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Submission by NAVETSUSA Founder, Edward C. Reese (navetsusa@earthlink.net)

Edward C. Reese

USS Constitution
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NAVETSUSA
"Old Ironsides"
A Grand Old Lady of the Fleet
from The Boston Naval Shipyard
Vol. 19 No. 49, June 17, 1955

 
 

One of the Navy's most historic relics, USS CONSTITUTION, berthed at Boston Naval Shipyard across the harbor from her birthplace, the old location of Hartt's Shipyard, stands as a fitting memorial to the glory of the Navy and seamen of long ago. 

In 1794, following the outbreak of war between France and Great Britain and five years after the adoption of the Constitution and the beginning of our government, Congress passed an act authorizing the building, or purchase of six war vessels.
Old Ironsides 
by Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1830
Ay, tear her tattered ensign down! 
Long has it waved on high, 
And many an eye has danced to see 
That banner in the sky; 
Beneath it rung the battle shout 
And burst the cannon's roar; 
The meteor of the ocean air 
Shall sweep the clouds no more. 
Her deck, once red with heroes' blood, 
Where knelt the vanquished foe, 
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood, 
And waves were white below, 
No more shall feel the victor's tread, 
Or know the conquered knee; -- 
The harpies of the shore shall pluck 
The eagle of the sea! 
Oh better that her shattered hulk 
Should sink beneath the wave; 
Her thunders shook the mighty deep, 
And there should be her grave; 
Nail to the mast her holy flag, 
Set every threadbare sail, 
And give her to the god of storms, 
The lightning and the gale! 
    One of the first three ships built under this act was the CONSTITUTION, named for the great bulwark of our government. October 21st, she will observe her 158th Anniversary [1955] of Naval service. 

    Historians attribute the extreme longevity of the titan of the old United States frigate fleet to two intangible things, the poetic skill of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the sentimental will of the American public. 

    The dramatic appeal of the poem stuck in the public imagination. Public insistence was instrumental in the decision to retain the CONSTITUTION in service and public insistence since has renewed the frigate's lease on life on more than one occasion. 

     

     
     
     
     
     

    Born during the sea war with Napoleon's French fleet, the CONSTITUTION went immediately into action. Her unrivaled exploits soon established her as young America's "fightingest" ship, as she defeated in turn the best the French and British navies had to offer, and repulsed the piratical forays of the bounty seeking vessels of the African Barbary States. 

In 1830, after 32 years of fighting, the battle-scarred frigate was considered too old and battered to be of further use, and the order was issued to destroy her. That order aroused the ire and stimulated the pen of a 2l year old Harvard University graduate who was later to win fame as a poet, essayist, novelist and physician. The result was his first important poem, which he titled "Old Ironsides".

The CONSTITUTION is the second oldest ship in the Navy, the USS CONSTELLATION being her senior by a little more than a month. She has circumnavigated the globe by sailing, she has had piped aboard her quarterdeck the dignitaries of the world, and during her heyday, was never long out of my major sea struggle. Using her then formidable battery of 24- and 12-pounders, she captured 24 enemy vessels during the Tripolitan and the War of 1812, burning and scuttling seven British craft during the latter conflict.

The high point in her early fighting days came with the siege of Tripoli. On four occasions in August, 1804, she led bombardments on towns, harbors and batteries of the Moorish coast, and during the blockade captured three enemy gunboats and two Greek ships attempting to breach the Navy's lines. Peace with the Barbary state was made on her decks June 2, 1805, when the Bey of Tripoli came aboard to sign the pact ending hostilities.

In the War of 1812 the already renowned CONSTITUTION set sail to meet and return the fire of the imposing array of British Royal Navy ships that then ruled the sea.

In June that year the declaration of war had been read onboard the frigate at Washington, D.C., and for a month she remained on the defensive. In July, however, she out maneuvered a British squadron of five ships off New York, and in August her prowess once again was asserted. She captured and burned the British brigs ADEONA and LADY WARREN in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, recaptured the United States brig ADELINE, an enemy prize, and ordered her into Boston, and three days later she captured the GUERRIERE of 90 guns and 280 men.

When Lieutenant George C. Read boarded the GUERRIERE after the battle he found the CONSTITUTION'S broadsides had wrecked the British man-of-war. Her masts and spars were hanging over the side, her guns were sheared off the mountings, her decks were littered with dead, and the ship was sinking. Captain Isaac Hull ordered her burned.

It was in this action that the CONSTITUTION earned the later established nickname of "Old Ironsides". A seaman saw a GUERRIERE shot hit the ship's wooden side and fall into the sea, and shouted, "Hurrah, her sides are made of iron!"

Congress rewarded the officers and men of the CONSTITUTION with $50,000 in prize money for their victory over the GUERRIERE. Silver medals were struck and presented to the men, and the London Times said, "He must be a weak politician who does not see how important the first triumph is in giving a tone and character to the war."

