Construction and early service
Constitution was built at Edmund Hartt's shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts from the resilient lumber of 2,000 live oak trees (specifically Souther live oak) cut and milled at Gascoigne Bluff in St. Simmons, Georgia. Constitution's planks were up to seven inches (178 mm) thick. The ship's design was also unique for its time because of a diagonal cross-bracing of the ship's skeleton that contributed considerably to the ship's structural strength. Paul Revere forged the copper spikes and bolts that held the planks in place and the copper sheathing that protected the hull. It took several abortive attempts to launch Constitution in 1797 before she finally slipped into Boston Harbor. Armed, Constitution first put to sea July 22, 1798 and saw her first service patrolling the southeast coast of the United States during the Quasi-War with France. During her service in the conflict, Constitution's sailors and Marines took part in the amphibious operation against Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo wherein the French privateer Sandwich was cut out and guns from the local Spanish fort were spiked.
In 1803 Constitution was designated flagship for the Mediterranean Squadron under Captain Edward Preble and went to serve against the Barbary States of North Africa, which were demanding tribute from the United States in exchange for allowing American merchant vessels access to Mediterranean ports. Preble began an aggressive campaign against Tripoli, blockading ports and bombarding fortifications. Finally Trioili, Tunis, and Algiers agreed to a peace treaty.
Constitution patrolled the North African coast for two years after the war ended, commanded by Stephen Decatur and two other captains between 1803 and 1805, to enforce the terms of the treaty.
She returned to Boston in 1807 for two years of refitting. The ship was recommissioned as flagship of the North Atlantic Squadron in 1809 under Commodore John Rodgers.
War of 1812
By early 1812, relations with the United Kingdom had deteriorated and the Navy began preparing for war, which was declared June 20. Captain Isaac Hull, who had been appointed Constitution's commanding officer in 1810, put to sea July 12, without orders, to prevent being blockaded in port. His intention was to join the five ships of Rodgers' squadron.
Constitution sighted five ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey, July 17. By the following morning the lookouts had determined they were a British squadron that had sighted Constitution and were giving chase. Finding themselves becalmed, Hull and his seasoned crew put boats over the side to tow their ship out of range. By using kedge anchors to draw the ship forward, and wetting the sails down to take advantage of every breath of wind, Hull slowly made headway against the pursuing British. After two days and nights of toil in the relentless July heat, Constitution finally eluded her pursuers.
But one month later on August 19, she met with one of them again—the smaller frigate HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia. The British frigate opened fire upon entering range of Constitution. Captain Hull held his ship's guns in check until the two warships were a mere 25 yards apart, at which point he ordered a full broadside. Over the course of the engagement, the ships collided three times but musket fire from the Marine complements on both Guerriere and Constitution prevented boarding parties from being sent. During the third and final collision, Guerriere 's bowsprit became entangled in Constitution 's rigging. When the two ships pulled apart, the force of extracting the bowsprit sent shockwaves through Guerriere 's rigging. Her foremast soon collapsed and it took the mainmast down with it shortly afterward. At the conclusion of the engagement Guerriere was a dis-masted hulk, so badly damaged that she was not worth towing to port. Hull had used his heavier broadsides and his ship's superior sailing ability, while the British, to their astonishment, saw that their shot seemed to rebound harmlessly off Constitution's strong live oak hull—giving her the nickname "Old Ironsides".
Under the command of William Bainbridge, "Old Ironsides" met HMS Java, another British frigate, in December. Their three-hour engagement left Java unfit for repair, so she was burned. Constitution's victories gave a tremendous boost to the morale of the American people.
Despite having to spend many months in port, either under repair or because of blockades, Constitution managed eight more captures under the command of Charles Stewart, including a British frigate, HMS Cyane, and a sloop, HM Sloop Levant, sailing in company which she fought and defeated simultaneously, before she returned to port in 1815 to find the war had ended. After six years of extensive repairs, she returned to duty as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron. She sailed back to Boston in 1828.
1835 Service after reconstruction
An examination in 1830 found her unfit for sea, but the American public expressed great indignation at the recommendation that she be scrapped, especially after publication of Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem "Old Ironsides". Congress passed an appropriation for reconstruction and in 1835 she was placed back in commission. She served as flagship in the Mediterranean and the South Pacific and made a 30-month voyage around the world beginning in March 1844.
