USS Constitution

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USS Constitution

USS Constitution is a United States Navy frigate which is normally berthed at the former Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston. She is a three masted, wooden hulled, heavy frigate and is the oldest floating commissioned naval vessel in the world. USS Constitution was named after the United States Constitution by former United States President George Washington. Built at Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts, USS Constitution was one of six frigates to be constructed under the Naval Act of 1794. Affectionately known as ‘Old Ironsides’ she is best known for defeating five British ships and capturing several merchant vessels during the War of 1812. USS Constitution is currently a museum ship but is crewed by U.S. Navy Personnel.

Why Was USS Constitution Built?
Towards the end of the 18th century the Barbary pirates were operating in the Mediterranean Sea and capturing American merchant vessels. In response, the Naval Act of 1794 was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George Washington.

This act authorized the construction of six frigates which would mark the birth of the United States Navy. USS Constitution was one of these frigates. In 1796 a clause in the act led to the build being temporarily halted because peace had been agreed; however Congress agreed to fund the completion of the three ships whose build had progressed the farthest, these included USS Constitution.

Who Designed USS Constitution?
Philadelphia born ship builder Joshua Humphreys was chosen to design the six frigates. It is believed that the French built frigate South Carolina inspired his design. His unusual design, incorporating a narrow beam and long keel, was to give these vessels the power to overcome other frigates of the time but be fast enough to escape from ships of the line.

Where was USS Constitution Built?
The keel of USS Constitution was laid down at Edmund Hartt’s Shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts, on November 1, 1794. USS Boston - 1799, USS Argus - 1803 and USS Independence - 1814 were also built at this shipyard in the North End of Boston.

USS Constitution's Launch
USS Constitution was set to launch on September 20, 1797, with Massachusetts Governor Increase Sumner and U.S. President John Adams in attendance. When she was launched USS Constitution only slid 27ft down the slipway as it settled under the weight of the ship. She slid a further 31ft two days later, however her launch into Boston Harbor wasn’t completed until October 21, 1797, after the slipway had been rebuilt.

How Big was USS Constitution?
When built, USS Constitution was 304ft in length with a beam of 43ft 6ins and a draft of 23ft.  Her hull was 21ins thick and she displaced 2,200 tons of water. USS Constitution had three masts;. the foremast was 198ft, the mizzenmast 172ft 6 ins and the main mast was 220ft. The 42,710 sq ft of sail across her three masts could take USS Constitution to a speed of 13 knots.

What Armament did USS Constitution Carry?
USS Constitution’s armament usually exceeded it’s 44 gun rating. She was known to carry thirty two 24 pounders on the gun deck, fifteen down each side and two as chasers; and twenty two 32 pounders, eleven on either side of the spar deck. All the guns that are currently aboard USS Constitution are replicas.

USS Constitution and the Quasi-War
USS Constitution put to sea on her maiden voyage on July 22, 1798, with Captain Samuel Nicholson in command. Her role was to patrol the eastern seaboard during the Quasi-War with France. Twice during this period USS Constitution had to return to Boston for repairs to storm damage. The first time was to have the bowsprit repaired, the second was to repair the rigging. After recommencing her patrols, USS Constitution managed to recapture the American sloop Neutrality before capturing the French ship Carteret a few days later.

USS Constitution Resupply and Change of Captain
USS Constitution arrived back in Boston on May 14, 1799, for a change of captain, repairs and resupply. Captain Nicholson was replaced by Captain Silas Talbot and on July 23, 1799, she left Boston and headed for Saint-Domingue to continue patrolling against the French. In April 1801, USS Constitution was recalled to Boston where she remained until she was mothballed in July 1802.

USS Constitution and the First Barbary War
When President Thomas Jefferson sent squadrons of frigates to protect American merchant ships in the Mediterranean, USS Constitution was re-commissioned as a flagship by Captain Edward Preble on May 13, 1803. USS Constitution led the third squadron and arrived in Gibraltar on September 12. After being involved in a captured ship exchange with Sultan Limane of Morocco, taking part in the Second Battle of Tripoli Harbor and being involved in a collision with USS President, USS Constitution was sent to Malta for repairs.

