Some of the most stunning American victories during the War of 1812 took place on water.
These successes likely prevented American resolve and morale from crumbling after severe military setbacks on land. The war demonstrated astounding American skill and courage at sea, and few of the nation´s mighty vessels came to represent that prowess more than the USS Constitution.
Among the best-remembered ships in U.S. history, the powerful frigate known as “Old Ironsides” was involved in events leading up to the war and played a pivotal role in the American challenge to Great Britain´s long domination of the high seas.
Building a navy
The Constitution was constructed, finished and set to sea in 1797 as part of the government´s program to strengthen American naval power. After the Revolutionary War, the Continental Navy disbanded, but a demand for robust naval power grew over the years after the states saw their shipping lines attacked and sailors enslaved by pirates.
The states appealed to President Washington to build a navy, and the government authorized six fighting frigates - square-shaped, midsized warships - to protect American merchant ships in the Mediterranean.
The frigates were the heart of the infant Navy. Three of the six frigates built in the 1790s were especially heavy and sturdy, and they were accustomed to carrying at least 44 cannons, as opposed to the usual 38. (The number increased over time.)
These vessels were known as “superfrigates,” capable of outfighting and outsailing other ships in their class and also capable of outrunning anything larger. The three superfrigates were the USS President, the USS United States and the USS Constitution.
In addition to its 44 guns, the Constitution possessed 72 different sails attached to its three primary masts. When all of the sails were set, the ship measured about 43,000 square feet - enough to cover an acre - and was capable of making better than 12 knots in a good wind. It was, however, the vessel´s famously solid, durable structure that ultimately would earn it the immortal moniker “Old Ironsides.”
On one of the Constitution´s voyages, the ship was caught in a violent storm but held strong. Shipman Moses Smith wrote: “She appeared firm and fearless. … It was evident to all that she was a craft most thoroughly built and prepared to withstand any disaster.”
The Constitution was beautiful in appearance and displayed remarkable speed in sailing, and it soon became the pride of New England.
Path to war
Capt. Isaac Hull was named commander of the Constitution in 1810. In the spring of 1811, Hull received orders from the government to report to Annapolis and prepare his ship for foreign service. It was during its period of routine overseas work that the Constitution became involved in the international tensions that would ignite the war between the United States and Great Britain.
Hull, who was with the ship in Boston when he received his orders, was short on crew and began to recruit men from the city. In a number of cases, the men were less than ideal recruits.
One man reported for duty drunk and asked to be shown “the captain´s garden,” for he had been told that he would be enlisted as “the captain´s gardener” and would need no training as a seaman. The drunken recruit received a dozen lashes for disorderly behavior and then a dozen more when he grew more ill-tempered. After this punishment, he gave no further trouble and became part of the ship´s carpenter gang.
On one routine trip in 1811, the Constitution was tasked with transporting the American minister to France to Cherbourg. She was stopped by a British squadron demanding that Hull and his crew board the British flagship before drawing any closer to Cherbourg. Hull refused and told the British commodore that he would enter the Cherbourg harbor as soon as weather permitted. As it turned out, the Constitution anchored in the harbor the next morning without any British obstruction.
Over the next several days, however, the Constitution was menaced by various aggressive moves by British ships as it sailed between France and England on routine errands. Sometimes British ships would sail dangerously close to the American frigate, and once, a British vessel fired several shots at the Constitution, infuriating Hull. The British claimed they had mistaken the Constitution for a French ship.
Another time, a British ship caused two French ships to mistake the Constitution for an attacking British vessel, and the French vessels fired a few shots before recognizing their mistake.
Once, when the Constitution was anchored at the English port of St. Helen´s in Portsmouth, one of the ship´s crew abandoned the Constitution and boarded a British vessel, claiming protection as an Englishman. Though there was no evidence beyond the man´s word that he was an Englishman, the British ship would not return the deserter to the Americans. Hull reacted angrily, saying, “The insults of these cursed British are more than flesh and blood can bear!”
During this voyage in 1811, the Constitution experienced precisely the kind of trouble that would lead the United States into a new war with Great Britain nearly 30 years after gaining independence.
