The USS Constitution, known as Old Ironsides, sailed into Boston Harbor to fire her guns to mark the Fourth of July.
Old Ironsides left its wharf at the Charlestown Navy Yard on Wednesday morning and drifted through the harbor 242 years after the Declaration of Independence.
Old Ironsides fired a 21-gun salute in the waters off the fort. Its cannons also boomed another 17 times as it passed the U.S. Coast Guard station, which was its former shipyard – a place where the USS Constitution was originally built and launched in 1797.
How Old Ironsides Earned its Name
The ship earned the epithet ‘Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812 with Britain.
During the war, the USS Constitution defeated the British frigate Guerrière off the coast of Nova Scotia. Witnesses claimed that the British ship’s shots merely ‘bounced off’ of the topsides of the Constitution. It appeared as if the ship was made of iron instead of wood. Thus the name Old Ironsides.
By the end of the war, the Constitution had destroyed or captured seven more British ships. The success of the Constitution against the supposedly invincible Royal Navy help boost the morale and unite America in the war effort.
Protector of American Merchant Fleets
The principal reason why the USS Constitution was built was to help protect American merchant fleets from harassment by the French and British forces. It was one of the six frigates commissioned by the Congress of the time. Constructed in Boston, the ship measured 204 feet long and displaced 2,200 tons. It was rated as a 44-gun frigate but often carried as many as 50 guns.
In July 1798, the Constitution put to sea with a 450-man crew on board. It sailed to the West Indies to protect the American fleets from French privateers. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson summoned the warship to sail to the Mediterranean to go against the pirates based on the Tripoli coast. And after over two years of combat, a peace treaty with Tripoli was finally signed on the Constitution’s deck.
War of 1812
When the war broke against Britain, the Constitution was commanded by Isaac Hull, who had served as a lieutenant during the fighting with Tripoli. On July 16, Commander Hull and his men encountered a squadron of five British ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey.
In a one against five scenario, the Constitution was ready to flee the situation. Unfortunately, the wind died. With all ships dead on the water, an epic slow-speed chase occurred. For 36 hours, the lone warship kept ahead of the British fleet by towing the frigate with rowboats and by tactically throwing the anchor ahead and then reeling it in. By the dawn of July 18, the wind returned and the Constitution gained enough lead to escape its pursuers.
A month later, the Constitution caught a lone British warship, the Guerrière. And the rest is history! After the war, Old Ironsides continued to be the flagship of the Navy’s Mediterranean squadron. And in 1828, the warship was laid up in Boston.
In 1855, the Constitution retired from military service. However, it continued to serve the United States as a training ship and later as a national landmark. Since 1934, the ship has been based at Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. Today, Old Ironsides is known as the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat.