7 Facts About the USS Constitution, the US Navy’s Oldest Warship

Photo Credit: Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe / Getty Images

Typically docked at the end of Boston’s Freedom Trail, the USS Constitution is among the most famous warships in the world. She entered service in the late 1700s, and showed her prowess during numerous engagements throughout the War of 1812. While not in active service, given her age, the warship is still commissioned by the US Navy.

The following are some facts about the USS Constitution, from the secret to her longevity to the outcome of her most famous battle.

Only a small portion of the original warship remains

USS Constitution at sea
USS Constitution during her annual turnaround cruise, 1991. (Photo Credit: CORBIS / Getty Images)

We’re kicking off our list of USS Constitution facts with an intriguing statistic: only between eight and 10 percent of the original body remains. This estimate comes from the Boston detachment of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

It should be noted that no official scientific assessment has been done to concretely prove this. Instead, the stat is an educated guess based on records about Constitution‘s past restorations, modifications and rebuilds.

White and live oak are the secret to the USS Constitution‘s endurance

White oak tree in the middle of a park
White oak trees are among the strongest hardwoods in the world. (Photo Credit: Msact / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Indigenous to the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, live oak is among the strongest and most dense wood to grow in North America. Similarly, white oak is among the strongest hardwoods in the world. These are long-known facts, which means it’s no surprise the USS Constitution‘s inner hull was constructed from the trees’ lumber.

The strength of her hull came in handy during the War of 1812, when Constitution went up against the British Royal Navy warship HMS Guerriere (1806). On August 19, 1812, they faced off a few hundred miles from Nova Scotia.

Capt. James Richard Dacres believed Guerriere could easily take on the smaller and lesser-armed American vessel. However, Constitution‘s hull was so strong that the cannonballs fired from the British warship simply bounced off. This allowed for the Americans to capture Guerriere and her crew. The following day, the vessel was set aflame, as she’d sustained enough damage during the fight to leave her unsalvageable.

Constitution‘s endurance during the engagement led to her being nicknamed “Old Ironsides.”

A dedicated forest keeps the USS Constitution afloat

Female sailor standing below a white oak tree
Constitution Grove. (Photo Credit: Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Erin N Bullock / U.S. Navy / DVIDS / Public Domain)

Speaking of white oak, did you know the US Navy sustains a forest of the trees in Indiana, solely for the purpose of refitting the USS Constitution? While there were plenty around when the warship was constructed in the late 1700s, the supply dwindled as settlers traveled west and began using the lumber in the construction of their homes.

To ensure there’ll always be enough white oak trees available to keep Constitution afloat, the Navy set up “Constitution Grove” at Naval Support Activity Crane, near Bloomington, Indiana. The 50,000-acre forest contains trees that are over 100 years old, and along with aiding in the maintenance of Constitution, provides Indiana with increased biodiversity and economic prospects.

Second-oldest commissioned warship in the world

Billie Farrell standing with other naval personnel aboard the USS Constitution
Changing of command ceremony aboard the USS Constitution, in which Billie Farrell took control of the warship, January 2022. (Photo Credit: Matt Stone / MediaNews Group / Boston Herald / Getty Images)

One fact about the USS Constitution that most might not know is that she’s actually the second-oldest commissioned warship in the world, coming in behind the Royal Navy’s HMS Victory, which was launched in 1765 and commissioned 13 years later. If you do the math, that puts Victory‘s service at 245 years, as of 2023.

That being said, Constitution is the oldest ship in the world that’s still afloat, as Victory is dry-docked. She’s also the oldest commissioned vessel within the US Navy, with her having received her latest commander, Billie Farrell, in January 2022.

USS Constitution versus HMS Guerriere

Painting of the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere
Depiction of the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, August 1812. (Photo Credit: Pierce Archive LLC / Buyenlarge / Getty Images)

Returning to the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere in August 1812, did you know that the former’s captain refused the surrender of the latter’s?

Following the battle, Capt. James Richard Dacres boarded Constitution, accepting his crew’s defeat and prepared to surrender. When he tried to, however, Capt. Isaac Hull refused, saying he couldn’t accept the sword of someone who’d fought so gallantly. Additionally, he ordered that the Bible belonging to the British captain’s mother be returned to him.

The only active US ship to have sunk an enemy vessel

USS Constitution performing a 21-gun salute
USS Constitution performing a 21-gun salute in honor of those who died aboard the warship, May 2022. (Photo Credit: Erin Clark / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

We promise this will be the last time we talk about the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere. As a result of the damage the former caused during the engagement, Constitution currently holds the title for being the only active US ship to have sunk an enemy vessel.

The warship earned this title following the decommissioning of the USS Simpson (FFG-56) in September 2015. During Operation Praying Mantis on April 18, 1988, the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate teamed up with the USS Bagley (FF-1069) and Wainwright (CG-28) to take out an oil rig used by the Iranians throughout the Iran-Iraq War as a surveillance post. In the process, the vessels sunk the Iranian fast-attack craft Joshan.

The USS Constitution was almost used for target practice

Portrait of Charles J. Bonaparte
Then-Secretary of the Navy Charles J. Bonaparte. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

A number of US Navy vessels have found themselves the subject of target practice once it’s been deemed they are no longer of use. For example, Operation Crossroads, the US Army’s atomic weapons tests at Bikini Atoll, saw a number of World War II-era ships blasted with nuclear weapons. It’s a common occurrence. So much so, in fact, that the USS Constitution almost met the same fate.

In 1905, decades after a rather unsuccessful restoration, then-Secretary of the Navy Charles J. Bonaparte proposed Constitution be used for target practice. Moses Gulesian, an Armenian immigrant and Massachusetts-based businessman, caught wind of this and offered $10,000 to purchase the warship and keep her from being sunk.

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When his offer was denied, Gulesian worked to garner public support for his cause, which led to protests. After Boston residents submitted a 300,000-signature petition, Congress agreed to set aside $100,000 to properly restore Constitution. This wouldn’t be the end of warship’s issues, however, as she would need to undergo additional repairs in the decades after.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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