- Historic Sites
Memo To: Oliver Wendell Holmes From: The Friends Of Old Ironsides Subject: Help!
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
Those of the press who acclaimed the 1965 visit of Pope Paul VI as the first contact between a papal foot and American soil had not done their naval homework. By national and international law, the deck of a United States warship is American soil. A few weeks after C. S. Macauley established his citizenship by being born on that soil, Constitution lay at Gaeta, Italy. In a time of turbulence throughout Europe, the then Pope, Pius IX, had been given sanctuary by the King of Naples. With his host, on August a, he visited Old Ironsides, being rowed to her by a boat’s crew made up entirely of captains of the warships of many nations then lying in the harbor.
In 1855 Old Ironsides ended her last service cruise —chiefly in waters between Saint Helena and the Cape Verdes, for the suppression of the slave trade—and came home to find the Union she had helped weld together falling apart over the slavery issue. This was a crisis in which her commission could carry no weight, and she went into five years’ inactive status at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. During this period the Navy, without the need of any urging by Oliver Wendell Holmes (still in his forties), gave her a much-needed rebuilding—though not with a view to really active service in the future. On its completion she was ordered to Annapolis as a Naval Academy training ship, just in time to confront a new peril.
When Lieutenant Commander David D. Porter brought her to Annapolis, Lincoln’s election was only three months away, and secession was in the air. Eight months later, with Sumter lost and Constitution facing recurrent threats of seizure or destruction by southern sympathizers, she was removed from her academy berth and towed to Newport, Rhode Island—whither the Naval Academy itself was transferred for the duration—to continue as a training ship.
Returned to Annapolis with the academy, she spent the years 1867-70 under the caretaker-command of Lieutenant Commander George Dewey. Within a year after Dewey relinquished command, a survey showed Constitution to be in a “critical” state of decay, and she was ordered to Philadelphia for “extensive restoration.” The Navy and Congress seem still to have regarded her maintenance as a matter of course, even though she was now clearly an institution rather than an instrument of defense.
This, her third rebuilding, took a long time. She was supposed to be ready to go on display as a prime exhibit of the Centennial Exposition in 1876, but she was not. Denied the chance to be a star at one fair, she became a slavey for another when, two years later, she was ordered to France as transport for the United States displays at the Universal Exposition in Paris. Without most of her guns, and with a crew of less than sixty, she lifted about 830 tons of cargo, including a deckload of streetcars and a locomotive. After waiting nearly a year, she re-embarked these evidences of American progress and sailed for home. Through what was later ruled a freak of Channel currents, she wound up hard aground on the English coast. As at Singapore three decades earlier, her old enemies came to her rescue, towed her off, and repaired her at Her Majesty’s Portsmouth dockyard. But her trials were not ended. After she had begun a second westward crossing, structural defects (later alleged to have resulted from misapplication of funds during her latest rebuilding) forced her back to Lisbon for further prolonged repairs.
This last foreign voyage, as a cargo ship, recalls an additional function that Old Ironsides had performed virtually from the start of her second career in 1821. In addition to her military, diplomatic, and political functions, she was expected to further the advancement of the arts and sciences in the maturing republic by bringing home whatever artifacts, specimens, and data she might be able to accumulate on her cruises. The headless Ceres was only a beginning. From her 1835-38 Mediterranean cruise she brought back to a score of collegiate, public, and religious institutions a lengthy inventory of works of art, mummies, coins, and experimental breeding stock. On her round-the-world cruise she sent an expedition to the interior of Borneo to collect data on trade, politics, and botany.
After her return from Lisbon, Constitution sank to the humblest station of her long career. Until late in 1881 she cruised the Atlantic coast as a training ship for apprentice boys. Decommissioned at Brooklyn, she was presently towed to Portsmouth Navy Yard, where a square, barnlike structure was erected on her still shapely hull and she became a receiving ship. For the next decade and a half this nondescript water-borne shed floated at the mouth of the Piscataqua, and it seemed that the nation had forgotten Old Ironsides.
Boston, at least, had not. In January, 1897, one of the city’s most persuasive voices—that of Congressman John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, future mayor and grandfather of President John F. Kennedy—was raised on the floor of the House to urge that the frigate be rehabilitated and returned home on her hundredth birthday. Congress acceded, and the old hulk was towed back to Charlestown to be greeted by a centennial salute from the North Atlantic Fleet. Dishevelled as she was, she was placed on public display at the Navy Yard.