New York in History and Anecdote
Random header image... Refresh for more!

The Eagle of the Sea

The senior ship on the United States Navy list and the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world last visited New York in August 1931. Her arrival was reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire: the square-rigged wooden man-of-war being nudged along by the minesweeper USS Grebe. Freshly restored after three years in dry dock, the ship had been ordered on a nationwide tour by Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams, great-grandson of President John Adams, under whose administration she had first gone to sea.

She wore the Star-Spangled Banner of the War of 1812 and the long commission pennant of a warship of the US Navy, and her whitejackets lined the rail. The broadsides that had swept the Barbary Pirates from the Bay of Tunis, provided fire support to the Marines landing on the shores of Tripoli, and blasted the guts out of HMS Java off the Brazilian coast now only exchanged salutes with the forts at the Narrows and Governor’s Island. The studding sails, jibs, staysails and square sails that had made her the fastest warship of her size in the world were carefully furled.

USS Constitution has met the enemies of the United States over thirty times in battle, taken thirty-three enemy ships, and never struck her colors in surrender. She was sailing for New York harbor shortly before the fight against the British frigate HMS Guerriere—on August 19, 1812—that won her nickname. An American sailor, watching Guerriere‘s cannonballs bounce off his ship’s oaken hull, cried, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!”

The United States Navy began with the USS Constitution and her sisters. Corsairs operating from the shores of North Africa, the Barbary Coast, were seizing American merchant ships and holding their crews hostage with impunity. On March 27, 1794 Congress authorized six frigates. All were designed by Joshua Humphreys to be powerful enough to defeat any enemy of comparable size and outsail anything larger. Edmund Hartt’s Shipyard, in Boston, built Constitution for less than $300,000. Paul Revere forged her copper spikes, bolts, and sheathing. Launched on October 2, 1797, she first put to sea under Captain Samuel Nicholson in July 1798.

When President Jefferson took office he disfavored a large military establishment and ordered the seagoing frigates of the Navy laid up. Piracy then resuming along the Barbary Coast, Congress determined that a state of war existed between this country and the North African states. The President ordered a squadron to the Mediterranean under Commodore Edward Preble, who spread Constitution‘s canvas on August 14, 1803.

An old revolutionary, Preble had an irresistible touch of audacity. One dark evening, as Constitution was entering the Straits of Gibraltar, she found herself near an unknown man-of-war. Preble ordered his crew brought to quarters and gave the usual hail, “What ship is that?” The question was returned—simply repeated word for word. Preble gave the ship’s name and repeated the hail. Again the question was returned. Preble, somewhat testily, replied and then repeated the question. A third time, the question was returned. Preble took the trumpet himself and replied, “I am going to hail you for the last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you.” The stranger promptly replied, “If you fire a shot, I will return a broadside.”

Preble cried, “What ship is that?” The reply came, “This is His Britannic Majesty’s ship Donegal, eighty-four guns, Sir Richard Strahan, an English Commodore. Send your boat on board.” This was an insult, as it was the inferior’s place to send its boat to the greater.

Preble leapt onto the rail and roared back, “This is the United States Ship Constitution, forty-four guns, Edward Preble, an American Commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel!” The conversation ceased. A boat was heard coming from the stranger, bearing an extremely apologetic lieutenant from a very small British man-of-war, HMS Maidstone, which had been bluffing.

Preble blockaded the Barbary ports, bombarded their cities, sank their ships and sent the Marines ashore. In 1805, the treaty of peace between the United States and Tripoli, Tunisia, and Algeria, “negotiated at the cannon’s mouth,” was signed aboard Constitution. She then remained on patrol for two years to enforce the treaty.

By early 1812, relations with Great Britain had deteriorated and the Navy began preparing for war, which was declared June 18. Captain Isaac Hull, who had taken command of Constitution in 1810, put to sea from Washington on July 12, without orders, to make for New York.

Constitution sighted five British ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey on July 17. As she began to run for it, the wind died with each side just out of gunnery range. Hull put boats over the side to tow his ship and the British did likewise. Lieutenant Charles Morris, one of Hull’s officers, suggested kedging: carrying an anchor out before the ship, dropping it, and winching the ship up to it. The crew manned the capstan all night. Slowly, despite the July heat, Hull made headway. A light breeze rose at dawn. Hull slipped away.

On August 19, 1812 Constitution sighted the frigate HMS Guerriere, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Hull waited until the ships were abreast. Then he roared, “Now, boys, pour it into them.” Two broadsides swept Guerriere and her mizzenmast collapsed. Constitution passed ahead and fired a broadside down Guerriere‘s decks as the Englishman’s bowsprit fouled in Constitution‘s rigging. As the ships parted, Guerriere’s foremast and mainmast collapsed, leaving her helpless. Thirty-five minutes and some 900 rounds after the first broadside, Guerriere struck her colors.

