USS Constitution – Restoration of a Legend

 In History

On October 21, 1797, a new breed of frigate was launched at Boston Harbor. The USS Constitution (often referred to as “Old Ironsides”) was one of six heavy battleships commissioned for the Navy. She turned 220 years old this year, and left dry dock after a restoration late on July 22, 2017. She is a legend,  the oldest warship still commissioned in the US Navy.

According to the USNI, about 15% of the ship is still original. The rest, they reported, was restoration.

“26 months in dry-dock.
100 hull planks were cut from white oak trees. After hours of steaming these planks, restoration workers had approximately 3 minutes to bend the wood into the right shape to fit Constitution’s hull.
150 white oak trees designated by the Navy for use in the restoration.
468 four-inch copper pins were fashioned to hold bronze protective castings to the forward edge of the cutwater on the bow.
2,200 new copper sheets replaced old copper sheets on the hull.”

The 26 month restoration has been winding down for the USS Constitution. Originally designed as one of six by shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys, they were meant to be the backbone of the United States Navy. And backbone? She was definitely that.

“When she was built, Constitution was among the best-designed ships in the world. She could outrun anything she couldn’t outgun, and outgun anything she couldn’t outrun.” Retired Rear Adm. Sam Cox, Naval History and Heritage Command Director

For the old warship, beginnings were difficult, and didn’t start off well.  But by the War of 1812, she had defeated 4 British ships. She was faster, and better equipped for war than theirs. The current Commander of the USS Constitution, Cmdr. Robert S. Gerosa Jr. wrote,

The funny thing about evaluating the present and future is always perspective. In the moment things always look worse than they are, and therefore almost paint the future as being bleak.  Believe it or not the Constitution and her sister ships were once a troubled shipbuilding project, much like some the U.S. Navy has experienced since. It was a new design with exotic parts sourced from distant locales and multiple builders for two designs. The future success these ships would have was in no way represented by the pains of the building process.

For Constitution it took three attempts just to get the ship launched, let alone out patrolling for which she was very much needed in late 1797 and into 1798 (our Naval conflict with the French was heating up and there were very few assets with which to protect our merchants even in our home waters). In fact her first Captain was not particularly enamored with the sailing characteristics of his new vessel and both he and his crew ran into a string of bad luck during their first cruise. The ship itself didn’t end up proving its true superiority until the war of 1812 when she was 15 years old, where her unorthodox design proved ahead of her time in defeating not one but four British warships in three separate engagements. To give this some more perspective, the British didn’t even sail many vessels 15 years old back in 1812, especially not their front line warships. 

The warship was found unfit for duty in 1830, but the American public wanted her saved, mostly thanks to a poem by Oliver Wendall Holmes called “Old Ironsides.” In 1941, she was commissioned permanently, and by 1954 the Navy was charged with her upkeep.

Perhaps it would be a good idea for all of us to learn the storied history of this one ship. Under the command of William Bainbridge, the ship gave America many much-needed victories. The USS Constitution is just a ship…but she is a symbol of America’s strength in spite of difficulties. We should never forget.

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