Commissioned by the first US president, George Washington, the USS Constitution is probably most famous for defeating numerous British warships in the War of 1812. It was during this war, in the battle against the HMS Guerriere, the ship earned the nickname “Old Ironsides,” when her crew noticed shots from the British ship simply bounced off. The USS Constitution is America’s Ship of State.
Today the ship is berthed neatly at Pier 1 of the former Charlestown Navy Yard, at the end of the Freedom Trail in Boston, where she stands the oldest commissioned and fully functioning warship in the United States. The wooden-hulled, 3-mast heavy frigate of the US Navy was launched in 1797, one of six of her size commissioned by the Naval Act of 1794, and designed to be more heavily armed and better constructed than the standard ships of the period.
Old Ironsides served many more years in battle after her victory in the War of 1812, and continued to serve as a flagship in the Mediterranean and African fleets into the 1840s. She was a training ship during the Civil War, carried freight to the Paris World Fair of 1878, until she finally retired from active service three years later, continuing light work until designated a museum in 1907.
The ship returned to port in Boston, and received numerous visitors over the years, but deteriorated and required extensive restoration work again. President Roosevelt placed the ship on permanent commission in 1940, which protected the vessel somewhat from further deterioration, and she was assigned to serve as a brig for officers awaiting court-martial.
The funding for true restoration finally came in the 1970s, in preparation for the US Bicentennial celebrations. Indeed, an entire tract of land in Indiana was set aside to supply the white oak needed for repair work. The grand ship sailed again, leading a parade of tall ships through Boston Harbor for Operation Sail, firing her guns for the first time in over 100 years.
The most comprehensive reconstruction occurred again in the 1990s, and the ship sailed under her own power for her 200th birthday in 1997, then again in 2012 to commemorate her victory over the HMS Guerriere that earned her her nickname.
Today, the ship keeps a crew of 60 officers and sailors to aid in its mission to promote the understanding of the US Navy’s role in war and peace, as part of the Naval History & Heritage Command. The crew are all active-duty Navy sailors — an honorable special duty assignment.