Iconic Ships 6: USS Constitution

July 2021

Above: USS Constitution underway. Photo Credit: Greg M. Cooper Photography

Today we have episode 6 of our Iconic Ships mini-series in which a curator of a historic ship makes a case for their ship being iconic, or a historian takes a ship from history but which sadly no longer survives and make a case for that ship being iconic. Today we have the magnificent – and surviving – warship from the great age of sail, USS Constitution, otherwise known as ‘Old Ironsides’. A wooden-hulled masted frigate, launched in 1797, she is a truly magnificent survivor from a lost age, and from all of her very many reasons for being considered iconic, perhaps the most historically significant is that she is the oldest ship of any type still afloat. Most famous perhaps for her actions in the war of 1812 against the British – she is still afloat and you can still see her at the excellent Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston.

21 July, 1997, USSS Constitution sails under its own power for the first time in 116 years. Constitution is escorted by the frigate USS Halyburton (FFG 40) and the destroyer USS Ramage (DDG 61). [U.S. Navy Photo / Journalist 2nd Class Todd Stevens.]

1. Third in a series of four oil paintings of the battle between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, by George Ropes, Jr., 1813. [USS Constitution Museum Collection. Photo by David Bohl.]

USS Constitution, watercolor painting by Gordon Grant, 1927. [USS Constitution Museum Collection. Dr. Louis A. Norton Gift.]

  • View The Transcription

    SAM WILLIS

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast!

    Today we have episode 6 of our Iconic Ships podcast in which a curator of a historic ship gets to make their case for the ship being iconic or a historian takes a ship from history but which sadly no longer survives and makes a case for that being iconic.

    This week we have the magnificent USS Constitution otherwise known as ‘Old Ironsides’.

    A wooden-hulled three-masted frigate from the great age of sail, launched in 1797! What! She is a truly magnificent survivor from a lost age, and from all of her very many reasons for being considered iconic, my favourite has to be that she is the oldest ship of any type still afloat….just out of interest if you’re wondering what the oldest ship NOT still afloat is, that’s the Khufu ship found in a tomb at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Ghiza – and that’s 2500 BC.

    Anyway back to Old Ironsides – most famous perhaps for her actions in the war of 1812 against the British –  she is still afloat and you can still see her if you were to go to the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. I have been and it is outstanding.

    And we have a fantastic Great Sea Fights special coming your way in mid-August on the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere – with readings of both British and American reports, description of events and analysis.

    But for now, sit back and enjoy listening to Carl Herzog tell us about the USS Constitution.

    Carl has a PhD in history form the University of Massachusetts where he specialised in maritime smuggling operations between the north American colonies and the West Indies leading up to the American revolution, he is an experience sail training instructor and in particular has worked not only as chief ate but also as celestial navigation instructor on the magnificent full rigged ship the Oliver Hazard Perry, in Rhode Island. – which makes me think that not only should we do a podcast on the Oliver Hazard Perry but we should definitely do one on celestial navigation – so carl I’m going to be int ouch again! Carl has been the public historian at the USS Constitution since 2017 – there really is no-one finer to tell you about this remarkable ship.

    CARL HERZOG

    Hi, I’m Carl Herzog, public historian for The USS Constitution Museum.

    There are many reasons why Constitution can be considered iconic. The revolutionary nature of its design; its history of success in battle; or merely for its role as one of the founding ships of the US Navy.

    But all that would just be touching on the edges of its bigger 224-year story. Constitution’s career in battle did make the ship significant and iconic in its own right. But as a result, the enduring iconography of Old Ironsides has become woven into the fabric of American identity.

    USS Constitution has been nearly omnipresent in the history of the United States. The ship was literally engaged in much of the early development of the new nation. But its steady presence and reputation has given it a far greater profile. The ship has assumed many roles over its long career to date, and it has played a role in many significant events in American history. No matter the topic, it seems we never have to dig too far to find USS Constitution connecting us to some aspect of the nation’s history.

    Yes, USS Constitution is iconic as a ship. But perhaps more importantly, in the process it has become a treasured cultural icon of the United States, which it still serves today.

