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U. S. S. Constitution, or old Ironsides,

The most renowned vessel of the United States navy; built in Boston in 1797; rated as a frigate of 1,576 tons, with an armament of forty-four guns, but actually carrying fifty-two. The frigate, then under command of Capt. Isaac Hull, had just returned from foreign service when the War of 1812-15 was declared. She sailed from Annapolis (July 12, 1812) on a cruise to the northward. On the 17th she fell in with a small squadron under Captain Broke, when one of the most remarkable naval retreats and pursuits ever recorded occurred. The Constitution could not cope with the whole squadron, and her safety depended on successful flight. There was almost a dead calm, and she floated almost independent of her helm. Her boats were launched, and manned by strong seamen with sweeps. A long 18-pounder was rigged as a stern chaser, and another of the same calibre was pointed off the forecastle. Out of her cabin windows, which by sawing were made large enough, two 24-pounders were run, and all the light canvas that would draw was set. A gentle breeze sprang up, and she was just getting under headway when a shot at long range was fired from the Shannon, Broke's flag-ship, but without effect. Calm and breeze succeeded each other, and kedging and sails kept the Constitution moving in a manner that puzzled her pursuers.

At length the British discovered the secret, and instantly the Shannon was urged onward by the same means, and slowly gained on the Constitution. the Guerriere, thirty-eight guns, Captain Dacres, another of the squadron, had now joined in the chase. All day and all night the pursuit continued; and at dawn of the second day of the chase the whole British squadron were in sight, bent on capturing the plucky American frigate. There were now five vessels in chase, clouded with canvas. Expert seamanship kept the space between the Constitution and her pursuers so wide that not a gun was fired. She was 4 miles ahead of the Belvidere, the nearest vessel of the squadron. At sunset (July 19) a squall struck the Constitution with great fury, but she was prepared for it. Wind, lightning, and rain made a terrific commotion on the sea for a short time, but the gallant ship outrode the tempest, and at twilight she was flying before her pursuers at the rate of 11 knots an hour. At midnight the British fired two guns, and the next morning gave up the chase, which had lasted sixty-four hours. The newspapers were filled with the praises [345] of Hull and his good ship, and doggerel verse in songs and sonnets, like the following, abounded:

'Neath Hull's command, with a taught band,
And naught beside to back her,
Upon a day, as log-books say,
A fleet bore down to thwack her.

A fleet, you know, is odds or so
Against a single ship, sirs,
So ‘cross the tide her legs she tried,
And gave the rogues the slip, sirs.

On Aug. 12 Captain Hull sailed from Boston and cruised eastward in search of British vessels. He was anxious to find the Guerriere, thirty-eight guns, Capt. James Richard Dacres. The British newspapers, sneering at the American navy, had spoken of the Constitution as a “bundle of pine boards sailing under a bit of striped bunting.” They had also declared that “a few broadsides from England's wooden walls would drive the paltry striped bunting from the ocean.” Hull was eager to pluck out the sting of these insults. He sailed as far as the Bay of Fundy, and then cruised eastward of Nova Scotia, where he captured a number of British merchant vessels on their way to the St. Lawrence. On the afternoon of Aug. 19 he fell in with the Guerriere, in lat. 41° 40′, long. 55° 48′. Some firing began at long range. Perceiving a willingness on the part of his antagonist to have a fair yard-arm to yard-arm fight, Hull pressed sail to get his vessel alongside the Guerriere. When the Guerriere began to pour shot into the Constitution, Lieutenant Morris, Hull's second in command, asked, “Shall I open fire?” Hull quietly replied, “Not yet.” The question was repeated when the shots began to tell on the Constitution, and Hull again answered, “Not yet.” When the vessels were very near each other, Hull, filled with intense excitement, bent himself twice to the deck and shouted, “Now, boys, pour it into them!” The command was instantly obeyed.

The guns of the Constitution were double-shotted with round and grape, and their execution was terrible. The vessels were within pistol-shot of each other. Fifteen minutes after the contest began the mizzen-mast of the Guerrere was shot away, her main-yard was in slings, and her hull, spars, sails, and rigging were torn to pieces. By a skilful movement the Constitution now fell foul of her foe, her bowsprit running into the larboard quarter of her antagonist. The cabin of the Constitution was set on fire by the explosion of the forward guns of the Guerriere, but the flames were soon extinguished. Both parties attempted to board, while the roar of the great guns was terrific. The sea was rolling heavily, and would not allow a safe passage from one vessel to the other. At length the Constitution became disentangled and shot ahead of the Guerriere, when the main-mast of the latter, shattered into weakness, fell into the sea. the Guerriere, shivered and shorn, rolled like a log in the trough of the sea, entirely at the mercy of the billows. Hull sent his compliments to Captain Dacres, and inquired whether he had struck his flag. Dacres, who was a “jolly tar,” looking up and down and at the stumps of his masts, coolly and dryly replied, “Well, I don't know; our mizzen-mast is gone; our main-mast is gone; upon the whole, you may say we have struck our flag.” Too much bruised to be saved, the Guerriere was set on fire and blown up after her people were removed. This exploit of Hull made him the theme of many toasts, songs, and sonnets. One rhymester wrote concerning the capture of the Guerriere:

Isaac did so maul and rake her,
That the decks of Captain Dacre
Were in such a woful pickle,
As if Death, with scythe and sickle,
With his sling, or with his shaft,
Had cut his harvest fore and aft.
Thus, in thirty minutes, ended
Mischiefs that could not be mended;
Masts and yards and ship descended
All to Davy Jones's locker—
Such a ship, in such a pucker.

