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Old Ironsides: America's Oldest Warship

Jan 14, 2020

Image: USS Constitution commemorative stamp, 150th anniversary issue of 1947 -
If you never learned about the USS Constitution, aka 'Old Ironsides', you missed out because there's a lot of history behind it according to
The Ship Design Was Controversial
Ship designer Joshua Humphreys elected to use a frigate design, so the ship could carry heavier weapons with the goal of outshooting and outrunning ships in her class. The hull had diagonal beams from the fore to the aft that supported heavier planking on the outer hull. It also had heavier decks and a longer hull for increased speed.
Traditional shipbuilders found this design a bit controversial, and construction was costly. Another issue was using live oak (60 acres of trees were demolished to build the ship and its lower masts). Most of the wood came from swamps in South Carolina and Georgia.
The Sleeping Quarters Were Very Tight
The sailors would sleep on the third deck, known as the berthing deck. It was very short, and most sailors could not fully stand up in that space. However, it was intended for sleeping, so that wasn’t really an issue. The average sailor would sleep in one of the hammocks that were strung around the deck.
The Sleeping Quarters Were Very Tight
There was very little space between the hammocks (as little as three inches) when they were all strung up. Since sailors slept in shifts, about 250 of them slept in that space at one time.
Copper In The Hull Was Forged By Paul Revere
Boston shipbuilder Edmund Hartt was responsible for the ship’s construction under the supervision of U.S. Navy Captain Samuel Nicholson. Paul Revere, whom you may remember from the American Revolution, forged the copper that was used on the hull of the ship.
Copper In The Hull Was Forged By Paul Revere
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
When it was finally time to launch the USS Constitution for the first time in 1797, there was a little problem. She was too heavy to slide down the slipway. After three attempts, the ship finally entered Boston Harbor on October 21.
When she set sail for the first time, the Constitution lacked one massive component.
The USS Constitution is one of the nation’s most famous and oldest ships. She is 204-feet long, has a displacement of 2,200 tons, and a firing range of 1,200 yards. At the time of her construction, the ship cost $300,00 to build, which included all the weaponry and related equipment.
The USS Constitution is known for her role in several victories at sea, particularly those that occurred during the War of 1812. The ship has a fascinating history, and there are many things you may not know about her, including claims that she’s haunted and that she was nearly used for target practice.
The Constitution Is The Oldest Warship In The US Navy
The USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned naval vessel that is still afloat. She was one of six original frigates that were constructed as a result of the Naval Act of 1794. President George Washington chose the name Constitution among a group of 10 names, which were submitted by Secretary of War Timothy Pickering for the six frigates.
The Constitution was built in a shipyard in the north end of Boston, Massachusetts. Her initial mission was to protect American merchant shipping during the Quasi-War with France and to combat the Barbary pirates during the First Barbary War.
She Was Missing Key Armaments During Her First Cruise
The Constitution was built to carry thirty 24-pound cannons on her deck and fourteen 32-pound carronades on the spar deck. However, these weapons were not on the ship during her first cruise. Ships were typically launched with only their lower masts installed, while topmasts, rigging, etc. were added later.
In May 1798, the Constitution was ordered by the Navy to protect American ships from French naval vessels and privateers while the French battled Great Britain. The Constitution had to borrow 16 weapons from the Army before she set sail.
The Constitution’s First Prize Was A Mistake
Captain Nicholson and his crew launched in July 1798 to patrol the eastern seaboard. The following month, the ship took her first prize: a French crew. However, they were allegedly under British orders, so the United States apologized to Great Britain and paid them restitution.
The next year, the Constitution met another British vessel that had been captured by the French. Even though it would have been a proper prize for the Constitution under the rules of war, Nicholson opted not to take the vessel, likely due to the politics of the previous confrontation.
