U.S.S. Constitution

Today they’re taking the oldest commissioned warship in the U.S. Navy out for a little sail and turn around.

Navy’s oldest commissioned warship to sail again

By JAY LINDSAY, Associated Press

Fri, Aug 17, 2012

The USS Constitution, which was first launched in 1797, will be tugged from its berth in Boston Harbor on Sunday to the main deepwater pathway into the harbor. It will then set out to open seas for a 10-minute cruise.

The short trip marks the day two centuries ago when the Constitution bested the British frigate HMS Guerriere in a fierce battle during the War of 1812. It follows a three-year restoration project and is the first time the Constitution has been to sea on its own since its 200th birthday in 1997.

Now the truth is they turn it around every few years anyway for preservation and maintenance, but it’s usually shoved along by tugs.  This is a big deal for the Sailors who get to participate either as workers (who’ve been preparing for a couple of years with the rigging which is not trivial even for 4 sails) and the ‘honorary’ crew who are mostly senior enlisted personnel (NCOs).

Not to disparage the Constitution‘s victory, but as with most such it was hardly a fair fight.

The English had been fighting continuously at sea against one nation or another (Netherlands, Spain, France) for over 2 hundred years using refinements of the same technology and tactics and got quite highly organized about it.  They divided ships into various types based on firepower mostly.  Fifth raters were never used in a battle line, but instead in patrols and as messengers.  In colonial waters they’d often pursue pirates or act as commerce raiders (there’s a HUGE difference).  The captured French frigate, Guerriere was armed to suit the English practice of running right alongside close up and blasting your hull with heavy carronades (30 x 18pdr guns, 16 x 32pdr carronades, 2 x 12pdr guns, 1 x 18pdr carronade).

The United States Navy was nothing like that.

What we called a frigate was actually a Fourth Rate Ship of the Line.  The Constitution never sailed with less than 50 guns (thirty 24-pounders on the main deck, twenty-four 32-pounders and two bored out 18-pounders on the upper deck on this occasion).  It also had the advantage of a 2 x 6″ bias ply hull over a diagonally stiffened frame that improved the sailing performance.

The Battle against the Guerriere is actually kind of instructive of why you just couldn’t expect a Fifth Rate to stand up actually.

Because of it’s heavier build the English long range guns had limited effect (thus Old Ironsides) while Hull put on more sail (unknown why Dacres did not respond) and soon got in range.  They exchanged fire for about 15 minutes with the Guerriere sustaining tremendous damage, including losing the Mizzen Mast.  Dacres had been maneuvering for a clear shot and tangled with the Constitution’s rigging.  Both Captains sent boarding parties forward to the contact point but were unable to board.

During this time the ships basically continued blowing each other apart until the Guerriere’s Fore Mast fell too and the Constitution disengaged and made ready for another pass.  During this time Hull dispatched a boat to ask if Dacres wanted to strike his colors.

Well, Sir, I don’t know. Our mizzen mast is gone, our fore and main masts are gone – I think on the whole you might say we have struck our flag.

That and the Battle of New Orleans are the notable victories and we forget about Detroit and the Burning of Washington.


  1. and the HMS Surprise, because he would have battered it into kindling wood in 5 minutes.

    With 1 gun.

    He wouldn’t even have needed the other 27.

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