History Podcasts

Constitution-Frigate - History

Constitution-Frigate - History


The written instrument embodying the fundamental organic law and principles of government of the United States of America.

(Fr: dp. 2,200, Ibp. 175'; b. 43'6"; dph. 14'3"; s. 13 k.;
cpl. 460; a. 28 24-pdr., 10 12-pdr.)

Constitution, one of six frigates authorized by act of Congress, approved 27 March 1794, was designed by Joshua Humphreys, and built at Hartt's Shipyard, Boston, Mass., under the supervision of George Claghorn with Captain Samuel Nicholson as inspector. She was launched on 21 October 1797 and christened by Captain James Sever.

Into the trim frigate's construction went timbers from States ranging from Maine to Georgia, as well as copper bolts and spikes supplied by Paul Revere. A ship of beauty, power, and speed thus was fashioned as a national expression of growing naval interest, and a symbol auguring the dedication, courage, and achievement of American fighting men and ships.

Constitution put to sea on 22 July 1798, commanded by Captain Samuel Nicholson, the first of many illustrious commanding officers. Following her trial runs in August, she was readied for action in the Quasi-War with France and ordered to patrol for French armed ships between Cape Henry and Florida. One year later she became flagship on the Santo Domingo station, making several captures including the 24-gun privateer Niger, the Spender, and the letter-of marque Sandwich. At war's end, Constitution returned to the Charleston Navy Yard where she was placed in ordinary.

In 1803 amid growing demand for tribute and increasing seizures by the Barbary pirates, Constitution was recommissioned under Captain Edward Preble and sailed as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron on 14 August. Preble took command of the squadron and vigorously brought the war to Tripoli, executing well-laid plans with brilliant success. On Constitution's decks tactics for destroying the captured frigate, Philadelphia, were laid as well as those for blockading and assaulting the fortifications of Tripoli. The small United States fleet on 3 and 7 August 1804 bombarded the enemy's ships and shore batteries with telling results.

Commodore Samuel Barron and later Captain John Rodgers were next to command the squadron and Constitution, continuing to blockade and take prizes. Naval action thus generated a favorable climate for the negotiation of peace terms with Algiers, ending for a time our tribute payments. After the Tunisians agreed to similar terms in August, Constitution spent 2 years patrolling in maintenance of the peace. She sailed for home under Captain Hugh Campbell and arrived Boston in November 1807. Placed out of commission, the frigate was repaired in the succeeding 2 years.

In August 1809 she was recommissioned and became flagship of the North Atlantic Squadron, Commodore J. Rodgers, and in 1810 Isaac Hull was appointed her captain. The following year she carried U.S. Minister, Joel Barlow, to France and returned to Washington in March 1812 for overhaul. War with Britain impended and Constitution was readied for action. On 20 June 1812 the declaration of war was read to her assembled crew and on 12 July she took the sea under Captain Hull to rejoin the squadron of Commodore J. Rodgers.

On 17 July Constitution sighted five ships in company; surpassing them to be Rodger's squadron, Hull attempted to join up. By the following morning, however, the group was identified as a powerful British squadron which included the frigates Guerriere and Shannon. The wind failed, becalming within range of the enemy who opened fire. Disaster threatened until Captain Hull astutely towed, wetted sails, and kedged to draw the ship slowly ahead of her pursuers. For 2 days all hands were on deck in this desperate and successful attempt at escape, a splendid example of resolute command, superior seamanship, and indefatigable effort.

During the war, Constitution ran the blockade at Boston on seven occasions and made five cruises ranging from Halifax, Nova Scotia, south to Guiana and east to Portugal. She captured, burned, or sent in as prizes nine merchantmen and five ships of war. Departing Boston on 2 August she sailed to the coast of Nova Scotia, where she captured and destroyed two British trading ships. Cruising off the Gulf of St. Lawrence on 19 August, she caught sight of Guerriere, a fast British frigate mounting 49 guns. Guerriere opened the action, pouring out shot which fell harmlessly into the sea or glanced ineffectively from the hull of Constitution whose i cheering crew bestowed on her the famous nickname "Old Ironsides," which has stirred generations of Americans. As the ships drew abreast, Hull gave the command l to fire and successive broadsides razed Guerriere's mizzen mast, damaging her foremast, and cut away most of her rigging. Guerriere's bowsprit fouled the lee rigging of Constitution, and both sides attempted to board, but the heavy seas prevented it. As the ships separated Guerriere fired point blank into the cabin of Constitution and set it on fire, but the flames were quickly extinguished. Guerriere's foremast and mainmast went by the board and she was left a helpless hulk.

The flag of Guerriere was struck in surrender and when the Americans boarded her they found her in such a crippled condition that they had to transfer the prisoners and burn her. It was a dramatic victory for America and for Constitution. In this battle of only half an hour the United States "rose to the rank of a first-class power"; the country was fired with fresh confidence and courage; and union among the States was greatly strengthened.

Constitution, Commodore William Bainbridge, again stood out from Boston on 29 December 1812 to add to her conquest the British 38-gun frigate, Java, whom she engaged off the coast of Brazil. Despite loss of her wheel early in the fighting, Constitution fought well. Her superior gunnery shattered the enemy's rigging, eventually dismantling Java, and mortally wounding her captain. Java was so badly damaged that she, too, had to be burned. The seemingly invincible "Old Ironsides" returned to Boston late in February for refitting and her wounded commander was relieved by Captain Charles Stewart.

Constitution departed on 31 December for a cruise in the Windward Islands. On 16 February she seized and destroyed the schooner, Pictou, and 9 days later chased ,] the schooner, Pique, who escaped. She also captured l three small merchantmen on this cruise, characteristically successful despite a close pursuit by two British frigates along the coast of Massachusetts. Constitution moored safely at Boston only to be bottled up for nearly 9 months by the vigorous British blockade.

In December 1814 Constitution braved the forces of the enemy, and headed southeast. She seized the merchant brig Lord Nelson and later captured Susannah with a rich cargo on 16 February 1815. Four days later she gave close chase to the Fri fate Cyane and the sloop Levant bound for the West Indies. Constitution opened the action firing broadsides; as the contestants drew apart she maneuvered adroitly between the two, fighting each separately and avoiding raking by either. In less than an hour Cyane struck her colors and soon thereafter Levant surrendered. Sailing in company with her prizes, Constitution encountered a British squadron which gave chase but was able to retake only Levant. En route to New York, she received confirmation of the ratifiction of peace terms and on 15 May arrived, confident in her success as protector of freedom of the seas.

Ordered to Boston, she was placed in ordinary for 6 years, undergoing extensive repair. In May 1821 she returned to commission, serving as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron, under Commodore Jacob Jones, and guarding United States shipping until 1823. A second cruise on that station lasted from 1823 through

July 1828, with a succession of commanding officers including Captain Thomas Macdonough and Daniel Patterson.

A survey in 1830 disclosed Constitution to be unseaworthy. Congress, considering the projected cost of repairs, relegated her for sale or scrapping. Public sentiment, engendered partly by the dramatization of her history in Oliver Wendell Holmes' memorable poem, elicited instead an appropriation of money for reconstruction which was begun in 1833 at Boston where once again she was captained by the redoubtable Isaac Hull.

Returned to commissioned status in 1835, she served well in the ensuing 20 years in a variety of missions. In March 1835 she sailed to France where she embarked the U.S. Minister to France, Edward Livingston, for return to the States. In August she entered upon a 3-year tour as flagship of Commodore Jesse Elliott in the Mediterranean protecting trade and maintaining good relations. She served as flagship for the South Pacific Squadron from 1839 to 1841; and for the home station from November 1842 to February 1813. In March 1844 she began a memorable 30-month circumnavigation of the globe while under the command of Captain John Percival.

The fall of 1848 brought a resumption of duty as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron, Commodore W. C. Bolton. Decommissioned briefly in 1851 she sailed under Captain John Rudd in 1852 to patrol the west coast of Africa in quest of slavers until June 1855.

