The Hard-luck Frigate


Not far from Baltimore lives a marine architect named Howard I. Chapelle. He is an expert on sailing ships, their designs and their history. His two most ambitious books, The History of American Sailing Ships and The History of the American Sailing Navy , are classic reference works for anyone studying United States maritime history. Mr. Chapelle has been looking into the Constellation with special reference to his particular interest, her design and its changes over the years. On the basis of this study he states that when the old Constellation was supposedly “rebuilt” in 1853–54, she was actually broken up, surveyed, found to be thoroughly rotten and condemned and junked. A few pieces of her may or may not have been used in the new ship that was then built, but the new vessel was not the Constellation any more. She was built as a modern sailing warship of her day. She was not even a frigate, but a corvette. (Although this is a distinction of design too minor for the layman’s eye, the marine architect can easily differentiate between the two types.)

Why the fiction of “rebuilding” the old Constellation? Simply, says Chapelle, because by this administrative device the Navy could have a new warship without going to Congress for authority and funds; maintenance and repair money was thereby used to build a new ship. Hence, although the new ship had to be named the Constellation , the old frigate from Baltimore no longer existed.

Mr. Chapelle’s reputation in the field is such that when a Navy officer was first presented with the claim his immediate answer was, “Well, if Chapelle says so, it must be true …” But since then the Navy has conducted an investigation and concluded officially that the present ship is simply the old one rebuilt, that the Constellation may be running on her patches, so to speak, but she is still the Constellation . So has the Constellation Committee of Maryland, which holds that the “principle of continuous existence” makes the Constellation as much the original as the Constitution is. Chapelle’s rebuttal is simply that the vessel should then be a frigate and not a corvette.

If Chapelle’s view is correct, the old lady now suffers her final degradation. She has been cheated out of all there was left to her, a clear name and a bit of respect at the end.

There are those who believe ships really do have personalities of their own. If that is so, there must be a stirring in the sludge at the bottom of Norfolk Harbor these days, as the twisted bones of the real Constellation churn over in their 100-year-old grave.