She’s an old warship that gained fame – and the famous “Old Ironsides” nickname – more than 200 years ago. She last saw conflict many decades before the Civil War, yet sailors still walk her decks and proudly speak of her as the battle-tested warrior she is.
The USS Constitution was launched in 1797 and, like warships of that era, was meant to last for 10 or 20 years. On Sunday night, after more than two years in dry dock undergoing an extensive renovation, she floated again into Boston Harbor to tie up at her usual wharf in Charlestown.
This renovation was no small feat. Ship restorers and riggers painstakingly removed 100 rotted or damaged hull planks and gun deck sections, rebuilt the cutwater – the forward edge of the ship’s bow – and the stern, and removed and replaced 2,200 copper sheets covering the hull below the water line. Five hundred of those copper sheets were signed by nearly 100,000 museum visitors before being hammered onto the hull.
If you visited during the renovation you would have seen a vessel shorn of its sails and rigging, with its dozens of cannons lined up on shore like beached pilot whales. All extra weight that could be removed was off the ship before she was pulled into dry dock in May 2015. For when the water was drained and the wooden ship left to balance on its keel, the extra weight of iron cannons and their carriages could have bowed and distended Old Ironsides’ wooden hull.
Even under repair Old Ironsides was a big attraction. Active duty U.S. Navy sailors in their early 19th century garb were always ready to answer tourists’ questions, and to occasionally demonstrate the speed and skill honed by the original ship’s crew to load and reload the huge cannons they aimed against British warships in the War of 1812.
It was in the first major battle of that war that the Constitution earned her stripes and nickname.
Facing off against the British frigate HMS Guerriere – a French ship that had been seized and outfitted by the Brits – the Constitution pulled to within 25 yards and both ships opened fire. The resulting damage and chaos must have been tremendous, as the shredded sails and tangled rigging of the Guerriere brought down the main mast amid carnage on deck.
The brief battle disabled the British ship, which was later set ablaze and sunk. Seven Americans, including Lt. William Bush, the first U.S. officer to die in combat, were killed in the battle, along with 13 British sailors.
History says that a sailor aboard the Constitution, seeing the British cannon balls bouncing off her thick oak sides, cried out, “Huzza, her sides are made of iron!” Whether fact or just a good story, the name stuck.
Old Ironsides went on to win two other battles during that war, which was the extent of her combat.
She has undergone restorations many times. From 2007-10 she underwent work to return her closer to her appearance in 1812. This most recent work in dry dock, with a $12 million price tag, makes her shipshape for many years to come, especially since she’s no longer called upon to sail the open seas – or even leave the dock, except for the periodic ceremonial turnaround in Boston Harbor.
Massachusetts is lucky to be the home of the USS Constitution. With the “rude bridge that arched the flood” in Concord, Plymouth Rock and scores of other notable sites, events and individuals, our state is rich with history and a major draw for tourists, students and scholars from around the world.
Most people may not recall who won the War of 1812 (it ended in a stalemate), and it’s probably a sign of the times that the souvenir models of the Constitution in the gift shop bear a “made in China” sticker.
But visitors to the real Old Ironsides know her proud legacy – a vessel unique in the purest sense of the word – that extends far beyond the wharf in Charlestown.