Five years of decommissioned status followed. In August 1860 she was assigned to train midshipmen at Annapolis, and during Civil War at Newport, R.I. Among her commanding officers in this period are listed Lieutenant Commanders David D. Porter, and George Dewey.

In 1871 Constitution underwent rebuilding at Philadelphia; she was commissioned again in July 1877 to transport goods to the Paris Exposition.

Once more she returned to duty as a training ship cruising from the West Indies to Nova Scotia with her youthful crews. In January 1882 she was placed out of commission and in 1884 was towed to Portsmouth, N.H. to become a receiving ship Celebration of her centennial year brought her to Boston in 1897 where she was retained in decommissioned status.

A public grateful for her protective services once again rescued her from imminent destruction in 1905 and she was thereafter partially restored for use as a national museum. Twenty years later, complete renovation was initiated with the financial support of numerous patriotic organizations and school children.

On 1 December 1917, Constitution was renamed Old Constitution to permit her original name to be assigned to a projected battle cruiser. Given first to CC-1 (renamed Lexington (q.v.) ) then to CC-5 (originally named Ranger (q.v.)), the name Constitution was restored to "Old Ironsides" on 24 July 1925, after the battle cruiser program had been canceled under the Washington naval treaty. Constitution (CC-5) was some 13.4 percent complete at the time of her cancellation. (For design characteristics, see Vol. I, pp. 210 and 211). .`

On 1 July 1931, amid n 21-gun salute, Constitution was recommissioned. The following day she sailed on a triumphant tour of 90 United States' ports along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, where thousands of Americans saw at first hand one of history's greatest fighting ships. On 7 May 1934 she returned to Boston Harbor, the site of her building. Classified IX-21 on 8 January 1941, Constitution remains in commission today, the oldest ship on the Navy List, proud and worthy representative of the Navy's great days of fighting sail, and symbol of the courage and patriotic service of generations of Americans at sea where much of the Nation's destiny will always lie.

USS Constellation (1797)

USS Constellation was a nominally rated 38-gun wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate of the United States Navy.

It was built under the direction of David Stodder at The Joseph and Samuel Sterett shipyard on Harris Creek in Baltimore's Fell's Point maritime community, and was launched on 7 September 1797. The ship was one of the original six frigates whose construction the Naval Act of 1794 had authorized.

The name "Constellation" was among ten names submitted to President George Washington by Secretary of War Timothy Pickering in March 1795 for the frigates that were to be constructed. [3] [4] The Flag Act of 1777 speaks of how the stars in the flag are "representing a new constellation".

Joshua Humphreys designed these frigates to be the young Navy's capital ships, and so Constellation and its sisters were larger and more heavily armed and built than standard frigates of the period. The Constellation's first duties with the newly formed US Navy were to provide protection for American merchant shipping during the Quasi-War with France and to defeat the Barbary pirates in the First Barbary War.

Rebuilt, Preserved, Restored – USS Constitution Across the Centuries

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians…they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow one [set of philosophers] holding that the ship remained the same, and the other [philosophers] contending that it was not the same. [The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/]

Was the ship that had been slowly repaired, with new planks replacing rotten ones, still Theseus’ original vessel? As Plutarch notes, even at the time of the ship’s existence some believed it to be Theseus’ vessel, while others did not.

There is an old joke about a farmer who said he had owned the same ax his whole life – he had only replaced the handle three time and the head twice! Is it still the same ax?

Howard Mansfield opens his book The Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age, with the farmer’s joke but then continues the thought experiment, along the lines of the Ship of Theseus, with this riddle:

What’s the oldest unchanged house in the world?

Hint: It is made of a common material and lasts only one season. It is a house of water.

Igloos, a form unchanged for 50,000 years, are said to be the oldest shelter known. Each single igloo was a perishable item, but represented a tradition that lived until recently…

Another riddle: The most rebuilt wooden structures in the world are the most unchanged.

The Ise Shrine in Japan has been rebuilt almost every twenty years since the year 690 A.D…..The Japanese…conserve by copying and rebuilding…In the West we are used to monuments of stone…To the Japanese, Ise is 1.300 years old. It is the same ax, rebuilt sixty-one times… [Mansfield, 3-4]

The cover of Howard Mansfield’s book The Same Ax, Twice. [Courtesy University Press of New England]

And then Mansfield cites USS Constitution‘s many rebuilds and restorations as another example:

Constitution…has survived some close calls with oblivion…. Saving a wooden ship is a job that’s never finished…. Anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of Old Ironsides (depending on who [sic] you talk to) is original. The farther you go down [inside the ship] the older the wood is…. The keel is original…. How could this be the same [ship]? Old Ironsides is more like a wooden garden [renewing itself or being renewed all the time…. [Mansfield, 5]


“Recoppering the Constitution” by Aiden Lassell Ripley, ca. 1965. [Courtesy Paul Revere Life Insurance Co. / USS Constitution Museum Collection 282.2a]

USS Constitution has undergone numerous “re-fits”, “rebuilds”, “over hauls” and, finally, “restorations” across her more than 220-year career. As early as 1801, after her service in the Quasi-War with France and only four years after she was launched, Constitution underwent an extensive re-fit with stern work and new Paul Revere-made copper sheathing. This work was executed prior to sailing to the Mediterranean as Commodore Edward Preble’s flagship in the Barbary War. And later, in 1819, Isaac Hull, who was a young Constitution lieutenant during the Quasi-War and then her first War of 1812 captain, wrote to Stephen Decatur of yet more repairs to the ship:

…[Constitution had received] a thorough repair…about eight years after she was built – every beam in her was new, and all the ceilings under the orlops were found rotten, and her plank outside from the water’s edge to the Gunwale were taken off and new put on. [Isaac Hull to Stephen Decatur, 23 October 1819, as quoted in Historic Resource Study, Volume I, Charlestown Navy Yard… Edwin C. Bearss, 307]

In less than ten years after her construction in Boston, Constitution had already experienced significant re-building and repair work. Was she still the same ship?

Let us keep ‘Old Ironsides’ at home. She has…become a Nation’s ship, and should be preserved…in honorable pomp, as a glorious monument of her own, and our other naval victories…

Let us preserve her as a precious model and example for future imitations of illustrious performances! [National Intelligencer, May 23, 1815]

The Antique and Classic Boat Society (ACBS) established definitions of “preserved” and “restored” boats which the society uses when judging an antique or classic boat:

ACBS defines preserved boats as those containing at least 60% of their original deck and topsides material and is constructed using the same methods and materials as the original. Bottom replacement is expected in order for the boat to be serviceable but the method of replacement must duplicate the original….

For a boat to be considered restored , its owner must…provide photographic evidence of the existence of the original identifiable boat and of the various stages of the restoration demonstrating that the original boat was always together as a single entity…At no point should two boats exist – i.e. a pattern boat and the new boat even if the pattern boat is subsequently destroyed. Building a new boat using some wood from an old one will not qualify as a restoration. [https://acbs.org/acbs-boat-classifications-judging-classes/]

But ACBS concludes with the following, definitive, statement:

The amount of original wood in a restored boat is not determinative. For example, the USS Constitution has essentially none of its original wood but we believe no one would consider it a replica. It is Old Ironsides.


And yet, the idea that the aging Constitution has always been the same ship, regardless of the amount of “original” material, was not always the case. Enter Charles Joseph Bonaparte, President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Navy. In 1905, Bonaparte almost ended the ship’s valiant career. His annual report noted that because so much of the ship had been altered since 1812, Constitution was “not the vessel with which [Isaac] Hull [her captain had] captured…Guerriere.” Bonaparte declared the ship needn’t be preserved, but, he concluded:

If, for purely sentimental reasons, it be thought that this supposed veteran…is entitled to a warrior’s death, she might be used as a target for…the ships in our North Atlantic fleet and be sunk by their fire… [Annual Reports of the Navy Department for the Year 1906: Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 18-19]

Portrait of Secretary of the Navy Charles Bonaparte. [Courtesy U.S. Naval Institute]

While Bonaparte was not inaccurate in his assessment of how little of the 1812 ship actually still existed in “Old Ironsides” by 1905, he gravely miscalculated the sympathies that the ship evoked for people. President Roosevelt, War of 1812 historian, passionate navalist, and a former assistant secretary of the navy, was one such sympathetic American. Roosevelt swiftly moved Bonaparte to attorney general where he (Bonaparte) helped to found the Federal Bureau of Investigation! Some monies were allocated and in 1906-1907, USS Constitution received her first “restoration” – a project with the intention of recreating an earlier era in the ship’s physical history.

