Cruise destination - Boston - Visiting USS Constitution - page 2
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A Brief History
After the Revolutionary War, the Continental Navy was all but disbanded. The feeling was that having a navy was an expensive luxury, would be a provocation to the great powers of the day and would serve to involve the new country in the disputes of the Old World. However, the outside world did not see this disarmament as evidence of peaceful intentions but rather as weakness. Not only the great powers but smaller pirate states soon began to take advantage of the United States, raiding American commerce and kidnapping American citizens on the high seas.
To combat this problem, Congress passed and President George Washington signed the Naval Act of 1794 authorizing the construction of six frigates for the new United States Navy. Still a small country, the United States could not hope to build a navy the size of Great Britain, France or Spain. Nor was it practical to build ships as powerful as the massive ships of the line that made up the first string of those navies. But frigates, the forerunners of today's cruisers, could be used to escort American merchant ships and to raid enemy merchant ships.
The six frigates would be built in various American shipyards to a design by Joshua Humpreys. Instead, of simply copying European frigates, Humphreys' design was for a larger better armed ship. The American frigates would be longer and narrower making them faster and more maneuverable than their foreign counterparts. In addition, four were designed to carried 44 guns as opposed to the 30-odd guns of their opponents. Their hulls would be thicker and made largely of southern live oak, a species that is particularly dense. As a result, these ships would be stronger than foreign frigates. Thus, the American ships were envisioned as being fast enough to evade a ship of the line and capable of overpowering any warship that could catch them.
USS Constitution was built in Boston at Edmund Hartt's shipyard. She was completed in 1797 and launched at a ceremony attended by President John Adams. It is estimated that 60 acres of trees were used in her construction.
Constitution’s first conflict was the Quasi-War between the United States and France. While France had been an ally during the Revolutionary War, relations between the two countries deteriorated after the French Revolution. French warships and privateers were now seizing American merchant ships. Constitution was sent to the Caribbean where she confronted French privateers and captured French merchant ships.
Meanwhile, the kingdoms along the Barbary Coast of North Africa had taken to capturing American merchant ships and enslaving their passengers and crew. The United States' first response had been to pay tribute to the rulers of these countries in the hope that they would desist. But when the ruler of Tripoli found out that the ruler of Algeria had been paid more tribute, he declared war on the United States. Constitution served as the flagship of the squadron blockading Tripoli.
It was not until the War of 1812, however, that the Constitution achieved greatness. That war has been called the Second American War of Independence because until then, Great Britain did not really regard the United States as an equal. The war came about largely because of the British practice of stopping American ships and taking off American sailors to serve in the Royal Navy. Britain was engaged in a life and death struggle with Napoleonic France and needed sailors to man its ships. Inasmuch as the Americans were really just colonials in the eyes of some British, American ships seemed a convenient source of manpower. The United States naturally resented this attitude and practice and so in order to protect its citizens, declared war on Britain.
At the outbreak of the war, Britain was the world's premier naval power with over 600 warships. The United States had less than 20 ocean-going warships. Even with Britain's ongoing war with France, the naval war was an obvious mismatch.
But in a series of naval battles, the Constitution demonstrated that the United States Navy was to be taken seriously. On 19 August 1812, Constitution defeated HMS Guerriere off Halifax, Nova Scotia. Later that year, she defeated HMS Java off the coast of Basil. In February 1815, she defeated the frigate HMS Cyane and the sloop-of-war HMS Levant off the coast of Spain. None of these battles altered the strategic balance but they did influence the war's outcome in that they boasted American morale and shocked the British public by showing that the Americans were a force to be reckoned with.
During her battle with Guerriere, a sailor observed that the British cannonballs seemed to be bouncing off Constitution's sides. This was probably due to the fact that her hull was 21 inches thick and made of southern live oak. However, the sailor exclaimed: “Her sides must be made of iron!” This led to her nickname: “Old Ironsides.”
Following the war, Constitution service was uneventful. By 1830, she has exceeded her estimated useful life and was being held in reserve. It was estimated that it would take a huge expenditure to put her back into service. A rumor appeared in a Boston newspaper that the Navy was planning to scrap the old ship. This account inspired Oliver Wendell Homes, Sr. to write the patriotic poem “Old Ironsides” recalling the ship's service to the country. A nationwide outcry ensured and the Navy spent the money to repair her.
In the 1840s, Constitution made an around the world voyage. During a call in Italy, the Pope came aboard, which was the first time a pontiff had touched American territory.
By the time of the Civil War, steamships were replacing sailing ships in the Navy and Constitution was deemed obsolete. She was therefore given the assignment of acting as a classroom and training ship for the U.S. Naval Academy.
In 1873, it was decided to overhaul the Constitution in preparation for the Centennial of American Independence. However, the repairs were not completed in time for her to participate in the celebration. Instead, she was given the assignment of taking American diplomats and artwork to the Paris Exhibition of 1878.
Constitution was deemed no longer fit for active service in 1881 and was decommissioned. She was then used as a barracks ship at the Portsmouth Navy Yard. A house-like structure was built atop her spar deck and the ship was allowed to deteriorate.
Congressman John F. Fitzgerald, grandfather of President John F. Kennedy, learned of the Constitution's condition and arranged to have the ship towed to the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston harbor in 1896. A few years later, Congress authorized restoration of Constitution as a museum ship but at first left funding for the restoration effort to the private sector. When private funding did not emerge, the Secretary of the Navy suggested that the old ship be used for target practice. The resulting public protest caused Congress to provide the funding and Constitution opened as a museum ship in 1907.
By 1924, however, the ship was again in sad shape, just sort of sinking at her berth. A series of fund-raising campaigns were launched and an extensive restoration was undertaken. Following the restoration, Constitution was recommissioned and went on a three-year tour of American ports. She returned to Boston in 1934 where she resumed her role as a museum ship.
In 1976, Constitution underwent another restoration and repair drydocking. This was followed by an extensive reconstruction in 1995. In addition to maintaining the ship, the object of these repairs was to bring Constitution back to her appearance in 1812.
Today, Constitution remains a commissioned Navy ship berthed in Boston. In honor of her 200th birthday in 1997, Constitution was taken on a brief cruise in which she sailed under her own power for the first time in over 100 years. She was again under sail in 2012 for the anniversary of her victory over the Guerriere.
Above: USS Constitution under sail in Boston. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Benson).