Navy. She was captained by a 20-year senior officer with the rank of Commander and crewed by select members of the USN. The Constitution went on a tour of the United States coast line. Repairs through the 1990s made the ship sailworthy again and after extensive training the USS Constitution sailed under her own power at a speed of six knots (11 km/hr) in 1997. She again sailed on August 19th 2012 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of her victory over the HMS Guerrier.
Details of her riggings
I have only scratched the surface of the history of this amazing ship, and I encourage you, my readers to explorer it further on your own. And if you’re ever in Boston, go and visit her. She remains today, the oldest commissioned warship still afloat in the world. I’m hoping to get out to see her sail and salute next year on the forth of July.
Written with Files from:
Rolleiflex 2.8F – Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm 1:2.8 (Green Filter) – Kodak Tmax 100
Dev: Blazinal 1+25 6:00 @ 20C