The Storied History of Old Ironsides

Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!

USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat. Naval officers and crew still serve aboard her today. The USS Constitution is operated by the United States Navy, a partner to the National Parks of Boston. Across the pier from Constitution in Building 22 is the USS Constitution Museum. The Museum serves as the memory and educational voice of the USS Constitution and provides engaging and hands-on experiences for all visitors. Here you can explore how the ship was built, sailed, and preserved.

USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located inside Boston National Historical Park as part of the Charlestown Navy Yard in Charlestown and part of Boston’s Freedom Trail, USS Constitution is open for public visitation, FREE OF CHARGE, throughout the year.

Before independence, the thirteen American colonies enjoyed protection from pirates and foreign navies under the British Royal Navy. However, once the United States gained recognized independence the young nation had to defend itself. Congress authorized the construction of the six warships in the Naval Armament Act of 1794. These warships became the new United States Navy. Each of the six was built at different seaports along the eastern coast.

USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wooden-hulled, three-mast USS Constitution was launched from Hartt’s shipyard in Boston’s North End on October 21, 1797. It was designed to be more heavily armed and better constructed than the standard ships of the period.

The ship served initially in the French-Quasi war and later became the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet fighting its first engagement against Barbary pirates of North Africa.

Related: Boston Freedom Trail

USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The greatest glory for USS Constitution, however, came during the War of 1812. It was during this war in the battle against the HMS Guerriere the ship earned the nickname Old Ironsides when the crew of the British ship noticed their canon shots simply bounced off the ship’s strong oak hull they proclaimed: “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!”

Later, it continued to serve as a flagship in the Mediterranean, African, and Pacific fleets into the 1850s. During its time as African Squadron flagship, it captured its last prize, the slave ship H.N. Gambril in 1853. It was also a training ship during the Civil War and carried freight to the Paris World Fair of 1878 until it finally retired from active service three years later continuing light work until designated a museum in 1907.

USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The USS Constitution received numerous visitors over the years but deteriorated and required extensive restoration work again. President Roosevelt placed the ship on permanent commission in 1940 which protected the vessel somewhat from further deterioration and it was assigned to serve as a brig for officers awaiting court-martial.

The funding for true restoration finally came in the 1970s in preparation for the US Bicentennial celebrations. Indeed, an entire tract of land in Indiana was set aside to supply the white oak needed for repair work. The grand ship sailed again leading a parade of tall ships through Boston Harbor for Operation Sail firing its guns for the first time in over 100 years.

Boston skyline from USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most comprehensive and historically accurate restoration to date occurred from 1992-1996 and the ship sailed under its power for its 200th birthday in 1997 then again in 2012 to commemorate its victory over the HMS Guerriere that earned its nickname. A further restoration project was conducted from 2007-2010 which returned the ship as accurately as possible to its original War of 1812 configuration.

Boston skyline from USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the ship keeps a crew of 60 officers and sailors to aid in its mission to promote understanding of the US Navy’s role in war and peace. The crew is all active-duty Navy sailors—an honorable special duty assignment. It is also crewed, maintained, and restored by the civilian Navy staff of the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston.

Related: Lucky A: USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park

USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the USS Constitution itself, there is also a museum you can visit which has a lot of interesting artifacts and exhibits covering the history of the landmark. Whether you’re interested in period artwork, arms, and armament from the time, navigation equipment that was used hundreds of years ago, or historic texts describing the story of Old Ironsides, there’s plenty to see here that will please any history buff.

There are almost 2,000 different artifacts and 10,000 archival records you can see at the USS Constitution Museum. There is simply no way I could describe them all here, so check the USS Constitution Museum Collection list to find out what you can see on your visit.

USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Know before you go

The USS Constitution is located at the end of the Freedom Trail. It’s about a 15-minute walk from the Copp’s Hill Burial Ground. One can walk there easily by following the Freedom Trail.

An excellent way to get there is by using the MBTA Water Shuttle which is a bargain at $3.25.

USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you have an MBTA Subway Pass it is free and is a short boat ride over to Charlestown which also doubles a scenic harbor cruise.

