On October 21st, 1797 the USS Constitution was launched in Boston. It took three attempts to set the immense ship, reinforced with heavy diagonal planking and copper sheathing, afloat. Shipyard officials warned townspeople to be prepared for a great wave when the boat was finally launched, but none appeared. Her greatest moment came during the War of 1812, when in less than 20 minutes her guns turned a British warship into a hulk, not worth towing to port. When British cannonballs appeared to bounce off her thick wooden hull, a sailor exclaimed, "Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!" Ever since, people have referred to the ship by her affectionate nickname "Old Ironsides." Berthed at the Boston Navy Yard, she is the oldest commissioned warship in the world.
When the United States won independence from Britain, the young nation found itself without a protector at sea. Algerian pirates boarded U.S. merchant vessels, and both Britain and France harassed American ships and forced American sailors to serve in their navies. In 1794 Congress ordered a fleet of six super-sized frigates; each was to be built in a different port. George Washington named the ship built in Edmond Hartt's Boston shipyard, Constitution.
The hull of Constitution was made of oak planks more than seven inches thick. The ship was designed with diagonal cross-bracing of the skeleton, greatly increasing the strength of her frame. According to tradition, Paul Reverefabricated the copper spikes and bolts that held the hull and sheathing in place.
All this structural reinforcement made Constitution a formidable opponent at sea. It also made her heavy. When the ship was ready to be launched in 1797, her weight caused great difficulty. On the first attempt, she moved only 25 feet. Two days later, workers tried again but succeeded in advancing only another 30 feet. The next step was to build a launch site with steeper angles. Finally, on October 21st, workers launched the ship into Boston Harbor.
In 1830 the Navy declared that Constitution was no longer seaworthy and recommended that she be scrapped. But an indignant public protested. The ship's exploits, memorialized in a popular poem, had endeared her to the nation. Congress relented and appropriated money for repairs.
Public sentiment saved Constitution from scrapping three more times in her history. The most recent restoration took almost four years and was completed in time for Old Ironside's 200th birthday on October 21, 1997.
Mass Moments & A Most Fortunate Ship, by Tyrone G. Martin (Naval Institute Press, 1997).
By Oliver Wendell Holmes
September 16, 1830
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Poet
Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar;
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.
Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor's tread,
Or know the conquered knee;
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!
Oh, better that her shattered bulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!
By Oliver Wendell Holmes
This was the popular name by which the frigate Constitution was known. The poem was first printed in the Boston Daily Advertiser, at the time when it was proposed to break up the old ship as unfit for service. I subjoin the paragraph which led to the writing of the poem. It is from the Advertiser of Tuesday, September 14, 1830:--
"Old Ironsides.--- It has been affirmed upon good authority that the Secretary of the Navy has recommended to the Board of Navy Commissioners to dispose of the frigate Constitution. Since it has been understood that such a step was in contemplation we have heard but one opinion expressed, and that in decided disapprobation of the measure. Such a national object of interest, so endeared to our national pride as Old Ironsides is, should never by any act of our government cease to belong to the Navy, so long as our country is to be found upon the map of nations. In England it was lately determined by the Admiralty to cut the Victory, a one-hundred gun ship (which it will be recollected bore the flag of Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar), down to a seventy-four, but so loud were the lamentations of the people upon the proposed measure that the intention was abandoned. We confidently anticipate that the Secretary of the Navy will in like manner consult the general wish in regard to the Constitution, and either let her remain in ordinary or rebuild her whenever the public service may require."--New York Journal of Commerce.