USS Constitution

USS Constitution

(Photo credit: USS Constitution, courtesy Loco Steve, Flickr Creative Commons)

October 21, 1797 saw the launching of the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. This was one of six wood-hulled, three-masted heavy frigates originally built to take on the Barbary pirates preying on American shipping in the Mediterranean. (The others were Constellation, Chesapeake, President, Congress, and United States.) But the ships had their heyday in the War of 1812, which saw some notable American victories in encounters with their more lightly armed and armored British counterparts.

In August 1812 Constitution famously defeated, captured and burned HMS Guerriere. This encounter was where she got her nickname of “Old Ironsides,” because British cannonballs bounced off her hull (built from pine and oak, and including a belt of southern live oak, which apparently is very tough). The Constitution, like most of her sister ships, went on to successfully challenge the might of the Royal Navy. Two months after the Guerriere clash, the USS United States, commanded by Captain Stephen Decatur, captured HMS Macedonian. After that, the Royal Navy decreed that no British frigate should go up against an equivalent American ship without backup.

Of the six original frigates, only Constitution survives today. It is still berthed in Boston, at Boston National Historical Park, formerly Charlestown Naval Shipyard. The Constitution is an interesting mix of national memorial and active warship. In addition to being a National Historic Landmark she is also still a commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy. Tours are given by serving navy personnel, who like to remind you that while HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England is the oldest commissioned warship in the world, Constitution gets the prize for oldest sea-going commissioned warship. They must get that question a lot, especially from Brits.

The ship measures 204 feet in length with a beam of 43 ½ feet, and it displaces 2,200 tons of water. (That makes it a few feet shorter and narrower, but considerably lighter, than the Victory, if anyone’s interested in that comparative type of thing.) Back in the day it carried a crew of up to 500 men. Today a crew of about 60 active duty men and women serve aboard her when in dock. Presumably more personnel are brought in when she takes to the sea, as she has done twice, in 1997 and again in 2012 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her defeat over the Guerriere.

The site is operated jointly by the National Park Service and the Navy. While the park service runs the overall site and the adjacent museum (see below), responsibility for the Constitution’s operations, repair and maintenance falls to the Naval History and Heritage Command. This command, which is part of the U.S. Navy, runs a number of museums and other facilities, including a heritage center and the former USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, now a museum ship berthed at Groton, Connecticut. At the Charlestown Naval Yard the unit’s goal is to keep the Constitution up and running in as close to her 1812 configuration as possible.

Because of the direct military connection, security is pretty tight, approaching airport levels. Once you get past that, you have the option of seeing the ship on your own or taking a free guided tour. The guided tours are of course the best option. Guides, who typically are enlisted seamen rather than officers, seem to be selected based on their ability to tell the story of the ship with a certain cheeky patriotic cockiness that’s quite charming and stops short of ra-ra “USA” arrogance. It really enhances the experience of visiting the ship, both topside and below-decks. I don’t understand why anyone would want to just wander around alone when the opportunity is there to be given a personal introduction to this national icon. It’s just so much better to take the guided tour and be shown around by someone who is a.) a human being, b.) has read up his or her history about the ship and the period, and c.) can talk from personal experience about the naval life, albeit from 200 years later. This personal interaction is something no form of interpretive technology can hope to match.

I’ve visited the Constitution a couple of times. On a nice day it’s a lovely walk up to Boston’s historic North End, from where you can cross the Charles River by bridge over to the USS Constitution. You won’t lose your way, as the Constitution is marked by the Freedom Trail, a red-brick path marked out to connect a number of Boston’s historic sites, many of which are now part of Boston National Historical Park. And if you want to explore another important bit of history north of the river, the Bunker Hill Monument is only a few hundred yards away.

Next to the Constitution’s berth is a museum, housed in a restored shipyard building, that is devoted to the story of the ship. The other big exhibit on display at the site is the USS Cassin Young, an actual WW II destroyer now operated as a museum ship.

Sources:

Maritime History of Massachusetts. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/maritime/uss.htm

Naval History and Heritage Command. U.S. Navy. Available at http://www.history.navy.mil/index.html

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