    And it IS still serving. USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world and the oldest ship in the US Navy. The ship is still manned by an active-duty US Navy commander, along with commissioned officers, and an enlisted crew of about 70 US Navy sailors. In addition to managing the ship’s many events and operations, Constitution’s crew serve as ambassadors for Navy, and by extension the nation. Each year, more than half a million visitors from around the world walk the decks of the ship and meet with the crew. At the same time, the crew of Constitution serve as beacons of pride for the rest of the fleet and its service members. By serving on one of the founding ships of the US Navy, they are the working representatives of more than 200 years of US Navy heritage and history. And they actively share that throughout the service.

    And they have not been alone. At several points in Constitution’s career, it appeared that the aging ship may have worn out her usefulness to the nation. In the 19th century and 20th century, navy or other government officials proposed scrapping the old ship. But every time that it seemed the end was near, Americans rallied to save their beloved ship. As early as the 1830s the eloquent poetry of Oliver Wendell Holmes spurred the country to keep and restore the ship. A hundred years later, on the brink of the Great Depression, pennies collected from school children restored the ship to the point that it was able to conduct a nationwide tour of American ports, where millions came out see the ship and learn its history from the active duty crew.

    That history begins just a few years after the American Revolution. In the 1790s, the US merchant fleet was beginning to expand across the globe without the protection that it had previously enjoyed from the Royal Navy. The new United States was hesitant to invest in a standing Navy, but the threat of Barbary corsairs in the Mediterranean prompted the construction of six frigates, including USS Constitution.

    With such a limited number of ships available, the designers of Constitution knew that the ship would have to serve multiple roles. It would not suffice for it to be one of the light, swift frigates that other navies used for scouting and raiding. But neither could it be a lumbering ship of the line, such as those serving in large numbers in the battle lines of the Royal Navy.

    Designer Joshua Humphries needed to combine speed and power in a manageable frame. He ended up crafting a new class of vessel, the American 44-gun frigate. It was bigger than other frigates on the seas, yet swift enough to elude any fleet that might outmatch it. The American 44 would later be labeled a “pocket ship-of-the-line”.

    The ship carried 24-pound long guns on the gun deck, and 32-pound carronades on the spar deck. That weight, combined with the particularly long, flush deck design, placed tremendous strains on the hull. To help carry the load, Humphries built in a series of diagonal riders – pairs of internal frames that laid from the keel out toward the bow and stern as they reached up to the berth deck.

    For durability, the Navy decided to use live oak in the framing. This particular species of oak tree only grew in the southeastern coastal region of the nation and was extremely difficult to harvest. But it is much denser and more durable than the white oak that made up the planking of the ship, and so was expected last much longer.

    In the first decade after its launch in 1797, Constitution did end up serving in the Mediterranean battling Barbary corsairs. Its participation in numerous raids and seizures during that conflict served as a wellspring for American naval heroes still revered in the Navy’s lore today.

    Before even going to the Mediterranean though, Constitution’s first service was in the nearby Caribbean, where it defended American merchant ships from French privateers in a naval conflict that became known as the Quasi-War with France. But in all these missions, Constitution never had to face comparable established European navy ships.

    The real successes in battle that made Constitution famous did not begin until the War of 1812, 15 years after the ship’s launch.

    On August 19, 1812, off the coast of Nova Scotia, Constitution engaged the British frigate, HMS Guerriere. On board Constitution, Captain Isaac Hull made the decision to hold fire while closing range. As Guerriere’s initial long-range shots bounced off the thick hull of Constitution, her crew cried out “Huzzah, her sides are made of iron” – giving birth to a nickname that still sticks today: Old Ironsides.

    Constitution had heavier guns and more of them than Guerriere. When the firing finally started, Constitution quickly disabled Guerriere and battered the British hull to the point of surrender. Guerriere turned out to be too badly damaged to even be towed back to port as a prize. The ship was scuttled on site.

    Constitution’s victory over Guerriere astonished the public on both sides of the Atlantic. The British were stunned to see the indomitable Royal Navy lose to the upstart Americans. British admirals were dumbfounded by the appearance of a frigate so much larger and more devastating than any in the Royal Navy.

    In the United States, the American public was overjoyed by the victory. While it certainly did not strategically sway the course of the war, it generated an intense sense of pride in the new navy, and by extension a greater sense of pride in the nation. Captain Isaac Hull was given a hero’s welcome on shore. Commemorative souvenirs and merchandise flooded the American market. Everyone wanted to celebrate Hull, Constitution, and the victory.

