Constitution makes sail. Boston Herald photo.
In 1997 we watched with awe as USS Constitution, under nearly full sail, sailed from its berth in Boston Harbor around Marblehead Neck into Marblehead Harbor, and back. The original plan was for her to go all the way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, an important Revolutionary naval and privateer port, but the transit was cut short. It was the ship’s first trip under sail in over a century, and we soon learned, it was to be her last, period: Navy engineers monitoring her ancient timbers ruled she’s just too fragile for it any more.
After all, Constitution is the oldest warship in the world that is still in commission and able to sail (HMS Victory is in commission, but permanently drydocked), manned by a selected US Navy crew and commanded by a full Commander, invariably someone the Navy has its eye on for flag rank. Most ships her age are retired, museums, and don’t go out into even sheltered water.
Despite the nay-saying of 1997, the 215-year-old ship took sail again last weekend, although with (if we remember our nautitcal terminology) only her topsails set, with only the foretop fully set, with the main- and mizzentops partly reefed. In the light breeze, this minimal rig produced a sedate cruise of three knots, far from the pounding 11-knot speed she could make under full sail — and she did, 200 years ago to the day, in her battle with the British warship Guerriere. The Boston Herald reports:
“To be the captain, and to be doing the same thing war-fighting captains got to do in 1812, there’s nothing I’ve done in my naval career that lived or will live up to this,” said Cdr. Matthew Bonner, the old warship’s captain.
The USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat in the world, was towed out between Deer Island and Castle Island, where she loosed the lines to the tugboats, spread canvas and sailed west for 17 minutes at about 3 knots, said Chief Petty Officer Frank Neely.
The 215-year-old ship fired a 21-gun salute toward Fort Independence on Castle Island. This is the first time the Constitution has sailed under her own power since 1997, during the warship’s 200th birthday festivities, when the ship took a longer trip up to Marblehead, the home of many of the sailors from her original crews.
via Old Ironsides struts her stuff – BostonHerald.com.
Normally, she just is turned around once a year by tugs, so that she weathers evenly at her post in Boston Harbor’s Charlestown Navy Yard. There, buses of schoolkids, curious tourists, and tape-measure-bearing naval modelers and historians walk her decks daily, asking questions of her Naval crew, every member of which is selected to give the public a good impression of the sea service.
Captain (CDR) Bonner in 1813 uniform. US Navy photo.
So Bonner is right to be proud: hundreds of living men have skippered aircraft carriers, and thousands have commanded nuclear submarines, but he is one of only two men alive who commanded USS Constitution under sail.That’s really something. Constitution’s early skippers were a who’s who of the early Navy, including the Navy’s greatest hero of that period, Stephen Decatur, and the victor over Guerriere, Isaac Hull.
The battle with Guerriere was of great imporance for the United States and her fledgling Navy. Britain was the undisputed world naval power in 1812, and nothing in the world could stand up to the Royal Navy. When Constitution faced Guerriere and forced the British vessel to strike her colors (figuratively; by the time the British captain yielded, he had no more masts to fly colors from), the message was not only that the Navy’s heavy frigates, but the United States Navy and the United States itself must be taken seriously.
Constitution was the high-tech of her day, and her technological advantages helped her defeat Guerriere and the four other British ships she bested in the war of 1812. Naval Architect Joshua Humphreys designed a ship to be long and narrow (and therefore fast), yet to carry heavier-than-usual oak planking (the armor of the day; the special oak came, by ship of course, from Georgia) and heavier-than-usual guns (originally forty-four in all, a mix of ship-crushing 32-pounders and rangey 24-pounders). The combination of armor (21-inches of hull thickness), armament and speed were designed to put the ship in a sweet spot between British and other capital “ships-of-the-line”, which could not catch an American frigate, and British and other frigates, which could not beat one in a fight .
One technological advantage of Constitution was her diagonal scantlings, reinforcing frames that reduced the wooden ship’s flexing despite the great forces acting upon the hull and keel: the sea, the wind, the impact of enemy shot. Constitution’s class of six frigates introduced this innovation, which was soon copied worldwide.
Because weight of shot delivered was crucial to naval battle in the early 19th Century, captains did all they could to up-arm their ships. When Constitution met Guerriere, both were carrying extra guns: the American 55 to her designed 44, and the Briton 49 versus 38.