She Earned The Name “Old Ironsides” During The War Of 1812
During the War of 1812, the Constitution set sail for the British convoy routes off Halifax before heading towards Bermuda. On August 19, the ship saw the British frigate HMS Guerriere and decided to engage (as depicted above). The Guerriere responded with several shots, most of which missed.
However, some shots struck and then bounced off the sides of the Constitution that, remember, were made of oak. Crew members allegedly shouted that the sides were made of iron. Many historians believe the press dubbed the ship “Old Ironsides” when reporting the account of the battle.
The Constitution Easily Disabled The Guerriere, And The Feat Became Legendary
The Guerriere was badly damaged, surrendered, and was in such rough shape it was set on fire before it sank in the ocean. It was highly unusual for a naval ship such as the Guerriere to surrender during the 19th century. And even though Captain Isaac Hull wanted to take his prize back to Boston, he could not.
Following the battle, the Constitution also required repairs, particularly the lower masts that were damaged by the British, so the ship returned to Boston. The battle’s outcome had been unlikely, and word quickly spread of the victory. American patriotism reached a fever pitch.
The Constitution Went On To Destroy The HMS Java
In September 1812, William Bainbridge took command of the Constitution and encountered the British frigate HMS Java off the coast of Brazil. Initially, the Constitution suffered after her helm was shot away and her rigging was severely damaged. So the ship escaped for emergency repairs.
Then she returned to face her opponent, which had also been badly damaged. The British surrendered, and the Java was in such bad shape it could not be taken into port. Instead, it was burned, and the crew was taken prisoner and dropped off in San Salvador. Once again, the American public was thrilled by the victory.
After seeing so much death, it’s no surprise the ship may contain some spirits.
She’s Reportedly Haunted
The three-masted frigate is currently docked along Boston’s Freedom Trail, and she’s flanked by the USS Constitution Museum. Many believe that ghosts haunt the ship. One such ghost is named Neil Harvey, who had the misfortune of falling asleep while on watch in the 1800s. Commodore Truxton ordered him dead so he was stabbed, tied over a cannon, and shot.
Even today, crew members who sail on the ship during special occasions have witnessed objects randomly rolling across the deck, such as a 24-pound cannonball. Some also claim to feel the presence of dead soldiers.
People Have Been “Terrified” To Stand Watch On The Ship
Former crew member Peter Robertson served as a first-class petty officer on the ship from 2001 to 2004. During an interview with Stars and Stripes, he noted that everyone took the ghosts seriously on the Constitution. “You didn’t make jokes about it…You didn’t even try to scare each other because people were terrified.
Some people are scared of the ship
He added, “A lot of people were terrified to stand watch on the ship.” He noted that unless you were a brand new crew member, “you didn’t mess around with all that stuff.”
Next: spooky stories about the ship
Many Claim To Have Encountered Spirits On The Ship
Seaman Allie Thorpe, who served on the ship from 2002 to 2005, claimed to have encountered some paranormal activity while onboard the frigate. “It would feel like somebody was walking up behind you and blowing on your neck,” he recalled.
Paranormal activity aboard the ship
In 1955, Lieutenant Commander Allen Brougham set up a camera overlooking the ship’s wheel just to see what he could record. According to one report, a figure of a 19th-century navy captain appeared around midnight and was caught on film. He was wearing gold epaulets and reaching for a sword.
Birds Suspiciously Avoided Landing On The Ship
Crew member Gary Kent recalled serving on the ship during the ’80s, and he noticed one thing that was particularly strange. Birds never landed on the ship. “There were a lot of high places for them to perch, but I never saw one land. I was very new to ships…The old-timers though, they thought it was very strange…it was very strange, definitely not normal.”
Kent also claimed to have seen the ghost of a sailor with blood on his face. The man was wearing an old-school uniform with gold buttons, according to the book Haunted Boston Harbor by Sam Baltrusis.
The Constitution was almost destroyed.
The U.S. Government Nearly Dismantled Her
In 1830, a newspaper in Boston reported that the ship was scheduled to be dismantled; however, the decision was not yet final. Two days later, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote a poem called “Old Ironsides” about the frigate, and the ensuing uproar convinced the Navy to rebuild it instead.
