USS Constitution

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USS Constitution under sail in Massachusetts Bay, July 21, 1997
Career USN Jack
Ordered: 1794
Laid down: Summer 1795
Launched: October 21, 1797
Commissioned: October 10, 1797
Status: Active in service as of 2005.
General Characteristics
Displacement: 2,200 tons
Length: 175 feet (53m) bp, 204 feet (62m) total
Beam: 43.5 feet (13.3m)
Depth: 14.3 feet (in hold)
Complement: 450 officers and enlisted, including 55 Marines and 30 boys
Armament: 32 × 24 pounder (11 kg) long guns
20 × 32 pounder (15 kg) carronades
2 × 24 pounder (11 kg) bow chasers

The USS Constitution, known as "Old Ironsides" is a wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate of the United States Navy. Named after the United States Constitution, she is the oldest commissioned ship in the world still afloat (HMS Victory is three decades older, but is permanently drydocked).

Constitution was one of six frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Act of 1794. Joshua Humphreys designed them to be the Navy's capital ships. Larger and more heavily armed than the standard run of frigate, Constitution and her sisters were formidable opponents even for some ships of the line. For a time, Constitution was assigned the hull classification symbol IX-21 (the "IX" hull code stands for "Unclassified Miscellaneous"), but was reclassified to "none" on 1 September 1975.



The Constitution was built at Edmund Hart's shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts from the resilient lumber of 2,000 live oak trees (specifically Southern live oak) cut and milled at Gascoigne Bluff on St. Simons, Georgia. The Constitution's planks were up to seven inches (178 mm) thick. The ship's design was also unique for its time because of a diagonal cross-bracing of the ship's skeleton that contributed considerably to the ship's structural strength. Paul Revere forged the copper spikes and bolts that held the planks in place and the copper sheathing that protected the hull. Thus armed, Constitution first put to sea 22 July 1798 and saw her first service patrolling the southeast coast of the United States during the Quasi-War with France.

In 1803 Constitution was designated flagship for the Mediterranean squadron under Captain Edward Preble and went to serve against the Barbary States of North Africa, which were demanding tribute from the United States in exchange for allowing American merchant vessels access to Mediterranean ports. Preble began an aggressive campaign against Tripoli, blockading ports and bombarding fortifications. Finally Tripoli, Tunisia, and Algeria agreed to a peace treaty.

Constitution patrolled the North African coast for two years after the war ended, to enforce the terms of the treaty.

She returned to Boston in 1807 for two years of refitting. The ship was recommissioned as flagship of the North Atlantic Squadron in 1809 under Commodore John Rodgers.

By early 1812, relations with the United Kingdom had deteriorated and the Navy began preparing for war, which was declared 20 June. Captain Isaac Hull, who had been appointed Constitution's commanding officer in 1810, put to sea 12 July, without orders, to prevent being blockaded in port. His intention was to join the five ships of Rodgers' squadron.

Constitution sighted five ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey, July 17. By the following morning the lookouts had determined they were a British squadron that had sighted Constitution and were giving chase. Finding themselves becalmed, Hull and his seasoned crew put boats over the side to tow their ship out of range. By using kedge anchors to draw the ship forward, and wetting the sails down to take advantage of every breath of wind, Hull slowly made headway against the pursuing British. After two days and nights of toil in the relentless July heat, Constitution finally eluded her pursuers.

Locked in combat, Constitution brings down the Guerriere's mizzenmast
Locked in combat, Constitution brings down the Guerriere's mizzenmast

But one month later on August 19, she met with one of them again—the frigate HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia. The British ship fired the first shot of the battle; 20 minutes later, Guerriere was a dismasted hulk, so badly damaged that she was not worth towing to port. Hull had used his heavier broadsides and his ship's superior sailing ability, while the British, to their astonishment, saw that their shot seemed to rebound harmlessly off Constitution's hull—giving her the nickname "Old Ironsides."

Under the command of William Bainbridge, "Old Ironsides" met HMS Java, another British frigate, in December. Their three-hour engagement left Java unfit for repair, so she was burned. Constitution's victories gave the American people a tremendous boost to morale.

Despite having to spend many months in port, either under repair or because of blockades, Constitution managed eight more captures, including a British frigate and sloop sailing in company which she fought simultaneously, before peace was declared in 1815. After six years of extensive repairs, she returned to duty as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron. She sailed back to Boston in 1828.

An examination in 1830 found her unfit for sea, but the American public expressed great indignation at the recommendation that she be scrapped, especially after publication of Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem "Old Ironsides." Congress passed an appropriation for reconstruction and in 1835 she was placed back in commission. She served as flagship in the Mediterranean and the South Pacific and made a 30-month voyage around the world beginning in March 1844.