Signing of a Peace Treaty Aboard USS Constitution
While undergoing repairs in Malta, Captain John Rodgers assumed command. On April 5, 1805, USS Constitution returned to Tripoli and resumed the blockade. Following the capture of Tripoli by U.S. Marines on April 27, a peace treaty was signed aboard USS Constitution on June 3, 1805. USS Constitution then took part in a blockade of Tunis which led to a peace treaty with them as well.

USS Constitution and the Tripoli Monument
In 1807, under the command of Captain Hugh G. Campbell who had replaced John Rodgers, USS Constitution arrived at Livorno, (also known as Leghorn) Italy, where the dismantled Tripoli Monument was loaded on board. Having set sail on September 8, USS Constitution arrived back in Boston with the Tripoli Monument on October 14, 1807.

USS Constitution and Joel Barlow
Captain John Rodgers took command, once again, in December 1807 and oversaw a major refit. USS Constitution then carried out ordinary duties and training runs for approximately two years before Captain Isaac Hull took command in 1810. On August 5, 1811, USS Constitution set sail for France with Joel Barlow, the new Ambassador, and his family. USS Constitution remained in the area during the winter before arriving back in Boston on February 18, 1812.

USS Constitution During the War of 1812
On July 2, 1812, after the declaration of war on June 18, USS Constitution put to sea and ran into five British ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey. The British ships spotted her and gave chase, however USS Constitution managed to evade them, despite becoming becalmed and having to lower boats to pull the ship, and returned to Boston to where she replenished her supplies.

USS Constitution Earns the Nickname ‘Old Ironsides’
On August 19, 1812, USS Constitution engaged with the British ship HMS Guerriere roughly 400 miles from Halifax, Nova Scotia. The engagement resulted in an exchange of broadsides and a brief collision. HMS Guerriere lost all her masts during the engagement and surrendered to USS Constitution. Captain Hull decided to burn HMS Guerriere as she was so badly damaged. It was said that during the gunfire some British cannonballs bounced off USS Constitution's hull and an American sailor exclaimed that her sides were made of iron. This event led to USS Constitution being nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’.

USS Constitution Defeats HMS Java
On December 29, 1812, under the command of William Bainbridge, USS Constitution came across HMS Java in the British shipping lanes near Brazil. In the early exchange of broadsides, HMS Java managed to severely damage the rigging and destroy the helm of USS Constitution. However HMS Java’s bowsprit became snarled in USS Constitution’s rigging which allowed Bainbridge to launch a barrage of broadsides into her. After withdrawing to make emergency repairs, USS Constitution returned to HMS Java. She was little more than a wreck and surrendered. Bainbridge took Java’s helm to replace his own before ordering her to be burned. USS Constitution returned to Boston where she arrived on February 15, 1813.

USS Constitution Awaits Repair
Following her recent engagements, USS Constitution was in need of major repairs which included her copper bottom, beams, decking, masts, rigging and sails. Due to shortages of crew and supplies, USS Constitution remained in Boston for most of 1813. Under the command of Charles Stewart, she finally set sail for the West Indies on December 31, where she captured the British Schooner HMS Pictou as well as five merchant ships.

USS Constitution Escapes from the British
On April 3, 1814, USS Constitution encountered the British frigate HMS Junon with the fifth rate ship HMS Tenedon. As her main mast had split, USS Constitution did not engage but headed for Boston, however the British ships set off in pursuit. To gain speed, Stewart ordered food and drinking water to be thrown overboard. This allowed USS Constitution to make her way to Marblehead, Massachusetts, where the British abandoned their pursuit. USS Constitution arrived back in Boston in April 1814, where she stayed until December 18.

