The Constitution was built in the shipyard of Edmund Hartt in Boston, MA. It was made of 2,000 resilient live oak trees that were cut and milled at the Gascoigne Bluff in St. Simons, GA. The planks were up to seven inches thick. The design was unique of the time because the diagonal cross-bracing of her skeleton that was a part of why the ship was so strong. The copper on the spikes and bolts that held the planks in place and the copper that was sheathing and protecting the hull were forged by Paul Revere. It took a few tries before she was set out to sail on July 22, 1798. Her first job was to patrol the southeast coast of the United States during the Quasi-War with France. The sailors and marines took part in the amphibious operations against Puerto Plate, Santo Domingo when the French privateer Sandwich was cut out and the gund from the Spanish fort were spiked.
In 1803 he is sent to the Mediterranean Sea as a flagship of the third Mediterranean squadron by President Thomas Jefferson. It was her mission to try and attempt to force the Barbary pirates from their policies of violence against the U.S. merchant shipping. Commander Edward Preble was in command and the Constitution and other ships of the squadron mounted five attacks on Tripoli. On June 3, 1805 a peace treaty is signed with Tripoli onboard the USS Constitution. Later on August 14, another treaty is signed with Tunis. Both treaties were signed inside the captains cabin aboard the Constitution.
The Constitutions participation in the War of 1812 was historical. On August 19, 1812, the Constitution has her historic fight with the HMS Guerriere, about 600 miles east of Nova Scotia. The two ships spent about an hour inconclusively maneuvering and shooting at each other and eventually settled to having a short-range shoot-off. After about twenty minutes, the Guerriere loses her mizzenmast and a little bit later she loses her remaining masts. There is a legend that during the battle, a British shot bounced right off the US Constitution and someone screamed, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” That is where she got her nickname “Old Ironsides”. At the end of the battle, America had 14 casualties and Britain had 79. The Guerriere was so badly damaged that the British had to sink her down after the survivors were taken onboard the Constitution. Until this victory, America had been losing many battles and this win was very motivating to the nation. As a reward, Congress awarded Captain Isaac Hull a special gold metal, gave his officers silver medals, and the crew received $50,000.
The Constitution began a battle with the HMS Java on December 29, 1812 about 30 miles off the coast of Brazil. She was under the command of Commodore William Bainbridge. He was wounded twice and the ship lost her steering wheel from a gunshot. However, Bainbridge spent 3 hours maneuvering and fighting without a steering wheel. After those 3 hours, the Java had no masts left standing and her captain was dead. This battle had 34 casualties on the American side and 130 on the British side. The Java was badly damaged and was sunk just like the Guerriere. However, before he sunk her, Bainbridge took her wheel and replaced the one that was shot away on the Constitution.
The Constitution returned to Boston at the end of February of 1813. There was great rejoice over the victory over Java. Commodore Bainbridge and his crew received medals and money because this was the second triumph over the Royal Navy. From January to April of 1814, under the command of Captain Charles Stewart, the Constitution runs the Boston blockade. She captures the H.M. Schooner Pictou and a few other small vessels during the cruise to the Leeward Island and Windward.
On April 1814, she escaped to Marblehead, Massachusetts after being chased by two British fleets. She later returned to Boston to receive repairs. She spent the next eight months in Boston being blockaded. In December, she took the advantage of bad weather and bad visibility and Captain Stewart slipped right past the enemy and out to sea.
On February 20, 1815, Stewart had the Constitution about 180 miles away from Madeira when he meet the British HMS Cyane (24 guns) and HMS Levant (18 guns). The two against one battle began as the sun was setting. Stewart used his superb sail handling and quickly closed in on the Cyane and seriously damaged her masts and rigging. After that, he blasted the Levant so hard that she was put out of action for a while and that was when Stewart once again closed in on the Cyane and made her surrender. After the Cyane was captured, Stewart returned to the Levant. She surrendered after countless shootings. There were 18 American casualties and a total of 80 British casualties. Stewart wanted to take both the captures home, but he ran into a British squadron that took back the Levant. The Constitution and the Cyane returned to New York on May 15, 1815. Stewart learned that the war was now over. The HMS Cyane was bought by the U.S. Navy and became the USS Cyane. Stewart received a gold medal from Congress and his crew received a prize reward. The Constitution was the only ship that had all the captains that commanded her in the War of 1812 rewarded by the Congress. The Constitutions wartime career was now over.
After the war, the Constitution did not do anything dramatic. She spent a few years being a schooling ship and then in 1830, she was found unfit for sea. “Old Ironsides” spends the years on the 30’s being paid up in Boston. The Navy requests that the Navy Yard conducts surveys on all ships to determine how much work needs to be done to bring the ships back out to sea. This reaches a local newspaper, which misreports and says that the Navy wants to take apart the Constitution for scraps. A poem is written and published by Oliver Wendell Holmes as a response to the surveyors report. As a response to the poem and public outcry, the Navy orders that the Constitution be refurbished.
The USS Constitution enters the new and huge Drydock No.1 as the first ship at the Boston Navy Yard. The dock was itself a technological marvel of that time. This Drydock will later be known as the one to hold “Old Ironsides” within its walls during 1992, 1995.
In 1834, the Constitution becomes caught in a political controversy concerning the installation of a new statue figurehead that will depict Andrew Jackson; the new president. Her original figurehead was of the Greek God Hercules and was lost in a collision during the Barbary Wars. It was replaced by a simple “billet head” decoration. At that time, President Jackson was very unpopular in Boston and the controversy gets so bad that the commandant of the Boston Navy Yard has his life threatened if he places the Jackson figurehead on the ship. A merchant skipper was able to get past guards and sneak onto the ship and cut the head off the figurehead. He returned the head to the Secretary of the Navy and it was repaired and placed back on the Constitution’s bow for many years.
In 1917, she was renamed “Old Constitution” so that her original name could now be free to use for the new Lexington’ class battle cruiser, USS Constitution (CC-5). The Constitution (CC-5) was canceled in 1923 because of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. In 1925, the Constitution underwent a superb restoration and was commissioned back out to sea in 1931 and went on a tour of 90 ports in the United States. She had a total of 4.6 million visitors.
The Constitution leaves the Drydock on September 26, 1995 and is in the best shape she has been in over 180 years. On July 21, 1997, she sails on her own power and is not towed by anything. This has not happened in 116 years. Six of the sails were used. On July 21-23, 1998, Naval vessels came to Boston to honor the USS Constitution. She receives a formal blessing and has a wreath placed on the grave of the first captain, Samuel Nicholson, at the Old North Church.
Today, the ship is a historical naval vessel. She promotes the Navy to millions of visitors and observers each year. She has a crew of 55 sailors and they participate in historical ceremonies, special events, and educational programs. She is docked at Pier 1 of the former Charleston Navy Yard at Boston’s Freedom Trail. The public can visit her year round. However, she still sometimes sails out to sea so the official website should be consulted before visiting to make sure that she is docked.