In the 1850s she patrolled the African coast in search of slavers, and during the American Civil War served as a training ship for midshipmen.

After another period of rebuilding in 1871, she transported goods for the Paris Exposition of 1877 and served once more as a training ship. Decommissioned in 1882, she was used as a receiving ship at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She returned to Boston to celebrate her centennial in 1897.

In 1905, public sentiment saved her once more from scrapping; in 1925 she was restored, through the donations of school children and patriotic groups. Recommissioned 1 July 1931, she set out under tow for a tour of 90 port cities along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts of the United States. From 1920-23 she was renamed Old Constitution, to free her name for a new (but ultimately never-completed) battlecruiser.

More than 4,600,000 people visited her during the three-year journey. Having secured her position as an American icon, she returned to her home port of Boston. In 1941, she was placed in permanent commission, and an act of Congress in 1954 made the Secretary of the Navy responsible for her upkeep. USS Constitution is currently docked at the Old Navy Shipyard in the Charlestown section of Boston. It is open to the public. For additional information see the web site reference below.

Constitution appears in Patrick O'Brian's book The Fortune of War which includes a fictional version of the action with HMS Java. In the movie, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the fictional French frigate Acheron was modeled after the Constitution. In the novel The Far Side of the World (which was one of the three novels used in the writing of the movie), Acheron was the fictional American frigate USS Norfolk.

From 1992-95, Constitution underwent a 44 month refit and overhaul ending in the ship being returned to fully sailable condition. Her refit was far less extensive and intensive than Constellation's, as Constitution was in much better shape.

On 21 July 1997, as part of her 200th birthday celebration, Constitution set sail for the first time in over a century. She was towed from her usual berth in Boston to Marblehead, then set six sails (jibs, topsails, and driver), moved unassisted for an hour and rendered a 21-gun salute.

The modern day role of "Old Ironsides" is that of "ship of state". With a mission of promoting the Navy to millions of visitors and observers each year, the crew of 55 modern-day sailors participates in ceremonies, educational programs and special events while keeping the ship open to visitors and providing tours. She is still a fully commissioned vessel in the US Navy fleet. The crew are all active-duty sailors and the assignment is considered special duty in the Navy. Traditionally, the duty of captain of the vessel is assigned to an active duty Navy commander.

The USS Constitution is one of the sites along the Freedom Trail and is part of Boston National Historical Park.


October 21, 1797: USS Constitution launched and christened at Edmond Hartt's Shipyard, Boston.

August 1798: Ordered into action in the Quasi-War with France.

18031806: Flagship, Mediterranean Squadron, Tripolitan War.

18121815: War with United Kingdom.

August 19, 1812: Defeats 38-gun British frigate HMS Guerriere. Crew bestows her with "Old Ironsides" nickname because of canonballs bouncing off her sides

December 29, 1812: Captures British frigate HMS Java and five smaller vessels.

February 20, 1815: Captures HMS Cyane sailing in company with HM Sloop Levant.

18281830 Laid up at Boston and condemned by naval commissioners, she was saved by the poem "Old Ironsides" by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

March 1844: Begins 30-month voyage around the world.

1920: Renamed Old Constitution in preparation for the construction of a brand new all-steel battlecruiser to be named USS Constitution (CC-5).

1923: Constitution (CC-5) is scrapped and the word "Old" is dropped from the name of Old Constitution, restoring her to her original name.

19311934: National cruise takes "Old Ironsides" to 90 American cities, returns to her place of honor in Boston harbor.

March 19961997 Completes 44-month restoration.


  • Builders: Col. George Claghorn, Edmond Harrt's Shipyard, Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Cost: $302,718 (1797 dollars)
  • Propulsion: 42,710 ft² (3,968 m²) of sail on three masts
  • Mast height: foremast, 198 ft (60 m); mainmast, 220 ft (67 m); mizzenmast, 172.5 ft (52.56 m)
  • Displacement: 2,200 t
  • Speed: 13 kt (24 km/h)
  • Boats: one 36 ft (11 m) long boat; two 30 ft (9 m) cutters, two 28 ft (9 m) whaleboats; one 28 ft (9 m) gig; one 22 ft (7 m) jolly boat; and one 14 ft (4 m) punt
  • Anchors: two main bowers 5300 lb (2,400 kg); one sheet anchor 5400 lb (2,400 kg); one stream anchor 1100 lb (500 kg); and two kedge anchors 400-700 lb (180-320 kg)


See also

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