Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!
—American sailor in War of 1812
The mighty USS Constitution, arguably the most famous warship in American history—a testament to dauntless courage at sea in the nation’s infancy—was launched in Boston on this day in history, October 21, 1797.
The mighty warship, 226 years old today, is still afloat in Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard.
She serves the United States as a reminder of the fight for national sovereignty, a symbol of the unique-at-the-time constitutional foundations, and as the centerpiece of the USS Constitution Museum.
“The ship sailed its first cruise (in 1798) as the Quasi-War with France emerged. Later it served in engagements with pirates off the Barbary Coast in the Mediterranean,” the National Park Services (NPS) writes of the vessel.
The USS Constitution was part of the American fleet that bombarded Tripoli in 1804, a powerful show of force on the global stage of the young nation’s naval power.
She remains a commissioned US Navy vessel, still manned by a U.S. Navy crew making the USS Constitution the oldest warship in the world.
The frigate, better known as Old Ironsides for her mighty oak hull and masts was designed by Joshua Humphreys and was built over three years at Hartt’s shipyard in what is now Boston’s North End.
The ship was ordered on March 1, 1794, in anticipation of the passage of the Naval Act of 1794 which President George Washington signed on March 27.
She enjoyed her greatest glory and earned her status in the annals of naval warfare during the War of 1812.
“Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!” an America sailor shouted joyfully as the ship’s white oak planks and live oak frame grown in the swamps of Georgia repelled volleys of direct cannon fire from British warship HMS Guerriere.
The battle was fought on the high seas about 600 miles east of Boston on August 19, 1812.
The Constitution, under Captain Isaac Hull, destroyed the Guerriere and forced her to surrender in the close-combat sea exchange. The British ship was so badly beaten that Hull scuttled it rather than capture it as a trophy of war.
“The Constitution went on to defeat or capture seven more British ships in the War of 1812 and ran the British blockade of Boston twice,” notes History.com.
She earned 33 victories at sea with zero defeats.
“By 1833, Constitution needed repairs and was about to be scrapped when Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem Old Ironsides helped to save her,” writes the National Museum of the U.S. Navy.
“Recommissioned in 1835, she served in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific where she became the first U.S. warship to conduct a show of force against Vietnam in May 1845.”
She served several more decades in various capacities through the 20th century before being decommissioned one last time.
“Following restoration that began in 1925 she was recommissioned in July 1931 and sailed on a 90-port tour along United States’ coasts,” writes the U.S. Navy Museum.
“Today, the USS Constitution occasionally sails through Boston Harbor for special anniversaries and commemorations,” writes the NPS.
“The USS Constitution and its U.S. Navy crew go underway with the assistance of tugboats as they sail down the coast to Castle Island. In the harbor near Castle Island, the Navy crew always fires a cannon salute before they turn around to return to the Charlestown Navy Yard.”
Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon’s roar;—
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more!
Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
Or know the conquered knee;—
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!
O, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every thread-bare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,—
The lightning and the gale!
—Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)