Old Ironsides Earns Its Name
During the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy frigate Constitution defeats the British frigate Guerrière in a furious engagement off the coast of Nova Scotia. Witnesses claimed that the British shot merely bounced off the Constitution‘s sides, as if the ship were made of iron rather than wood. By the war’s end, “Old Ironsides” destroyed or captured seven more British ships. The success of the USS Constitution against the supposedly invincible Royal Navy provided a tremendous boost in morale for the young American republic.
The Constitution was one of six frigates that Congress requested be built in 1794 to help protect American merchant fleets from attacks by Barbary pirates and harassment by British and French forces. It was constructed in Boston, and the bolts fastening its timbers and copper sheathing were provided by the industrialist and patriot Paul Revere. Launched on October 21, 1797, the Constitution was 204 feet long, displaced 2,200 tons, and was rated as a 44-gun frigate (although it often carried as many as 50 guns).
In July 1798 it was put to sea with a crew of 450 and cruised the West Indies, protecting U.S. shipping from French privateers. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson ordered the American warship to the Mediterranean to fight Barbary pirates off the coast of Tripoli. The vessel performed commendably during the conflict, and in 1805 a peace treaty with Tripoli was signed on the Constitution‘s deck.
When war broke out with Britain in June 1812, the Constitution was commanded by Isaac Hull, who served as lieutenant on the ship during the Tripolitan War. Scarcely a month later, on July 16, the Constitution encountered a squadron of five British ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Finding itself surrounded, the Constitution was preparing to escape when suddenly the wind died. With both sides dead in the water and just out of gunnery range, a legendary slow-speed chase ensued. For 36 hours, the Constitution‘s crew kept their ship just ahead of the British by towing the frigate with rowboats and by tossing the ship’s anchor ahead of the ship and then reeling it in. At dawn on July 18, a breeze sprang, and the Constitution was far enough ahead of its pursuers to escape by sail.
One month later, on August 19, the Constitution caught the British warship Guerrière alone about 600 miles east of Boston. After considerable maneuvering, the Constitution delivered its first broadside, and for 20 minutes the American and British vessels bombarded each other in close and violent action. The British man-of-war was de-masted and rendered a wreck while the Constitution escaped with only minimal damage. The unexpected victory of Old Ironsides against a British frigate helped unite America behind the war effort and made Commander Hull a national hero. The Constitution went on to defeat or capture seven more British ships in the War of 1812 and ran the British blockade of Boston twice.
After the war, Old Ironsides served as the flagship of the navy’s Mediterranean squadron and in 1828 was laid up in Boston. Two years later, the navy considered scrapping the Constitution, which had become unseaworthy, leading to an outcry of public support for preserving the famous warship. The navy refurbished the Constitution, and it went on to serve as the flagship of the Mediterranean, Pacific, and Home squadrons. In 1844, the frigate left New York City on a global journey that included visits to numerous international ports as a goodwill agent of the United States. In the early 1850s, it served as flagship of the African Squadron and patrolled the West African coast looking for slave traders.
In 1855, the Constitution retired from active military service, but the famous vessel continued to serve the United States, first as a training ship and later as a touring national landmark. Since 1934, it has been based at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. Over the years, Old Ironsides has enjoyed a number of restorations, the most recent of which was completed in 1997, allowing it to sail for the first time in 116 years. Today, the Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat.