Following the Revolution, the nation’s citizens proved their willingness to defend their newfound freedom and economic independence through the development and support of a navy. From 1800 to 1974, Charlestown […]
September 20, 2015

Following the Revolution, the nation’s citizens proved their willingness to defend their newfound freedom and economic independence through the development and support of a navy. From 1800 to 1974, Charlestown Navy Yard built, repaired, and outfitted U.S. naval vessels. Today the yard is home to USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world, and the USS Constitution Museum. USS Cassin Young, refitted and modernized in the yard’s drydock, represents the type of ship built in the yard during World War II.

Launched in 1797, Constitution was one of six original frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Act of 1794 and the third constructed. Joshua Humphreys designed the frigates to be the young Navy’s capital ships, and so Constitution and her sisters were larger and more heavily armed and built than standard frigates of the period.

The Constitution was built in the North End of Boston, Massachusetts, at Edmund Hartt’s shipyard. Her first duties with the newly formed U.S. Navy were to provide protection for American merchant shipping during the Quasi-War with France and to defeat the Barbary pirates in the First Barbary War.

The oldest commissioned warship afloat earned her nickname “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812 when she fought the British frigate HMS Guerriere. During this historic battle, cannonballs fired at USS Constitution appeared to bounce off, causing one of her crew to remark that her sides were made of iron. In fact, the durability of Constitution is attributed to a three-layer wooden sandwich of live oak and white oak from all across America. The ship’s copper fastenings were constructed by Paul Revere.

Britannia ruled the waves at the onset of the War of 1812. When the British frigate HMS Guerriere dueled USS Constitution in the war’s first major naval engagement, the outcome was swift, decisive and surprising. In less than an hour of fierce fighting 200 years ago, Guerriere was in tatters and Constitution had been transformed into an American icon: “Old Ironsides.”

Around 2 p.m. on the afternoon of August 19, 1812, a lookout aboard USS Constitution spied a sail against the cloudy southern horizon. The newsflash brought the frigate’s commanding officer, Captain Isaac Hull, and his charges “flocking up like pigeons from a net bed,” according to one crewman.

It was HMS Guerriere again. The same frigate that Hull had skillfully eluded a month earlier near New York by taking evasive actions that included dumping 10 tons of drinking water overboard. The same warship that had been notorious for stopping American merchant vessels at sea and impressing their sailors, a practice that partly led to the declaration of war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812.

Now, two months later, Constitution and Guerriere, a French ship that had been captured by the Royal Navy in 1806, closed in on each other 400 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. Constitution was the larger frigate, boasting a larger crew, a thicker hull and six more guns. What’s more, it had an unblemished combat record since being launched in 1797. Even if the commander of Guerriere, Captain James Dacres, knew he was outgunned and outmanned, he was still eager for a fight, telling others on board that if he became the first British captain to capture an American vessel, he would “be made for life.” The Royal Navy, after all, had a sterling record in ship-to-ship combat against more formidable opponents than the Americans.

Considering it unjust to compel Americans to fire on their countrymen, Dacres granted the 10 impressed sailors aboard Guerriere permission to stay below deck during the battle. Then, around 5 p.m., he ordered the crew to hoist two English ensigns and a Union Jack. In turn, Hull ordered four American ensigns, including the Stars and Stripes, raised on Constitution.

Guerriere opened fire but missed wildly. Constitution launched occasional shots, but Hull, to the unease of his crew, ordered them to hold most of their fire until they engaged the enemy in extremely close action. Around 6 p.m., the two ships drew alongside about 25 yards apart. Constitution rocked Guerriere with a full broadside. Hull, eager to get a better view of the action, split his dress breeches as he leapt atop an arms chest.

To the amazement of Dacres and his crew, the 18-pound iron cannonballs launched by Guerriere bounced harmlessly off the American frigate’s 24-inch triple-layered hull, which was made of white oak and live oak sheathed in copper forged by Paul Revere. One British sailor supposedly yelled out, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!” Thus, Constitution was christened “Old Ironsides.”

