George Washington authorized the building of six frigates in 1794, with the USS Constitution being one of these vessels. The ship was constructed in Boston out of as many as 2,000 trees, with its cannons made in Rhode Island and Paul Revere himself making the copper fastenings for the ship’s interior.
The U. S. S.. Constitution (Old Ironsides), as a combat vessel, carried 48,600 gallons of fresh water for her crew of 475 officers and men. This was sufficient to last six months of sustained operations at sea. She carried no evaporators (i.e. fresh water distillers).
However, let it be noted that according to her ship’s log, “On July 27, 1798, the U.S.S. Constitution sailed from Boston with a full complement of 475 officers and men, 48,600 gallons of fresh water, 7,400 cannon shot, 11,600 pounds of black powder and 79,400 gallons of rum.”
Her mission: “To destroy and harass English shipping.”
Making Jamaica on 6 October, she took on 826 pounds of flour and 68,300 gallons of rum.
Then she headed for the Azores , arriving there 12 November.. She provisioned with 550 pounds of beef and 64,300 gallons of Portuguese wine.
On 18 November, she set sail for England . In the ensuing days she defeated five British men-of-war and captured and scuttled 12 English merchant ships, salvaging only the rum aboard each.
By 26 January, her powder and shot were exhausted. Nevertheless, although unarmed she made a night raid up the Firth of Clyde in Scotland . Her landing party captured a whisky distillery and transferred 40,000 gallons of single malt Scotch aboard by dawn. Then she headed home.
The U. S. S. Constitution arrived in Boston on 20 February 1799, with no cannon shot, no food, no powder,no rum, no wine, no whisky, and 38,600 gallons of water.
The Constitution forever became famous for its exploits in the War of 1812. It successfully defeated five British warships, including the HMS Guerriere during a fight 600 miles to the east of Nova Scotia, Canada, on August 19th, 1812. Captained by Isaac Hull, the ship earned its nickname when a British cannon shot seemingly bounced harmlessly off its sides.
Constitution was recommissioned in December with Captain John Rodgers again taking command to oversee a major refitting. She was overhauled at a cost just under $100,000; however, Rodgers inexplicably failed to clean her copper sheathing, leading him to later declare her a “slow sailer”. She spent most of the following two years on training runs and ordinary duty. When Isaac Hull took command in June 1810, he immediately recognized that she needed her bottom cleaned. “Ten waggon loads” of barnacles and seaweed were removed.
Hull departed on August 5, 1811 for France, transporting the new Ambassador Joel Barlow and his family; they arrived on September 1. Remaining near France and Holland through the winter months, Hull continually held sail and gun drills to keep the crew ready for possible hostilities with the British. After the events of the Little Belt Affair the previous May, tensions were high between the United States and Britain, and Constitution was shadowed by British frigates while awaiting dispatches from Barlow to carry back to the United States. They arrived home on February 18, 1812.
War was declared on June 18 and Hull put to sea on July 12, attempting to join the five ships of a squadron under the command of Rodgers in President. Hull sighted five ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey, on July 17 and at first believed them to be Rodgers’ squadron, but by the following morning the lookouts determined that they were a British squadron out of Halifax: HMS Aeolus, Africa, Belvidera, Guerriere, and Shannon. They had sighted Constitution and were giving chase.
Finding himself becalmed, Hull acted on a suggestion given by Charles Morris, ordering the crew to put boats over the side to tow the ship out of range, using kedge anchors to draw the ship forward, and wetting the sails down to take advantage of every breath of wind. The British ships soon imitated the tactic of kedging and remained in pursuit. The resulting 57 hour chase in the July heat saw the crew ofConstitution employ a myriad of methods to outrun the squadron, finally pumping overboard 2,300 US gal (8.7 kl) of drinking water. Cannon fire was exchanged several times, though the British attempts fell short or over their mark, including an attempted broadside from Belvidera. On July 19 Constitution pulled far enough ahead of the British that they abandoned the pursuit.
Constitution arrived in Boston on July 27 and remained there just long enough to replenish her supplies; Hull sailed without orders on August 2 to avoid being blockaded in port. Heading on a northeast route towards the British shipping lanes near Halifax and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, Constitution captured three British merchantmen, which Hull ordered burned rather than risk taking them back to an American port. On August 16 Hull was informed of the presence of a British frigate 100 nmi (190 km; 120 mi) to the south and sailed in pursuit.
Built in an era when a wooden ship had an expected service life of ten to fifteen years, Constitution was now thirty-one years old. A routine order for surveys of ships held in ordinary was requested by the Secretary of the Navy John Branch; the commandant of the Charlestown Navy Yard, Charles Morris, estimated a repair cost of over $157,000 for Constitution. On September 14, 1830, an article appeared in the Boston Advertiser that erroneously claimed the Navy intended to scrap Constitution. Two days later, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides” was published in the same paper and later all over the country, igniting public indignation and inciting efforts to save “Old Ironsides” from the scrap yard. Secretary Branch approved the costs, and she began a leisurely repair period while awaiting completion of the drydock then under construction at the yard. In contrast to the efforts to save Constitution, another round of surveys in 1834 found her sister shipCongress unfit for repair; she was unceremoniously broken up in 1835.
On June 24, 1833 Constitution entered drydock in company of a crowd of observers, among them Vice President Martin Van Buren, Levi Woodbury, Lewis Cass, and Levi Lincoln. Captain Jesse Elliott, the new commander of the Navy yard, would oversee her reconstruction. With 30 in (760 mm) of hog in her keel, Constitution remained in dry dock until June 21, 1834. This would be the first of many times that souvenirs were made from her old planking; Isaac Hull ordered walking canes, picture frames, and even a phaeton that was presented to President Andrew Jackson. Meanwhile, Elliot directed the installation of a new figurehead of President Jackson under the bowsprit, which became a subject of much controversy due to Jackson’s political unpopularity in Boston at the time. Elliot, a Jacksonian Democrat, received death threats. Rumors circulated about the citizens of Boston storming the navy yard to remove the figurehead themselves.
A merchant captain named Samuel Dewey accepted a small wager as to whether he could complete the task of removal. Elliot posted guards on Constitution to ensure safety of the figurehead, but—using the noise of thunderstorms to mask his movements—Dewey crossed the Charles River in a small boat and managed to saw off most of Jackson’s head. The severed head made the rounds between taverns and meeting houses in Boston until Dewey personally returned it to Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson; it remained on Dickerson’s library shelf for many years. The addition of busts to her stern depicting Isaac Hull, William Bainbridge, and Charles Stewart escaped controversy of any kind; the busts would remain in place for the next forty years.