USS Constitution in the Charlestown Navy Yard, 18 August 1914, exhibiting the superficial restoration work of 1906, consisting of a partial sailing rig, replica guns, and open waist at the spar deck level. [Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration]

…under what conditions does an object persist through time as one and the same object? If the world contains things which endure, and retain their identity in spite of undergoing alteration, then somehow those things persist through changes. [S.M. Cohen, “Identity, Persistence, and the Ship of Theseus”, Philosophy 320, University of Washington]

Despite an official name-change in World War I to “Old Constitution“, and significant structural changes over 220 years, the ship’s enduring identity, as a successful United States Navy warship, nicknamed “Old Ironsides”, has persisted. The U.S. Navy’s philosophy mirrors that of the Antique Classic Boat Society, the ship has always been Constitution and will always remain Constitution, regardless of how much or little 1790s materials exists in the ship’s structure.


And so the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston continues with the maintenance and restoration of “Old Ironsides”. In the months since Constitution‘s re-float from Dry Dock 1 in late July, 2017, work has continued on the ship. Recently, the jibboom was completely replaced with a laminated Douglas fir spar and a new spritsail yard is underway.

“A Draft of the U.S. Frigate Constitution,” by Charles Ware, 1817. The jibboom is the middle spar (of 3) projecting from the ship’s bow. The spritsail yard is suspended below the bowsprit, near the inverted “V” shaped double dolphin striker. It appears that Constitution never carried a sprit sail on this yard rather, the yard was used to stay other rigging for the bowsprit, jibboom, and flying jibboom. [Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration]

USS Constitution’s bowsprit (painted white), jibboom (painted brown, middle) and flying jibboom (painted brown, right) in August, 2014, before the ship was down-rigged for the May, 2015 dry docking. The spritsail yard (painted black) is difficult to see at this angle, but it is just below the heavy rigging supporting the outer end of the bowsprit. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

The jibboom that was removed from Constitution prior to the ship entering Dry Dock 1 in May, 2015, was manufactured in May, 2003, from laminated Douglas fir. It was refurbished in the 2007-2010 (floating) restoration and re-installed in 2010. The plan used for manufacturing the new jibboom was originally drawn for the 1927 restoration.

Plan of Constitution’s jibboom, taken from “U.S. Frigate Constitution Spanker Mast, Yards, Gaff, Booms and Fittings,” Plan #30651, July, 1929. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston ship restorer Kevin Mansfield manufactured the new jibboom from laminated Douglas fir.

NHHC ship restorer Kevin Mansfield cutting a step in the base of the new, laminated Douglas fir jibboom. The same section of the 2003 jibboom is behind, on the floor. Kevin used the old jibboom as a guide, along with the drawing. The metal sheave was removed from the old jibboom and re-used in the new spar. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

The jibboom, when finished, is 47′ 6″ feet long, a substantial spar, and one of three parts, projecting from the bow of USS Constitution. This view is from the outer end of jibboom. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

The new spritsail yard replaces a laminated Douglas fir spritsail yard that made for the 2007-2010 (floating) restoration and installed in June, 2010. Like the jibboom, a 1927 restoration plan and the 2010 spritsail yard are the guides for the work.

Plan of Constitution’s spritsail yard taken from “U.S. Frigate Constitution Spanker Mast, Yards, Gaff, Booms and Fittings,” Plan #30651, July, 1929. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

The following photographs show the early stages of laying out the shape of the spritsail yard on the blank piece of laminated Douglas fir. The yard, when finished, will be 60 feet long.

The outline of the spritsail yard is first applied using black string that is pulled taught and held in place with staples. Instructions for cutting and for orientation have been written in red pencil on the four sides of the blank stock. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

NHHC Detachment Boston ship restorer Kevin Mansfield sprays black paint over the string outline on the blank stock. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

The string is removed, revealing the cutlines on spritsail yard stock. The finished jibboom can bee seen in the background, awaiting installation on Constitution. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

NHHC Detachment ship restorers Kevin Mansfield (left) and Joe Halter (right) confirming the angle of the spritsail yard stock on the bed of the Detachment Boston’s Timberking 2000, prior to cutting out the rough shape of the yard. Note that the yard is longer than the bed of the sawmill the forklift is supporting the yard’s weight for each cut. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Constitution’ spritsail yard has “shoulders”, humps at each end of the yard, which help to hold rigging. This photo shows Kevin’s notes of where to cut and where not to cut with the Timberking 2000, so that enough material is left behind to create the shoulders. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Detachment Boston] One end of the new spritsail yard has been rough cut on the Timberking 2000. Note the extra wood left behind which will become the shoulders for the yard. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

As spring arrives in Boston, the up-rigging and installation of spars on USS Constitution will continue so that the ship will be fully rigged for the 2018 summer season. The preservation and restoration of America’s Ship of State is an awesome responsibility. And unlike the Ship of Theseus, which had doubters as to its authenticity because of its lack of “original” material, few visitors to “Old Ironsides” today have any doubt that they are encountering history when they walk the ship’s decks and learn of the men who served aboard and sacrificed for their country.

And if you’re wondering, the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston thinks there’s about 8 – 10% original material, dating from the ship’s building period (1794-1797), left in USS Constitution. This is not a scientific assessment, but more of an educated guess based upon records of past rebuilds and restorations.

The Author(s)

Margherita M. Desy
Historian, Naval History & Heritage Command

Margherita M. Desy is the Historian for USS Constitution at Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston.


On May 31, 1933, the historic frigate USS Constitution arrives at the Port of Seattle, under tow of the mine sweeper USS Grebe (AM-43). After making a grand circuit of Elliott Bay, "Old Ironsides" is moored at Pier 41 in Smith Cove. The visit is part of a three-year tour around the United States, a public "thank you" to everyone who, from 1925 to 1930, helped raise almost $1 million to completely restore the deteriorating vessel. The Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world, will be the centerpiece of Seattle’s "Gala Days" and will be open to the public for two weeks.

Old Ironsides

The USS Constitution is a 2,200-ton, 175-foot, wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate, built in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Edmund Hartt Shipyard. Launched in 1797, she was one of six frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Armament Act in 1794. Named by President George Washington (1732-1799), the Constitution is most famous for her actions against the British Navy during the War of 1812. She earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” in an engagement with the HMS Guerriere, a frigate mounting 49 guns. During a 20-minute, close-quarter battle, the 44-gun Constitution, disabled, captured, and then sunk the British warship, while her thick, oak hull sustained relatively minor damage from cannon balls. It was a great moral victory for the fledgling United States Navy against the most powerful naval force in the world.

After the war (1812-1815), "Old Ironsides" was refitted and served as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron. A survey in 1830 determined the frigate was unseaworthy and Congress considered relegating her to the scrap yard. But public sentiment and Oliver Wendell Holmes’ memorable poem "Old Ironsides" saved the ship from destruction. The Constitution was repaired, refitted, and returned to commissioned status four times between 1832 and 1907. From 1897 to 1925, she was on exhibition at the Boston Naval Shipyard.When a survey in 1924 determined that "Old Ironsides" was again in dire need of repairs, Congress authorized her restoration by public subscription and Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur (1867-1954) initiated a national voluntary campaign to raise the necessary funds.