USS Constitution Captures HMS Cyane
While sailing off the coast of Spain in February 1815, USS Constitution encountered HMS Levant and HMS Cyane. After a series of broadsides, HMS Levant backed off to carry out repairs and HMS Cyane took the full force of USS Constitution’s guns, leading to her surrender. On returning to the battle and seeing that Cyane had surrendered, HMS Levant tried to make her escape. USS Constitution overtook her and forced her surrender, however while heading for America, the British recaptured HMS Levant.

USS Constitution Placed in Ordinary
Following the end of the War of 1812, USS Constitution returned to the United States on May 15, 1815, and later to Boston. In January 1816 USS Constitution was placed in ordinary. Placed in ordinary being an English naval term for a ship that is removed from service for maintenance, repair or for storage. In April 1820 she underwent a refit in preparation for service with the Mediterranean Squadron. As part of the refit she was fitted with manual paddle wheels, however they were removed by her commander Jacob Jones.

USS Constitution in the Mediterranean Squadron
USS Constitution left Boston on May 13, 1821, and headed for the Mediterranean. Her tour was mainly uneventful however Jacob Jones earned the reputation of being a slack commander because of his crew’s behaviour in port. Jones and USS Constitution were ordered to return to Boston where they arrived on May 31, 1824. On October 29, with Jones replaced by Thomas Macdonouagh, USS Constitution returned to the Mediterranean. In August 1826, under new commander Daniel T. Patterson, USS Constitution put in to Port Mahon for temporary repairs to her decaying spar deck. She returned to Boston on July 4, 1828, and was placed in ordinary.

Major Repairs to USS Constitution
Suffering from 30ins of hog in her keel (hogging is when the centre of the keel or hull of a ship bends upwards), repairs to USS Constitution were estimated to be in excess of $157,000, putting her future in doubt. The timely publication of the poem ‘Old Ironsides’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes raised public interest and led to approval of the repair bill. USS Constitution went into dry dock for a year, emerging on June 21, 1834. During the refit a figurehead of President Andrew Jackson was fitted beneath the bowsprit. Shortly afterwards the head was removed, due to a wager, by merchant captain Samuel Dewey. In March 1835, USS Constitution sailed to New York, where the figurehead was repaired, before transporting Minister Edward Livingston to France and returning to Boston on June 23.

USS Constitution in the Pacific and Home Squadrons
On August 19, 1835, under the command of Captain Jesse Elliott, USS Constitution sailed from Boston to Port Mahon to become Flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron. After two years of unremarkable patrols, USS Constitution sailed to Norfolk where Elliott was replaced by Captain Daniel Turner who sailed her to the west coast of America as Flagship of the Pacific Squadron, on March 1, 1839. USS Constitution spent two years patrolling the area before returning to Norfolk at the end of October 1841. On June 22, 1842, USS Constitution was re-commissioned for duty with the Home Squadron under the command of Foxhall A. Parker. In December 1842 she spent three weeks at sea before placed in ordinary once again.

USS Constitution Sails Around the World
After serving as a receiving ship and undergoing repairs in Norfolk, Virginia, USS Constitution set sail under the command of Captain John ‘Mad Jack’ Percival on May 29, 1844. She carried Ambassador Henry Wise to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, before sailing to Madagascar, Mozambique, Zanzibar, Sumatra, Singapore and Cochinchina (now Vietnam), where she arrived on May 10, 1845. USS Constitution then sailed for China, Manila, Honolulu and Mexico, before arriving back in Boston on September 27, 1846. During these voyages, USS Constitution lost several members of her crew to dysentery. On October 5, USS Constitution was, once again, placed in ordinary.

USS Constitution Returns to the Mediterranean
Following a refit, which included a replacement figurehead of Andrew Jackson, in 1847, USS Constitution headed for the Mediterranean under the command of Captain John Gwinn. She travelled to Tripoli on her way to Gaeta, Italy, where, on August 1, 1849, she was visited by King Ferdinand II and Pope Pius IX. Captain Thomas Conover replaced Captain Gwinn, who had died from chronic gastritis, on September 18. USS Constitution continued to patrol with the Mediterranean Squadron until December 1850 when she headed back to the United States.

