Built in Boston to defend the young American nation, USS CONSTITUTION is nearly as old as the document for which George Washington and Congress named her. Both the document and the ship have proven to be resilient symbols of America’s strength, courage, and liberty.
Made of timbers felled from Maine to Georgia and armed with cannons cast in Rhode Island and copper fastenings provided by Paul Revere, the vessel is truly a national ship. Launched in Boston on October 21, 1797, she first put to sea in 1798. Having remained a part of the U.S. Navy since that day, CONSTITUTION is the oldest commissioned warship in the world which is still afloat.
Her first mission, during the late 1790’s, was to guard American commerce in the Caribbean against French depredations. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent her to the Mediterranean to protect American ships and seamen from attack by the Barbary pirates. With Captain Edward Preble in command, CONSTITUTION and other ships of the squadron bombarded Tripoli. Thanks to such determination, a treaty of peace was signed in June 1805 between the United States and Tripoli aboard CONSTITUTION.
After returning to the United States, CONSTITUTION was named flagship of the North Atlantic Squadron. In 1810, her new captain, Isaac Hull, took her to sea. Two years later she met and defeated HMS GUERRIERE, the first in a grand succession of victories in the War of 1812. It was during this ferocious battle that the seamen, astonished at how the British cannonballs were bouncing off the Constitution’s hull, cried out – “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” Hence, her nickname,”Old Ironsides.”
When her war service ended in 1815, the battle -scarred CONSTITUTION was laid up for almost six years for extensive repairs, after which she went on two cruises to the Mediterranean. In 1830 she was reported unseaworthy and condemned to be broken up. A poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., entitled “Old Ironsides,” aroused such popular feeling that money was appropriated for rebuilding her in 1833. In 1844, under the command of Captain “Mad Jack” Percival, she began an epic around-the-world cruise and became the first American warship to circumnavigate the globe.
During the Civil War she was brought to Newport, Rhode Island to serve as a training ship for Naval Academy midshipmen.
In 1882, she was removed from active service and shortly thereafter retired to Portsmouth, New Hampshire Naval Shipyard. In recognition of her centennial, CONSTITUTION was brought back to Boston in 1897. Refitted for display and opened to the public in 1905, she became a national monument.
CONSTITUTION was recommissioned in 1931 for a coast-to-coast tour of ninety American cities lasting until 1934 when she was returned to her place of honor in the Boston Harbor at Charlestown Navy Yard. She rests here today as an enduring symbol of the document for which she is named and of America’s determination to defend the republic she so long protected.
Izak J H Hough
Member of The Nautical Research Guild