1785, and a fledgling America has a bit of a problem: the Barbary corsairs were making a right royal pain in the ass of themselves. Sure, the 17th Century was the height of their pirating-like ways, but even as late as 1785, they were proving to be a nuisance to the rest of the world. Operating out of the ports Salé, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli; the Mediterranean was not a safe place to be plowing a merchant vessel through, or – for that matter – a place to live on the coast, lest you find yourself in shackles and sold off as a slave.
Let’s just say that the Mediterranean was not a particularly safe place to strap on some waterwings and take a dip.
Or West Africa’s entire Atlantic seaboard.
Or the North Atlantic.
Or even South America, for that matter.
Basically, if you were a modern, forward-thinking country, and you wanted to sail your rich little cargo over to someone willing to buy it, odds on back then, it might get intercepted by the Barbary corsairs and half-hitched into their floating bags-of-holding. Your lewts, they belongs to them. kthxbye.
And this was a right royal pain in the bank account for America. In 1793 alone, eleven American ships were captured and their crews and stores held for ransom, and that’s not the type of thing that you can balance out in your Excel spreadsheet. This was a serious problem, serious enough to get the big-wigs in Independence Hall all of a do as they considered what the heck they were going to do about it.
They decided on six of these guys:
Now, granted, this may not look like much … your run of the mill frigate with enough firepower to give a Barbary pirate pause for concern … but looks can be ever-so deceiving.
The designer of this fine looks vessel was one Joshua Humphreys, and Humphreys had a bold plan in mind. You see, while the older, more established European countries were floating around in 100-gun vessels such as this:
Humphreys’ vision was this:
Long, slim, fast as a little jack rabbit, and yet armed like a rabid American gun-nut riding an eagle.
The design was never intended to go toe-to-toe with a 1st Rate ship of the line – against those she’d escape as fast as the winds could carry her – but against anything of her size, she’d rip them a whole new one.
And 30 of these were going to see to that:
And, because that’s not enough firepowah, 20 of these:
This is like 3rd Rate material right here, and anything of a schooner, frigate, or sloop class was just destined to be reduced to matchwood quicker than you can say “why hello, I’m a Barbary CorsAAARRRGHHH.”
Displacing 2,200 tons, 304’ long, 43’ wide, and with a main mast 220’ tall, these ships were going to hit 13 knots and shove all manner of iron up the rear-end of anyone who looked at American commerce in a funny way. And with a diagonal rib scheme designed to resist hogging (quite literally: a ship bending down fore and aft due to the lower buoyancy at each end), the 21-inch thick hull was set to have amazing durability and strength.
But there was a small catch to this six-ship armada; the terms of the agreement that the American government had issued forth in order to build these ships was that if peace with the Barbary Corsairs was reached before they were completed, then work on them would stop.
And in 1796, that’s exactly what happened.
A peace accord was announced between the United States and Algiers and dock workers downed tools faster than Donald Trump’s reputation (ooooooooooh, she just went political folks!) But – my god – several of these fine vessels were pretty far advanced; what a crime to just throw it all away, right?
President Washington thought the same, and with a little cajoling with Congress, he managed to push through the three most advanced builds: United States, Constellation, and Constitution all rolled off the assembly line.
Well, not “assembly line,” but “slipway.”
Well, not “roll,” but “slid off …”
Well, actually, less of the sliding … as Constitution was launched, she only went down the ways 27 feet before stopping, as her slender little bum had managed to settle into the ground. It took two more days to coax her Kim Kardashian-like posterior down a further 31 feet, before she once again ground to a halt. It – quite literally – took a month of rebuilding the slipways before Constitution settled into Boston harbor.
Constitution put to sea on the evening of July 22nd, 1798, which was perfect timing, because right about this time France became a Republic, which – apparently – prompted America to say “hey, that fat wad of cash we owed you? We’re not going to repay it, because we owed it to the previous guys.”
France was not chuffed, not chuffed at all, in fact they were so upset at this decision that they took to the oceans and started to sink American shipping.
So Constitution could now prove her mettle and could take the fight to those lousy French guys, right? Well, kinda. Constitution, under Captain Samuel Nicholson, did … okay … if by “okay” I mean “captured a ship under the British by accident, had to pay apology-money, then captured a French ship, but thought it was English, so let that one go …”
Not a particularly brilliant start to her career.
