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Old Ironsides

Monday, October 15, 2012

Old Ironsides underway, 2012.
In August of 2012, the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy, The USS Constitution, lovingly referred to as "Old Ironsides," set sail (under her own power) for only the second time in 130 years. The occasion, in Boston Harbor, was to commemorate the Constitution's victories during the War of 1812. The USS Constitution was active throughout the War (which lasted from 1812 to 1815), in its battles with British ships. These encounters took place in widely spaced theaters of operation, in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Africa, off the Brazilian coast, and off the coast of Newfoundland, as well as in American coastal waters, from Boston Harbor (where she escaped from a British Blockade) to Chesapeake Bay in The Battle of Baltimore.

The War of 1812, the "Forgotten War"-- History largely ignores it, as if the United States went right from the Revolutionary War in the late 1700s to the Civil War in the mid-1800s.

With the conclusion of the Revolutionary War people in the United States entered a period of relative peace, though some saw the period as a time to resume their "Indian Wars," which had begun years before. The new Americans (the colonists) tended to see themselves as a people destined to occupy the entire American Continent, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This Western Expansion came into conflict immediately with the American Indians, who laid claim to the land, and had to be constantly pushed westward, out of their traditional territories, as the colonists moved in. Before the Revolutionary War the French sided with the Indians against the Americans. After the Revolutionary War it was the British who attempted to form an Alliance between the (frequently warring) Indian Nations, to keep the Americans at bay, and to thwart any designs that the Americans might have to bring Canada into the United States.

It seems that there were three main causes of the War of 1812.

1. The British attempted to block American trade with France (a country with whom Britain was already at war) primarily on the high seas.

2. The British had a large navy, with many ships, and too few sailors to man whose ships. To alleviate this shortage they impressed American seamen into service aboard British ships, against the will of these seamen. The pretext for such action was that the Americans were really British subjects.

3. The British supported an alliance of native Indian tribes to oppose American expansion -- ostensibly to prevent annexation of Canada into the United States, but practically, to stop any American expansion to the west.

For the first years of the War of 1812, British forces were mainly occupied in Europe, dealing with the French, in the Napoleonic Wars.

They saw pesky Americans as merely a troublesome side issue. Nevertheless, the British Navy raised havoc with the American trading ships, and they were strong enough to largely control American waterways, such as Chesapeake Bay, and the St. Lawrence River, which divided Canada from the U.S.

In 1814, the Americans won a huge victory with the defense of Fort Henry (Baltimore).This battle is chiefly remembered as the battle where Francis Scott Key, lawyer and amateur poet, witnessed the battle from a British ship, where he had gone for peace discussions with the British. The defense by the Americans at Fort Henry inspired Key to pen the poem that has become our National Anthem.

The U.S. Ship Constitution was launched in 1797 at a Boston shipyard, as one of 22 warships which the United States put into service after the Revolutionary War. These 22 ships paled in comparison with the more than 80 warships in the British Navy at the time -- which gave rise to the general opinion that the British Navy was invincible on the high seas.

The USS Constitution, with its 44 guns, and copper sheathing, provided by industrialist, and war hero, Paul Revere, was immediately pressed into service against the Barbary Pirates, in the Mediterranean Sea, in Tripoli (giving rise to a line in the Marines' Hymn, " ... to the shores of Tripoli.") But the U.S. Navy also needed to protect American ships, which were being harassed by both the British and the French.

In the early months of the War of 1812, the Constitution encountered the British Warship, Guerrero off the coast of New Jersey, and in a brief 20 minute battle, the two vessels bombarded one another in close and violent action. The Guerrero was de-masted, then reduced to a wreck in the battle, while the Constitution was only mildly damaged. It was said that the British cannon balls merely bounced off the Constitution's copper lined hull -- but the nickname that the Constitution earned that day, "Old Ironsides" has stayed with the ship for 200 years.

The Constitution's victory against a mighty British ship was totally unexpected.

The victory made a national hero of Commander Hull, the Constitution's captain, and proved to be a huge boost to the morale of the American people -- certainly of more importance to the war effort than any strategic benefit that might have been derived from the battle.

Old Ironsides went on to either capture or sink seven more British warships during the War of 1812. These victories occurred over a huge area of the Atlantic Ocean, from Africa, to South America, and in the coastal waters off the United States. The Constitution roamed far and wide in search of British ships, and at least twice ran the British blockade into Boston Harbor.

At the end of the war, Old Ironsides served as the flagship of the U.S. Mediterranean fleet, and in 1828 she was brought back to Boston Harbor, to be turned into scrap. The outcry from the American public was fierce, and effective in support of preserving the old ship. So instead of scrapping the ship she was refurbished. For several years, until 1844, she served as the flagship of American squadrons in the Mediterranean, the Pacific, and later, for the American coastal squadrons. But her service to the Navy was still not over. In 1844 she was chosen to serve as an American good will ship, visiting international ports of call, around-the-world.

In the early 1850s, the Constitution patrolled the waters off Western Africa, on the lookout for slave traders, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1855, the Constitution retired from active Naval service, to a permanent berth in Boston Harbor. For some more years she served as a training ship for new Naval officers, and later, as a floating National Treasure.

In 1934, Old Ironsides embarked on a 90-port tour of the American seaports. Then for years The USS Constitution rested in Boston Harbor, serving as a museum ship -- a United States floating treasure landmark. In 1997 Old Ironsides put to sea once more, to mark the 200th birthday of her launching. It was a short cruise around Boston Harbor. Again, in August 2012, the venerable old ship put to sea, to commemorate the victory over the British frigate, Guerriere. At noon, on Sunday, Aug. 19, Old Ironsides was towed to a midpoint in Boston Harbor.

Two hundred sailors unfurled four of the ship's sails, including the basketball court-sized mainsail. She was disconnected from the tugs that had towed her away from her berth. She was allowed to sail, under her own power, toward open water, just as she did that day 200 years ago, off Nova Scotia, when she engaged the British frigate, HMS Gueriere, in one of the first American Naval victories in the War of 1812.

Then, after about 17 minutes and 1,100 yards, she was reconnected to the harbor tugs and towed back to her permanent berth in Boston Harbor. It was a short trip, but a highly symbolic one, for what is believed to be the oldest commissioned fighting ship in the world. Now she rests quietly in her berth till her next symbolic voyage -- whenever that will be.

Source: Boston Globe account, Ironsides official website

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By