After 15 minutes of intense bombardment, the mizzenmast fell over the starboard side of the staggered Guerriere and impaired its ability to maneuver. Within minutes, Guerriere’s bowsprit became entangled with Constitution’s mizzen rigging, and the two interlocked ships rotated clockwise. As both ships prepared boarding parties, sharpshooters in the mast tops rained down musket fire on their enemies. Dacres was wounded in the back, and on the deck of Constitution a musket ball fatally felled Lieutenant William Bush, who became the first U.S. Marine Corps officer to die in combat.

During the mayhem, the ships tore free of each other. Fifteen minutes after Guerriere’s mizzenmast fell, its foremast snapped like a matchstick and carried the mainmast with it. The mighty British warship was now a crippled hulk with 30 holes smashed in its side and body parts strewn on its blood-splattered deck. Constitution sported pockmarks on its sails, but Old Glory still flapped in the wind, and its mighty hull, of course, remained intact.

As the Guerriere crew threw the dead overboard, Dacres ordered a shot to be fired from the leeward side in surrender. Hull, unclear of the sign in the growing darkness, dispatched a lieutenant over to the enemy ship. “Commodore Hull’s compliments and wishes to know if you have struck your flag,” said the lieutenant. Dacres responded with dry British wit, “Well, I don’t know. Our mizzenmast is gone, our mainmast is gone—and upon the whole, you may say we have struck our flag.”

Through the night, prisoners were removed by boat. Surgeons amputated arms and legs. Seven Americans had been killed and seven wounded. On the British side, 13 were dead and 62 wounded. By daylight, it was clear that Guerriere, with four feet of water in the hold, could not be salvaged as a prize to bring back to America. That afternoon, the Americans lit the hulk on fire, and a huge explosion showered the Atlantic with Guerriere’s tattered remains.

Over the 200 years of her career, as her mission changed from a fighting warship to a training ship and eventually a receiving ship, multiple refittings had removed most of her original construction components and design. In 1993 the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston reviewed Humphreys’ original plans and identified five main structural components that were required to prevent hogging of a ship’s hull, as Constitution had at this point 13 in (330 mm) of hog. Using a 1:16 scale model of the ship, they were able to determine that restoring the original components would result in a 10% increase in hull stiffness.

Using radiography, a technique unavailable during previous reconstructions, 300 scans of her timbers were completed to find any hidden problems otherwise undetectable from the outside. Aided by the United States Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory, the repair crew used sound wave testing to determine the condition of the remaining timbers that may have been rotting from the inside. The 13 in (330 mm) of hog was removed from her keel by allowing the ship to settle naturally while in dry dock. The most difficult task, as it had been during her 1920s restoration, was the procurement of timber in the quantity and sizes needed. The city of Charleston, South Carolina, donated live oak trees that had been felled by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and the International Paper Company donated live oak from its own property. The project continued to reconstruct her to 1812 specifications even as she remained open to visitors, who were allowed to observe the process and converse with workers. The twelve million dollar project was completed in 1995.

In 2003 the special effects crew from the production of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World spent several days using Constitution as a computer model for the fictional French frigate Acheron, using stem-to-stern digital image scans of “Old Ironsides.”

Retired from active service in 1881, Constitution served as a receiving ship until designated a museum ship in 1907. In 1934 she completed a three-year, 90-port tour of the nation. Constitution sailed under her own power for her 200th birthday in 1997, and again in August 2012, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of her victory over Guerriere.

Constitution‍ ’s stated mission today is to promote understanding of the Navy’s role in war and peace through educational outreach, historic demonstration, and active participation in public events. As a fully commissioned US Navy ship, her crew of 60 officers and sailors participate in ceremonies, educational programs, and special events while keeping the ship open to visitors year round and providing free tours. The officers and crew are all active-duty US Navy personnel and the assignment is considered special duty in the Navy. Traditionally, command of the vessel is assigned to a Navy commander.

On May 18, 2015 the ship entered Dry Dock 1 in Charlestown Navy Yard to begin a three-year restoration program on Freedoms Trail. The restoration plans to restore the copper sheets on the ship’s hull and the replacement of additional deck boards. The Department of the Navy is providing the $12–15 million expected cost.

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