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


She has transported botanical specimens, diplomats, locomotives, objets d’art , and livestock. Schoolchildren have swarmed over her decks, from an 1835 fall day in the Mediterranean to the present in bleak Charlestown, Massachusetts. She was the diva of a comic-opera insult to the President of the United States. And she fought her own small Vietnamese war 115 years before American advisers reached that unhappy land.

First, though, she went into temporary seclusion. From 1815 to 1821, while her sister ships did a final cleanup job on the Barbary pirates (who had found the War of 1812 a convenient time to backslide), she slumbered at Boston, undergoing leisurely postwar surgery and cosmetic rehabilitation. She emerged a different ship. Never again would she be a mere naval vessel, though for decades she would sail under naval orders and run naval errands. She was somehow changed, somehow elevated. The first man, perhaps, to recognize her metamorphosis was neither a sailor nor an American. In 1822, a year after she entered the Strait of Gibraltar on the first of five tours as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron, she was visited by George Gordon, Lord Byron. The young British poet, a martyr two years later to the cause of Greek independence, is said to have walked Old Ironsides’ decks with unwonted reverence and to have observed that he “would rather have a nod from an American than a snuffbox from an emperor.”

Constitution returned home, but sailed at just about the time of Byron’s death for a second Mediterranean tour during which, while maintaining punctilious neutrality, she extended all possible nonmilitary succor to the Greek population, then suffering under Turkish suppression and reprisals. On one occasion, as a form of “relief,” Commodore Daniel Patterson purchased from a starving local group an ancient buried statue: the colossal headless Ceres now preserved at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Later, when the Western powers had ensured Greek independence by crushing the Turkish and Egyptian fleets at Navarino, Old Ironsides’ quiet presence at Smyrna, while most western Europeans were fleeing or cowering in terror, has been credited with averting a massacre. On this same cruise Constitution was hostess to the King and Queen of Greece, to the redoubtable Viceroy of Egypt, Mahomet Ali, and to over two hundred orphan children shepherded by American and English missionaries.

Though she had already achieved a sort of immortality, the old frigate had begun to demonstrate that in structure she was desperately mortal. Wooden ships require virtually continuous repair and replacement, but these, even when scrupulously performed, cannot indefinitely postpone the day when the choice is rebuild or destroy. Constitution has reached that point five times in her career—at quarter-century intervals, on the average. The sixth crisis is now past due.

The first awaited her in 1828, on her Fourth-of-July arrival in Boston from the Mediterranean, and it was the direst peril she has ever survived. A hardheaded board of officers surveyed her and pronounced her past economic repair. The Navy Department concurred and consigned her to scrap. Oliver Wendell Holmes, then a law student at Harvard and soon to be a physician, read the papers and wrote a poem that began, “Ay, tear her tattered ensign down …”

The resultant gale of public indignation swept away the disposal order and kindled congressional fervor to enact appropriations for Constitution ’s complete reconstruction. In all her years of rough use, the ship had never been drydocked. Opportunely, the Navy was just completing Dry Dock No. 1 in Charlestown, and on June 24, 1833, Old Ironsides became the first vessel to occupy it. After a year of radical surgery at the hands of naval constructor Josiah Barker, a worthy successor to Joshua Humphreys, she emerged from what would henceforth be called Constitution Dock.

Having escaped the fire, Constitution temporarily found herself in an anticlimactic frying pan: the figurehead affair. In her long life she has borne eight or nine bow adornments, starting with a wooden Hercules who, demigod or not, was no match for Moorish cannon balls at Tripoli. Neptune, his successor, gave way before 1812 to a nonrepresentational carved scroll known as a billethead, or fiddlehead. This went ashore at Constitution Dock, since yard commander Jesse Elliott planned to refit her with a figure of President Andrew Jackson. Maritime Boston, strongly Federalist, thought otherwise. On the night of July 2, 1834, a young mariner, Samuel Dewey (cousin of one George, who would later command Constitution before moving on to Manila Bay), rowed out, climbed up, sawed off Jackson’s head under the noses of the Marine guard, and escaped. Great and even more furious hubbub ensued, but beneath it all everyone except minor officialdom seems to have kept the affair in perspective as a political prank, and Dewey was not arrested when he brazenly and in person returned the head to the Secretary of the Navy some months later. Even Old Hickory himself, although he was ailing at the time, is said to have viewed Dewey’s impudent exploit with amusement. Meanwhile, the offending effigy had received a new head at New York, which Old Ironsides bore for nearly a quarter century until it was supplanted by a rather more elegant image of the old Indian fighter. This second Jackson figurehead is the one preserved at the Naval Academy today. Since its removal the ship has worn less controversial bow scrolls.