The Hard-luck Frigate


It is a fitting irony among the many of her life that the Constellation ’s job in the Civil War was, in the words of her sailing orders, “the protection of our commerce from the piratical depredations of vessels fitted out by those in rebellion against the United States. The principal one of these vessels, the Sumter , which has so far eluded our cruisers, when last heard from was in the vicinity of Gibraltar …” The irony lay in the fact that the Sumter was a steamer; setting a sailing ship like the Constellation to catch her was like sicking a chicken on a weasel. The old frigate was reduced to pathetic and useless cruises about the Mediterranean while her captain understandably hoped he would not see the quarry that could so easily gobble him up.

The Constellation was through. She came home from the Mediterranean to live out the rest of the century as a training ship, a receiving ship and a gunnery practice ship.

In 1893 she was towed to Newport, made fast to a wharf and left to die.

Somehow she held together and by 1914, historians began to talk about preserving a ship that was 117 years old; she was refitted. But three years later she even lost her name; a new World War I cruiser was to be called the Constellation , so the wooden ship was renamed the Old Constellation . By 1925, however, she had outlived the cruiser and got her proper name back. She was kept in fair condition at Newport until 1940 when she caught the eye of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had her put back in full commission, just in in time for her to serve in World War II—as “flagship” for Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King, a man with precious little time to spend traveling up to Newport to visit her.

The Constellation had not been to sea in 52 years when, on a chilly October day in 1946, she moved out of Newport Harbor and once more began to rise and fall to the swells of the open sea. She had no masts. Her deck was housed over. Her hull was bolstered by massive timbers that took the strain of the steel cable running to the tug. She was bound for the Boston Navy Yard and its dry dock.

A squall came up. White-capped seas crashed across her huddled form. Her weak old hull groaned and a foot and a half of water sloshed from side to side in her hold. A desperate bucket brigade kept her afloat until she could reach the smoother waters of Boston Harbor. Creaking up to wharfside at last, she settled in the stillness of what appeared to be her final resting place.

But the cost of her upkeep mounted every year, and the Navy Department, hard-pressed to keep its fighting ships in trim without worrying about its relics, could no longer finance the battle against rot. In 1948 Congress passed a bill authorizing enough money to pay 25 per cent of the restoration of the old ship if the public would put up the rest. The Navy estimated that it would cost $3,500,000 to restore the Constellation to the condition she was in when she was originally built for $314,000. A public subscription drive was launched.

It netted $93.85.

The old hulk lay disconsolately at her wharf and started to fall apart. And as if by calculated insult, she lay next to the spanking clean frigate Constitution , restored by a public subscription that had been successful.

Finally the Navy asked for congressional permission to break up the poor old hard-luck frigate. She was getting to be an eyesore in the Boston Navy Yard. That was when the civic group in Baltimore stepped in. The Constellation was built in Baltimore, and Baltimore wanted her back. By act of Congress the Navy encased her in a floating dry dock and towed her to Baltimore, running before the onrushing gales of Hurricane Connie. There the Constellation was left to the people of Baltimore.

The Constellation Committee of Maryland estimates that a minimum restoration can be done for $100,000, and this amount is already available; half of it was appropriated by the Maryland legislature and the other half by the city of Baltimore. For this amount her ancient hull can be settled in a gravel bed and her interior made presentable enough for tourists to go aboard. Then, hopefully, collections will start for enough money to repair her, erect new masts and possibly even bend sails on her spars once again.

Thus the Constellation has almost achieved her long-deserved shrine—almost, but not quite. For the old girl’s bad luck is still with her. In fact, this last blow is probably the crudest of all. Evidence has been presented to indicate that the venerable hulk on which Mary !anders are spending $100,000 is the wrong ship.

It appears that, far from being America’s oldest warship, she is comparatively new as such relics go; that she is not the ship that fought the Insurgente and the Vengeance , not the ship that stumbled about the Mediterranean after the Barbary pirates, not the ship that helped teach John Rodgers and David Porter the art of naval warfare by testing them with every kind of ill fortune imaginable.