She has been rebuilt on several occasions, and the most recent reconstruction was completed in 2017. During one of the renovations in the ’90s, the hull was reinforced while she rested in dry dock.
The Secretary Of The Navy Suggested Using The Ship For Target Practice
In 1905, Secretary of the Navy Charles Joseph Bonaparte came up with the idea of using the Constitution for target practice. He suggested towing her out to sea and shooting her until she sank. A Worcester, Massachusetts, businessman heard about the idea and offered to buy the ship for $10,000 instead.
This spurred a public campaign that eventually forced Congress the following year to authorize $100,000 to restore the ship. She was then turned into a museum ship and was opened to the public.
She’s Survived Hurricanes And Souvenir Hunters
In 1938, the Constitution was blown into the Boston Harbor and collided with the destroyer Ralph Talbot during a New England hurricane. Fortunately, she only sustained some minor damage. But over the years, souvenir hunters started contributing to the ship’s deterioration by picking off some of the removable objects.
The Constitution was recommissioned in 1940 and used as a brig for officers awaiting court martial. In 1947, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating the ship, and her maintenance was put under the auspice of the Secretary of the Navy in 1954.
Queen Elizabeth Visited The Ship During America’s Bicentennial Celebrations
During the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, an area of land known as “Constitution Grove” was designated to provide white oak that was needed to help restore the ship. On July 10, the Constitution led a parade of tall ships through Boston Harbor and fired shots for the first time in about a century.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited America during a state visit, and the Constitution shot off a salute to Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia. The royal couple also visited the ship and took a private tour.
She is still seaworthy today.
She Still Sets Sail Under Her Own Power For Special Occasions
The ship was retired from active service in 1882. In 1905, the public was allowed to tour the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. She was recommissioned following a restoration in 1931, but did not sail under her own power. In 1934, she took part in a three-year, 90-port tour of America, and over 4.5 million people visited her.
In 1997, to celebrate her 200th birthday, the ship sailed on her own power. She did so again in August 2012 to mark the 200th anniversary of the American victory over the HMS Guerriere.
There’s A Lottery To Participate In The Ship’s Annual “Turnaround Cruise”
The USS Constitution is open to the public all year long. Every year it usually makes one “turnaround cruise.” The public is allowed to get on board the turnaround cruise, but they have to enter a lottery to earn a coveted ticket. The ship is towed into the harbor where it performs a drill and other demonstrations.
She then returns to dock in the opposite direction so that the ship weathers evenly on both sides. While she has been heavily restored over the years, it’s estimated that 10-15 percent of the ship’s timber is original.
The Constitution Is Currently Used As A Teaching Tool
Known as America’s Ship of State, the Constitution serves as a way to teach U.S. Navy heritage. You can visit the ship in Boston Harbor as well as engage in interactive exhibits and hands-on programs geared towards adults, families, and children of all ages.
Exhibits include details about a sailor’s life in 1812, the role of Old Ironsides in war and peace, and the steps that were taken to restore the ship. You can also meet the active-duty crew members serving aboard the USS Constitution today.
Her Nickname Is Old Ironsides
Old Ironsides came into being in 1797 as the third frigate constructed of the six that were authorized due to the Naval Act of 1794. Consisting of three masts and a wooden hull, she was constructed by Joshua Humphrey.
The construction was done so that she and her sister ships were more heavily armed and more strongly built, hence the name. The body of the ship was also larger than others were at that time.
She Was Born In Massachusetts
She was built in northern Boston at Edmund Hartt’s shipyard. Hartt was a master carpenter who died nearly two decades before the USS Constitution came into being. His shipyard was home to several other famous ships.
Amongst these is the USS Boston, which was built just two years after the Constitution and also participated in the Quasi-War with France. Additionally, Hartt’s shipyard was the birthingplace of USS Argus and USS Independence. That’s quite a track record.