On March 15, 1930, the Constitution left dry-dock with major repairs completed. The total cost of this extensive restoration was close to $1 million. Approximately two-thirds of the money had been raised by patriotic organizations and school children, and the remainder, needed to complete the restoration, was appropriated by Congress. On July 2, 1931, after sitting for 34 years at the Boston Naval Shipyard, the USS Constitution, under the command of Commander Louis J. Gulliver (1884-1962), set sail on a goodwill tour of New England ports. The voyage proved so popular that the historic warship was sent on a tour of all the coastal states of America.

A Historic Vessel

Between July 1931 and May 1932, the USS Constitution visited every port on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts with water deep enough to accommodate her 23-foot draft. She was then towed to the Washington Naval Shipyard to prepare for the long expedition to the West Coast. On December 8, 1932, “Old Ironsides,” under tow by the 188-foot, mine sweeper USS Grebe (AS-43) set sail for the Pacific Coast, with week-long visitations scheduled at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Cristobal and Balboa, Panama.

The two ships transited the 48-mile-long Panama Canal on December 27 and arrived in San Diego on January 21, 1933. During the Winter and Spring of 1933, the Constitution and Grebe slowly worked their way up the coastline toward Washington state. En route, the ships called at nine major ports, including Grays Harbor (Gray’s Harbor County), arriving at Port Angeles (Clallam County) in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on May 27, 1933. The historic vessel was on exhibition there for four days before departing for Seattle.

On Wednesday afternoon, May 31, 1933, the USS Constitution, under tow by the USS Grebe, entered Seattle’s Elliott Bay and made a grand tour of the inner harbor from West Point to Duwamish Head. The warships had been convoyed from Hood Canal to Seattle by the Black Ball Line’s 221-foot steamship Tacoma and a flotilla of smaller vessels. The fireboats Alki and Duwamish were on hand, whistles blowing and monitors streaming water, to welcome "Old Ironsides" while a squadron of U.S. Navy Berliner-Joyce OJ-2 pursuit aircraft from Sandpoint Naval Air Station circled overhead. Following the pageant, Foss Maritime Company tugboats escorted the warships to Smith Cove where they moored at the south end of Pier 41 (now Pier 91).

Generally, the public was not pleased that the Port of Seattle had chosen Pier 41 to exhibit "Old Ironsides." Lake Union would have been a more convenient location, but the ship’s mainmast, 220 feet tall, could not pass beneath the 150-foot-high arch of the new George Washington Memorial Bridge (commonly known as the Aurora Bridge) over the Lake Washington Ship Canal. The weather for early spring was unseasonably warm and the hike from the nearest streetcar stop, at 15th Avenue W and W Garfield Street, to the Constitution at the south end of Pier 41 was approximately one mile. Only vehicles with a “special permit” were allowed on the pier and parking space nearby was woefully lacking. Concessionaires, following the Constitution from port to port, were not allowed onto the pier and made to hawk their souvenirs on the Garfield Street Bridge (now the Magnolia Bridge) or near streetcar stops along 15th Avenue W and Elliott Avenue W.

The public’s interest wasn’t diminished, however, as approximately 14,000 persons a day lined up on Pier 41 to see “Old Ironsides.” Visiting hours were from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day the ship was in port. Rope barriers along the pier funneled the crowd to and from the ship. Gangplanks were positioned, fore and aft, to facilitate the flow of traffic through the historic vessel. The Seattle Police Department stationed patrolmen on the pier and at the ship’s side to ensure order and the Seattle Fire Department parked an engine nearby to cover any fire emergencies.

Honoring the Old Warship

Early Thursday morning, June 15, 1933, two Foss Maritime Company tugboats accompanied the USS Constitution to Tacoma for a one-week visit. A large crowd was on hand at Pier 41 to bid the frigate farewell. During her two-week stay in Seattle, "Old Ironsides" had been toured by 201,422 people. At the Port of Tacoma, the frigate was moored at the McCormick Steamship Company Pier on Dock Street where she was visited by over 84,000 people.

After departing Tacoma on June 22, the Constitution visited the ports of Bremerton, Everett, Bellingham, Anacortes and Port Townsend. On July 30, 1933, the Grebe and Constitution left the Strait of Juan de Fuca and sailed south. At the Columbia River "Old Ironsides" made calls at the ports of Astoria and Portland in Oregon, and Klama and Longview in Washington. On August 26, the Grebe and Constitution crossed the Columbia River Bar and headed toward California. They visited 10 more ports in California before finally reaching San Diego on November 3, 1933.

The USS Constitution wintered at the San Diego Naval Base, making repairs and provisioning for the long voyage back to the East Coast. On March 20, 1934, she departed San Diego harbor, under tow by the 350-foot submarine tender USS Bushnell (AS-2), en route to the Canal Zone. South of the Gulf of Tehuantepec, off the coast of Mexico, the Bushnell transferred "Old Ironsides" to the USS Grebe for the passage east through the Panama Canal. Back on the Atlantic Coast, the Constitution called at Saint Petersburg, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina, before returning to Boston.

Serving at Home

Between 1931 and 1934, “Old Ironsides” traveled 22,000 miles, called at 76 ports in 21 states and was visited by over 4.6 million people. She returned home to the Boston Naval Shipyard on May 7, 1934, and has remained on permanent exhibition there ever since. The Boston Naval Shipyard, one of the first shipyards built in the United States, is on the National Park Service, Register of Historic Places (NR No. 66000134), that includes "Old Ironsides," the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy.

On October 28, 2009, President Barack H. Obama (b. 1961) signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (HR 2647), which in section 1022 designated the USS Constitution as "America's Ship of State," or flagship. According to the act, the ship should be used to conduct pertinent matters of state, "such as hosting visiting heads of state, signing legislation relating to the Armed Forces, and signing maritime related treaties." The primary mission of the USS Constitution, however, remained education and public outreach.

USS Constitution (right) and USS Grebe (left), Pier 41, Smith Cove, Seattle, June 2, 1933

Photo by Lee Picket, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Pickett 5027)

USS Constitution, Elliott Bay, Seattle, May 31, 1933

--> Constitution (Frigate)

Also known as Old Ironsides wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy Thos. McDonough Esq. Com. New York, 28 Oct. 1824 launched in 1797, Constitution was one of the six original frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Act of 1794 currently a fully commissioned US Navy ship, her crew of 60 officers and sailors participate in ceremonies, educational programs and special events while keeping the ship open to visitors year-round and providing free tours.

From the description of USS Constitution logbook, 1824 Oct. 29-1826 Dec. 31. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 753577641

Also known as Old Ironsides wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy launched in 1797, Constitution was one of the six original frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Act of 1794 currently a fully commissioned US Navy ship, her crew of 60 officers and sailors participate in ceremonies, educational programs and special events while keeping the ship open to visitors year-round and providing free tours.

From the description of USS Constitution receipt, 1798 Aug. 14. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 435844299

Maine Memory Network

Purchase a reproduction of this item on VintageMaineImages.com.


The frigate Constitution is shown at the Kittery Navy Yard on June 22, 1897.

The ship was at the yard from 1882-1897 and was used to house new Navy recruits. The barracks were built on top of the ship's hull.

About This Item

  • Title: Frigate Constitution, Kittery Navy Yard, 1897
  • Creation Date: 1897-06-22
  • Subject Date: 1897-06-22
  • Town: Kittery, Portsmouth
  • County: Rockingham, York
  • State: ME, NH
  • Media: Photographic print
  • Local Code: Coll. 562
  • Collection: Kittery Naval Yard photographs
  • Object Type: Image

Cross Reference Searches

Standardized Subject Headings

For more information about this item, contact:

Use of this Item is not restricted by copyright and/or related rights, but the holding organization is contractually obligated to limit use. For more information, please contact the contributing organization. However, watermarked Maine Memory Network images may be used for educational purposes.

Please post your comment below to share with others. If you'd like to privately share a comment or correction with MMN staff, please use this form.