Hull had seven men killed and seven wounded. Dacres lost seventy men killed and wounded. The news of this victory was received with joy throughout the country. The people of Boston gave Hull and his officers a banquet, at which 600 citizens sat down. The authorities of New York gave him the freedom of the city in a gold box. Congress thanked him and awarded him a gold medal, and appropriated $50,000 to be distributed as [346] prize-money among the officers and crew of the Constitution. The British public were amazed by the event. Their faith in the impregnability of the “wooden walls of Old England” was shaken. Its bearing on the future of the war was incalculable. The London Times regarded it as a serious blow to the British supremacy of the seas. “It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken,” said that journal, “but that it has been taken by a new enemy— an enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them.”

After his decisive victory over the Guerriere, Captain Hull generously retired from the command of the Constitution to allow others to win honors with her. Capt. William Bainbridge was appointed his immediate successor, and was placed in command of a small squadron— the Constitution, Essex, thirty-two guns, and Hornet, eighteen. Bainbridge sailed from Boston late in October, 1812, with the Constitution and Hornet. the Essex was ordered to follow to designated ports, and, if the flag-ship was not found at any of them, to go on an independent cruise. After touching at these ports, Bainbridge was off Bahia or San Salvador, Brazil,

Hull's medal.

where the Hornet blockaded an English sloop-of-war, and the Constitution continued down the coast. On Dec. 29 she fell in with the British frigate Java, forty-nine guns, Capt. Henry Lambert, one of the finest vessels in the royal navy. They were then about 30 miles from the shore, southeast of San Salvador. About two o'clock in the afternoon, after running upon the same tack with the Constitution, the Java bore down upon the latter with the intention of raking her. This calamity was avoided, and very soon a most furious battle at short range was begun. When it had raged about half an hour the wheel of the Constitution was shot away, and her antagonist, being the better sailer, had the advantage of her for a time.

Bainbridge managed his crippled ship with so much skill that she was first in coming to the wind on the next tack, and gave her antagonist a terrible raking fire. Both now ran free, with the wind on their quarter, and at three o'clock the Java attempted to close by running down the Constitution's quarter. She missed her aim, and lost her jib-boom and the head of her bowsprit by shots from the Constitution. In a few moments the latter poured a heavy raking broadside into the stem of the Java. Another followed, when the fore-mast of the Java went by the board, crushing in the forecastle and main-deck in its passage. At that moment the Constitution shot ahead, keeping away to avoid being raked, and finally, after manoeuvring nearly an hour, she forereached her antagonist, wore, passed her, and luffed up under her [347] quarter. Then the two vessels lay broadside to broadside, engaged in deadly conflict yard-arm to yard-arm. Very soon the Java's mizzen-mast was shot away. The lire of the Java now ceased, and Bainbridge was under the impression that she had struck her colors. He had fought about two hours, and occupied an hour in repairing damages, when he saw an ensign fluttering over the Java. Bainbridge was preparing to renew the conflict, when the Java's colors were hauled down and she was surrendered. She was bearing as passenger to the East Indies Lieutenant-General Hyslop (just appointed governor-general of Bombay) and his staff, and more than 100 English officers and men destined for service in the East Indies. the Java was a wreck, and the Constitution's sails were very much riddled. The commander of the Java was mortally wounded. Her officers and crew numbered about 446. Some of the above-described passengers assisted in the contest. How many of the British were lost was never revealed. It was believed their loss was nearly 100 killed and 200 wounded. The Constitution lost nine killed and twenty-five wounded. Bainbridge, also, was wounded. After every living being had been transferred from the Java to the Constitution, the former was fired and blown up (Dec. 31, 1812). The prisoners were paroled at San Salvador. The news of the victory created great joy in the United States.

Bainbridge received honors of the most conspicuous kind—a banquet at Boston (March 2, 1813); thanks of legislatures; the freedom of the city of New York, in a gold box, by its authorities; the same by the authorities of the city of Albany; an elegant service of silver-plate by the citizens of Philadelphia; and the thanks of Congress, with a gold medal for himself and silver ones for his officers, besides $50,000 in money to Bainbridge and his companions-in-arms as compensation for their less of prize-money. The conflict between the Constitution and the Java was the closing naval engagement of the first six months of the war. From this time the Constitution was ranked among the seamen as a “lucky ship,” and she was called “Old Ironsides.”

Gold box presented to Bainbridge by the City of New York.

