USS Constitution Sets Sail

USS Constitution faces Fort Independence and fires a 21 gun salute, August 19, 2012

In honor of the bicentennial of her famous victory over the HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812, the USS Constitution took a short but historic voyage yesterday. I was thrilled that I was able to be there with my daughters on Castle Island to watch.

It’s fairly well known that the Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world. A lesser known bit of trivia…in the past 131 years, she has only sailed under her own power twice. The last time was in 1997 for the bicentennial of her launch. I was ill that day and well remember my tremendous disappointment that I could not go to see the event as I had planned. Yesterday, on the drive up, I very much wanted to tell my daughters that this was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, however I suppose it is fortunate that it just so happens to be a twice-in-a-lifetime one. If I were to venture a guess, I would suppose she won’t do this again until her 250th in 2047, but you never know.

There is no denying that the Constitution is a national treasure. The USS Constitution Museum has lately come up with the clever slogan, “Our National Ship.” I like that very much. Yes, a cynic might remind us that there is not too much of the original ship remaining. She has seen so many refits over the years that a great deal of the original fabric has been replaced. But according to the Constitution Museum, approximately 10 to 15 percent of the ship is original, including the keel, stem, stern and lower futtocks (or “ribs”). That is certainly enough for me. I have been on the Constitution a number of times (one of my proudest memories as a kid was a commendation ceremony for my dad, then a Captain USN, which took place on the Constitution’s deck). I literally get goosebumps every time I look at the Constitution thinking of its long history.

Having arrived early, my girls and I found a good viewing spot in the shade sitting against the walls of Fort Independence on Castle Island. If you’re not familiar with the place, Castle Island is hugely historic itself and well worth a visit. It is the oldest continuously fortified site of English origin in the United States, the first fort having been built there in 1634. Once a small island smack in the middle of Boston Harbor, it was the sensible place for a defensive fort. It was the site of Castle William, used as a stronghold by the British during their occupation of Boston.

When they evacuated Boston in March 1776, the British burned Castle William. It was hastily reconstructed by the Americans and dubbed Fort Adams. Construction on the present Fort Independence was supervised by Colonel Sylvanus Thayer of Braintree, one of the leading military engineers of the era. It was commenced in 1833 and completed in 1851. The island itself is no longer an island. It was connected to South Boston by landfill beginning in 1890 and finished in the 1920s along the lines of a design originally created by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (of New York Central Park and Boston’s Emerland Necklace fame).

As we waited for the Constitution to appear, there was some tedium involved and my girls grew antsy. But when she was finally towed into view, passing quite close to Castle Island, I was delighted by their reactions. They were thrilled. The ship is such a majestic sight. Under tow, she passed Castle Island with almost three hundred people on board (how I wish I were one of them!) then continued out to President Roads in Boston’s Outer Harbor, surrounded by a flotilla of Coast Guard vessels and private pleasure craft. Out there, barely in view, she set three sails, the tether was dropped, and she moved under her own power. According to the Boston Globe, she sailed for 17 minutes and reached a modest speed of 3.1 knots.

It was stirring to look at her through binoculars and to know that I was seeing something truly unique and historic. But at that distance, it was a bit difficult to fully appreciate what was happening. We were quite rewarded, however, when she was towed back to Castle Island. Directly in front of the main pier, a tug slowly turned her to face Fort Independence and she fired off, in slow succession, 21 guns, reenacting the age old practice of saluting the fort as naval vessels entered Boston Harbor. I got choked up, I must admit.

Back in 1812, when the Constitution won the victory that earned her the name “Old Ironsides,” Captain Isaac Hull had wanted to bring the Guerriere into Boston as a prize. But she was too badly damaged. He ordered her burned, and although the Constitution was barely damaged and still in fine condition to continue her cruise, Hull had more than 200 British prisoners of war on board. He needed to get them ashore and also wanted to bring news of the victory home as soon as possible. On August 29, the Constitution came into Boston Harbor and was met with cheers from the shore.

Yesterday, that scene was reenacted on grand scale. The same ship reentering Boston Harbor to the cheers of thousands. The same ship, still sailing in the 21st century past a city profoundly changed by time. One of those moments when one grasps the span of our nation’s history and the importance of such treasures as Our National Ship.

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About Patrick Browne

I am the director of a museum, an author, Civil War reenactor, among other things. I specialize in early American History from colonization through the Civil War. View all posts by Patrick Browne

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