- Historic Sites
Memo To: Oliver Wendell Holmes From: The Friends Of Old Ironsides Subject: Help!
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
Though she knew neither the “battle-shout” nor the “conquered knee,” Constitution between the ages of thirty-eight and fifty-eight was a very busy and increasingly honored lady. She was flagship on her old Mediterranean station three times: 1835-38, 1848-51, and 1853-55. In 1839-41 she headed the Pacific Squadron, and for a year thereafter was flagship of the Home Squadron, based at Norfolk under Commodore Stewart, her old captain against Cyane and Levant . Her busy calendar included a round-the-world cruise in 1844-46 under “Mad Jack” Percival’s command. In these twenty years she is conservatively estimated to have sailed over 200,000 miles.
These decades were marked by a growing esteem and affection for the old ship on the part of citizens of many other countries, including old enemies. In February, 1836, when she lay at Malta surrounded by British naval might, her hosts accorded her the unprecedented honor of a Washington’s Birthday salute. A gaudy painting survives to show how she was “dressed” (some would say overdressed) to receive this tribute. (See pages 24-25.) Nine years later, when Percival brought her into Singapore from the Indian Ocean with a dangerous proportion of his crew down with fever, one of the first to board was the senior Royal Navy officer present, Commodore Henry D. Chads, who had last visited her thirty-three years earlier to surrender the beaten Java , whose commander had been fatally wounded. Chads extended to Percival all the courtesies of the port, including every medical facility at his command.
For all her success as diplomat and peacemaker, though, Old Ironsides was still a man-of-war, under orders to look to United States interests and, if necessary, to defend them with force anywhere at any time. Thus, as she lay at Callao, Peru, in 1841 in company with British warships whose admiral and crews had just participated in the funeral tribute to her squadron’s commander, Commodore Alexander Claxton, news belatedly arrived of the ominous crisis between the two nations arising from the “Patriot War” on the Canadian border. For several years Canadians had been embittered by “liberation” raids launched from American soil without significant efforts at restraint by United States authorities, while American hotheads were enraged by British seizure and destruction of the small American steamer Caroline , which had been running supplies across the Niagara River to the insurgents. A chill descended on the ships at Callao. For all they knew, their countries were already at war. No shots were fired, but not until Old Ironsides had completed an apprehensive seven-week haul around the Horn did she learn from a Brazilian vessel that she need not expect a broadside from the first British warship she encountered.
Again, in 1845, of the bulge of Cochin China, now a part of Vietnam, she found herself in a situation that involved a calculated risk of hostilities. While moored at Touron, a few miles down the coast from the capital city of Hue, she received an urgent plea for rescue. Monseigneur Dominique Lefevre, the French bishop of Western Cochin, imprisoned at Hue under sentence of death by the King of Cochin China, besought Old Ironsides (which he took to be French) to act on his behalf. Captain Percival determined that humanity required him to do what he could. For three weeks, by means of hostages, intermediaries, and several armed boat expeditions led by Mad Jack himself, she kept the local authorities off balance. There was no gunplay, except for warning shots directed at threatening Cochinese junks and brigs. Finally, though no definite answer had been received from the king, it was learned that the French fleet had been alerted and was on its way from Singapore; Constitution moved on, having probably saved the French prelate’s life.
While she crossed the Pacific, war was brewing between this country and Mexico. Arriving on the coast in the first days of 1846, she joined Commodore Sloat’s fleet lying off Mazatlán. The United States declared war on May 13, but Constitution ’s only active role was to convoy a frightened fleet of sixteen coffee ships from Rio de Janeiro to the Delaware Capes. Thus ended her martial career.
But she still had much to do and many miles to sail in the nation’s service. She was frequently detailed to transport American diplomats to and from their posts of duty. In 1811 she had delivered our ambassador, Joel Barlow, to France and in 1835 had made a hasty round trip to bring home one of his successors, Edward Livingston. In 1844 sne started her world cruise by dropping our minister to Brazil off at Rio. And in 1849, as sne was moving Consul General D. S. Macauley and his family from Tripoli to Alexandria, her battle-hardened beams and bulkheads echoed to a new and alarming sound: the squall of a newborn baby. Mother and child flourished, and the newcomer, having entered this life at the very center of his country’s naval history, was christened Constitution Stewart Macauley.