The History of the USS Constitution
Pirates and the Birth of the USS Constitution
In the late 18th century the seas were rife with pirates. American trade ships were frequently being captured, their wares seized and their crews ransomed. In 1793 alone 11 American ships fell prey to this, prompting a new Naval Act and the building of 6 new frigates.
Construction on the ships briefly halted in 1796 when a peace agreement was reached with Algiers, where the majority of the pirates were from. It was then restarted upon President Washington's intervention on the three ships nearest completion, one of which was the USS Constitution.
The ships were launched in 1797.
The USS Constitution and the French Quasi-War
Pirates weren't the only problem that US merchants faced in the late 18th century. Provoked by the US government's refusal to pay back loans incurred during the War of Independence, France's revolutionary government had given its privateers free reign to plunder US ships.
In response to this the US ordered its Navy to patrol for armed French vessels and to free any US ships they had captured. The USS Constitution had its first mission.
This began inauspiciously when the first ship it captured turned out to be British. The US paid a fine and the USS Constitution underwent repairs.
It then set out again, this time with more success. It recaptured the US sloop Neutrality and captured the French ship Carteret. Then, under a new captain, it took the French prize ship Amelia.
The First Barbary War and the War of 1812
Throughout the Quasi-War the US had been paying both Algier and the Barbary States tribute to protect their ships from pirate raids. In 1801 the Pasha of Tripoli grew dissatisfied with the tribute he was receiving and demanded an increase. This ultimately resulted in the First Barbary War.
The USS Constitution played a major role in this conflict, protecting US merchant ships and damaging and destroying several Tripoline gunboats in the Battle of Tripoli Harbour.
A peace treaty was signed on board its deck on 3 June 1805.
The next major action it saw was the War of 1812 between the US and Britain. This began with 5 British ships attempting to board and capture the Constitution. A 57 hour pursuit followed before finally the Constitution escaped.
Not long after she was engaged by the HMS Guerriere which she defeated earning herself the nickname 'Old Ironsides'.
War raged on for several years and the USS Constitution took part in several skirmishes before arriving back to the US on 15 May 1815 undefeated.
The USS Constitution's Victory Lap
The expected service life of a ship like the Constitution was 10-15 years. By 1815 it had already done this and some, and it had become a legend in the process. Any suggestion it might be scrapped for parts was met by public outrage. 'Not Old Ironsides!'
It was repaired at length before being made the flagship of first the Mediterranean and then the African Squadron. In the 1840s it circumnavigated the globe, and during the US Civil War it served as a training ship. One of its last major duties was to carry American art to Paris for the Exposition of 1878.
The USS Constitution Museum
The ship officially retired from service in 1881 and was made into a museum in 1907. This was not the end of its life at sea however.
In 1934 she went on a three port tour of the US, and in 1997 and then again 2012 she sailed once more under her own power to celebrate her 200th birthday and then the 200th anniversary of her victory against the HMS Guerriere.
Her final mission now is promoting an understanding of the Navy's role in war and peace, and she can be found doing this at Pier 1 at the end of Boston's Freedom Trail. Well worth a visit!
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