    With just this one battle, Constitution achieved the status of an icon in the United States. But whether that feat alone would have been enough to maintain the ship’s iconic status is something we’ll never know, because in short order Constitution won twice more.

    On December 29, 1812, Constitution engaged HMS Java off the coast of Brazil. Once again, Constitution’s guns outnumbered and outweighed those of her opponent. But where the battle with Guerriere had been a slugfest of gunnery, the encounter with Java was a dance of maneuvering and ship management. Throughout the early stages of the battle the two ships wore back and forth attempting to cross and rake each other. In an early stern rake by Java, Constitution’s wheel was shot away, and the crew had to steer the rest of the battle directly from the tiller below deck. But Constitution’s maneuverability allowed the ship to get into position to deliver a crippling blow to Java’s head rig, which forced the ship to turn upwind. Java’s captain attempted to tack through the wind, but missed stays and stalled in irons. It gave Constitution the chance to come around again and finish off the British frigate. Like Guerriere, Java proved too badly damaged to make it home as a prize.

    To the American public, Captain William Bainbridge’s victory proved that Hull’s earlier success had been no fluke. The reputation of USS Constitution as America’s favorite ship was secure. But three years later, at the very end of the war, Captain Charles Stewart would seal it forever when Constitution defeated two smaller British ships at once: HMS Cyane and HMS Levant. It was a masterful execution of tactics under fire. The battle off the coast of Madeira occurred in light wind as the sun was setting. The British ships approached in a line of battle and the broadsides began. Stewart sought to position Constitution in between the two British ships, able to fire at both of them. But at the height of the exchange as the dense smoke of the guns hung thick over the deck, Captain Stewart called for the firing to cease. He could no longer see where the enemy was. As Constitution slowly sailed out of the cloud, Stewart saw that Cyane was turning in an attempt to rake Constitution’s stern. Stewart quickly ordered all the sails backed, essentially throwing Constitution into reverse. The ship sailed backward cutting off the rake attempt and delivering a devastating broadside. As Levant shot ahead, its captain attempted to turn as well, hoping to rake Constitution’s bow, but Stewart quickly ordered the sails braced back around and Constitution pulled forward separating the two ships and delivering broadsides to both of them. Cyane surrendered while Levant sailed out of range in hope of making repairs. After securing Cyane as a prize, Stewart quickly went after Levant, which, unable to escape, also surrendered.

    Like the first two battles, Stewart’s victory played no strategic role in the war. In fact, the war ashore had technically already ended just days before the battle. But this final dramatic victory sealed Constitution’s iconic status in the minds of the American public. While the conclusion of the War of 1812 was indecisive, Constitution’s success on the open ocean represented a victory of freedom at sea for the United States. The US Navy had shown that Americans could and would defend American shipping on the open seas. And Constitution was the dominant symbol of that defense.

    It is these victories that still form the core of Constitution’s lore, but the ship’s status as a symbol of America and American sea power was just beginning. For the next 30 years, Old Ironsides served in squadrons defending American shipping and interests around the globe. Based out of Italy and Malta, Constitution served as a diplomatic as well as military representative of American interests in the Mediterranean, escorting US shipping and hosting regional leaders. Constitution’s recurring presence in Malta became iconic in its own right. Maltese sailors even served in the US Navy aboard Constitution, and today a memorial in the capital of Valetta celebrates the ship’s relationship with the island nation.

    In the 1840s, Constitution circled the globe on a mission that was part diplomacy, part power projection and part exploration. During that voyage, Constitution’s crew conducted the first survey of Pearl Harbor for the then-independent nation of Hawaii, and recommended to the Hawaiian leaders that Pearl become fortified as a defensive harbor. That was 50 years before Pearl Harbor would become a base for the United States’ Pacific fleet and nearly 100 years before the devastating attack that drew America into World War 2 and made Pearl Harbor a household name.

    During its World Cruise, Constitution was also the first US navy ship to visit Touron Bay in Cochin China, which would later become DaNang, Vietnam. When seaman William Cooke, a crew member who had died of dysentery, was buried on the beach there, his gravesite became a revered shrine for local fishermen. For the next 150 years, they would visit to pray there before going to sea. Specific memory of Cooke was certainly lost, yet one of Constitution’s own crew still became an icon of the sea for people a world away from the ship’s home.

