Launched in 1794 and named by George Washington, USS Constitution was one of 6 three masted, heavy frigates built for the United States Navy. Her hull was made of the wood from 2,000 Georgia live oak trees, and built in the Edmund Hartt shipyard of Boston, Massachusetts.
Constitution’s August 1812 gun battle with HMS Guerriere has been well documented. Watching Guerriere’s shots bounce off Constitution’s hull, an American sailor exclaimed “Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!” The “Old Ironsides” nickname was born.
Less well known is Constitution’s slow-motion race with death, which had taken place a month earlier.
The War of 1812 was declared on the 18th of June. Constitution put to sea on July 12 under the command of Captain Isaac Hull. She was looking to join a five-ship squadron under Captain John Rodgers, when five sails were spotted off Egg Harbor, New Jersey. It was July 17. Hull first believed them to be Rodgers’ squadron, but he was mistaken. Lookouts reported on the morning of the 18th that they were 5 British warships, and they were giving chase.
That soon to be famous “iron” hull would have been useless in a five-to-one fight. A common naval tactic of the day was to close to short range and fire at the masts and rigging of opposing vessels, thus shutting down the ship’s “power plant”. A disabled vessel could then be boarded and a bloody fight would ensue with cutlass and pistol. There was no question, whatever. For those 5 British captains, Constitution would have been a great prize.
In the late Revolution, some five times the number of Americans died in the dreadful prison ships and camps of the British, than those killed in combat. There was little reason to believe that the prisoners of this war would fare any better. Constitution faced a race for survival and the stakes were life and death.
Conditions were near dead calm and all six vessels were wetting sail, trying to get the most out of light winds. In a process called “kedging”, Hull ordered ship’s boats to row out ahead, carrying small “kedge anchors” to the end of their chains and dropping them overboard. Sailors would then haul the great ship up the chain, hand over hand, and the process would be repeated. The British ships soon imitated the tactic, in a slow-motion chase lasting 57 hours in the July heat.
Constitution’s crew dumped everything they could find overboard to lessen the weight, including 2,300 gallons of drinking water. Cannon fire was exchanged several times, though the shots fell short of their mark. On July 19, Constitution pulled far enough ahead that the British broke off their pursuit.
Old Ironsides was brought into drydock in May 2015, beginning 26 months’ restoration. The highest tide of the summer will occur this Sunday, when the dry dock will be flooded and the ship will be towed out into Boston harbor.
There the restoration will continue, including the installation of standing and running rigging. President Washington’s three-masted, heavy frigate may be boarded peacefully this September, when the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat, is once again opened to the public.
I wonder what George Washington would say, if he heard she has her own Facebook page.