Four months later, around 1:30 a.m. on December 29, 1812, Constitution, Commodore William Bainbridge commanding, was thirty miles off the Brazilian coast when a large frigate was sighted to windward. They sailed on converging parallel courses, Bainbridge allowing the frigate to overhaul him. At noon, Bainbridge ran up the Stars and Stripes. Captain Lambert, commanding the frigate HMS Java, raised his colors. At 2 p.m., Bainbridge, who had developed his gun crews’ skill through constant practice with live ammunition, opened fire at one mile believing that he could damage Java before she could injure him.

Java’s return fire destroyed Constitution’s helm. Bainbridge sent forty-nine Marines below to manually steer the ship as he barked his orders from the quarterdeck. By 5:30 p.m., Constitution had dismasted Java and killed her commander. She struck her colors and Bainbridge sent the Marines aboard. They returned with Java’s survivors and supplies, including Java’s wheel to replace the one her fire had reduced to kindling. Then Bainbridge sank Java and sailed home.

In December 1814, after Constitution had been blockaded in Boston harbor for eight months, her new captain, Charles Stewart (guts ran in that family: his grandson was Charles Stewart Parnell), ran the gantlet. On February 20, 1815 Stewart fell in with HMS Cyane and HMS Levant off Madeira. Though each was smaller and lighter than Constitution, together they outgunned her. At 6:05 p.m., amidst heavy mist, Constitution came abreast of Levant with Cyane sailing up astern. Stewart exchanged broadsides with Levant and, under cover of the smoke, braced his yards aback and went astern. (In other words, he sailed her backwards.) Constitution loomed out of the mist and smoke, surprised Cyane and loosed a broadside into her.

Stewart then shifted his yards, filled the sails with wind again, pulled ahead, and fired two broadsides into Levant as she turned to Cyane’s aid. Stewart fired another broadside at close range into Cyane’s stern, and the Englishman struck around 6:45 p.m. At 8:50 p.m., Constitution and Levant exchanged broadsides at fifty yards. Stewart then maneuvered across Levant’s stern, fired another broadside with the usual deadly results, and Levant surrendered about 10 p.m. It was Constitution’s last victory. Stewart dropped anchor at New York on May 15, 1815.

After more years of patrolling the Mediterranean, the ship returned to the Boston Navy Yard on July 19, 1828. A Navy board of inspection and survey reported her unseaworthy and recommended scrapping. Then Oliver Wendell Holmes, the father of the great jurist, published “Old Ironsides” in the Boston Advertiser.

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 hulk
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.

Holmes’s wildly popular poem made an old ship into a national monument. Against its will, the Navy repaired Old Ironsides. Thereafter, she served as flagship of the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and south Pacific squadrons. She patrolled the African coast to suppress the slave trade. She trained midshipmen for the Naval Academy. In 1878, she made her last cruise in foreign waters, transporting exhibits to the Paris Exposition. In December 1881, she paid off her crew at New York and went to sea no more, becoming a receiving ship for recruits. In 1897, the Navy towed her to Boston for her 100th anniversary, and there she remained, leaving only for her 1931-’34 tour.

On September 25, 1992 Constitution was dry-docked, emerging three years later. This time, she would go down to the sea again. In March 1996, Constitution’s crew began seventeen months’ training in an extraordinarily complicated, obsolescent technology: running a square-rigged sailing ship. Learning the ropes is no cliché to a square-rigger sailor. Truss tackles, pendant tackles, clew garnets, clew jiggers, topsail sheets, topsail clew jiggers, topgallant clewlines, royal clewlines and each of the 200 or so other lines comprising Constitution’s running rigging (the lines pulled to steer her by manipulating her sails)-each has a distinct function. Confusing a clewline with a halliard or a lee brace with a weather backstay could dismast the ship and endanger everyone aboard her.

On July 21, 1997 two Navy tugs towed Constitution into Massachusetts Bay. Her crew set her sails for battle, as she had worn them to meet Guerriere. At midday, her captain, Commander Michael Beck, USN, ordered the towlines released, her canvas bellied in the wind, and she was again under sail for the first time in 116 years. The cannons of USS Ramage and USS Halyburton, two guided missile ships, barked their salutes. Constitution’s broadside boomed in response. She was on her own for an single glorious hour. Then the towlines were reattached and the old warship went home to Charlestown.

Several times a year, a tugboat tows her into Boston harbor on a turnaround cruise so she can be reversed at her dock so the hull wears out evenly on both sides. At sunset, a lone bugler sounds “The Last Post.” With the final note, a single gun speaks from Constitution’s lee side. Sometimes, amidst the traffic, one can hear the echo.

New York Press, September 18, 2001

February 9, 2015   No Comments