She’s Been Sailing For Centuries
84 years after being built, the USS Constitition was retired from active service in 1881. However, she still was classified as a receiving ship, meaning that she would house novice sailors until they were assigned to a crew.
She then was designated a historical museum piece in 1907. Nevertheless, she sailed again in 1934, touring the nation. At a whopping 200 years old, she sailed again in 1997 with her very own power, and again in 2012.
She Was Built Because Of Pirates
Back in the 18th century, pirates were a force to be reckoned with. In 1785, pirates from Algiers were seizing American merchant vessels as they sailed the Mediterranean. Eight years later, nearly a dozen American ships were captured.
Not only were these incredible ships at risk, but so were their crews. Often, the crews were held hostage as the pirates demanded ransom. This is was lead to a need for warships and ultimately fueled the creation of the Naval Act of 1794.
This would change years later when a peace accord came into play.
She Had A Unique Design
The USS Constitution was innovatively built as a means of keeping up with the powerful European states. The hull had greater strength than previous ships and featured diagonal riders that would prevent hogging and sagging while increases its weight.
The keel was made long and the width was more narrow and lined with heavy arms. The intent was to provide a ship that could overpower her enemies at the same time that it maneuvered out of harm’s way.
She Was Built After A Peace Accord
Remember those pirates from Algiers? As it turns out, they agreed to a peace accord in March of 1796 with the United States. This happened a year before the USS Constitution was finalized. Congress had to debate whether or not it would be finished.
George Washinton believed that the ship, along with the United States and Constellation, should be completed. Congress approved this due to the fact that all three ships were nearest to being completed of the six that were initially set to be built.
Ironically, this got the US into trouble with another country years later.
She Was Needed Against Barbary States
Five years after the peace ordinance with Algiers, Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli became disgruntled at the fact that Algiers was being paid more than they paid his empire. Thomas Jefferson responded to Karamanli’s request to be paid a quarter of a million dollars by sending out more frigates.
The ships were sent to protect the merchandise being shipped across the Mediterranean. Squadrons were sent to try to negotiate with the leaders of the Barbary States. The Constitution was the third ship to be sent during this junction.
She Was Expensive To Maintain
The ship took more than $300,000 to build, which was a large amount of money more than 200 years ago. However, the costs were far from over. At the time she was built, ships has a typical life span of a decade.
By the 1830s she was in need of repairs that would cost half of what the government paid to built her in the first place. A decade later, they would need to pour another several thousand.
The need for money caused a dilemma.
She Was Saved By A Poem
Decades after being built, the USS Constitution underwent a routine inspection under the order of the Secretary of the Navy, John Branch. A Navy commandant named Charles Morris performed the evaluation and reporting that it would cost $157,000 to repair the ship.
An article in the Boston Advertiser claimed that the ship was done for. This inspired Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides.” The emotional written works spurred public outcry to save the Constitution from the scrap yard. The government approved the repair costs.
A decade later, they ran into another hiccup.
She Almost Didn’t Make It Around The World
In 1843, while moored at Norfolk, it was determined that the ship would need another $70,000 worth of repairs if she was going to return to the sea. Secretary David Henshaw didn’t have the budget, so he sent Captain John Percival to evaluate the ship.
Captain Percival, known as “Mad Jack,” was convinced that the ship would be fine to sail after a mere $10,000 worth of repairs. After months of work and a tight budget, the she was determined cruise-ready for as much as three years.
She Was At Risk During The Civil War
After years spent all over the world, the USS Constitution made her way back to the United States to house students of the Naval Academy. In 1857, she was moved to the Portsmouth Navy Yard in New Hampshire and began being converted into a training ship.
Four years later, the Civil War broke out. She was relocated to Rhode Island as a means of protection. Sure enough, the Confederate army captured her sister ship, United States, leaving the Constitution the last remaining frigate of her kind.