The Constitution's Victorious Captains

The outbreak of the War of 1812 in June of that year pitted a U.S. Navy of fewer than two dozen ships of all sizes against the elephantine Royal Navy, which had almost that many ships of 100 guns or more. Furthermore, the officers and men manning that fleet had had nearly two decades of real-world combat experience. Among our fledgling officer corps of that day, only one senior seagoing officer had experienced a ship duel (and, ironically, he never managed to gain the glory of another during the new conflict). The frigate Constitution, one of the largest American warships, had three captains and two crews between 1812 and 1815, virtually none of whom had any combat experience—and yet they managed to amass an unbroken string of victories. These were those leaders.

A Captain’s Luck, a Legendary Battle

A Connecticut Yankee, son of a Revolutionary brigadier general, short, rotund Isaac Hull went to sea at an early age at his father’s urging and already had qualified as a ship’s master by 1798, at age 25. He accepted a proffered commission as a lieutenant in the then?forming U.S. Navy in March of that year and, having had little formal education, hired a tutor to improve his penmanship and letter-writing ability. He was assigned to the Constitution, and during nearly four years in the frigate, he rose from fourth to first lieutenant, serving in her throughout the 1798–1801 Quasi?War with France.

Detached from the Constitution in April 1802, Hull next became first lieutenant of the light frigate John Adams, but soon was ordered to command of the schooner Enterprize. He sailed her to the Mediterranean then exchanged commands with Stephen Decatur, taking over the brig Argus. Promoted to master commandant in May 1804, he was one of Commodore Edward Preble’s “boys”—that generation of young officers destined to shape the legacy of the Old Navy. In early 1805 Hull provided the naval-command component in the successful taking of Derne, Tripoli, by General William Eaton and a force of U.S. Marines and Arabs. Ordered home later that year, after peace had been gained, Hull was promoted to captain in April 1806.

With the coming of the Madison administration and increased activity for the Navy, Hull was given command of the frigates Chesapeake and later President, but in June 1810 he exchanged commands with Commodore John Rodgers when his senior indicated he preferred the President to the Constitution. Hull took his new command to northern Europe on a diplomatic voyage in 1811 and returned in time to get his ship a brief overhaul just before the war broke out.

Under orders to join Rodgers’ squadron at New York, Hull sailed from Chesapeake Bay early in July and in the middle of the month found himself pursued by a British squadron off the New Jersey coast. Exhibiting imaginative seamanship, he outwitted and finally outdistanced his pursuers in a chase that lasted nearly three days. With the British between him and New York, he headed for Boston, where he expected to replace jettisoned water and to find orders awaiting him.

Boston provided Hull with more supplies, but no orders. Deciding to get to sea before the British could bottle him up in port, early in August he headed for Canadian waters. He stirred up a hornet’s nest off the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, destroying enemy merchant ships not yet aware war had been declared. Then he decided to head for the Bermuda area, on the track of British ships homeward bound from the West Indies.

On 19 August 1812 Hull met the frigate HMS Guerriere off the Grand Banks. In a brawling battle, he managed to beat his foe to pieces, though one must say it was a rather clumsily fought engagement in which the inexperienced Hull had all the luck. The captain himself seems to have realized this, for his brief published action report glossed over much, including two collisions, and made it appear he had won what he himself called “a brilliant victory” in about half an hour. The public was thrilled, Hull was lionized, and Congress awarded him a gold medal and all hands prize money. For the remainder of the war, he was content, as a new husband, to command Navy yards.

In the postwar years, like most of his contemporaries, Hull remained largely ashore, either at a Navy yard or on the Board of Naval Commissioners. In 1824, Commodore William Bainbridge accused him of corruption in his administration of the Boston Navy Yard, a charge not sustained by a subsequent court of inquiry. Later, Hull commanded the Pacific Squadron off the west coast of South America for three years, and in the late 1830s, the Mediterranean Squadron for another three. He returned home in poor health, fatter than ever and going blind. He died ashore at Philadelphia in 1843.

Isaac Hull has been characterized as a popular captain, as would be attested to by his receipt of a model of the ship from his victorious crew when he was detached. His popularity, however, was not universal, as is demonstrated by the fact that the Navy Department had to transfer more than a hundred sailors from other ships when he failed to recruit a crew for the 1811 voyage to Europe, as well as by the terrible relationship he had with his flagship’s officers on his final sea tour.

Isaac and Anna Hull were childless. Five ships in the U. S. Navy have been named for Commodore Hull.

Hard-Fought Victory Amid a Checkered Career

Born to Tory parents living in New Jersey during the Revolution, William Bainbridge endured early years defined by flights from his parents’ vengeful foes and fights with taunting peers. He first went to sea in 1789, but little is known of his merchant service until he became a ship’s master in 1793, at the tender age of 18. In March 1797 he married Susan Heyliger at St. Eustasius she was the granddaughter of a former governor?general of the island.

Bainbridge was in Philadelphia during the spring and summer of 1798 when the U.S. Navy was being formed. He was offered and accepted a commission as a lieutenant in August and was immediately ordered to command of the schooner Retaliation. In November, while impetuously investigating two contacts off Antigua, he found himself under the guns of a superior French force and had to surrender his ship—the first officer of the U.S. Navy to do so.

Promoted to master commandant in 1799 and captain in 1800, Bainbridge continued to exhibit an impetuous nature. Commanding the light frigate George Washington in 1800, he ended up under the guns of the Bey of Algiers and was forced to make a trip to Constantinople flying the bey’s flag and bearing gifts to his Ottoman master. In October 1803, then in command of the frigate Philadelphia, Bainbridge was on blockade duty off Tripoli when he eagerly pursued a smaller craft into reef-strewn inshore waters. Too late, he realized his error, and the frigate ran aground while attempting to clear offshore. Bainbridge was forced to surrender his ship to the Tripolines and spent the next 19 months as a prisoner of war. On each of these occasions, he was held blameless, and thanks to his political acumen and powerful friends in the government, he actually had been promoted ahead of those previously senior to him.

The outbreak of the War of 1812 found Bainbridge taking command of the Boston Navy Yard. When the Constitution returned there from her victory over HMS Guerriere and Captain Hull wished relief to attend to a distressing family matter, Bainbridge gained the command of a ship whose crew openly disapproved of him. On 29 December 1812, off Brazil, he defeated HMS Java, a faster ship commanded by one of Britain’s most experienced frigate captains, during a hard?fought battle in which Bainbridge was twice wounded. He returned to resume command of the Boston Navy Yard for the remainder of the war. Like Hull, his victory netted him a gold medal and the crew prize money.

Following a brief voyage to the Mediterranean at war’s end expecting to gain glory in a campaign against a resurgent Bey of Algiers, but denied it by even swifter action by Stephen Decatur, Bainbridge devoted himself to regaining command of the Boston Navy Yard. But he also devoted himself to pursuing vendettas against his contemporaries who had achieved fame in the Barbary War while he was a prisoner. His attempts to have Captains Charles Stewart and Isaac Hull court-martialed failed, but his eminence grise’s machinations led to the duel between James Barron and Decatur and the latter’s death. Except for one more cruise to the Mediterranean, Bainbridge spent the rest of his career commanding one of the Navy yards or as a member of the Board of Naval Commissioners, serving for a time as its president. He died of a complication of illnesses at Philadelphia on 27 July 1833. The Bainbridges had no children.

The tall, dour Bainbridge was a man embittered by his largely disastrous service record. He was ever defending himself from real and imagined detractors, and is not known to have engendered any feelings of comradeship with either his fellow officers or sailors in his crews. His final act on his deathbed was to order his wife to destroy all his papers, both official and personal.

Four ships in the U. S. Navy have been named for Commodore Bainbridge.

Divide and Conquer

Charles Stewart, his Irish ancestry betrayed by his reddish hair, was born in Philadelphia, went to sea at 13, and had qualified as master before accepting a lieutenant’s commission in the new U.S. Navy in March 1798. Serving first in the frigate United States and then the schooner Enterprize, in 1800 he became commander of the schooner Experiment. All of these ships saw Caribbean service in the Quasi-War with France. During that time, victorious encounters with three privateers give evidence of Stewart’s tactical skills and the accuracy of his gunners.

