USS Constitution Celebrates 222 Years in Service

USS Constitution
USS Constitution

The USS Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned warship still sailing the seas. Nicknamed “Old Ironsides” due to its success in the War of 1812, it is 222 years old and has a record of 33 victories.

The crew of 80 sailed the historic ship to Fort Independence on Castle Island in order to fire a 21-gun salute in honor of its anniversary and the 244th anniversary of the US Navy.

The USS Constitution launched on October 21, 1797, after being built in a shipyard that is now Coast Guard Sector Boston. She fired another salute as she passed there on her way back to her dock at the Charleston Navy Yard.

USS Constitution
USS Constitution

Construction began in 1794 at Edmund Hartt’s Shipyard in the North End of Boston. It took three years to complete the construction.

Not even a month after the US declared war on Britain in June of 1812, Captain Isaac Hull and crew were surrounded by five British ships, the HMS Africa, the HMS Belvidera, the HMS Aeolus, the HMS Shannon, and the HMS Guerrierre.

The USS Constitution had been ordered to go to New York as quickly as possible in order to join up with Commodore John Rodgers’ squadron. What Hull didn’t realize was that Rodgers had already set sail to search for British merchant ships crossing the Atlantic.

After passing the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Hull spotted sails on the horizon. Assuming them to be Rodgers’ squadron, he sailed toward them.

To Hull’s surprise, the ship he reached was not one of Rodgers’ ships but the 38-gun frigate HMS Gurriere.

USS Constitution
Constitution and Guerriere in battle.

Once Hull determined that the ships he had reached were not American, he tried to get away. But by now the wind had died down and the sea was completely calm. The little breeze there was only served to push the British ships closer to the Americans. By now, two more British ships had joined in making a total of seven chasing the Constitution.

The British opened fire but missed. The Constitution returned fire but also missed.

The sails were let out to the maximum and were wet down in order to make them able to capture the slightest breezes. Eventually, Hull ordered several thousand gallons of fresh water be pumped out to decrease the weight of the ship.

The British soon reached firing range. Desperate for a way to escape, Hull turned to his Lieutenant Morris. Morris’ plan was to take a cutter with the anchor and row ahead of the ship. Then the anchor would be dropped out in front of the USS Constitution.

USS Constitution
The earliest known photograph of Constitution, undergoing repairs in 1858.

Crewmen on the ship would pull the anchor chain which would pull the ship forward.

Meanwhile, a second cutter with another anchor rowed ahead a dropped it to be used to continue the pulling while the first cutter gathered its anchor and rowed ahead. They continued that way for hours, alternating cutters and anchors.

They continued this all night with crewmen sleeping by their guns in case there was action. After more than 60 hours of the chase, the Constitution finally pulled far enough ahead of her pursuers that they ceased their pursuit.

USS Constitution
Constitution during the chase

Due to Hull’s seamanship and cunning tactics, the Constitution was able to outrun the British ships and arrive in Boston without damage on July 27, 1812. Hull and his crew had been challenged by seven British warships, including two captained by some of the most famous captains in the Royal Navy, and escaped to tell the tale.

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This is known in British history as “The Great Chase” and to US historians as “The Great Escape.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE