- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

Towering above the maritime traffic of Baltimore's Inner Harbor sit the dark hull and lofty masts of the USS Constellation. The last all-sail warship constructed for the U.S. Navy, the vessel also is the only ship still afloat that participated actively in the Civil War. Open to the public as a museum, the Constellation is the centerpiece of the Baltimore waterfront.

The vessel was constructed at Gosport Navy Yard in 1854 to replace the 36-gun frigate of the same name. It entered the fleet rated as a 22-gun sloop of war. Initially posted to the Mediterranean Squadron in 1855, the Constellation proved a fast ship. When she returned home in 1858, she was refitted and put back to sea the following year as the flagship of the U.S. African Squadron.

Established in 1843, the African Squadron was charged with suppressing the illegal slave trade and interdicting slave ships. The Constellation captured three slavers, one during each year of her patrol, freeing 705 slaves in the process.

Her final capture, the brig Triton, proved noteworthy for other reasons. Taken May 21, 1861, shortly after the fall of Fort Sumter, the Charleston, S.C.-based slaver became one of the Union Navy's first captures of the Civil War. With the outbreak of sectional hostilities, the African Squadron was recalled to aid in the blockade of the Southern coast.

Because her deep draft and lack of steam power made her unsuitable for blockade duty, the Navy ordered the Constellation to the Mediterranean to protect American commerce and prevent Confederate agents from buying vessels abroad. Commanded by Commodore Henry K. Thatcher, the Constellation departed in early 1862 and arrived at Gibraltar in time to aid in blockading the notorious Confederate raider Sumter. Shortly after, Sumter's crew, unable to get to sea, abandoned the vessel.

Thatcher was a native of Maine, as well as the grandson of Revolutionary War hero Maj. Gen. Henry Knox. Thatcher actively patrolled the Mediterranean until he was relieved by Capt. Henry S. Stellwagen in mid-1863.

The Constellation continued to cruise the Mediterranean under Stellwagen until mid-1864, when the ship was ordered to the Gulf of Mexico. After its arrival, the commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, Adm. David G. Farragut, inspected the vessel and, because of the imminent expiration of the majority of the crew's enlistments, dispatched Stellwagen to Norfolk to discharge his crew.

On Dec. 19, 1864, as the Union warship sailed north, a blockade runner was sighted. Stellwagen gave chase. The quarry, however, realizing that its pursuer lacked steam power, engaged its engines and escaped to windward. The Constellation arrived at Hampton Roads on Christmas Day 1864, ending her final Civil War patrol.

Because the Constellation is the last Civil War vessel still afloat, the museum has chosen to interpret that period onboard the ship. Restoration projects aboard the vessel have endeavored to re-create the Civil War appearance of both exterior and interior spaces. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the recently restored captain's cabin. Composed of six compartments at the aft end of the gun deck, the cabin reflects the occupancies of Thatcher and Stellwagen.

Research for the captain's cabin began in earnest last fall, when museum staff began sifting through copies of the ship's original plans. From Bureau of Construction Chief John Lenthall's 1853 drawings, restoration team members were able to discern the appropriate floor plan for the space, while mid-19th-century Navy Department circulars provided vital information pertaining to other architectural details.

The museum was in possession of the original cabin partitions, which were carefully restored to their 1860s appearance and placed in the appropriate positions to re-create the original floor plan. As construction progressed through the winter, visitors could see the captain's stateroom, office, day cabin, pantry and washrooms slowly re-emerging where they had stood a century and a half ago.

Guided by the Navy's 1855 Table of Allowances, a document stipulating all the items that were to be aboard its ships, the museum staff was able to assemble the appropriate furnishings and fixtures to complete this exciting project.

Visitors who enter the cabin step back in time and see the space as it would have looked during the Civil War. Interpretive panels guide visitors through the cabin and also describe what it was like to command a man-of-war in the Union Navy. One of the highlights of the cabin is a sword that belonged to Thatcher, which is on loan to the museum from the Henry Knox Museum of Thomaston, Maine.

Those wishing to see the captain's cabin for themselves, as well as explore what life was like in President Lincoln's Navy, can visit the USS Constellation Museum in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. It is open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends. The Constellation offers a wide variety of daily demonstrations, hands-on activities and tours. Museum admission is $6.50 for adults, $3.50 for children older than 5 and $5 for seniors.

Call 410/539-1797 or visit the museum's Web site at www.constellation.org.


Kennedy R. Hickman is curator of the USS Constellation Museum in Baltimore.


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