With the outbreak of the Barbary War in 1801, Stewart went to the Mediterranean as first lieutenant of the frigate Constellation in 1802, then was given command of the new brig Syren. During his second Mediterranean tour, May 1803–September 1805, he was involved in the close blockade of Tripoli by Commodore Preble, often running the operation in the commodore’s absence, and was commander of the operation that saw Decatur burn the captured American frigate Philadelphia in that harbor in February 1804. Stewart was promoted to master commandant later that year and captain a few months after his return to the United States in 1806.

After a short period overseeing the construction of Jeffersonian gunboats and then making profitable mercantile voyages, Stewart shuttled among several ship commands (three in 1812 alone) before settling in the Constellation at Norfolk in September 1812. The British blockade prevented him from getting to sea, and in the late spring of 1813 he was transferred to the Constitution at Boston. British blockaders again stymied him until December, when he got to sea on a cruise shortened by the failure of one of his masts.

Stewart returned to Boston in April 1814 and was again blockaded, until December. In May Commodore Bainbridge was critical of the fact that Stewart’s war cruise had been curtailed and urged Secretary of the Navy William Jones to order a court of inquiry—chaired by Bainbridge. When the evidence tended to absolve Stewart of any shortcoming and, indeed, was critical of the pre-voyage repairs done in the yard commanded by the commodore, Bainbridge closed the proceedings down with no recommendation for court-martial.

In November Stewart married Delia Tudor after a short engagement and began his second war cruise the following month. On 20 February 1815, at sea again for two months, some 180 miles from Madeira, he met the British light frigate Cyane and corvette Levant together in a sunset and evening fight that saw him divide and conquer his enemies in a stunning display of shiphandling and shooting. The Levant subsequently was recaptured by the British, but the Cyane was sailed back to the United States and taken into naval service. As was customary, Congress awarded Stewart a gold medal and his crew prize money.

Stewart’s subsequent service was punctuated by long periods “awaiting orders.” He commanded the Mediterranean Squadron shortly after war’s end and the Pacific Squadron in the 1820s. From 1830 to 1833 he was on the Board of Naval Commissioners and later that decade commanded the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The first captain of the Pennsylvania, a 120-gun ship of the line, he commanded her on her one sea voyage. He was briefly considered as a presidential candidate in 1840 and again in 1844, but was not interested on either occasion. In the 1840s, he was first commander of the Home Squadron (1841–3), and beginning in January 1846 again commanded the Philadelphia Navy Yard for three years. That yard also was his to command from 1853 to 1860.


USS Constitution’s 1934 crew poses on the ship’s bow.

The famous frigate is still afloat today nearly a million people visit her every year in Boston Harbor.

When you step on board Constitution, the first thing you notice is how big she is. She stretches 207 feet long and the mainmast towers 210 feet high, as tall as a 20-story building. All three masts could carry a total of 44 sails—almost an acre of canvas. When she sailed in battle, she carried as many as 55 heavy cannons on two decks, making her a force to be reckoned with.

USS Constitution’s 21st-century crew furling the main topsail. Count them—there are 23 people on the yard. Under full sail, Constitution set 44 sails, enough canvas to cover almost a full acre!

If you walked the deck 200 years ago, you would have noticed how crowded it was. Today, the active-duty US Navy crew numbers between 60 and 70 men and women, but when Constitution set sail from Boston during the War of 1812, she carried more than 480 officers, sailors, and Marines. The ship needed most of those hands to control the sails and fire the guns, but the officers also knew that they would need extra hands some men would die from accidents and disease, and if they captured any enemy vessels, they’d need sailors to navigate those ships to friendly ports. Therefore, navy ships always tried to sail with as many men as they could fit on board.

Two young Constitution sailors from the late 1860s.

What kind of people signed on as crew back then? The USS Constitution Museum in Boston has been researching each individual sailor in the ship’s War of 1812 crew to learn what his life was like. Using all sorts of government records stored in the National Archives in Washington, DC, as well as birth, death, and census records, we’ve learned a lot about them. The typical navy sailor back then was young. Although the average age in a full crew was 26 years old, some sailors were as young as 9 and others as old as 52. Most of Constitution’s crew was born in Massachusetts, but there were also crewmembers on board from all over the United States, Great Britain, and Western Europe. 7 to 14 percent of the crew were free men of color who, at a time when slavery was still legal in this country, earned the same wages as their white shipmates.

Most navy seamen had worked as sailors for years before they joined the service. Most of the 40 men from Marblehead, MA, for example, were fishermen by trade. Even though the able seamen were skilled sailors, they probably could not read or even write their own names.
Constitution was undefeated during the War of 1812, and, compared to the experiences of sailors in other navy ships in battle, relatively few of her crewmen died or were wounded in battle. With luck, the typical sailor who served in Old Ironsides survived the war without a scratch, and when his two-year enlistment ended, he returned home with a pocket full of prize money!

This is the common experience—the average taken from the life stories of nearly 1,200 men who sailed on the ship during between 1812 and 1815. As historians do more research, we continue to learn about the sailors and Marines who fought for “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights!”

The <em>Constitution</em> Gun Deck

It is particularly appropriate that this exhibit was made possible by the generosity of the late Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, USNR, who donated the royalties from his definitive History of United States Naval Operations in World War II to the Naval Historical Center.

When we think of Admiral Morison, this splendid series comes quickly to mind. He is also prominently associated with the history of the early discovery and exploration of the Americas. Yet, Samuel Morison’s interests were as far-ranging as his knowledge was profound. In a long list of splendid books and articles, he discussed sources, events, and personalities of our early history with wit and acumen. His biographies of John Paul Jones and Matthew Calbraith Perry demonstrate a deep understanding of, and appreciation for, the struggles and sacrifices of America’s first generations. It is my hope that this exhibit will, in its own way, serve the same purpose.

Rear Admiral, U.S.N. (Ret.)
Director of Naval History


Rear Admiral Kane’s hopes for the gun deck exhibit clearly have been fulfilled. Since the gun deck exhibit was installed at the Navy Museum two decades ago, thousands of school children and other museum visitors have sat down on the wooden deck to hear Navy Museum docents describe the roles of gun captains, spongers, rammers, and powder monkeys. These young Americans certainly have a greater appreciation for the struggles and sacrifices made by their forebears who served their young republic at sea. Meanwhile under the stewardship of the Naval Historical Center, the USS CONSTITUTION has entered its third century as the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat. Indeed, the famed frigate celebrated her 200th birthday in 1997 under sail in Massachusetts Bay.

The Navy Museum Foundation is pleased to reprint this original 1983 Naval Historical Center publication for sale in the Navy Museum Gift Shop. It is noteworthy that the author of this short monograph, John Reilly, has retired from the Naval Historical Center and now works for the Foundation as a researcher-writer.

Through the purchase of this publication you are helping to support the Navy Museum and we are most grateful. More information about our organization and how you can help is located on the inside of the back cover.

William L. Ball, III
Navy Museum Foundation

CONSTITUTION’s spar-deck battery included “chase guns” as well as these short-barreled 32-pounder carronades.

24-pounder guns on CONSTITUTIONS’s gun deck.

The Constitution Gun Deck

From the early years of our country’s history, the frigate Constitution has been one of the symbols of our national identity. Conceived during the presidency of George Washington, she protected American merchant seamen in the Quasi-War with France and projected American sea power into the Mediterranean during the Barbary Wars. In the War of 1812, she earned glory in a series of victorious combats with British men-of-war and became part of the American legend. Joshua Humphreys helped to design her such men as Edward Preble, John Rodgers, Isaac Hull, William Bainbridge, Thomas Macdonough, and George Dewey have commanded her. When she was threatened by the scrapper in 1830, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem Old Ironsides awoke national feeling and helped to save her. Still in commission as a ship of the United States Navy, she flies the fifteen-star flag of 1812 at her berth in the old Boston Navy Yard and reminds each new generation of Americans of the vital role the sea has always played in our people’s history.

