Bar story: It was on this day in 1794 that Congress passed the “Naval Act,” which authorized the building of six frigates; our nation’s first warships.
Joshua Humpreys - a shipbuilder and naval architect from Philadelphia - was selected to design them. The challenge he was presented was much more than designing a few ships; since only six would not rival any of the other established fleets of the world, he had to reimagine what a frigate was in order for them to compete on the high seas. His vision: the largest, heaviest & fastest ships ever built; mighty enough to beat any opponent in battle, yet fast enough to outrun all others when outnumbered. Humphreys’ final designs were the most complex ever attempted to that point in the history of shipbuilding.
President George Washington selected the 6 shipyards where the ships would be built simultaneously. “Frigate B” was to be built at Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in Boston’s north end.
Frigate B would be one of the larger ships at 50-guns, and thus Humphreys’ design called for a complex bill of raw materials. Roughly 60 acres worth of trees were required for her construction: Live Oak - a sturdy, dense hardwood which is difficult to cut and work with - from St. Simon island in Georgia was used for her heavy frame. The keel and hull were built of White Oak from across New England, while her masts were of tall White Pine (of course) from Unity, Maine. From those masts, 36 sails made of flax at the Boston Manufacturing Company were hung, totalling over 42,000 square feet (or roughly one acre).
Her large, 5000+ lb anchors were cast by Nathaniel Cushing of Pembroke, MA. The anchor cable was woven of hemp, measuring 22-inches in diameter and over 700 feet long; it took nearly 300 men to carry the rope from Jeffrey’s wharf at the North Battery down the street to Hartt’s shipyard to be installed on the frigate. The North End’s own Paul Revere would cast the thousands of copper bolts & fasteners for her hull, as well as her 250-lb bell.
This was construction on a scale not yet seen for a frigate. She was so large & heavy that when the builders attempted to launch her in September of 1797 (an event attended by President John Adams), her hull forced the ways (ramps) into the earth and she came to a stop after sliding only 27 feet. It took another month to rebuild the ways for another attempt.
Finally, on October 21st, 1797, she was successfully launched into Boston Harbor. With a bottle of Madeira wine broken over her hull, she was christened the USS Constitution.
The Constitution would become famous at the onset of the War of 1812: as the US declared war on Britain in June 1812, over 80 Royal Navy vessels were operating in American waters. The US Navy, by comparison, was a much smaller fleet of only 22 ships; the original 6 frigates among them. Yet, with a max expected lifespan of only 10 to 15-years after their completion, they were aging. Thus, the British were heavy favorites on the seas.
After a resupply, the Constitution set out of Boston in August of 1812 with the intent of raiding British merchant ships. She instead came face-to-face with the British frigate HMS Guerriere off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. As they closed, Guerriere was first to break and fire off full broadsides at Constitution. It was during this barrage that cannonballs from Guerriere were witnessed “bouncing” off the sides of the Constitution. In this moment, a crew member is said to have cried out “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!”
Constitution continued to close rapidly as she took fire, maneuvering within 25 yards before opening up her first full broadsides of grape and round shot. This barrage brought down Guerriere’s masts and crippled her; the British surrendered shortly after. Captain Isaac Hull of the Constitution took Guerriere’s crew prisoner, then set fire to what remained of the tattered vessel. #BurntheShips
Word of their decisive victory spread quickly, and the Constitution was given a hero’s welcome upon her return to Boston. Although the loss of Guerriere was insignificant to the British (who maintained a worldwide fleet of over 600 ships), the battle provided a tremendous boost to American morale & patriotism during the war, serving as proof we could hold our own against the world’s best. After the stories of British cannon being unable to penetrate her mighty oak hull, the Constitution earned the nickname “Old Ironsides.”
Years later in 1830, when rumors that the Navy was considering scrapping her, thousands of Americans from across the country wrote letters urging she be saved. The Navy obliged.
She has undergone many refits over the years, but the USS Constitution still serves today as the oldest active vessel in the United States Navy, stationed at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston.
Fun fact: During WW2, 1st Armored Division (with whom Able brewers Mike & Carl both served with) was nicknamed “Old Ironsides” by General Bruce Magruder in honor of the Constitution.
Image: USS Constitution setting sail at her 200th anniversary in 1997, with destroyer USS Ramage, frigate USS Halyburton and the Blue Angels.