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Aye, Haul Her Splendid Ensign Up

The U.S.S. Constitution - oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy - takes to sea again

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, July 23, 1997.

It doesn’t take a sentimentalist to be moved by the sight of the USS Constitution puttering forward under her own sail this week near Boston. The old frigate, built by order of George Washington in the 18th century, had been refitted by the Navy and crewed by Naval cadets, gingerly sliding along the vast spars and rigging to release six of her thirty-six sails. One of those sails was somewhat larger than a basketball court. The ship made four knots and sailed, in one direction, for about an hour in calm seas.

Old IronsiddesSquare-rigged sailing ships are lovely, even warships, and the Constitution is a beauty even among them. It is easy to reflect, seeing excited but also terrified cadets reefing sail, that the old clichés about iron men in wooden ships was not so far off the mark. It certainly isn’t in reflection about the Constitution. When this vessel was made, her designer - Joshua Humphrey - took full advantage of the huge hard wood forests along the Atlantic seaboard. The Constitution is about eighteen inches thick along the sides of her hull. Eighteen inches of weathered oak, cross-lain. There were Ships of the Line that were less well protected. In fact, in combat, cannon balls on several occasions bounced off the side of this ship. It was her crew who called her Old Ironsides, not a publicist for the Navy.

The Constitution was one of six frigates that composed our first Navy. They were designed to be sent to the Mediterranean to fight the Tripoli pirates, which she did in conjunction with the French and English. Viewing one of these large frigates, Admiral Nelson noted that they did not bode well for England. Correct, Horatio. When the War of 1812 came, the Constitution cleaned house with the English.

It was an unfair fight. The English, after all, were fighting Napoleon and never directed their full attention to their former colony. Further, the English navy was huge but awful. Nelson had to keep his ships at sea for two years before fighting at Trafalgar simply because once in port he knew the crews would desert. After all, more than half the royal Navy had been created by press gangs in the bars and brothels of Liverpool and Brighton. So when war with the US came, she could only fight with unmotivated and under trained crews in rotting ships held together by a long tradition. What was the tradition? Winston Churchill said “Rum, the lash, and sodomy.” Even if exaggerated, the Royal Navy was not a motivated force.

Nonetheless, the Constitution in three battles with British frigates blew them all apart, something the French and Spanish navies had great difficulty doing. The crew and officer corps of the US Navy was probably the best in the world. When chased by a British fleet, the Constitution lowered boats and rowed ahead, all the while shelling the annoyed British with their Long Toms. When the wind returned, she picked up her boats on the run and puttered away. The Constitution became a personal issue with the Royal Navy early on. They tried hard to get her, never could.

In fact, the War of 1812 was essentially the Constitution’s victory. If you forget Oliver Hazard Perry and one battle at the Great Lakes, it is hard to recall a single engagement of the War the United States didn’t lose. The Battle of New Orleans, after all, was fought long after the War was over and the peace signed. That ship was the only thing a divided young nation could and did take united pride in. She was the embodiment of the country for several years.

We couldn’t have chosen better. The crew, under Captain Isaac Hull, was engaged with the British ship Java in stormy seas off the coast of Brazil. In the middle of battle, the Constitution backed her sails and went backwards across the enemy ship’s bow to rake her again. This is an incredibly difficult maneuver in soft wind, much less in a storm, much less in battle in a storm. It might be worth mentioning that when ships fought in those days, they would fire what is called canister, essentially making these cannons huge shotguns to rip apart sail and sailor in the rigging. There was no safety being aloft. So this backing maneuver, requiring all crew not at the guns to go unprotected aloft in heaving seas under fire is quite something. It is mentioned in passing by the officer in a log. I was thinking of this watching today’s naval cadets, lashed to the spars, protected by nets, gingerly dropping sails in Marblehead harbor to get the old ship up to four knots in smooth sea. It must have been a terrifying life to be a navy man in those days.

Today’s crew was composed of both genders, and the sailing master was an African American naval officer. All of this quite different from the old days. It is unfair and silly to compare trained, experienced sailors of two centuries ago to cadets from Nebraska dropping sail today. Still, it was a strangely moving moment to see these kids as excited as hell being part of history, if briefly. The Constitution still has about 8% of her original wood, which is rather startling when you think about it. She may still have some of her original metal work, which was done by Paul Revere, deep in her hull. She still moves us, and it was good to see.