In the 1850s she patrolled the African coast in search of slavers, and during the American Civil War served as a training ship for midshipmen. But Constitution, along with all ships of her type, was becoming rapidly obsolete as a fighting vessel. As early as 1838, steamships had begun to make regular transatlantic crossings and the Civil War's Battle of Hampton Roads had shown the impotence of wooden-hulled warships when faced with ships made of (or clad in) iron.
Even when restricted from front line duties, however, Constitution continued to serve the Navy and the country, and after another period of rebuilding in 1871, she transported goods for the Paris Exposition of 1877 and served once more as a training ship. Decommissioned in 1882, she was used as a receiving ship at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She returned to Boston to celebrate her centennial in 1897.
In 1905, public sentiment saved her once more from scrapping. In 1917 she was renamed Old Constitution, to free her name for a planned new Lexington-class battlecruiser, USS Constitution (CC-5). Constitution (CC-5) was canceled in 1923 (only 14 percent completed) due to the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. In 1925 the ship, once again bearing the name Constitution, was restored through the donations of schoolchildren and patriotic groups. After being recommissioned on July 1, 1931, she set out under tow for a tour of 90 port cities along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts.
More than 4.6 million people visited her during the three-year journey. Having secured her position as an American icon, she returned to her home port of Boston. In 1940, she was placed in permanent commission, and an act of Congress in 1954 made the Secretary of the Navy responsible for her upkeep.
On July 11, 1976, as part of her Bicentennial Visit to the United States, Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh came to Boston and toured the ship with Commanding Officer Tyrone G Martin. Secretary of the Navy J. William Middendorf presented the queen with a sea chest made from original wood that had been removed from the hull of Constitution during refurbishment in the early 1970s.
1992-95 refit and return to sail
From 1992 to 1995, the Constitution underwent a 44-month refit and overhaul that returned the ship to fully sailable condition. Her refit was far less extensive and intensive than Constellation's, as Constitution was in much better shape. The refit restored many of her original hull design elements that had been omitted to save time and money in previous refits, including Humphreys' unique diagonal riders which resist hogging.
On July 21, 1997, as part of her 200th birthday celebration, Constitution set sail for the first time in 116 years. She was towed from her usual berth in Boston en route to an overnight mooring in Marblehead. The visit to Marblehead marked the first time since 1934 that the ship had been absent overnight from its berth in Charlestown. Embarked dignitaries among the approximately 450 personnel onboard included the Secretary of the Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps (General Richard I. Neal), Senator Kennedy, and the venerable Walter Cronkite, an avid sailor. A little more than five nautical miles offshore, the tow line was dropped, and the commanding officer (Commander Mike Beck, USN) ordered her six sails set -- (jibs, topsails, and driver). Constitution then sailed unassisted for 40 minutes on a South South East course. With true wind speeds of about 12 knots, the ship attained a top recorded speed of six and a half knots. (See infobox picture at top.) While under sail, her modern naval combatant escorts, USS Ramage (DDG-61) and USS Halyburton (FFG-40), rendered Passing Honors to Old Ironsides. The ship was overflown by the Blue Angels, honoring the ship's first sail in over 116 years. Inbound to her permanent berth at Charlestown the following evening, she rendered a 21-gun salute to the nation, abeam Fort Independence (Castle Island) in Boston Harbor.
The modern day role of "Old Ironsides" is that of "ship of state". USS Constitution is today considered the most famous vessel in American naval history. Her mission is to promote the Navy to millions of visitors and observers each year. The crew of 55 sailors participates in ceremonies, educational programs and special events (including sail drill) while keeping the ship open to visitors year-round and providing free tours. The crew are all active-duty sailors and the assignment is considered special duty in the Navy. Traditionally, the duty of captain of the vessel is assigned to an active duty Navy commander.
While Constitution is the oldest fully commissioned vessel afloat, she is not the oldest commissioned. HMS Victory holds the honor of being the oldest commissioned warship by three decades, however Victory is permanently drydocked.
Constitution is one of only two presently commissioned ships in the US Navy known to have sunk an enemy vessel. The other is USS Simpson (FFG-56). No others are still in service.
Constitution is berthed at Pier 1 of the former Charlestown Navy Yard at one end of Boston's Freedom Trail. She is open to the public year round. However, as a commissioned US Navy ship, a visit to "Old Ironsides" is subject to Navy provisions and the fact that she occasionally puts out to sea. Consult her official website for schedule and provisions. The private USS Constitution Museum is nearby, located in a restored shipyard building at the foot of Pier 2.