This represents an upgunning of about 20 percent, which is probably the practical limit. The nunber of guns is constrained by the weight-bearing limits of the ship, and the fact that the guns must be served by ammunition and men, who must in turn be provisioned: the limited volume of a 19th Century warship forced a naval architect’s version of the aeronautical engineer’s Breguet Range Equation: adding more of one thing means something else must be left ashore.
The other way a 19th Century captain could increase the volume of fire of his ship was, of course, by better training. The muzzle-loading, smoothbore guns of 1812 had poor accuracy and a slow rate of fire. Training couldn’t do much about accuracy, but speed was subject to improvement. A well-drilled gun crew could fire three rounds to every two from a crew that had to think about each step. Drills also reduced errors by giving the men patterns of habit — muscle memory — to fall back on in times of chaos and fear.
Gunnery training in those days consisted primarily of crew drills, and discipline in both navies was harsh, corporal, and somewhat arbitrary. The Royal Navy considered itself the absolute master of this art, and its seamen were treated so inhumanly that the service could fill its ranks only by impressment, which more closely resembled violent hostage-taking than the 20th Century draft. An impressed sailor who escaped was subject to hanging as a deserter, without any such effete ceremony as a trial, if British authority ever got their fingers on him again. (Indeed, British impressment of Americans was a major casus belli in 1812, and only British defeat in the war would bring it to an end).
The ships had met the month earlier, when Constitution under Capt. Isaac Hull found herself pursued in calm winds by Guerriere and four other warships. (How did a sailing ship travel in calm winds that would not provide even steerageway? By the sheer human muscle power of her sailors. In the shallows, where this took place, they would row out ahead carrying an anchor in their boat, which they would drop at the extreme limit of the anchor chain; other seamen aboard ship would put their shoulders to the anchor capstan, pulling the ship to the anchor’s position, an act known as kedging… whereupon the rowboats would repeat the effort).
After that narrow escape in July 1812, Capt. Hull and Constitution met British Captain James R. Dacres and Guerriere again on August 19, east of the island of Nova Scotia, a British possession. The battle began with the two ships, on paper evenly matched, sailing downwiud side by side, Guerriere’s starboard broadsides answered by Constitution’s portside ones. And to the surprise of the British, the American gun crews matched them broadside for broadside. Worse, the superior technology of Constitution began to have effect, as Guerriere’s lighter 18-pound guns couldn’t penetrate the American’s hull, while Constitution’s heavy 24 and 32-pound shots holed Guerriere’s hull and shattered her rigging. Her mizzenmast (third of three masts) fell into the sea, causing her to turn sharply astarboard and slam bow-first into the rear quarter of constitution. Now the Briton’s broadside could not be brought to bear, but the American’s raked the length of the British frigate.
Disentangled, Constitution opened the distance and then crossed the T in front of the wounded Guerriere. Further gunfire from Constitution brought down the two remaining masts. Captain Dacres did not have a flag to strike at that point, and surrendered by gun signal. The survivors of Guerriere were taken off and Hull’s officers assessed her potential as a prize. Finding her too far gone to be brought back to port, they set her afire and she burned and sank the next day.
Some parts of Constitution’s technology were purely standard for the era, but still interesting. As any boatman knows, wood has been replaced by more modern aluminum and composite construction for most pleasure boats these days, and by steel for ships. Wood is prone to many maladies, including dry and wet rot and invasion by parasites such as wood worms. In 1797, none of the new materials was at hand, but hand-hammered copper sheathing protected the wood hull from the invasion of wood-boring parasites. The initial batch of sheathing came, ironically, from Great Britain, but sheets used in early overhauls came from Paul Revere’s smithy.
Constitution’s official website is here. One of the services that the ship’s company offers is to fly your US, State, or official unit flag, or of course the Navy Jack, over this historic vessel. (No, not your Confederate flag, wise guy. They lost, get over it. Likewise, nice try on the Union Jack but HMS Guerriere gave that one her best shot. No foreign flags). You get the flag back, along with a certificate signed by the commanding officer.
The Bicentennial of the War of 1812 has several more events ahead; despite the war’s single-year name, it was not over until the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, which took place after the peace had been signed but before the combatants could be informed, in those pre-telegraph days.