Monday, May 31, 2010

Ships: Old Ironsides

One of the original six frigates built by the new government of the independent country of the United States of America, USS Constitution is now the oldest working sailing frigate on the water. She's been everything from a warrior to a training ship, a cargo hauler to a hospital and, because of the many men who have served aboard her, she is my choice for a Memorial Day tribute here at Triple P.

Built in Boston, Massachusetts at Edmund Hartt's yard, Constitution was designed by Joshua Humphreys, William Doughty and Josiah Fox for launch in October of 1797. Originally bound for the Barbary coast to fight pirates, she ended up serving in the Quasi-War with France instead. Between 1798 and 1800 she took a number of French warships and privateers. By 1801 she was back in the U.S., at the Charleston Naval Yard for a refit.

In 1803 she returned to action and this time she made it to Barbary. She was one of Commodore Edward Preble's Mediterranean Squadron and she helped to liberate the sailors of USS Philadelphia from Tripoli. Preble's actions, along with those of William Eaton and the U.S. Marines, forced the Barbary states to relinquish the requirement of "tribute" payments from American ships.

Constitution was given to John Rodgers in 1809. Isaac Hull followed as her Captain in 1810. When the War of 1812 broke out she took up a post off New Jersey. She encountered a number of British ships on the Atlantic station and became famous when she took HMS Guerriere in a two hour firefight. Constitution's superior fire power - 30 24 pound cannon and 20 42 pound carronades - won the day. The British ship's inability to put a dent in Constitution earned her the nickname Old Ironsides. She returned to Boston with her prisoners. Guerriere, a total loss with 78 men dead, was blown up at sea.

William Bainbridge was given command of Constitution in late 1812. The ship set out to rendezvous with Captain David Porter's Essex off Brazil but encountered HMS Java and commenced firing. Java was reduced to a dismasted hulk and lost 128 men, including her captain, Henry Lambert. Java, like Guerriere, was blown up at sea. This time, though, Constitution suffered considerable damage as well and Bainbridge limped her home to Boston. This engagement was used by Patrick O'Brian in his Aubrey/Maturin novel The Fortunes of War.

Bainbridge, wounded in the Java fight, turned over command of Constitution to Charles Stewart. Stewart took two more British ships, Levant and Cyane, in February of 1815. He did not know that the war was over at that point. Constitution returned to port in May. The ship was laid up in ordinary until 1821. When the Navy planned to break her for scrap in 1828, the U.S. people rallied to her aid. Constitution was rebuilt. She circumnavigated the globe in 1846 - with Andrew Jackson as her figurehead - and saw action as a Union frigate in the Civil War. By 1897, she was at dock as a naval receiving ship in New Hampshire.

Moved to Boston before the turn of the century, she was again restored and sailed on a "goodwill tour" in the 1930s. She is now a museum ship, sailing with other tall ships on July 4th each year. She is the oldest commissioned warship in the world and you can visit her next time you're in Boston. Right this moment, you can visit her enthralling website.

Constitution is a three masted heavy frigate of 2,200 tons. She carried up to sixty guns and as many as 450 men. She is an icon of American seafaring. On this day of remembering all who serve, I salute you Old Ironsides.


Blue Flamingo said...

We toured the USS Constitution a few years ago and she is well worth the visit! It's very impressive to see how thick her hull is and the docents give a good rendition of her history. Highly recommend a visit, if in Boston. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Pauline.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Blue Flamingo and Happy Memorial Day! I have never personally been aboard Constitution. It's on my must do list along with seeing HMS Victory. The first mate has been aboard Old Ironsides though and reports, as you do, a splendid experience.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline and Blue Flamingo! It's true I have been aboard Old Ironsides, too. I recall touring the ship as a child when I was growing up back east. I think it was in Philly at the time(?) but I do recall that it was quite exciting even then. Good post for Memorial Day, Pauline.

And your "Buccaneer Tough" piratical fact of the week, is pretty harsh too. Too tough for me, Pirate Queen

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! According to Exquemelin, the buccaneer's return arrow set fire to the castle being stormed (actually a wooden Spanish bastion). Good thing old Alexander was a doctor... I guess.