A couple of small sloops were captured, but Constitution was recalled to Boston and Captain Silas Talbot took over; this time she was destined for Saint-Dominque in the West Indies; fame and fortune awaited! A quick capture of the French Amelia started things off nicely, but Constitution quickly got embroiled in routine patrols and diplomatic visits, dragging out the months until April 1800, when she was pivotal in the capture of the French Sandwich while at anchor.
Except … um … it was determined that Sandwich had been in a neutral port at the time, so … yeah … America had to give her back.
And now Constitution just sailed back and forth between Philadelphia, the West Indies, and Boston, until she was put into reserve in 1802.
For a ship destined to become the beloved of an entire nation, her initial endeavors were extremely humble.
And then this guy popped up: Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli; former recipient of a Barbary pay-off and tribute, now dissatisfied ingrate wanting more cash. $250,000 as an immediate payment, in fact. That’s $3,500,000 in today’s terms, folks. Three and a half million, so he wouldn’t go back to pirating American merchant ships.
The United States, and who can blame them, dropped 32 cruise missiles on Tripoli and moved in the marines.
Oh wait, wait … that’s later on … what they actually did was say “what the heck?” and they sent across a squadron of frigates to protect American merchant ships in the Mediterranean and to pursue peace – again – with the Barbary States.
And this is where Constitution starts to pick up steam a little, because in 1803 she was recommissioned and put under Captain Edward Preble, and while “Preble” may not be a name to strike fear into the hearts of man, he had – without a doubt – buffalo-sized balls.
On September 6th, 1803, Constitution encountered an unknown ship in the darkness of night. Now if you’re on war-duty and happen to find yourself alongside another ship at night, there are several things that will likely go through your mind; the first being “oh crap,” and the second being “if I don’t shoot first, we may be toast … but I don’t want to blow a friendly out of the water …”
Preble put Constitution to general quarters and hailed the unknown ship. Oddly, they got a hail right back at them; the unknown ship had not identified herself, but was instead demanding identification of Constitution. What Preble didn’t know, was the unknown ship was currently wheeling out the cannon in preparation for a slug-fest.
Preble got a little miffed, and – rightly so – concerned.
“We’re the United States frigate Constitution,” he shouted back into the night.
“Hail, you are you?” was the response that came back from the darkness.
And it’s about this point that Preble started to sweat testosterone: “I am now going to hail you for the last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you” he shouted back.
There was a pause.
“If you give me a shot, I’ll give you a broadside.” Things were getting tense … here in the dark, in the middle of the ocean, two ships were mad-dogging each other, and they didn’t know what the other guy had.
“Who are you?” Preble demanded.
“This is His Britannic Majesty’s ship Donegal, 84 guns, Sir Richard Strachan, an English commodore,” came the response. Oh my, an 84-gunner; a ship-of-the-line, Constitution was considerably outmatched. “Send your boat on board” followed this revelation; a demand that may as well tagged on a derisory “bitch” onto the end.
Now most guys at this point would probably look out into the darkness, imagine 42 guns pointing right back at their wedding tackle, and would call for a boat to be lowered over the side. Not Preble, oh no siree; Preble put his titan-sized man-sack right there on the deck and defiantly shouted back:
“This is United States ship Constitution, 44 guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel.” And, with his defiant words against a ship-of-the-line still hanging in the air, he turned to his men: “Blow your matches, boys!”
Guys turn gay for this level of manliness, I’m just saying.
But before a shot could be fired, a very humble little rowboat appeared out of the gloom, complete with a British lieutenant relaying all sorts of profuse apologies. The ship was not Donegal but instead HMS Maidstone, and she was just a 32-gun frigate. The Brits ate crow, and Preble became a god among his men; “Preble’s Boys” became a thing.
They looked absolutely nothing like this.
It was then off to Tangiers, a little intimidation to the local Sultan in order for him to hand over a couple of captured ships, and then a summer-long bombardment of Tripoli until a peace treaty was signed in June of the following year. It had been a good tour, but also a long one, and by the time she got home at Boston on October 14th, she had been gone FOUR years. It would be a lie if I didn’t reveal that near the end there the crew were getting mutinous, and only the threat of having their own cannon and a good dose of grapeshot to the soft bits kept them in check.
