“Old Ironsides” Made of Oak, but Tough as Iron

The USS Constitution is one of the most renowned warships in American history. The ship was among the first six frigates authorized to be built to form the new United States Navy. Launched for the first time in Boston on October 21, 1797 the USS Constitution holds the distinct honor of being the oldest commissioned warship afloat.

Here is on of the many stories about the ship’s service in battle.

The USS Constitution and the British frigate HMS Guerriere were enemies in the War of 1812. On the afternoon of August 19, a mortal combat took place 750 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. The day was overcast, winds blowing hard as the warships neared each other.

Captain Hull was in command of the Constitution, and we have his report:

“The Gallant crew gave three cheers” when Hull ordered the ship into battle.

Guerriere  raised her flag and “fired a broadside, but without effect, the shot all falling short…”

Constitution raised her 15-star American flag,hoisted at the Mizen Peak,” and her “Jack at the Fore.” The fight was on.

Constitution came alongside the Guerriere. At a distance ”less than Pistol Shot, we commenced a very heavy fire from all of our guns.”

Within 15 minutes, the Guerriere had lost a mast and had heavy damage to her sails. The Constitution “had received but little damage.”

When a sailor on the Guerriere saw a cannonball bounce off the hull of the Constitution, he exclaimed, “her sides are made of iron!”

Constitution’s sides were American oak, denser than English oak. Reinforcing ribs behind the outside oak were only 4 inches apart. Normally, ribs were eight or ten inches apart. The USS Constitution’s hull was tough!

Just as Captain Hull decided to send boarders over, two more of the Guerriere’s masts went down. She was totally disabled.

Captain Hull backed the Constitution away. It became dark, and Hull ordered a boat sent “to see whether she had surrendered or not, and if she had to see what assistance she wanted.”

About 20 minutes later the boat returned, with Guerriere’s captain on board.

“Our Boats were immediately hoisted out and sent for the prisoners, and were kept at work bringing them and their baggage on board, all night.”

British Captain James Dacres wrote this in his report:

“…the conduct of Captain Hull and his officers to our men has been that of a brave enemy, the greatest care being taken to prevent our men losing the smallest trifle, and the greatest attention being paid to the wounded…”

The next morning Captain Hull could see the Guerriere was beyond salvage: “At daylight we found the enemy’s ship a perfect wreck.”

It was not the first victory for Old Ironsides, nor would it be the last.

USS Constitution afloat in Boston Harbor, July 4th 2002