A shuttle departs from Boston’s Long Wharf at the New England Aquarium and will whisk you over to the USS Constitution in 10 minutes.

Related: Corpus Christi: City by the Sea

USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The USS Constitution is open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis during their operating hours. Be aware that visitors must pass through a security inspection and show federal or state photo identification such as a driver’s license or passport before embarking on USS Constitution. Visitors under the age of 18 do not require a photo identification card.

Worth Pondering…

Old Ironsides

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!

—Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)

Boston Freedom Trail

The famous Freedom Trail is a 2.5 mile red-brick trail through Boston’s historic neighborhoods that tells the story of the American Revolution

Boston, a large, metropolitan city packed with revolutionary history, cultural venues, and sophisticated shopping and dining opportunities. A jaunt around “town” is like opening an American history textbook.

The Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boston has some of the worst driving and parking on the East Coast; its winding, angled roads meandering like the old cow paths they originally followed. But, don’t let this deter you; you will be rewarded many times over.

The Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boston had been a thriving city long before the United States itself existed. Founded in the 17th century, Boston has been the center of attention in New England since the colonial period. Today, Boston continues to boast some of the best attractions to be found in the Northeastern US. As the “Cradle of the Revolution”, Boston is full of history like no other city in America. For over 350 years, some of the world’s greatest patriots, writers, thinkers, athletes, and artists have called Boston their home, leaving an indelible mark on this incredible city in the process.

The Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A trip to Boston is necessarily a trip into American history. Boston was the center of the revolutionary movement in the 1770s, and the monuments to those glorious times still stand.

Faneuil Hall (1742) was a meeting place for revolutionary leaders, and it now houses dozens of shops and restaurants. Built by wealthy merchant Peter Faneuil in 1741, this imposing structure is the place where the Sons of Liberty proclaimed their dissent against Royal oppression.

Old State House, The Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Old State House (1713) was the site of the colonial government and is open for tours.

The oldest remaining structure in downtown Boston, the Paul Revere House (1680) today serves as a museum.

Paul Revere House, The Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The oldest church in the city of Boston, the Old North Church (1723), and its famous signal lanterns are still in use.

The site of the Boston Massacre where five colonists died in 1770 has been preserved.

The First Public School was in Boston; some of its graduates include Sam Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

The Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built as a Puritan house of worship, the Old South Meeting House (1729) was the largest building in colonial Boston. No tax on tea! This was the decision on December 16, 1773, when 5,000 angry colonists gathered here to protest a tax…and started a revolution with the Boston Tea Party.

The Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adjacent to King’s Chapel (1688), the first non-Puritan church in the colonies, the Granary Burying Ground has the graves of patriots John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Mary Chilton, the first woman to step off the Mayflower.

USS Constitution (Old Ironside), The Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even the Boston Tea Party is commemorated in a floating ship museum, not far from the floating museum aboard the USS Constitution, America’s first great warship. Launched in Boston in 1797, America’s Ship of State earned her nickname “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812 when she fought the British frigate HMS Guerriere.

The Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On our National Park ranger-led tour, we visited sites along the Freedom Trail and heard about the American Revolutionary story, the people who lived here, their courage, and what they risked striving for freedom.

State House, The Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Freedom Trail, the red-brick line through the city takes us on a tour of 16 sites in Boston’s history for two and a half miles, including Boston Common, the State House, the Park Street Church, Granary Burying Ground, King’s Chapel, the site of the first public school, Old South Meeting House, the Old Statehouse, the Boston Massacre Site, Paul Revere’s House, the Old North Church, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, the USS Constitution and Bunker Hill Monument.

The Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Freedom Trail was created in 1951 to set recognize and set aside a cluster of historically significant building and locations in downtown Boston.

We began our 90-minute ranger-led tour at the Old State House and concluded at the Old North Church, five sites along the Freedom trail that highlights Boston’s role in the American Revolution. The other sites, prior to and following our ranger-led tour, were on our own.

The Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And that my friends, is the subject of another post.

Worth Pondering…

Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First a right to life, secondly to liberty, and thirdly to property; together with the right to defend them in the best manner they can.

—Samuel Adams