And now, if you think on it for a moment, it is worth pointing out that all of this time, Great Britain had been at war with France; it is, after all, the Napoleonic Wars. In an attempt to cut off supplies from reaching the enemy, both sides attempted to block the United States from trading with the other, and in 1807, Britain passed the Orders in Council, which required neutral countries to obtain a license from its authorities before trading with France or French colonies. You can probably see where this is going.
To start rubbing a little salt into those wounds, the Royal Navy outraged Americans by its practice of impressment, or removing seamen from U.S. merchant vessels and forcing them to serve on behalf of the British. I mean … LOL!
America, quite rightly, got a little ticked off.
In 1810, a bill was passed that pretty much stated if either Great Britain or France dropped trade restrictions against the US, that Congress would in turn tell the other power to take a long walk off a short pier. France was most intrigued by this option, so much so that President James Madison blocked all trade with Britain that November.
Add a little British interference of the native American Indians against American expansion, and before you know it: BOOM! WAR!
Constitution – under the command of Isaac Hull – put to sea on July 12th, and immediately headed over to join five American ships for a good old bit of English face-stomping, but when they found the squadron and sailed closer they suddenly realized that they were sailing right towards a British squadron instead … HMS Aeolus, Africa, Belvidera, Guerriere, and Shannon descended on Constitution like soccer hooligans at an away game.
The Americans slammed it into reverse, threw up every sail they had, and immediately all the winds stopped … everything became becalmed and the six ships kinda looked at each other in a “well … pewp,” moment.
FIFTY SEVEN hours went by with the British and Americans attempting to chase and escape by use of their rowboats and anchors: they’d row out with the anchor, drop it, the remaining crew turned the capstan and pulled the ship forwards … all at an excruciatingly slow pace.
It was only after Constitution went for an all out do-or-die attempt to lighten her load by pumping out 2,300 gallons of drinking water that she was able to finally get up enough speed to leave her pursuers behind.
On the 27th of July, Constitution arrived in Boston, gathered up supplies, and headed on out before she could be a victim of a British blockade. She stuck it to three British merchantmen as she poddled about, when finally she got wind that there was a British frigate to the south. She set off in pursuit, not knowing that it was one of the five who had chased her only a month prior: the Guerriere.
It was hazy weather on the morning of August 19th, 1812. 64°, cloudy, with fresh breezes. And this would be the day that Constitution would truly stand out and become the beloved of an entire nation. At 2PM, 600 miles southwest of Cape Race, Newfoundland, Constitution spotted Guerriere; a full-rigged ship on the starboard tack, very quickly identified as a frigate.
And – just to set the scene here – we’re talking about a pretty inexperienced American crew who had just spent the last few days “getting their learn-on” with regular gun loading and firing drills. To Captain Isaac Hull, they were terribly green and about to go toe-to-toe, cannonball-to-cannonball, with a nation that ruled the waves … a nation that that had been at war with the French for twenty years; the Royal Navy was not to be messed with.
Constitution was about to turn that on its head. With the caution of a man who had never got at it before, Captain Hull set his sails, pulled in the flying jib, and beat to quarters: the chase was on and the crew all cheered.
At 4:10, the frigates were about a mile apart, and Guerriere started to throw out some iron at Constitution as if to test the waters. The shots had no effect. Hull responded by changing course, the next round coming in just grazing past her and flying through the rigging. Again he altered course; he was like the composer of an orchestra … who just happened to be a bunch of sailors priming 24 lb cannon as their Allegro con brio.
The British took this as an effort to get Constitution into a raking position and kept reversing their course as a preventative measure, but after 45 minutes of bugger all happening, the British captain got a tad bored. Impatient that his foe had not taken advantage of his upwind position to come down on him rapidly, turned southeastward and put the wind “rather on his Lab’d Quarter,” which Hull correctly understood was an invitation to move into close quarters and slug it out.
