Wednesday, October 27, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — The only remaining ship from the Civil War era returned yesterday to the U.S. Naval Academy for the first time in more than a century.

The USS Constellation, the last all-sail ship originally launched in 1854 and dry-docked at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, is in Annapolis through Monday to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Unable to make the nearly six-hour, 30-mile trek alone, the ship had to be towed by several tugboats down the Chesapeake Bay.

The ship — adorned with red, white and blue flags and buntings — slowly made its way along the bright blue waters. It docked at about 3 p.m. at the academy, where it was greeted by a brass band, blaring cannons and about 150 cheering onlookers.

The ship’s six-day stay coincides with the academy’s homecoming weekend. The Constellation served as a training ship for plebes from 1871 to 1893, the last time it was in Annapolis. It then was towed to Rhode Island to serve as a stationary training ship at the Newport Naval Station.

“This year’s homecoming will be a great celebration, not only for the hundreds of alumni and their families returning to Annapolis, but also for a great ship that taught a generation of midshipmen about practical seamanship,” said Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, a spokesman for the academy. “We are proud to welcome the Constellation back to the Naval Academy.”

There will be free admission to the ship today through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The ship was towed to the academy by Baltimore-based Vane Brothers Co. Northrop Grumman Corp. is sponsoring the trip.

“You couldn’t have had better weather for it,” said Rose Demske, 49, as she waved from shore to her husband, Jim, a Vane Brothers pilot who directed the tugboats pulling the Constellation.

“This is an antique, very fragile,” Mrs. Demske said. “He couldn’t help but be a little nervous towing it, but he’s the pilot any time the ship is moved, so he was OK.”

As the Constellation passed Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, where an American stand against a British bombardment during the War of 1812 inspired the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” four A-10 Warthogs from the Maryland Air National Guard flew overhead, said Capt. Christopher Rowsom, executive director of the USS Constellation Museum in Baltimore, who was aboard during yesterday’s voyage.

Two more planes passed over once the Constellation reached the mouth of the Severn River, he said.

“This is significant because it’s the first time the ship has been out of the Inner Harbor since 1955,” Capt. Rowsom said. “Plus it’s one of the longest trips the ship has made since the 1940s, so it’s pretty neat.”

The ship, which weighs 1,400 tons, is 186 feet long, with a beam of 42 feet 6 inches. The length of the deck is 179 feet. The hull is made of white oak planks.

An earlier Constellation, launched in 1797, fought in the Barbary War and the War of 1812, patrolled in the Pacific and toured around the world. That 36-gun ship was broken up in 1854, and some of its timbers went into the current Constellation.

The Constellation is the last all-sail ship designed by the Navy and the largest “sloop of war” built to that date. The ship was designed as a “sloop of war,” a sailing vessel mounting at least 10 guns, by John Lenthall, chief of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Construction.

Its keel was laid on June 25, 1853, and the Constellation was launched on Aug. 26, 1854, at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Va. It was commissioned on July 28, 1855.

In 1855, the Constellation joined the Mediterranean Squadron. Under the command of Capt. Charles H. Bell, it cruised for almost three years, sailing at speeds of up to 12 knots and visiting many ports.

While on station, it was dispatched to protect American lives and property at Malaga, Spain, in July 1856 during a revolution in that country. While patrolling in the Sea of Marmora the same year, it rescued a bark in distress and received an official message in appreciation from the court of the Austrian emperor, according to museum records.

In 1859, it became the flagship of the African Squadron, which was charged with stopping the illegal slave trade on the western coast of Africa. The United States outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808.

While patrolling the coast off the mouth of the Congo River, the ship captured three slave vessels, freeing 705 persons from one of the ships. Its seizure of the slave brig Triton on May 21, 1861, was one of the U.S. Navy’s first captures of the Civil War.

In 1862, the Constellation was sent to protect U.S. merchant shipping from Confederate cruisers and commerce raiders in the Mediterranean Sea. The ship also participated in the attempt to prevent the Confederate Navy from taking possession of the steamer Southerner in Italy for use as a raider during the Civil War, according to museum records.

In 1864, the ship served in the West Gulf Coast Blockading Squadron before finishing the war as a receiving ship, or floating barracks. It became obsolete as an active Navy ship because, by that time, most naval vessels were powered by steam instead of sail.

After the war, the Constellation became a training ship at the Naval Academy.

The ship was tasked to perform several special missions between training cruises. In 1878, it transported exhibits to France for the Paris Exposition and delivered stores to the Mediterranean Squadron. In 1880, it carried relief supplies to victims of famine in Ireland. From September 1892 to its next summer training cruise, it transported works of art from Europe to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

On June 16, 1933, a Navy order placed the Constellation in a decommissioned status for preservation as a naval relic. During World War II, it served as a relief flagship, and for a short time in 1942, flagship of the Atlantic Fleet.

The Constellation ended its 100 years of service to the United States in 1955.

The Navy closed the ship in 1994 after deeming the Constellation unsafe upon inspection, Capt. Rowsom said. The ship was dry-docked in 1996 for a $7.5 million restoration, one of the largest nonnaval wooden-ship restoration projects ever undertaken in the United States. The restoration was completed in 1999.

“Since it returned to the Inner Harbor in July 1999, more than 600,000 visitors and students have been aboard,” Capt. Rowsom said.

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