No trip to Boston’s Freedom Trail is complete without a visit to the Charlestown Navy Yard to tour USS Constitution – one of the first vessels in the United States Navy and the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world. Built at Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in Boston and launched in the fall of 1797, the USS Constitution is two hundred four feet in length, has fifty-five guns, and carried a crew of 450 men. Her 24” thick hull was built of live oak sandwiched between two layers of white oak. Live oak, a rare wood, is five times stronger than white oak and made the hull of the ship incredibly strong. She first saw action in the Quasi War with France, and then fought against the Barbary Corsairs – pirates from North Africa who attacked American merchant ships in the Mediterranean Sea. During the War of 1812, Constitution was commanded by Captain Isaac Hull. One of her most famous battles, against the British frigate HMS Guerriere, occurred during this time off the coast of Nova Scotia. At the bottom of this post, is a great primary source – Captain Hull’s official account of that battle as it appeared in a newspaper called the Connecticut Mirror on September 21, 1812.
On the afternoon of August 19, 1812, the crew aboard the Constitution spotted a sail in the distance and started to give chase in an effort to determine the ship’s identity. They soon realized it was the HMS Guerriere – a 38-gun British frigate then armed with 49 guns. Captain James Dacres, commander of the Guerriere, raised three British ensigns to signal he was ready for a fight and Captain Isaac Hull aboard USS Constitution responded by raising four American ensigns to accept the challenge. Both warships began to maneuver for position with the Guerriere firing a number of broadsides from long distance that fell harmlessly into the sea. As the ships drew closer, the gun crews aboard Constitution stood ready, anxiously awaiting orders from Captain Isaac Hull. The Guerriere continued to fire on USS Constitution and this time her guns were well within range. At that moment, some of her 18-pound cannonballs bounced off the hull of the Constitution – thanks to its live oak construction. Seeing this, a seaman aboard USS Constitution cried out “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” When the Constitution drew within less than a pistol shot, Captain Hull gave the order to fire a broadside and in only 35 minutes the Guerriere was completely dismasted and had surrendered. After the battle, crewmen aboard the Constitution began calling her “Old Ironsides” and the nickname stuck.
The USS Constitution was undefeated in 33 engagements. Because she was made of wood, the Constitution eventually began to deteriorate, and by 1830 she had become unseaworthy. Rumors spread that she would be scrapped, but a poem “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes rallied public support and soon Congress appropriated funds to restore her. During the mid 1800s the Constitution, now obsolete in warfare, played a symbolic role for the nation. She sailed around the world in 1844-46. By 1905, the ship was in need of serious repair once again. Congress passed a bill to refurbish the vessel but provided no funds. In 1925, public fundraising efforts began and school children from across the United States donated $148,000 in pennies to save the ship. Congress finally provided additional funds to complete the restoration of “Old Ironsides.”
After her restoration, USS Constitution was towed to many U.S. ports in the Pacific during the years 1931-34. After the journey, she returned to her home port of Boston where she would remain. The ship received a complete overhaul from 1992-97, just in time for her 200th birthday. On July 21, 1997, USS Constitution celebrated that birthday by setting sail for the first time in 116 years! On that historic day, the seamen aboard her hoisted a partial set of six sails on her masts, and the citizens of Boston cheered as their beloved ship sailed once again off the coast of Massachusetts. Today, a three-year $6 million restoration of the Constitution that began in the fall of 2007 is nearing completion. The spar deck has been replaced and the pitch adjusted so water will run off properly. The latest work brings the ship very close to the way it looked during the War of 1812 – and well in time for that War’s 200th anniversary.
Wonderful tours of USS Constitution are given by active duty members of the US Navy and include visits to the spar, gun and berth decks. Hours of operation can be found on the USS Constitution website. During these tours you’ll learn how sailors lived aboard ship, hear tales of her battles and discover fascinating facts about the vessel. Two of the facts I found most interesting related to the mainmast and long guns. The ship’s mainmast is 210 feet high – that’s a mere 13 feet shorter than the Bunker Hill Monument! Her long guns weighed 6,000 pounds each, could fire a 24-pound shot 1,200 yards, and the gun crews consisted of a minimum of 7 men.
While you’re at the Charlestown Navy Yard, be sure to check out the excellent USS Constitution Museum. The Museum offers exhibits, programs and lectures about USS Constitution and America’s proud naval heritage.
Captain Isaac Hull’s Official Account of USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere
The Connecticut Mirror – September 21, 1812
Compare the above newspaper transcript to Captain Isaac Hull’s original letter in the National Archives. Transcript here. What did the Connecticut Mirror account leave out or have incorrect and what can this teach us?