The United States was not always the global power that it is today. There was a time when we had to prove our mettle to the world. To do that we needed a navy.
Authorized by the Naval Act of 1794 six frigates were ordered to be built. They were designed to be stronger and more heavily armed than frigates in other navies. The third frigate in the line, the USS Constitution, was built in Hurtt’s Shipyard in Boston from a hard white oak found in Gascoigne Bluffs, Georgia. The hull was 204 feet long and 21 inches thick. Sixty acres of white oak trees were needed for construction as trees of a certain size and height were needed. While searching for appropriate trees to use one such tree was located in Dedham, Massachusetts known as the Old Avery Oak. The captain of the ship, Samuel Nicholson, offered its owner the unheard of sum of $70 and it was only through the owner’s wife’s objections that he declined. Fortunately a large grove of trees was soon found in Georgia, enough to allow the ship to be built. Her masts were made of pine from what would become Maine. It was designed to be able to overpower comparable vessels with its 44 guns and yet be able to escape from larger vessels with its 9 knot speed. Boston coppersmith Paul Revere helped with some of the metalworking.
The name Constitution was selected by George Washington when its keel was laid down in 1794. John Adams presided over the launching in 1797 though it took three days to get the heavy vessel into the water. Once fitted out she was sent to sea to protect American interests. Her first true test came in the Barbary Wars in 1801. The Barbary Pirates were suppressing American shipping and demanded tribute to stop. The pirates, based out of Tripoli, were not happy since the tribute they were receiving was less than that of their neighbors in Algiers.
In 1803, Constitution, now under Edward Preble entered the Mediterranean and in October participated in a raids on Tripoli. Eventually, thanks to help from the Marine Corps, Tripoli surrendered and peace was negotiated. Constitution returned home after four years at sea. The ship, now under Isaac Hull, was refitted in Boston and when war was declared on Great Britain in 1812 it was sent to raid British shipping lanes near Halifax, Nova Scotia. While on patrol it met the HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812. Both ships opened fire on each other but Guerriere took the worst of it. When the battle was over the Guerriere was desmasted and had ⅓ of its crew down. Constitution was largely intact with little damage to its hull. It seems that the white oak was so strong that British shots simply bounced off the side as if it was made of iron. America had its first hero of the war and the ship had a new nickname, Old Ironsides.
Consitution’s service took it back to sea and it took several British merchant vessels as prizes as well as engaging the Royal Navy several other times, being victorious each time. When peace was declared the ship was again refitted and then sent back to the Mediterranean to protect American interests. But the Constitution was getting older and more expensive to refit. By 1843 she was falling apart while docked in Norfolk, Virginia and the $70,000 dollar projected cost to refit her was just too much. A second opinion was acquired and found it would only take $10,000 (it seems overcharging the government is not a new thing). Constitution again put to sea, seeing service in the Pacific as well as the Atlantic where she was tasked with stopping the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
With steam power becoming more prevalent the Constitution was recommissioned in 1860 as a training ship. Following the Civil War she was refitted to take part in America’s centennial celebration but her days as an active service vessel were numbered. She was decommissioned in 1881 and eventually transferred to Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. Funds were raised to restore the ship and make her a museum which opened in 1907. The ship has been restored several times since, replacing the original white oak with red oak in the 1950s and replacing the same red oak, which had rotted, in the 1970s with new white oak. A private museum opened in 1976 and over 900,000 people toured the ship during our nation’s bicentennial including Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. It was largely reconstructed in 1995 using white oak trees from near Charleston, South Carolina that had been felled by Hurricane Hugo. The ship was strong enough to sail once again on its 200th birthday and it took sail around Boston Harbor. Roughly 10-15% of the ship is original.
Today Constitution is still open for the public to tour as part of Boston National Historic Park. It is now an active vessel in the US Navy with 6 officers and 46 crewmen on special assignment and does sail periodically. It is docked in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston near one end of the Freedom Trail and the Bunker Hill Monument. It is the only active American naval vessel that has sunk an enemy ship in combat.