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USS Constitution

(aka "Old Ironsides") the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the world

USS Constitution

Built at Edmund Hartt's shipyard in Boston between 1794 and 1797, the Constitution was designed by Joshua Humphreys, a Philadelphia Quaker and innovative naval architect. The hull is made of oak from Massachusetts, Maine, and Georgia, and the masts of white pine. She is armed with cannons cast in Rhode Island, and fitted with copper fastenings provided by Paul Revere. With a length of 204 feet, it could carry provisions for a crew of 475. The total cost of her construction was $302,700.

The Constitution was launched on October 21, 1797. It survived the Barbary Wars (1803 and 1804) unscathed, and was the only ship to have all her War of 1812 captains decorated by Congress.

In 1830, the Constitution was condemned as unseaworthy and ordered destroyed. Fortunately, American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem in which he wrote: Oh, better that her shattered hulk Should sink beneath the wave ...,. This poem aroused public sentiment, and the vessel was rebuilt and restored to service in 1833. In 1855, it was put out of commission at Portsmouth Navy Yard and used as a training ship, but was again restored and returned to service in 1877. In 1897, the Constitution was finally drydocked and repaired, to be preserved as a memorial.

In 1927, American schoolchildren raised money to recondition the Constitution for a tour of United States ports. In 1930 Congress appropriated $300,000 to complete the work. On July 31, 1931, the Constitution was re-commissioned into active service. After sailing 22,000 miles, it returned to the Boston Naval Shipyard, where it is still docked to this day. Manned by a specially-picked and trained crew, the Constitution makes regular tours of United States ports every year.

Chronological History of the USS Constitution

March 27, 1794 President George Washington signs "an act to provide a naval armament." The act authorizes construction of six frigates, including the Constitution, and effectively creates the United States Navy.

October 21, 1797 The Constitution is launched-christened by visiting Captain James Sever using a bottle of Madeira.

July 22, 1798 The ship sets out to sea for the first time, under the command of Captain Samuel Nicholson.

1798-1801 The Constitution cruises in the West Indies, protecting U.S. merchant shipping from French privateers. She is not engaged in battle with any warship, but does capture/recapture several privateers and victims of privateers.

1802-1803 She is laid up in Boston.

1803-1805 President Thomas Jefferson sends the Constitution to the Mediterranean Sea as flagship of the third Mediterranean squadron, under the command of Commodore Edward Preble. Her mission is to attempt to end attacks by Barbary pirates of U.S. merchant shipping. The squadron mounts five attacks against Tripoli.

June 3, 1805 A peace treaty with Tripoli is signed in the captain's cabin.

August 14, 1805 A peace treaty with Tunis is signed on board the ship.

1807-1811 Out of active service.

1811 Partially overhauled in and around New York.

1811-1812 Overhauled at the Washington Navy Yard.

August 19, 1812 Under the command of Captain Isaac Hull, the Constitution defeats the British ship HMS Guerrière in a 20-minute battle about 600 miles east of Nova Scotia. It was during this battle that the ship earned its nickname. A sailor aboard the Constitution is said to have seen shot from the British guns bouncing off the sturdy sides of the Constitution and exclaim that the ship had sides of iron

December 29, 1812 Under the command of Commodore William Bainbridge, the Constitution defeats the HMS Java in a 3-hour-plus battle about 30 miles off the coast of Brazil.

January-April 1814 Under the command of Captain Charles Stewart, the Constitution runs the British blockade of Boston. She captures the HMS Pictou and several small vessels during a cruise to the Windward and Leeward Islands.

February 20, 1815 Captain Charles Stewart skillfully outmaneuvers two British warships -- HMS Cyane and HMS Levant -- in one epic battle and manages to capture the Cyane, about 180 miles from Madeira.

1816-1821 Laid up at the Boston Navy Yard.

1821-1828 Serves in the Mediterranean Squadron under the command of Captain Jacob Jones and Commodore Thomas Macdonough.

1828-1833 Laid up at the Boston Navy Yard. Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem saves the ship from destruction.

1833-1834 Enters drydock at the Boston Navy Yard.

1835-1838 Serves as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron under the command of Commodore Jesse D. Elliott.

1839-1841 Serves as flagship of the Pacific Squadron under the command of Commodore Alexander Claxton.

1844-1846 The Constitution circumnavigates the world, under the command of Captain John Percival.

1849 While operating in the Mediterranean, the Constitution is visited by Pope Pius IX at Gaeta, Italy; he becomes the first Pontiff to "step" onto U.S. territory.

1851-1852 Laid up in New York.

1853-1855 Sails as flagship of the African Squadron, patroling the West African coast with orders to intercept slave traders.

1855-1860 Laid up at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Navy Yard for conversion into a training ship.

1860 The Constitution begins a decade-long stint as a "school ship" at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.

1861-1865 Taken to Newport, Rhode Island, to escape threats against her safety upon the outbreak of the Civil War. Serves as a training ship for the duration of the war.

1865 Moves back to Annapolis.

1871-1877 Undergoes restoration at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

1877-1878 Serves as a training ship in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

1878-1879 The Constitution carries the American exhibits for the Paris Exposition; her last cruise in foreign waters.

1879-1881 Sails to various points between the West Indies and Nova Scotia, as a training ship for naval apprentices. This is her final role as an active ship in the U.S. Navy.

1882-1897 Laid up in the Portsmouth Navy Yard, serving as a receiving ship for new recruits.

September 21, 1897 Moved to the Boston Navy Yard. Exhibited there until 1900.

February 14, 1900 Congress authorizes an expenditure of $100,000 to restore the Constitution's hull and rigging to their original condition.

1925-1927 A national, voluntary campaign for restoration funds brings in almost $250,000 of contributions ($148,000 of which is donated by schoolchildren, much of that in pennies).

July 2, 1931 The Constitution leaves Boston for a goodwill tour of ports on the New England coast.

1931-1934 Under the command of Commander Louis J. Gulliver, the Constitution travels 22,000 miles, visits 90 ports, and welcomes more than 4.6 million visitors.

May 7, 1934 The Constitution returns to Boston, where she remains docked today.

July 21, 1997 The Constitution sails under her own power, not under tow, for the first time in 116 years.


The World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, Inc., 1979

See Also

Paul Revere
War of 1812
President George Washington
President Thomas Jefferson
William Bainbridge

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The Robinson Library >> Ships of the United States Navy, A-Z

This page was last updated on 12/29/2018.