Named by the first U.S. 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 the crew of the British ship noticed their canon shots simply bounced off its hull they proclaimed: “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” The USS Constitution is the United States official Ship of State.
Today the ship is berthed at Pier 1 of the Charlestown Navy Yard, which is now a National Park and is located at the end of the Freedom Trail in Boston. It is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat in the world. The wooden-hulled, 3-masted frigate of the US Navy was launched from Hartt’s shipyard in Boston’s North End on October 21, 1797. One of six frigates authorized by Congress in the Naval Armament Act of 1794, and designed to be more heavily armed and better constructed than the standard ships of the period.
Old Ironsides served initially served in the French-Quasi war and later became the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet, fighting its first engagement against Barbary pirates of North Africa. It fought bravely winning numerous victories over the Royal Navy during the War of 1812. Later, it continued to serve as a flagship in the Mediterranean, African, and Pacific fleets into the 1850s. During its time as African Squadron flagship it captured its last prize, the slave ship H.N. Gambril in 1853. Later, it was a training ship during the Civil War, carried freight to the Paris World Fair of 1878, until it 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 it 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 its guns for the first time in over 100 years.
The most comprehensive and historically accurate restoration to date occurred again from 1992-1996, and the ship sailed under its own power for its 200th birthday in 1997, then again in 2012 to commemorate its victory over the HMS Guerriere that earned its nickname. A further restoration project was conducted from 2007-2010 which returned the ship as accurately as possible to its original War of 1812 configuration.
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. The crew are all active-duty Navy sailors — an honorable special duty assignment. It is also crewed, maintained and restored by the civilian Navy staff of the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston. They have nearly finished another ongoing maintenance and restoration project replacing rotten wood, copper hull sheathing, rigging and more.