Memo To: Oliver Wendell Holmes From: The Friends Of Old Ironsides Subject: Help!


It was a bright day for the Republic, that afternoon of May 15, 1815, when the U.S.S. Constitution victoriously dropped anchor oil the Battery at New York. Of all the gala homecomings that Castle Clinton’s low brown walls would witness in the next century and a half, none would be charged with more patriotic fervor.

For the citizen of 1815 recognized in this ship, as clearly as the historian who would teach his great-grandchildren, a prime instrument that had done much to make the United States a power to be respected both on the seas and in the capitals of the world. In the war just ended, beyond settlement of old scores and salving of old wounds, he sensed that from a resident of a somewhat apprehensive renegade colony he had changed into a citixen of the world. And for this in large part he thanked Old Ironsides.

What no one could know at the time was that for Constitution May 15, 1815, was not only a day of triumph but a day of translation from instrument to institution, from mortal to immortal. One career had ended; another was about to begin. As wooden ships go, Old Ironsides, at eighteen, was already fully entitled to the adjective in her nickname. Her cue now was to accept her laurels gracefully and, after a few years in ordinary, to fade quietly from view.

Constitution missed the cue. Instead, she commenced a second career, which was to last almost nine times as long as the span in which she performed most of the feats the textbooks celebrate. Throughout it lier guns have never been fired in anger—though occasionally they have given stern admonition to pirates, slavers, and their ilk. Yet she has had narrower escapes from destruction in the past 154 years than in all her encounters with Barbary corsairs and British fleets. She is standing into hazardous waters again today.

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down! Long has it waved on high, And man an eye has danced to see That banner in the sky; Beneath it rung the battle-shout, And burst the cannon’s roar: The meteor of the ocean air Shall sweep the clouds no more! … Her deck, once red with heroe’s blood, Where knelt the vanquished foe, When winds were hurrying o’er the flood And wavers were white below, No more shall feel the victor’s tread, Or know the conquered knee; The harpies of the shore shall pluck The eagle of the sea!


One of the first six frigates authorized March 27, 1794, by the Fourth Congress, Constitution was designed by Joshua Humphreys and laid down at Hartt’s shipyard in Boston. Subsequent events seemed to mark her as anything but a lucky ship. Her construction lagged behind that of lier sisters, and when she was finally ready in September, 1797, she twice refused to descend the ways before she could be floated. Superstitious beards wagged, but Constitution was to repudiate these omens.


She and her sisters in this first fully intentional United States Navy were loftily rigged, solidly built vessels—though Constitution ’s, dimensions of 175 feet on the waterline, 43 feet 6 inches beam, and 2,200 tons displacement by no means put her in a class with the world’s heaviest men-of-war. Like all important combat vessels of the day, she was ship-rigged: a three-master with square sails on fore, main, and mizzen. This similarity of rigging makes it far harder for the twentieth-century eye to differentiate the various warship classes of 1800 than to sort out modern destroyers, cruisers, and battleships at a glance. But the distinctions were there. The sloop of war, light, agile, and speedy, with guns on only one deck, was the nineteenth-century destroyer. The frigate, heavier but still fast and handily maneuverable, with two tiers of guns, was the cruiser. Deadliest of all, though slow and ponderous, with three or more rows of guiiports, was the ship of the line, or line-of-battle ship, whose abbreviated name remained synonymous with maximum killing power at sea until the advent of the carrier and, since World War II, the nuclear submarine.