Later that year, "Old Ironsides" captured and burned the British warship JAVA off San Salvador. Her next victims were the storeladen LOVELY ANN, the schooner PHOENIX, which was sunk, the man-of-war PICTOU and the brig CATHARINE, captured and sunk off the coast of Guiana.

In April 1819, the CONSTITUTION was chased into Marblehead, Massachusetts, by the British frigates JUNON and TENEDOS. She escaped into open water. A week later she had captured a British merchant ship, LORD NELSON, and through a misunderstanding of orders, scuttled her after cargo had been removed. The SUSANNAH, with cargo worth $73,000, was captured by the CONSTITUTION in February, 1815, and four days later she ran down the British warships CYANE and LEYANT off Madeira, raked them with gunfire, and captured them. Throughout and following this period of intense activity, the CONSTITUTION was commanded by such now famous officers as Stephen Decatur, Edward Preble, John Rodgers, Jacob Jones, Thomas MacDonough, William Bainbridge and George Dewey.

It was after her great fighting days, when her victories in the War of 1812 had been dimmed by time, that the decision was made to scrap the famous warship. Holmes' poem stayed her execution when the American public read his inspired lines. Thus saved from the "harpies of the shore," the CONSTITUTION was placed in drydock at Boston in June, 1833.

Her next major cruise, from 1835 to 1838, took her to various Mediterranean ports as the flagship of Commodore Jesse D. Elliott, and then in 1844, the frigate left New York on a global excursion which included visits to numerous ports as a good will agent of the United States. She sailed 52,279 miles on this voyage.

"Old Ironsides" completed her final action as a fighting unit of the Navy in 1853, when she intercepted and captured a number of ships engaged in illicit slave trade along the African coast.

When she returned to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1855, sailing ships had become completely outmoded. During and following the Civil War, she was used for training midshipmen at Annapolis, Maryland, and she made her last cruise to a foreign shore when she sailed with the American exhibit for the Paris Exposition in 1878.

After resuming her role as a training ship upon her return to the United States, the venerable frigate took a holiday in October, 1897. In tow of a tug, she reentered Boston, her birthplace, where newer vessels of the fleet waited to help her celebrate her 100th anniversary. Following a testimonial program, she was placed "in ordinary" at Boston.

From 1909 to 1925, "Old Ironsides " was anchored in the Boston Navy Yard and was used as a Naval museum. There, the public came to view the sturdy product of the Navy's first architect, Joshua Humphreys. Humphreys had designed the frigate for a complement of 475 officers, seamen and marines. The 204-foot, 2,200-ton ship was built under his supervision at an initial cost of $302,718.84.

Several Boston firms had helped outfit the CONSTITUTION. Paul Revere furnished the copper spikes and bolts, Edmund Thayer built the gun carriages at South End, the anchors were forged at Hanover, and her sails were fashioned in the old Granary building at the corner of Park and Tremont streets. In addition, the Shillings Brothers of Boston were employed to work on carvings for the figure head and other ornaments of the ship. In compliance with Humphreys' specifications, the beams of the decks had been constructed of Carolina pine at Hartt's shipyard in Boston, and the lower futtocks and knees were made of live oak from islands off the coast of Georgia.

After 16 years of comparative inactivity as a "museum", Congress in 1925 authorized restoration of the CONSTITUTION, and a campaign was launched to raise the necessary money by public donations. School children contributed pennies to help support the campaign. In July, 1931, the historic frigate was recommissioned at Boston to the accompaniment of a 21-gun salute. The next day she sailed to visit 90 ports on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts. During this tour, 4,614,762 persons came aboard to inspect the vessel their sentiment and contributions had saved.

She returned to Boston in 1934 and was moored at a pier accessible to visitors, "in service, not commissioned." Her full commission was restored in August, 1940, and she has since become the flag ship for commandants of the First Naval District. In the meantime, she is being kept under close observation to detect first signs of deterioration in her hull timbers, rigging and appurtenances. The gangplank of "Old Ironsides" is still down for visitors, however.

The initial cost of "Old Ironsides" was $302,718; her original tonnage was 1,576, with a displacement of 2,200 tons, with a measurement of 204-feet length and 43-1/2 foot beam. In the matter of armament, the CONSTITUTION'S main battery of 24-pounders had maximum range of approximately 1,000 yards, or slightly more than half a mile. The Frigate's guns were rated by the shot they could throw, that is, a 24-pounder threw a solid iron ball that weighed 24 pounds. 475 officers and men were carried aboard the CONSTITUTION.

Take a guided tour of Old Ironsides with Ed Reese.  Just click on his picture below & you are "underway". 

.Reese Constitution Tour Constitution (Reese)
NAVETSUSA Founder, Edward C. Reese, NCCS, USN Ret, who (LEFT) served aboard the USS Constitution (1965) his first tour. (RIGHT) Reese returning to "Old Ironsides" (1988) for a "Civilian Tour"
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Last updated 30 January 1999

 






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