USS Constitution Sinks the British Brig Confidence
On her journey back to the United States, USS Constitution collided with the British brig Confidence. As a result, Confidence was cut in half and sank, taking her captain with her. USS Constitution took the survivors to the United States. In January 1851, USS Constitution was mothballed in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

USS Constitution and the African Squadron
Under the command of John Rudd, USS Constitution was re-commissioned on December 22, 1852. She left Brooklyn Navy Yard on March 2, 1853, and carried Commodore Isaac Mayo to Africa for service with the African Squadron. On November 3, 1854, USS Constitution took the American slave ship H.N. Gambrill as her final capture. After a largely quiet time with the African Squadron, USS Constitution set sail for Havana, Cuba, before sailing on to Portsmouth Navy Yard where she arrived and was decommissioned on June 14, 1855. This marked the end of her front line duties.

USS Constitution During the Civil War
Following the decision that USS Constitution was to become a training ship, she was moved to a dry dock in Portsmouth Navy Yard in 1857. Classrooms were added to her gun and spar decks and her compliment of guns was reduced to 16. Re-commissioned on August 1, 1860 as a 2nd rate ship, she was moved to the Naval Academy. When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, USS Constitution was towed to Fort Adams, Rhode Island, by USS R.R.Cuyler, as threats to her had been received from the Confederates. After sitting out the war in Rhode Island, USS Constitution and the Naval Academy returned to Annapolis in August 1865. USS Constitution was retired as a training ship in 1871 due to deterioration. She was towed to Portsmouth Navy Yard and placed in ordinary on September 26, 1871.

USS Constitution and the Paris Exposition
With the upcoming centennial celebrations of the United States it was decided that USS Constitution should be overhauled to take part. Works began in 1873 but weren’t completed in time and she was used for apprentices as a training and school ship. On March 4 1878, under the command of Oscar C. Badger, USS Constitution sailed for France, transporting industrial displays and artwork to the 1878 Paris Exposition. On arrival at le Havre she collided with the French ship Ville de Paris and had to go into dry dock for repairs. She finally left for the United States on January 16, 1879.

The Problem Filled Return Journey of USS Constitution
The day after leaving Le Havre, USS Constitution ran aground and was towed into the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard, England. After repairing the minor damage, USS Constitution resumed her voyage until on February 13 when her rudder was damaged by storms. After setting up a temporary steering system she headed for Lisbon where she arrived on February 16, 1879. Leaving Lisbon on April 11, she arrived back in the United States on May 24, 1879.

De-commissioning of USS Constitution
USS Constitution resumed her training duties until 1881 when it was decided that she was no longer fit for service. Without the funding to provide her with an overhaul, USS Constitution was de-commissioned and moved to Portsmouth Navy Yard where she was fitted with a housing structure and was used as a receiving ship. With only the minimum maintenance carried out to keep her afloat, she continued to deteriorate until Congress provided the funds for her to be returned to the Charleston Navy Yard in Boston, where she arrived on September 21, 1897.

USS Constitution Becomes a Museum Ship
Authorization for the restoration of USS Constitution given in 1900, but no funds were provided and several attempts to raise the money privately were unsuccessful. Following a suggestion from Secretary of the Navy Charles J. Bonaparte that USS Constitution should be towed out to sea for target practice before being allowed to sink, businessman Moses H. Gulesian began a campaign that was taken up by the public and resulted in Congress authorizing $100,000 for her partial restoration. The housing structure was removed and she was opened to the public as a museum ship.

Temporary Renaming of USS Constitution
USS Constitution was renamed Old Constitution in 1917 to allow her name to be used for a new Lexington class battle cruiser. The name was moved around until it was decided that hull CC-5 would use it. In 1923 the construction of CC-5 was cancelled and the name was returned to Old Constitution on July 24, 1925.

