From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship afloat, is as much a symbol of early America as the Betsy Ross flag and the bald eagle. Launched in 1797, the wooden-hulled sailing frigate played vital roles in a young nation’s fledging naval fleet – from the Quasi War with France, the Barbary Wars with pirates, to the War of 1812.
As the Navy changed from wood to steel ships, from sail to steam-driven, Constitution’s greatest foe would be the hardest to defeat: Deterioration from age. By 1916, the once-proud fighting frigate was taking on up to 25 inches of water a week at her dock in Boston. A $100,000 patch nearly 10 years before had simply bandaged a bigger problem. By 1924, Old Ironsides required daily pumping just to stay afloat. Without $400,000 in repairs, the frigate was doomed.
Rather than requesting the funding from Congress, however, Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur decided to get the nation involved. Congress was more than happy to authorize the Navy to collect funds for the ship, passing an omnibus bill on this date (March 4), 1925. Two days later, as the 128-year-old Constitution listed at her dock, Wilbur appointed Rear Adm. Louis de Steiguer to lead the National Save Old Ironsides Campaign committee.
Wilbur had hoped America’s 16 million school children would contribute three cents each or less, and that idea fell a bit flat, bringing in $154,000. The sale of reproductive prints of the ship brought in another $292,000. Then came the sale of souvenir items off the frigate, items like wood, gavel sets, bookends, bolts, cigarette boxes, plaques and anchors.
After five years, the fundraising campaign had raised $617,000. Constitution went into drydock on June 16, 1927. But once repairs began, an additional $300,000 in funding from Congress was required.
This was not the first time USS Constitution would have school children sending pennies to keep the national treasure afloat. And it may not be the last.
Today, the frigate is preparing to once again go into drydock for another restoration. At 217 years old, about 12 percent of Constitution’s hull and keel are wood that was chopped down sometime in 1794. For the upcoming drydocking, 35 white oak trees were harvested at Naval Support Activity Crane in Indiana to support the ship’s repair.
“There will be no historic restoration at this time. We are checking the structural integrity of the ship and will try to do repairs in as historically accurate a manner as can be done,” explained Elizabeth Freese, the special assistant for the Historic Ship and Aircraft Maintenance within the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Constitution has undergone many repairs and restorations over her 200-plus years in service. The effort is not to bring Constitution back to her 1797 origins, but to her glory days during the War of 1812.
Even some of the ship’s repairs have historical significance. By 1803, while laid up in Boston, it was discovered that the English copper sheeting protecting the frigate’s hull had weakened during the time the ship sailed against the French during the Quasi War.
With the need to have warships protecting American merchant vessels from Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean, the old copper was removed and replaced with 3,668 pounds of copper sheeting from a copper mill owned by Paul Revere. (Yes, that Paul Revere, not the lead singer from the 60’s American rock band). It took 14 days to complete the task.
As soon as Constitution could set sail, she was tapped as the flagship of the third Mediterranean squadron during the Barbary Wars. Both the Tripoli and Tunis peace accords would be signed in the captain’s cabin on Constitution during 1805.
After a couple more overhauls between 1807-1811, Constitution was refitted at the Washington Navy Yard as tensions heated up between Great Britain and the United States. It was during this conflict the frigate would gain her greatest fame with an undefeated record against five British ships.
Her famous, first nickname came as Constitution and HMS Guerriere traded shots on Aug. 19, 1812. As British shot bounced off the ship’s hull, a sailor shouted: “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” And thus the moniker, Old Ironsides, was born during the heat of battle.
While her sides weren’t made of iron, happily American live oak is stronger than English white oak and Constitution’s designer, Joshua Humphreys (the namesake of the newly-renovated NAVSEA building at the Washington Navy Yard), placed the ribs of the frigate four inches apart rather than eight as English shipbuilders had done. The frigate’s narrow but longer hull and nearly an acre of sail enabled her to outmaneuver larger ships.
By the end of 32 months, the wooden-hulled frigate was the darling of the War of 1812, and the only ship to have all of her captains from that war decorated by Congress: Capt. Isaac Hull, Commodore William Bainbridge and Capt. Charles Stewart
Just 15 years later, however, outdated and obsolete, Constitution loitered in the Boston Navy Yard when a survey was conducted to see what it would cost to bring the ships there into commission. A newspaper misunderstood the report and reported the grand old frigate would be scrapped. And that inspired a law student to pen a farewell to “Old Ironsides.”
Written by then-unknown poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the poem was reprinted coast to coast by newspapers, garnering public support for the ship. It was through his words Constitution received her second nickname from the last line of the second stanza: The Eagle of the Sea. The frigate received much-needed funding for repairs between 1833-34, and Holmes became one of America’s beloved poets.
Another serendipitous moment in Constitution’s life would come a generation later when the ship was brought back to the Boston Navy Yard just prior to her 100th birthday, thanks to the efforts of a Massachusetts congressman named John F. Fitzgerald… the grandfather of a future president who bore his name.
The ship had been out of active service with the Navy since 1881 and was again in need of repairs. The possibility – no matter how farfetched – of using the storied ship as target practice drew the ire of an Armenian immigrant, Moses H. Gulesian. He sent a telegram to Secretary of the Navy Charles Joseph Bonaparte offering $10,000 to purchase the ship.
Once the offer made the headlines in the Boston Globe Dec. 12, 1905, along with Bonaparte’s decline of the offer, Congress authorized $100,000 for repairs and designated her as a national treasure. Gulesian would later be elected president of the Old Ironsides Association.
Unfortunately, the repair work was mostly cosmetic, removing a barracks-like structure from her deck and replacing the sails, masts, spars and rigging, as well as putting in replica cannon. Despite the money, the hull continued to deteriorate, which set up the circumstances for the March 4, 1925 act of Congress to repair the mighty frigate again.
Also that same year, bronze salvaged from the ship was used to make 25 Medals of Honor given to World War I recipients.
Following the 1925 campaign to save Constitution, the frigate offered her thanks as she visited ports along with the East and West coasts.
In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law authorizing the Navy to repair, equip and restore Constitution to her original appearance as much as possible.
Another restoration in 1992 included the re-installation of diagonal cross riders which have helped significantly to reduce the ship’s hogging and led to Old Ironsides proving she was indeed, the Eagle of the Sea, by sailing out of Boston Harbor in 1997 under her own power for the first time in 116 years.
To celebrate Constitution’s 200th anniversary of her victory over HMS Guerriere, the frigate sailed again Aug. 19, 2012, under her own power for the first time since 1997. Although an underway wasn’t in the offing, the ship recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of her final ‘dual-victory’ over Royal Navy ships HMS Cyane and HMS Levant on Feb. 20, 1815 in the final days of hostilities during the War of 1812 with a ceremonial gun salute, ceremony and reception.
Although soon to be out of active service to tourists and the Boston community, the much-beloved ship will continue to remain an icon in American history. Upon her return in 2018, the mighty frigate will once again prove to be the Eagle of the Sea.
By Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Aye 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!
Oh, 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 threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!’