October 21, 1797 Old Ironsides

Freshly restored and re-fitted, Old Ironsides took her first sail in three years only yesterday.  220 years since her own launch, and to honor the 242nd birthday, of the United States Navy.

When the United States won its independence from Britain in 1783, the young nation soon learned that freedom was not without disadvantages. One being that America had lost its protector at sea.

British and French vessels harassed American merchant shipping, often kidnapping American sailors and forcing them to serve in their own navies.

barbary-warBarbary pirates were a problem for Mediterranean shipping, and throughout parts of the Atlantic. Predominantly North African Muslims with the occasional outcast European, the Barbary pirates operated with the blessing of the Ottoman Empire, the Barbary Coast states of Algiers, Tunis & Tripoli, and the independent Sultanate of Morocco. The Barbary Corsairs had long since stripped the shorelines of Spain and Italy in search of loot and Christian slaves.

Many villages wouldn’t be re-inhabited until the 19th century.  Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, thousands of ships were captured and held for ransom.  Somewhere between 800,000 and 1.25 million Europeans disappeared into the Arab slave markets of North Africa and the Middle East.

Barbary pirates began to harass American shipping as early as 1785.  They captured 11 American vessels in 1793 alone, holding the ships and crew for ransom.

Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794, appropriating funds to build a fleet of 6 three-masted, heavy frigates for the United States Navy. The act included a clause halting construction, in the event of a peace treaty with Algiers.   No such treaty was ever concluded.

Launched this day in 1797 and named by George Washington himself, USS Constitution was one of these six. Her hull was made of the wood from 2,000 Georgia live oak trees, and built in the Edmund Hartt shipyard of Boston, Massachusetts.

USS_Constitution_underwayConstitution’s first duties involved the “quasi-war” with France, but this was not the France which helped us win our independence. France had been swallowed up in a revolution of its own by this time.  Leftists calling themselves “Jacobins” had long since sent their Bourbon King and his Queen Consort to the guillotine. Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette and Hero of the American Revolution, languished in an Austrian prison.

The French Monarchy would one day be restored, but not before a Corsican Corporal rose to the rank of Emperor to meet his Waterloo, fighting (and winning) more battles than Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, Alexander the Great, and Hannibal, combined.  But I digress.

The Barbary pirates were paid “tribute” during this time to keep them quiet, but that ended in 1800.  Yusuf Karamanli, Pasha of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 from the incoming Jefferson administration. Jefferson refused, and Constitution joined in the Barbary Wars in 1803, a conflict memorialized in a line from the Marine Corps Hymn “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.”

USS_Constitution_underway, turningTwo months after the War of 1812 broke out in June, Constitution faced off with the 38 gun HMS Guerriere, about 400 miles off the coast of Halifax. Watching Guerriere’s shots bounce off Constitution’s 21” thick oak hull, an American sailor exclaimed “Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!” Guerriere was reduced to an unsalvageable hulk in twenty minutes, and the nickname “Old Ironsides” was born.

The month before, Constitution had put to sea intending to join a five ship squadron off the coast of New Jersey. Spotting five sails and thinking that they had found their squadron on July 17, Constitution was disabused of that notion when lookouts reported the next morning 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, disabling the ship’s “power plant”. A disabled vessel could then be boarded and a bloody fight would ensue with cutlass and pistol. Those 5 British captains would have considered Constitution to be a great prize; the ship 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“, Constitution’s boats were rowed out ahead of the ship, dropping small “kedge anchors”. Sailors would then haul the great ship up the anchor chain, hand over hand, repeating the process over and over. The British ships soon imitated the tactic.  What followed was a slow motion race lasting 57 hours in the July heat.

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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. Constitution pulled far enough ahead of the British ships that they abandoned the pursuit on July 19.

Old Ironsides, Drydock
Old Ironsides, in Drydock

USS Constitution is still in service today, the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat. She went into dry dock for major overhaul in October 2014 and re-floated on July 23 this year.  Freshly restored and re-fitted, Old Ironsides took her first sail in three years only yesterday.  220 years since her own launch, and honoring the 242nd birthday, of the United States Navy.

 

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July 18, 1812  Slow-Motion Race for Survival

During the late Revolution, some five times the number of Americans died in the dreadful prison ships and camps of the British, than were 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.

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.

USS_Constitution_v_HMS_Guerriere
[http://www.stuartswanfurniture.com/ironsides.htm#Guerriere Stuart Swan] USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere 19 August 1812 This painting by Anton Otto Fischer depicts the first victory at sea by the fledgling US Navy over the mighty Royal Navy.
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.

h52488

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.

Old Ironsides, Drydock