The oldest commissioned warship still afloat, the USS Constitution, set sail on her last cruise Friday morning, Oct. 17, 2014, before she undergoes extensive restoration. The three-hour cruise was in Boston Harbor from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. She was given a 21-gun salute at approximately 11:00 a.m. off Fort Independence on Castle Island and a 17-gun salute near the Boston U.S. Coast Guard base before returning to her Charlestown Navy Yard berth.
Among the passenger list was the governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, and members of his administration. Hundreds of people were scheduled to participate, in some way, with this last cruise. She will be in drydock for three years from March 2015 through 2018. Ships endure a lot of wear and tear from the natural elements on a daily basis. Some items will be repaired and others replaced but it will all be done in keeping with historical accuracy. The drawings that were used to construct all six frigates were lost long ago, but the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston has extensive detailed documentation, drawings, information in journals and letters about the USS Constitution.
The ship, also called “Old Ironsides,” has been a part of U.S. Navy history since George Washington’s presidency. She was one of six frigates called for in the Naval Armament Act, signed by Washington on Mar. 27, 1794. The U.S. Continental Navy disbanded after the end of the American Revolution which left the nation without any protective seapower abroad. The Naval Armament Act specified that all six frigates should be constructed in shipyards along the East Coast. The three-masted USS Constitution was built in Boston with 44 guns and launched Oct. 21, 1797.
She was a seasoned veteran when the War of 1812 broke out, however it was that war that made her a national legend. She had four battles with British warships and defeated each one. After these victories, she and her crew would be honored in Boston with parades and public admiration.
Her first battle in the War of 1812 was Aug. 19, against the HMS Guerriere. They were near Nova Scotia, closing the distance between them. The British ship signaled an invitation to a duel by raising three flags. The USS Constitution responded with raising four flags. Her commanding officer, Capt. Isaac Hull, told his crew not to fire even though they were being fired upon they were closer. During the battle that lasted 35 minutes, one of the sailors observed that the British cannonballs, which were 18 pounds and made of iron, were bouncing off the 25-inch oak hull of the USS Constitution. The sailor’s words, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” stuck with her as Old Ironsides. Her name and her presence took on the legendary status that has stayed with her.
The special cruise, Oct. 17, is not only her final one before a three-year period in drydock, but also celebrates the 239th year of the U.S. Navy and the 217th birthday of the ship’s launching. She was built during a time when most wooden ships lasted 15 years at best. As the USS Constitution sailed in Boston Harbor for her last cruise before undergoing restoration, she also sailed with more than two centuries of history, from active service to a historic museum ship. For more information about her, the website is listed below.
By Cynthia Collins
USS Constitution – America’s Ship of State
Top Photo Credit: U.S. Navy, Journalist 2nd Class Todd Stevens, Public Domain
Painting by Anton Otto Fischer of USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, Public Domain