USS Constitution

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One of six original frigates authorized by the US Congress in 1794, and generally regarded by Americans as the most famous ship in the history of the US Navy. Rated at 44 guns, but generally carrying more than 50, her dimensions were: length, 62.2 metres (204 ft); beam, 13.3 metres (43 ft 6 in.); depth of hold, 4.3 metres (14 ft 3 in.); displacement, 2,200 tons. She was launched in 1797, served in the quasi-war with France, and fought against the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean, 1803–5. In the latter campaign she served as the flagship of Commodore Edward Preble (1761–1807) who conducted a blockade of Tripoli, and then a bombardment (August 1804) of that city, and the peace treaty was signed aboard her. But it was in the War of 1812–15 against the British that she established her enduring reputation. Congress declared war on 18 June 1812 although no plans and no preparations had been made. The US Navy then consisted of eight frigates and eight smaller vessels. Morale in the USA was low after an initial setback in the war, when news came that the Constitution, then commanded by Captain Isaac Hull (1773–1843), had, on 19 August 1812, destroyed the British 38-gun frigate Guerrière. Tradition has it that much of the British shot failed to penetrate the side of the American warship, and that as a result her own sailors gave her the name ‘Old Ironsides’. She had other victories, too: on 29 December 1812 she destroyed the frigate Java; and on 20 February 1815 she captured two smaller British vessels in a battle lasting about four hours.

An inaccurate newspaper report that the Constitution was going to be broken up led the American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes to write a poem, ‘Old Ironsides’ (1830), which was intended to arouse public sentiment for the preservation of the old vessel. In fact, she stayed afloat for many more years. She made a circumnavigation in the mid-1840s and was not retired from front-line service until a decade later. She then served as a school ship, first at the Naval Academy, and then for apprentices, before being decommissioned in 1881. Public interest, aroused when her deteriorating condition was announced, led to her being restored between 1927 and 1931. Later, she made a tour of 90 US ports, and was visited by about 4.5 million people, before returning to Boston, where she had been built. She is now berthed, and is open to the public in the Charlestown Navy Yard section of the Boston National Historical Park. She is the oldest commissioned warship afloat anywhere in the world, and last put to sea in 1997.Martin, Tyrone G., A Most Fortunate Ship (rev. edn. 1997).

Subjects: Warfare and Defence — Maritime History.

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