Five years ago, after Constitution had been overhauled, one of her former fighting tops was brought to the Navy Memorial Museum and installed on a replica of part of her foremast. This has aroused much interest in Constitution and in her history among visitors to the museum. To bring her a little closer to our visitors, we have created a replica of part of Constitution‘s gun deck on the museum floor near the fighting top. To those who have visited Constitution, may this facsimile serve as a vivid reminder of this great ship. To those who have never seen her, we hope that this display may give something of an idea of the tools with which the seamen of our formative years won and defended America’s existence as a nation.

We are accustomed to measuring the strength of a navy in terms of many different types of ships and weapons. The seagoing fleets of 1812 were all made up of wooden sailing ships which might differ in size and function but were all, basically, “sisters under the skin.” They dealt in one weapon, the gun, and it was in terms of guns that a warship’s size and power were measured. The bigger a ship, the more guns she could carry and, of equal importance, the heavier the guns she could use. Where a small ship might be armed with 6-pounders (guns which threw a 6-pound shot), a large ship-of-the-line, the battleship of her day, mounted guns firing shot of as much as 32 pounds in weight. Constitution falls into the upper middle of this spectrum of warship size. For her time, she was the equivalent of a large modern cruiser, armed with heavy ordnance.

An eighteenth-century drawing of a typical naval gun and its truck carriage. Weapons of this type were a mainstay of naval warfare from the introduction of gunpowder until well into the nineteenth century.

Constitution’s spar deck, her open “weather deck,” was usually the busiest part of the ship. On a portion of it astern called the quarterdeck, the officer of the deck and the helmsman stood their watches. From here the captain — and the commodore, when Constitution served as flagship of a squadron—The rest of directed their commands. The spar deck was also the frigate’s “engine room.” Above it rose the massive network of masts and rigging which propelled Constitution through the water. This was often a hive of activity as the hands double-timed to their stations to make or to take in sail or to man the web of lines that adjusted the spars to take advantage of the wind. Part of Constitution’s armament was mounted here 22 32-pounder carronades were behind broadside ports (the openings seen in the upper portion of this display), while three bow-chaser guns were carried on the forecastle.

Constitution’s punch was provided by thirty cast-iron 24-pounder guns installed on her gun deck, 15 to each side. These were organized into five-gun divisions, each commanded by a lieutenant. Two replicas of these guns, with their carriages and the assorted implements used in serving them, are at the heart of this display. For its day, the 24-pounder was a powerful weapon. Nine and one-half feet long from breech to muzzle, with a 5.8-inch bore, with its carriage it weighed nearly three tons. Like all the artillery pieces of its day, it was a black-powder smoothbore firing a round iron shot. Dismantling shot, a generic term for different types of special shot used to tear up an opponent’s sails and rigging, included bar shot—two ball halves connected by an iron bar—and chain shot, an iron ring to which several lengths of chain were fastened. Chain shot was sometimes called star shot from the way the sections of chain opened up, star-fashion, in flight. Another form of chain shot consisted of two round shot connected by a short chain. Grape and canister, containers of large and small “scatter shot,” were used at close range against an enemy’s crew. The gun was mounted on a simple wooden carriage which was controlled by an arrangement of lines and tackle. The tools used to load and fire the gun were stowed on the bulwarks. Nearby shot racks held the iron “cannon balls” that were the naval gun’s principal stock in trade.

A 24-pounder gun in the period of the Revolution and the War of 1812. The gun is in its recoil position for loading, and the man to the left is keeping a strain on the train tackle to hold the ponderous weapon in place while the man at the muzzle rams the load home. The man at the breech is piercing the powder cartridge with a priming wire before inserting the priming tube: in his left hand is a linstock, a wooden staff holding a piece of burning slowmatch. When the gun is ready to fire, the two side tackles will be used to run it out. The numbers in the drawing identify parts of the gun and its outfit.

When an enemy was in sight, the crew was called to quarters, as “battle stations” were then called. Since there were no loudspeakers in those days, the ship’s marine drummer summoned the men to their stations. In a quick scramble of disciplined activity, everything not needed for battle was struck belowdecks. The galley fire was put out furniture in the captain’s and commodore’s cabins was moved belowdecks to make room for the gun crews. A detail of men mounted each of the ship’s fighting tops to make emergency repairs to battle-damaged rigging. Down below, the surgeon and his mates laid out their bandages and instruments and made ready to care for the wounded. Sand was scattered along the decks for better footing tubs were filled with water for drinking and firefighting.

On the spar deck and gun deck, most of the ship’s company busied themselves getting her armament ready for use. Each of the gun-deck 24-pounders had its assigned crew of a midshipman and 13 men. This was an unusual arrangement midshipmen were more usually assigned to duty as assistant division officers or posted on the quarterdeck to relay the captain’s orders in the din of battle. In 1812, however, Captain Bainbridge had twenty midshipmen on his strength, and decided to assign most of his young prospective officers to the big guns. Fourteen of Constitution’s 15 gundeck 24-pounder crews were commanded by midshipmen the 15th was in charge of the captain’s clerk, who was apparently a versatile individual.

The gun crew first unfastened the lashings which held the gun secure at sea. This had to be done with care. Gun carriages were not fixed to the deck if one should break loose in a seaway, the consequences could be dangerous to the ship and fatal to the men who had to bring the massive rolling weight under control. To this day, a dangerously-irresponsible individual is sometimes called a “loose cannon.”

The crew now removed the covers that kept dampness out of the bore, and took various gunnery implements from their racks. Guns of this period were equipped with firing locks, but lengths of lighted slow match-cord soaked in an inflammable solution it burned down slowly, as a lighted cigarette does-were put in safe places along the gun deck for use in case a lock should fail. Down below the frigate’s waterline, the gunner and his assistants opened the forward and after magazines and began to break out sausage-shaped flannel powder cartridges for the guns and carronades. Other men took stations along the lower decks to pass cartridges up to the gun crews.

CONSTITUTION “shows her teeth” and hoists her battle ensign as she prepares to engage GUERRIERE, 19 August 1812. Spar-deck carronades and gun-deck 24-pounders are run out for action. Guns and carronades were numbered on each side, forward to aft. The two guns represented in this exhibit are Numbers 12 and 13 of the port battery, the third and fourth guns from the right in this painting.

Tools of the gunner’s trade (not to scale). The sponge, moistened with water, extinguished sparks in the bore after firing. The worm cleaned unburned fragments of cloth powder bags from the bore. Ladles were originally used to load powder after cartridge bags came into use, they were used to extract loads from muzzle-loaders without firing. The rammer sealed cartridge and ball in place the scraper and searchers were used to clean the gun and to find damaged spots in the bore. The handspike helped to move the gun carriage and to raise the gun breech so the wedge-shaped quoin could be moved to adjust the gun’s elevation. The priming wire pierced the powder bag to make sure that the flame of the primer would ignite the powder charge, while the tompion kept the bore dry while the gun was not in use. (From Albert Manucy, Artillery Through the Ages (Government Printing Office, 1949).)

As Constitution drew near to her enemy, all was made ready. The captain took his station on the quarterdeck, from which he could direct the helmsman and order the handling of guns and sails. The marine detachment took their positions with loaded muskets, some on deck and others in the fighting tops. Gun crews checked the loads in their massive weapons and waited in silence for the action to begin.

When Constitution was within reasonable shooting range of her adversary—usually no more than a few hundred yards—the gun-port lids, which kept wind and spray out while cruising, were opened. At the command “run out!” men pulled on the side tackles to roll their guns forward until the muzzles protruded through the ports. One of the gun crew thrust a wire pick through the vent to pierce the cloth powder bag, inserted a priming tube (a length of quill, packed with fine powder) into the vent, and then primed the pan of the firing lock–similar to the locks used in flintlock firearms–with fine powder from a flask or horn. The lock was cocked, and the gun captain–the senior enlisted man of the gun crew–took the end of the firing lanyard and stood, knees flexed, behind the gun and sighted along the barrel.