Getting To Paris And Back Proved Tricky
The Constitution began her voyage to the Paris Exposition of 1878 loaded with artwork and displays. She had undergone repairs for years prior, but while docking in Paris she immediately needed more as she collided with Ville de Paris.
After spending the remainder of the year there, she headed home in January of 1879. However, she had to dock in England due to navigation issues. After repairs, she set out again only to have her rudder damaged during a storm. She was serviced in Lisbon before finally arriving to the United States.
The ordeal proved that her age had officially taken a toll.
Heading Into Retirement
Despite years of outlasting the predictions of many experts, the USS Constitution’s struggle to make it to Paris was a sign of her weakened quality. She was still used as a training ship for the next few years but was determined unfit in 1881.
This time, funds were not offered to renew the ship. Instead, she became a receiving ship and was given the bare minimum required maintenance. Seventeen years later, Congressman John. F. Fitzgerald took pity on the ship and swayed Congress to approve restoration.
Congress Wouldn’t Approve Funding
While Congress was all for the restoration of the Constitution at the turn of the 20th century, this time they put their foot down when it came to funding. The Massachusetts Society of the United Daughters of the War of 1812 attempted to raise funds but were unsuccessful.
After three years without luck, the ship began gaining attention. Ideas from rehabilitation, to target practice and her ultimate sinking, were tossed back and forth before finally, in 1906, Congress authorized $100,000 due to public outcry.
She Almost Lost Her Name
After only being able to receive a partial reconstruction, she was deemed a museum ship in 1907. A decade later, she was renamed the Old Constitution so that the name Constitution could be used on a planned new ship.
The battlecruiser that got her name was the CC-5. However, its construction was later canceled due to the Washington Naval Treaty. Since the ship was so far from completion, what had been done was sold for parts. The Old Constitution got her timeless name back in 1925.
She Could Barely Stay Afloat
By 1924, water was being pumped out of the USS Constitutional daily just so she wouldn’t sink. Her body was in such bad shape that the stern was barely holding on. Full of rot, she required almost a million dollars if she was going to carry on.
Secretary of the Navy, Curtis D. Wilbur, was authorized by Congress to raise private funds for her restoration. Fundraising extended into schools where children would offer pennies to help save the ship. Ultimately, $600,000 was raised privately while Congress finally caved and threw in another $300,000.
85% Was Replaced
By 1930, an estimated 85% of the original Constitution had been replaced with new materials. Not only was the ship brought make to its prior condition, but it was also significantly upgraded.
Water piping and a bathroom equipped with modern technology were placed inside, as well as electric lighting. Under the command of Louis J. Gulliver, a crew of 60 along with 15 Marines set sail on a 3-year tour, during which 4.6 million people would visit the ship.
1950s Trial And Error
In the 1950s, the ship recieved a few more modifications for the sake of modernizing. The heating was upgraded and a sprinkler system was added in. They also added in red oak to see how it compared to the live oak used in the past.
A couple of decades later, the ship again underwent repairs. However, they were not nearly as extensive as the 1920s had been and this time funds were approved to cover the costs. As it turned out, most of the new red oak had already rotted away.
Radiology Revealed A $12 Million Project
By the 1990s, workers were able to investigate the quality of the ship like never before. Radiography was used to create hundreds of scans that helped determine which timbers needed to be replaced.
In order to help provide the massive amount of timber required, South Carolina offered up the oak trees that had fallen as a result of Hurricane Hugo. The International Paper Company also provided oak. The project was completed in 1995 and cost $12 million.
She Still Can Sail
In honor of her 200th birthday, the USS Constitution sailed in 1997 shortly after it’s multi-million dollar project. However, this wouldn’t be the last time her power managed to take her out to sea.
After a three-year repair period, she sailed again in 2012 in honor of her victory over Guerriere. Another restoration took place in 2015, and she set sail again under the command of Nathaniel R. Shick, her 75th commanding officer to date.

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