When Bainbridge relinquished the command of the Constitution, in 1813, she was thoroughly repaired and placed in charge of Capt. Charles Stewart. She left Boston Harbor, for a cruise, on Dec. 30, 1813, and for seventeen days did not see a sail. At the beginning of February, 1814, she was on the coast of Surinam, and, on the 14th, captured the British war-schooner Picton, sixteen guns, together with a letter-of-marque which was under her convoy. On her way homeward she chased the British frigate La Pique, thirty-six guns, off Porto Rico, but she escaped under cover of the night. Early on Sunday morning, April 3, when off Cape Ann, she fell in with two heavy British frigates (the Junon and La Nymphe); and she was compelled to seek safety in the harbor of Marblehead. She was in great peril there from her pursuers. These were kept at bay by a quickly gathered force of militia, infantry, and artillery, and she was soon afterwards safely anchored in Salem Harbor. Thence she went to Boston,

Gold box presented to Bainbridge by the City of Albany.

[348] where she remained until the close of the year.

At the end of December (1814) the Constitution, still under the command of Stewart, put to sea. Crossing the Atlantic, she put into the Bay of Biscay, and

Stewart's medal.

then cruised off the harbor of Lisbon. Stewart sailed southward towards Cape St. Vincent, and, on Feb. 20, 1815, he discovered two strange sails, which, towards evening, flung out the British flag. Then Stewart displayed the American flag. By skilful management he obtained an advantageous position, when he began an action with both of them; and, after a severe fight of about fifteen minutes in the moonlight, both vessels became silent, and, as the cloud of smoke cleared away, Stewart perceived that the leading ship of his assailants was under the lee-beam of his own vessel, while the sternmost was luffing up as with the intention of tacking and crossing the stem of the Constitution. The latter delivered a broadside into the ship abreast of her, and then, by skilful management of the sails, backed swiftly astern, compelling the foe to fill again to avoid being raked. For some time both vessels manoeuvred admirably, pouring heavy shot into each other whenever opportunity offered, when, at a quarter before seven o'clock, the British struck her flag. She was the frigate Cyane, thirty-six guns, Captain Falcoln, manned by a crew of 180 men. Stewart now sought her consort, which had been forced out of the fight by the crippled condition of, her running-gear. She was ignorant of the fate of the Cyane. About an hour after the latter had surrendered, she met the Constitution searching for her. Each delivered a broadside, and, for a while, there was a brisk running fight, the Constitution chasing, and her bow guns sending shot that ripped up the planks of her antagonist. The latter was soon compelled to surrender, and proved to be the Levant, eighteen guns, Captain Douglass. The Constitution was then equipped with fifty-two guns, and her complement of men and boys was about 470. The loss of the Constitution in this action was three killed and twelve wounded; of the two captured vessels, seventy-seven. The Constitution was so little damaged that three hours after the action she was again ready for conflict. That battle on a moonlit sea lasted only forty-five minutes.

Placing Lieutenant Ballard in command of the Levant, and Lieutenant Hoffman of the Cyane, Stewart proceeded with his prizes to one of the Cape Verd Islands, where he arrived on March 10, 1815. The next day the Constitution and her prizes were in imminent peril by the appearance of English vessels of war coming portward in a thick fog. He knew they would have no respect for the neutrality of the port [349] (Porto Praya), and so he cut the cables of the Constitution, and, with his prizes, put to sea. They were chased by the strangers, which were the British frigate Leander, fifty guns, Sir George Collier; Newcastle, fifty guns, Lord George Stuart; and Acasta, forty guns, Captain Kerr. They pressed hard upon the fugitives. the Cyane was falling astern, and must soon have been overtaken. Stewart ordered her commander to tack. He obeyed, and she escaped in the fog, reaching New York in April. The three ships continued to chase the Constitution, the Newcastle firing her chase guns without effect. Meanwhile the Levant fell far in the rear. Stewart signalled her to tack, which she did, when the three vessels gave up the chase of the Constitution, and pursued the Levant into Porto Praya Harbor—a Portuguese port. Regardless of neutrality, 120 prisoners, whom Stewart had paroled there, seized a battery, and opened upon the Levant, which, receiving the fire of the pursuers at the same time, was compelled to surrender.

Stewart crossed the Atlantic, landed many of his prisoners in Brazil, and at Porto Rico heard of the proclamation of peace. Then he returned home, taking with him the news of the capture of the Cyane and Levant. The Constitution was hailed with delight, and Stewart received public honors. The Common Council of New York gave him the freedom of the city in a gold box, and a public dinner to him and his officers. The legislature of Pennsylvania voted him a gold-hilted sword; and Congress voted him and his men the thanks of the nation and directed a medal of gold, commemorative of the capture of the Cyane and Levant, to be presented to him.

The famous frigate is yet afloat. Many years ago the Navy Department concluded to break her up and sell her timbers, as she was thought to be a decided “invalid.” The order had gone forth, when the execution of it was arrested by the opposition of public sentiment created and called forth largely by the following poetic protest by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes:

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 rang 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 hissing 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!

The Constitution in 1876.

“Old Ironsides” was saved and converted into a school-ship.

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