August 19th is the 198th anniversary of the engagement between the United States Navy frigate Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) and H.M.S. Guerriere that ended in a complete victory for the American vessel. That battle, which took place in the early days of the War of 1812–America’s “Second War of Independence” against Great Britain, established the U.S. Navy as a legitimate fighting force and resulted from superior American technology, tactics, and teamwork.
The technological superiority enjoyed by Constitution came from the genius of ship designer Joshua Humphreys, who designed a frigate that was powerful, fast, and rugged. Constitution was more heavily armed–44 guns–than any man-of-war it could not outsail and its longer and slimmer hull form gave it speed enough to elude any opponent the captain chose not to engage. Also the extensive use of live oak, five times denser than other oaks and available only in the southeastern United States, in a three-layer closely-spaced design gave the vessel’s hull an “iron-like” quality.
The superior tactics was the decision of Constitution’s captain, Isaac Hull, to cautiously maneuver the ship until close to the enemy, whereas the British captain impatiently and fruitlessly ordered his gunners to fire at long range in hopes of disabling his opponent.
The better American teamwork was evidenced in the crew’s skill in maneuvering Constitution close to Guerriere while sustaining limited damage and the discipline the American gunners showed in allowing the British to fire first but on the up roll of the waves, which sent British shot high into Constitution’s rigging and sails where it did little damage. The Americans gunners, by contrast, waited to fire on the down roll, striking Guerriere’s hull and masts and wreaking havoc throughout the British ship. The difference is reflected in the casualty count and the condition of the ships. Constitution suffered minimal damage and had 7 killed and 7 wounded; Guerriere was so shot up that Hull was forced to burn it as an unsalvageable prize. Furthermore, the British suffered 79 casualties.
Constitution went on to win a series of victories during the war, defeating British warships Java, Cyane, and Levant. However, the victory over Guerriere was vital in establishing the fighting ability of the fledgling U.S. Navy for both its own officers and men and for its British opponents.