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 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.
Constitution’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.”
Two 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.
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.
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.