The Americans still hadn’t opened up at Guerriere and they closed with double-shotted cannon loaded with round and grape shot; if they could hit Guerriere, they were going to tear her the hell up.
And around 5pm, with the American bow almost even with the British stern, Hull ordered a sail adjustment to bring Constitution to an almost deadstop …
“Now, boys, hull her!”
The first American broadside was unleashed at half a pistol distance away and it was murrderrrrouusss. In just twenty minutes, Guerriere’s mizzen mast tottered, and then crashed overboard, and almost at the same time the main yard was shot from its slings.
“Huzza boys! We’ve made a brig of her! Next time we’ll make her a sloop!”
The British returned fire, of course, but they aimed high to destroy Constitution’s rigging, but while some damage was done, it was light in comparison. The shot that did hit the hull? Yeah … that’s when Constitution earned her famous nickname: Someone saw a British ball make a dent and fall away into the sea, and cried out, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!” And so the famed nickname of “Old Ironsides” was born.
Guerriere was now dragging in the water as the downed mast and rigging hung in the water like an impromptu anchor. The British ship attempted to use this to speed a turn in that direction and get a raking shot on Constitution, while Hull responded with an attempt to rake of her own, but both captains misjudged and the two ships crashed together; rigging was ensnared, trailing boats were smashed, and eventually they tore away from each other.
Still Constitution poured out the broadsides, tearing Guerriere’s side open like a gaping bayonet wound. The British return fire was beginning to weaken and, satisfied that she was losing all maneuverability, Hull ordered his ship into another raking position to force the surrender. But again the two ships collided, and again their rigging and masts became ensnared.
Boarding parties attempted to take advantage of the sudden proximity, but both poured musket fire into the other, bones were splintered, flesh was rent, and eventually both ships tore themselves apart with a howling protest of snapping ropes and wooden spars before either side could board the other.
One of those “howling protests” was the British bowsprit, and as it whipped, so the shockwave went up the fore stay and to the weakened foremast, which immediately snapped and fell.
And as it fell, it brought down the mainmast with it.
Guerriere was dead in the water.
It was just before 7 PM, and – recognizing that all was lost and wanting to avoid additional bloodshed – the British struck their colors. The battle was done.
It has been a straight on, toe-to-toe slugfest. Constitution had proved to be heavier, and yet faster than the British ship, partly due to Guerriere having a rotten mainmast repairs and a befouled hull that needed scraping, but … but this isn’t to take anything from the American victory, for their broadsides had been true, and the lightly armored British ship had been holed THIRTY times in the course of the battle.
The Constitution? Well, because the British were aiming high and for the rigging, the damage was comparably light. Sure, they threw on some splints on the masts “to be sure,” but it had been a terribly one-sided affair.
Guerriere was scuttled the following day – the damage being too severe to make the prize worthwhile – and while the battle itself had no effect on the outcome of the war, the news of this victory hit the American people when they needed it the most.
It was a pivotal moment in US history: Americans exalted over the apparent ease with which Uncle Sam had blasted a hated unit of John Bull’s huge and seemingly invincible Royal Navy from the face of the sea. The effect of the battle on American morale and patriotism was immeasurable. Prior to the battle the American land campaign against Canada had been unsuccessful with a resulting loss of public support for the war. After the battle, the American public became galvanized by the pride in defeating the vaunted Royal Navy in a “fair” fight.
But perhaps more importantly, a further impact was that U.S. Navy received validation of its policy of building relatively few ships of superior quality and firepower crewed by volunteer sailors who were well paid.
And, of course, there was the validation of the American belief that the United States had been destined to become a great nation.
These factors, re-enforced by similar American victories over the British frigates Java and Macedonian later in the same year, provided President Madison with the political popularity and validation to be re-elected as president in November 1812 and to continue with the war until the Treaty of Ghent was signed in December 1814.
As for Old Ironsides … well, these ships were designed to hang around for 10 years or so. Ironsides was still serving even when the Civil War hit, and here she proved to be a great training vessel.
She narrowly escaped being used as target practice in 1905 – we’re talking more than 100 years after she was laid down – and instead she became a museum ship. But not any old museum ship.
This is her … in July, 1997 … sailing under her own sail. And this, boys and girls, is how an old veteran should be.