Because Britain was at war with France, it wanted to prevent the United States from assisting the French through trade. Britain, boasting the world´s most powerful navy, was used to asserting dominion over the sea and had no qualms about harassing American trading ships or naval vessels bound for France.
An epic battle
When the War of 1812 began, the Constitution was among the American frigates assigned to search for enemy warships along the Eastern Seaboard. Hull set sail from Annapolis in the mighty vessel in July 1812.
The Constitution reached New England waters in five days and soon encountered a squadron of seven British vessels commanded by Capt. Philip Broke of the HMS Shannon. Broke´s squadron tried to corner the American ship, but Hull successfully maneuvered to safety and escaped to Boston.
The Constitution set sail again in August, moving near the British base at Halifax, Nova Scotia. A few days after beginning its journey, the ship encountered a new opponent approximately 400 miles southeast of Halifax and 750 miles east of Boston. The location was about midway between New York and the Azores, and the vessel was the British frigate HMS Guerriere, commanded by Capt. James Dacres.
As the ships approached each other, Dacres ordered several broadsides fired from his ship´s guns. As the battle raged, a seaman on the Constitution saw a shot bounce off the ship and exclaimed, “Huzza, her sides are made of iron!” From then on, the mighty vessel was affectionately known as “Old Ironsides.”
After 1 1/2 hours of maneuvering, Hull had not yet ordered a broadside to be fired in response to the Guerriere´s shots. When his second in command asked permission to return fire, Hull firmly responded, “Not yet.”
Even as the Constitution endured massive fire, Hull refused to respond in kind. The captain of the Constitution was determined to preserve his ammunition until his ship was in a position where each shot would be used to the greatest advantage. After silently calculating the exact position of the two warring vessels, Hull finally shouted, “Now, boys, you may fire!”
The Constitution unleashed a searing broadside of 700 pounds of metal delivered at close range. An American on board the Constitution described the powerful attack as “a tremendous explosion” that caused the Guerriere to “reel, and tremble as though she had received the shock of an earthquake.”
The Constitution´s large guns discharged one broadside after another as fast as they could be reloaded, and the gunfire was tearing the Guerriere to pieces. Soon the British ship´s mizzenmast was shot away, its hull was riddled, and its spar and rigging were reduced to wreckage.
The British were forced to surrender. At the battle´s end, the Guerriere´s crew of 272 had lost 79 men killed or wounded, while the Constitution´s casualties amounted to 14 men killed or wounded out of a total crew of 456. Observers were amazed at how the American ship avoided major damage or losses.
The Constitution´s astounding victory over the Guerriere produced a wave of jubilation across the United States, and the frigate quickly became an icon of national pride. The triumph was truly a testament to superlative American seamanship and shipbuilding, and the Constitution would secure several other key victories during the course of the war.
Under the command of Capt. William Bainbridge, the Constitution arrived in December 1812 off the coast of Brazil, where it eventually sighted the British frigate HMS Java, commanded by Capt. Henry Lambert.
During the course of their battle, Bainbridge maneuvered the Constitution into just the right position to deliver a great blast. The Constitution then fired broadsides at point-blank range, shooting the Java´s mainmast clean away and, after several more shots, leaving the British ship helpless. The Java suffered 60 men killed and 101 wounded out of a crew of 426, while the American loss was nine killed and 25 wounded out of a crew of 475.
InFebruary 1815, the Constitution achieved another key victory when, under the command of Capt. Charles Stewart, it battled the two British warships Cyane and Levant northeast of Madeira. Once again, the Constitution´s long cannons played a key role in turning the battle, battering both enemy vessels into silence and forcing their surrender. The discipline exercised by Stewart and his crew was of the highest order.
The British naval defeats during the War of 1812 marked the beginning of the end of Great Britain´s supremacy on the high seas. The United States had demonstrated brilliant seamanship and engineering skill, gaining confidence and earning newfound respect from abroad. The Constitution personified American prowess in naval warfare, particularly because of its spectacular victory over the Guerriere.
Today, “Old Ironsides” is berthed at the former Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, at one end of the city´s Freedom Trail. She is open to the public year round, and the privately owned USS Constitution Museum is located nearby. Visitors are able to have a firsthand view of the ship that played such a decisive role in establishing the United States as a world power.
• Jonathan Kelly is a copy editor at The Washington Times.