    In the 1850s, Constitution was at sea again, this time in the West Africa squadron. Domestic debates over slave ownership were smoldering in the US at this point, but prohibitions against the international slave trade were already well established. USS Constitution represented American opposition to the slave trade, and the ship’s primary task off the coast of West Africa was to inhibit that trade. In what would turn out to be the last capture of Constitution’s active sailing career, the ship seized the New York schooner H. N. Gabrill in November, 1853 – just as it had been preparing to receive an illegal cargo of enslaved people.

    As the United States spiraled into Civil War, Constitution went to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis to serve as a training ship for the midshipmen. When Annapolis, Maryland, home of the Academy, was threatened by Confederate forces, Constitution and another training ship moved to Newport Rhode Island, where they served as an adjunct home for the Academy throughout the Civil War.

    Constitution continued training new American sailors after the war, participating in a program that gave teens a training and education route toward careers as enlisted US Navy sailors. The ship was still actively sailing and training new Navy sailors into the 1880s.

    As the 100th anniversary of the ship’s launch approached in 1897, Boston politicians rallied to bring Old Ironsides home to the city where it had been built. Already a point of pride for Bostonians, Constitution then became an icon of one of America’s founding cities.

    But that adoration did not immediately translate to Navy funding. When Constitution was threatened by neglect in 1905, Moses Gulesian, an Armenian immigrant who had made his fortune in America, offered to buy the ship from the Navy. If they would not save it, he would. The stirring proposal by an immigrant who recognized Constitution as an icon of pride and patriotism in the nation that had done so much for him spurred the Navy to repair the ship.

    In the 1920s, America again supported Old Ironsides, backing a major restoration of the ship beginning in 1927. As the nation collapsed into the Great Depression, work on Constitution continued, and when the ship was relaunched in 1931, it was decided that Old Ironsides would tour the nation – giving Americans a chance to see what they had paid for. In the depth of the Depression, USS Constitution – under tow by another Navy ship – voyaged from New England to the Gulf of Mexico, then through the Panama Canal and all the way up the Pacific Coast of the country to Seattle, Washington, before turning around and coming back. Over three years, they visited 25 cities, where millions of Americans came out to see the ship – often coming from hundreds of miles inland. Hundreds of different commemorative objects were produced representing the ship. More than a million prints were sold of an oil painting of the ship done by the popular commercial artist Gordon Grant, who had also done the first edition of the Boy Scouts. Souvenirs made from the ship’s timbers that had been replaced were sold to help fund the restoration. In one of the nation’s darkest times, Americans turned to Old Ironsides as an icon of American spirit and victory against overwhelming odds.

    During World War 2, Constitution remained at the Charlestown Navy Yard, right across the harbor from where it had been launched nearly 150 years earlier. Dozens of grey- hulled navy ships destined for battle around the globe took shape in the drydocks of Charlestown. As they did, Old Ironsides floated among them as a symbol of the indomitable heritage of the Navy and spirit of the nation.

    In 1997, on the 200th anniversary of its launch, USS Constitution set sail again under its own power for the first time since 1881. Tens of thousands of people came out to see the ship set sail outside Boston Harbor. As the Navy’s Blue Angels jet flying team soared overhead, America embraced the imagery of its Navy’s and nation’s transition across the centuries at sea.

    Today, as we emerge from a year of pandemic, USS Constitution continues to serve as an icon of indomitable American spirit. While the nation and the world hunkered down at home, the navy crew of Constitution took to the internet, conducting live daily tours of the ship for people who could not come in person. Over just the first six months of the pandemic more than 2 million people around the country and around the world joined Constitution crew members in walking the decks of Old Ironsides and hearing its stories.

    So, is USS Constitution an iconic ship? Certainly, it is iconic as a ship that helped shape the creation of the US Navy and its missions around the world. And it is iconic as representation of a uniquely American frigate design. But more significantly, USS Constitution remains iconic also as touchstone for Americans who see in it, the spirit of strength, endurance and resolution that represents the best of the nation that the ship still serves. That, I believe, is truly the iconography that continues to resonate most deeply with those who come in contact with Old Ironsides, and it is why the ship remains so beloved in this country today.

    SAM WILLIS

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