The 1925 Restoration of USS Constitution
Following a survey by the Board of Inspection and Survey, USS Constitution was found to be in an appalling state. She was constantly leaking, was full of rot and her stern was in danger of breaking away. Congress authorized that funds could be raised privately in a bid to raise the estimated $400,000 required to restore the ship. Fundraising began, and with the help of the national Elks Lodge, sales of USS Constitution paintings and memorabilia, and donations made throughout the United States, $600,000 was raised. Congress also approved the provision $300,000 towards the costs which reached $946,000. In total, 85% of USS Constitution was replaced.

USS Constitution Tours the United States
The newly restored USS Constitution left dry dock on March 1, 1930, and was commissioned on July 1, 1931, under the command of Louis J. Gulliver. USS Constitution was to undertake a tour of the United States to thank the people for their efforts in aiding her restoration. The tour began in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and she visited 90 cities along the Coast of the United States. Her three year tour, during which she was visited by more that four and a half million people, ended in Boston in May 1934.

Re-commissioning of USS Constitution
Following her return to Boston in 1934, USS Constitution returned to her duties as a museum ship. Over the next few years USS Constitution was losing items to souvenir hunters and began to deteriorate once again. In 1940, at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, USS Constitution was re-commissioned and served as a brig holding officers who were awaiting court martial. In 1947, the 150th anniversary of USS Constitution, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp.

The 1973 Restoration of USS Constitution
In 1954 an Act was passed by Congress which gave the Secretary of the Navy responsibility for the upkeep of USS Constitution. In 1970, the US Navy decided that, to ensure  required maintenance would be carried out, a Commander should be appointed as the commanding office of USS Constitution. In April 1973 USS Constitution entered dry dock for a year while necessary maintenance and restoration was carried out.

USS Constitution and the Bicentennial Celebrations
In August 1974 Commander Tyrone G. Martin became her Captain and set about maintaining USS Constitution to the most noted 1812 configuration in readiness for the upcoming bicentennial celebrations. On July 10, 1976, USS Constitution led the tall ships parade in Boston Harbor, firing her guns for the first time in around 100 years, and on July 11, she fired a 21 gun salute to welcome Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, on a state visit. Commander Martin gave the Royal couple a tour of USS Constitution.

The 1995 Reconstruction of USS Constitution
Having entered dry dock for inspection and repairs in 1992, it was discovered that USS Constitution required major structural restoration because of all the alterations she had undergone over the years. To correct hogging of the hull it was determined that she required many of her original pieces to be replaced as they previously had been. Repairs were completed in 1995, and the cost of restoring USS Constitution to her 1812 condition was $12 million.

USS Constitution Back Under Sail
Approval was gained for USS Constitution to make sail, for the first time in over 100 years, on her 200th anniversary. When she left dry dock in 1995, a concerted effort was made to make her ready for the historic event. Fund raising through education programs in schools helped to raise the funds for the sails, and Commander Mike Beck trained the crew using a Navy sailing manual from 1819, and sent them for training on board the Coast Guard cutter Eagle. USS Constitution sailed for the first time in 116 years on July 20, 1997, while under tow from Boston to Marblehead. On July 21, the tow line was let go and USS Constitution sailed freely using six sails, consisting of jibs, topsails and a spanker. She managed a top speed of 4 knots.

USS Constitution Today
USS Constitution is currently berthed at Pier One of the former Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston, and has a complement of 6 Naval Officers and 46 crew, all of whom are enlisted sailors in the U.S. Navy. They take part in educational programs, public events and ceremonies while providing tours of USS Constitution, which is open to visitors all year. USS Constitution undertakes a minimum of one ‘turnaround cruise’ each year which allows her to be turned round so that she weathers equally. During this cruise USS Constitution is towed into Boston Harbor and carries out gun drills and other demonstrations. The general public can take part in a lottery draw for the opportunity to be aboard USS Constitution while she undertakes these cruises.

USS Constitution Specifications

Class and Type:
44 Gun Frigate Complement: More than 450 Sailors and Marines
2,200 tons - Length: 304ft - Beam: 43ft 6ins - Draft: 23ft
Sail - Three Mast Fully Rigged
13 knots
32 x 24 Pounders and 22 x 32 Pounders

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Published 2018

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By James Drake

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