More than 200 years after it was built, the frigate USS Constitution remains a commissioned warship of the U.S. Navy. Manned and commanded by U.S. Navy personnel, "Old Ironsides" is open to the public. Launched in October 1797 and docked at the Boston Navy Yard in Charlestown, Mass., the ship was named by George Washington after U.S. Constitution. President John Adams witnessed its launch.
Construction and Launching
The USS Constitution was authorized by the 1794 Naval Act; the Constitution's keel was laid down on Nov. 1, 1794. The ship's designer, Joshua Humphries, intended it to be stronger than traditional frigates, so he had it built from pine and live oak from Georgia. Paul Revere supplied the ship's copper fittings and hull sheathing that prevents shipworm damage. Because of the ship's weight, it took several efforts to launch her, but on Oct. 21, 1797, she entered Boston harbor.
With a draft of 23 feet and a mainmast height of 220 feet, the Constitution is 204 feet long and 43 feet wide. Supplies and repair materials of every description occupied the ship's hold and orlop deck below the waterline. Above the hold, the berthing deck served as the crew's quarters and held 250 canvas hammocks for half of the ship's 500-man complement. Officers' staterooms were on the berthing deck. The gun deck above, where the captain's cabin is located, carried 30 guns. The ship operated primarily from the uppermost spar deck, which held an additional 22 guns.
During the quasi-war with France from 1798 to 1800, the Constitution participated in numerous operations but engaged in no direct fighting with French warships. During the Barbary War from 1803 to 1807, the Constitution participated in the defeat of the Sultan of Tripoli, who was holding American citizens and ships hostage. The war ended with the signing of a peace treaty aboard the ship.
The Constitution's most significant naval service was during the War of 1812, when it engaged and defeated several British warships and captured a number of prize vessels. During its fight with the HMS Guerriere, one of the Constitution's crewmembers noted how the British shells bounced off the thick oak hull, earning her the nickname of "Old Ironsides."
The ship sailed around the world during the 1840s and remained in active service as a warship through the 1850s, when she was retired at the outbreak of the Civil War as a training ship for U.S. Navy cadets.
USS Constitution in Peacetime
In 1878, the Constitution sailed to the Paris Exhibition, and in the 1930s it toured the eastern and western seaboards of the United States, including passage through the Panama Canal. Today, most of the ship is open for public viewing, and U.S Navy crew members conduct guided tours. The ship's official website includes an in-depth virtual tour of the ship. The world's oldest commissioned warship, the Constitution sailed as recently as 2012, and routinely fires her guns in salute of key anniversaries. A museum dedicated to the ship's history is located on the adjacent wharf, and the USS Constitution serves as one of Boston's, and America's, most important living historic monuments.