This scale drawing of one of CONSTITUTION’s 24-pounders illustrates the limit of elevation possible with the gun carriage of 1812 and shows how the gun was secured for sea when not in use.

The captain’s order to commence firing was passed by megaphone to the division officers, who then directed their guns. A ship’s guns might open fire together in a single broadside, or each division might be ordered to “fire as she bears.” As the target came into view through his gun port, the gun captain waited for the proper moment in the ship’s roll, depending on whether the object was the enemy’s hull or his masts and rigging. At the right moment, the gun captain pulled the lanyard to trip the firing lock. This struck flint against steel, sending a spark into the pan. The ignited powder in the pan sent a flame through the priming tube to set off the powder charge in the gun and hurl its 24-pound iron shot at the enemy with a reverberating thunderclap of sound and a swirl of whitish smoke.

Loading and aiming a muzzle-loading smoothbore gun was simple in principle but required training and skill in practice. (From Manucy, Artillery Through the Ages)

For every action, as Isaac Newton told us, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The tremendous push needed to send a cannon shot on its way at many hundreds of feet per second also made the gun jump back on its carriage with great force. In a crowded space like the deck of a ship, this had to be controlled. Where a modern gun’s recoil is absorbed by combinations of strong springs and hydraulic cylinders, this gun depended on its heavy breeching to bring it safely to a stop. The bore was wiped out with a sponge moistened with water to put out smoldering bits of powder bag or grains of powder that might remain inside the gun. The powder passer, who shuttled between the gun and the lower-deck hatch to pick up powder charges from the gunner’s assistants, brought a flannel cartridge to the gun and handed it to the loader who pushed it into the muzzle. The cartridge was pushed firmly home with the rammer, and a wad of scrap fibers was rammed down after it. A shot man brought the iron ball from a nearby shot rack the loader inserted the shot in the muzzle then followed with another wad and rammed the load into place. The gun was now ready to run out, prime, and fire. In the earlier stages of an engagement, this might be done in an ordered fashion, with the ship discharging whole broadsides or firing by division to the word of command. When two ships finally came to close quarters, they usually began to fire at will, each gun loading and firing as rapidly as possible under the direction of its own midshipman and gun captain. At the close ranges of that day, effective shooting depended not upon pinpoint accuracy, but upon rapidity. When the target was looming only a few yards away there was no question of aiming, but simply of getting off as much metal as possible to overwhelm the enemy. While some captains, such as Stephen Decatur and the English Philip Broke, drilled their men in firing at longer ranges and taught accuracy and coordination of fire, many officers in the days of sail considered short-range rapid fire the principal test of a well-trained gun crew. The impact on eye, ear, and mind of this kind of close-range violence can only be imagined. As Louis de Tousard described it in 1809 in his American Artillerist’s Companion:

The havock produced by a continuation of this mutual assault may be readily conjectured by the reader’s imagination. Battering, penetrating and splintering the sides and decks shattering and dismounting the cannon mangling and destroying the rigging cutting asunder or carrying away the masts piercing and tearing the sails so as to render them useless and wounding, or killing the ship’s company.

The iron solid shot was the 24-pounder’s principal ammunition. Explosive shells were not used in ship-to-ship actions at this time, as these were thought to be more dangerous to the user than to the enemy. Thus, naval guns of 1812 relied on the battering effect of solid shot rather than on the bursting force of shells. In the early stages of a frigate engagement, while two ships were maneuvering for the most advantageous position, a captain might try to use dismantling shot to disable the maze of sails and rigging on which his opponent depended for movement and maneuverability. As the ships drew close to one another, some of their guns might load with grape or canister to sweep the enemy’s decks. Use of this antipersonnel ammunition turned a ship’s gun into an enormous shotgun, and its effect at short ranges could be devastating. “Hot shot” were simply iron round shot, heated red in the galley stove for use against an inflammable target. The sizzling ball, embedded in the wood of a building or a ship’s hull, could ignite a fire if not quickly extinguished.

Since fire was a mortal threat to wooden warships, hot shot were only occasionally used in shore bombardment. Constitution did not use them in ship-to-ship actions.

Flint firing lock of the type used in 1812. The double-headed cock holds two flints and could be quickly reversed if one flint became worn or lost. (From Sir Howard Douglas, A Treatise on Naval Gunnery (London, 1820))

The principal object of naval battle in 1812 was not to sink an enemy, but to batter him into surrendering. It was difficult to destroy a wooden warship with solid shot. Unlike naval actions of our own century, where ships were usually sunk rather than taken, relatively few wooden sailing warships were sunk in combat. Damage to his ship and casualties to his crew could compel a captain to surrender in some actions the ships came alongside and the opposing crews attempted to board and fight it out at hand’s reach with small arms. Whatever the circumstances, war at sea in those days of our ancestors was hardly for the timid. It took a special kind of courage to “stand to your guns” at ranges measured in scores of yards, Wooden ships and smoothbore guns look picturesque today to the men of 1812, they were everyday reality, some of it quite grim by any standard. May this display help all of us who see it to remember that our nation has been built and maintained by the effort and sacrifice of the generations that have gone before us. And may it also remind us that, now as then, the physical capabilities of machines are always less important than the qualities found in the minds and hearts of the people who use them.

Today, as in 1812, the “men behind the guns” spell the difference between victory and defeat.

For Further Reading

Tyrone G. Martin, A Most Fortunate Ship A Narrative History of “Old Ironsides.” Chester, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1980. (A former commanding officer of Constitution presents a carefully-researched, readable account of her career.)

Howard I. Chapelle, History of the American Sailing Navy. New York: Norton, 1949. (Design study of the evolution of sailing warships in the American navy, with illustrations and numerous ship plans,)

John Masefield, Sea Life in Nelson’s Time. London, 1905. Third edition, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1971. (Daily life and war at sea in the British navy. Though some details of American naval life differed, this work offers a valuable appreciation of life in a sailing man-of-war.)

Albert Manucy, Artillery Through the Ages A Short Illustrated History of Cannon, Emphasizing Types Used in America. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1949. (Kept in print and currently available, this is a helpful introduction to the general subject of early artillery on land and sea.)

Peter Padfield, Guns at Sea. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974. (General illustrated history of naval guns and gunnery from the introduction of gunpowder through World War 11.)

Harold L. Peterson, Round Shot and Rammers. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1969. (Generously-illustrated introduction to muzzle-loading artillery as used in the United States. Though Peterson focuses on land, rather than naval, gunnery the two had much in common.)

Maine Memory Network

The U.S. Frigate Constitution became a dormitory for naval cadets in Kittery between 1882-1897.

Written on the verso of this photograph is, "Today at Charlestown, they claim it is too fragile to return, though when borrowed it was not too fragile to sail there."

Today the Constitution lies at harbor at the Charlestown Naval Shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts.

About This Item

  • Title: U.S. Frigate Constitution, Kittery, 1896
  • Creation Date: 1896
  • Subject Date: 1896
  • Local Name: Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
  • Town: Kittery, Portsmouth
  • County: Rockingham, York
  • State: ME, NH
  • Media: Photoprint
  • Dimensions: 11 cm x 14 cm
  • Local Code: Coll. 562
  • Collection: Kittery Naval Yard photographs
  • Object Type: Image

Cross Reference Searches

Standardized Subject Headings

Other Keywords

For more information about this item, contact:

Use of this Item is not restricted by copyright and/or related rights, but the holding organization is contractually obligated to limit use. For more information, please contact the contributing organization. However, watermarked Maine Memory Network images may be used for educational purposes.

Please post your comment below to share with others. If you'd like to privately share a comment or correction with MMN staff, please use this form.

List of site sources >>>