- Historic Sites
Memo To: Oliver Wendell Holmes From: The Friends Of Old Ironsides Subject: Help!
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
Line-of-battle ships were far too rich for the young-republic’s blood. Humphreys’ solution for this problem was the “superfrigale,” which could outpunch anything afloat except a line-of-battle ship and could outmaneuver and outrun even one of those. Constitution was a “forty-four”; the customary British frigate was rated at thirty-eight guns. Constitution ’s main royal truck (the tip of lier tallest mast) was 170 feet above the deck, almost 200 feet above her keel. Her main yard, supporting the largest of the eleven square sails normally set, was 95 feet long and almost 50 feet above the deck. These dimensions spelled speed: even at the age of sixty-eight, the ship once reeled off 13½, knots (15½ statute miles per hour) for several hours.
Besides striking power and speed there was a third requirement: endurance. For this Humphreys selected unusually heavy timber and put it together with unusual sturdiness. One authority says, “He made the frames, planking, and spars fully equal in size to a line-of-battle ship.” Herein lies the real basis for her most popular name.
From her eighteen-by-twenty-four-inch oak keel rose her great live oak frames, or ribs, tapering from a lateral thickness of fifteen inches at the base to nine inches at the gun deck. These were set much closer together than in ordinary ships—practically touching, in fact, so as to form a vertical stockade of tough timber. Overlaid on the outside by horizontal oak planking seven inches thick and on the inside by five-inch timber sheathing, they conshiuted a virtual coat of armor, effective against much of llie ordnance of the day: they were the “iron sides” acclaimed by her crew when they saw British shot rebounding from them in her first great battle during the War of 1812.
Following her shakedown cruise in July, 1798, under Samuel Nicholson’s command, Constitution was sent out against the French and performed creditably if not spectacularly, chiefly in the West Indies, until the quasi-war came to an end early in 1801. the power, speed, and stamina Humphreys had built into her received their first serious combat testing in the Mediterranean from 1803 to 1805, against Tripoli and other Barbary powers, which were then on one of their recurrent harassment sprees against American shipping and seamen. Under Edward Preble, Constitution led a Mediterranean squadron against the corsairs. But the key date in her history was 1812. When war on England was declared June 18 (ironically, two days after repeal of the British orders-in-council that were the ostensible provocation to hostilities), she dialed from Annapolis with orders to join the squadron of her former commander John Rodgers, off New York. Prophetically, she never made that rendezvous. In her major encounters of the next three years, she would play a lone hand.
Those encounters vindicated Joshua Humphreys’ planning. She struck with overwhelming power and accuracy, survived heroic punishment, and fled magnificently when flight was indicated. Her escapes from British traps are classic suspense stories of the sea.
During the was she had three commanders: Isaac Hull, William Bainbridge, and Charles Stewart. Each was to lead her to one victory that would stand as a classic of sea warfare: Hull’s defeat of H.M.S. Guerrière on August 19, 1812; Bainbridge’s of H.M.S. Java on December 29, 1812; and Stewart’s of the sloop of war Levant and the frigate Cyane in February, 1815. The last, like the land victory won at New Orleans by Andrew Jackson (whose path would cross Old Ironsides’ bows again) was fought after the war had ended but before the signing of the Treaty of Ghent had been officially communicated to all concerned. Three months later, Old Ironsides triumphantly entered New York Harbor, bringing her first career to a close.
Constitution’s second career runs through four fifths of the entire life span of the United States of America. She has flown the flag of an admiral or a commodore for a bout one third of that time—and still does today. After her exploits in the nation’s second war she has served through seven others, not without involvement, although never in a belligerent role. Her still-unfurling afterlife falls into three parts: a little over forty years in which she has been a heroic relic, a patriotic symbol—and a growing problem.
Reading her story, one could say that, like another great lady, her infinite variety can neither be staled by custom nor withered by a very large dose of time. She has received visits and honors from poets, potentates, and at least one pope. A baby has been born aboard.