|Anchors:||2 × main bowers |
1 × sheet anchor
1 × stream anchor
2 × kedge anchors 400–700 lb (180–320 kg)
USS Constitution is a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy. Named after the Constitution of the United States of America by President George Washington, she is the oldest commissioned vessel afloat in the world. Constitution, launched in 1797, was one of the six original frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Act of 1794. Joshua Humphreys designed these frigates to be the Navy's capital ships, and so Constitution and her sisters were larger and more heavily armed and built than the standard frigates of the period. Built in Boston, Massachusetts at Edmund Hartt's shipyard, her first duty with the newly formed United States Navy was to provide protection for American merchant shipping during the Quasi War with France and the defeat of the Barbary pirates in the First Barbary War.
Her most famous era of naval warfare took place during the War of 1812 against England, when she captured numerous merchant ships and defeated five English warships: , , , and . The battle with Guerriere earned her the nickname of "Old Ironsides" and public adoration that has repeatedly saved her from scrapping. She continued to actively serve the nation as flagship in the Mediterranean and African squadrons and made a circumnavigation of the world in the 1840s. During the American Civil War she served as a training ship for the United States Naval Academy and carried artwork and industrial displays to the Paris Exposition of 1878. Retired from active service in 1881, she served as a receiving ship until designated a museum ship in 1907. In 1931 she made a three year 90-port tour of the nation and in 1997 she finally sailed again under her own power for her 200th birthday.
Constitutions mission today is to promote understanding of the Navy’s role in war and peace through active participation in public events and education through educational outreach, public access and historic demonstration. As a fully commissioned US Navy ship, her crew of 60 officers and sailors participate in ceremonies, educational programs and special events while keeping the ship open to visitors year-round and providing free tours. The officers and crew are all active-duty US Navy personnel and the assignment is considered special duty in the Navy. Traditionally, command of the vessel is assigned to a Navy Commander.
In late 1792, Secretary of War Henry Knox requested that shipbuilders submit plans for six vessels. The plans of naval architect Joshua Humphreys and draftsman Josiah Fox were accepted in 1793. The design which would eventually be used for Constitution was unusual for the time, being long on keel, wide of beam, and mounting very heavy guns. Humphreys designed a diagonal rib scheme, intended to reduce hogging, and covered this in extremely heavy planking. This gave the ship's hull a strength that other, more lightly built frigates simply could not match. Humphreys realized that the underpopulated United States could not begin to match the European nations in the size of their navies. Consequently, his heavy frigate was designed to overpower other frigates, while remaining fast enough to flee ships of the line.
The Naval Act of 1794 provided for the construction of four ships carrying forty-four guns each, and two ships carrying thirty-six guns each. Constitution was the third of the forty-four gun frigates to be completed, and was given her name by President George Washington. Her keel was laid down on 1 November 1794 at Edmund Hartt's shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts, under the supervision of Captain Samuel Nicholson and Naval Constructor George Claghorn. Primary materials used in her construction were white pine, yellow pine, white oak, and, most importantly, southern live oak, which was cut and milled at Gascoigne Bluff in St. Simons, Georgia. Southern live oak, a particularly dense wood, can weigh up to per cubic foot (1,201 kg/m3). Constitutions hull was built thick in an era when was common. Her vertical hull ribbing was placed apart instead of the standard . Her length between perpendiculars was , with a length overall and a width of abeam. In total, of trees were needed for her construction. Paul Revere forged the copper bolts and breasthooks. The copper sheathing installed to prevent shipworm was imported from England.
In March 1796, as construction of Constitution slowly progressed, a peace accord was announced between the United States and the Dey of Algiers and, in accordance with the Naval Act of 1794, work on the six frigates was halted. After some debate and prompting by President Washington, Congress agreed to continue to fund the construction of only the three ships nearest to completion: , and Constitution. Constitutions launching ceremony on 20 September 1797 was attended by then President John Adams and Massachusetts Governor Increase Sumner. Upon launch, she only slid down the ways before stopping. Her weight had caused the ways to settle into the ground, preventing further movement. An attempt two days later only resulted in an additional of travel before stopping on the ways. After a month of rebuilding the ways, Constitution finally slipped into Boston Harbor on 21 October 1797 with Captain James Sever breaking a bottle of Madeira wine on her bowsprit.
Her fitting-out was delayed through the winter and early spring of 1798 due to weather and a Congressional investigation into the construction of the six frigates, which had overrun their budgets and original estimated completion time. By this point, France had seized over 300 American merchant vessels and the attempt at a diplomatic resolution had resulted in the XYZ Affair, prompting Congress to approve funds for completion of the remaining three frigates: , and .
During the War of 1812 Constitutions battery of guns typically consisted of thirty 24-pounder cannons, divided to fifteen on each side of the gun deck. Twenty-two 32-pounder carronades, on the spar deck divided to eleven on each side. Four chase guns would also be positioned, two each at the stern and bow. Twelve men and a powder boy were required to operate each gun. If needed, some men were designated to take stations as boarders, to man the bilge pumps, or to fight fire. Guns were normally manned on the engaged side only; if a ship engaged two opponents, gun crews had to be divided. All of the guns were capable of using several different kinds of projectiles. Round shot, bar shot, chain shot, grape shot and heated shot. Each gun was mounted on a wooden gun carriage controlled by an arrangement of rope and tackle. The Captain would order the gun crews to either open fire together in a single broadside, or each crew might be allowed to fire-at-will as the target came close alongside. The gun captain would pull the lanyard to trip the flintlock which sent a spark into the pan. The ignited powder in the pan sent a flame through the priming tube to set off the powder charge in the gun and hurl its projectile at the enemy. The marine detachment onboard were the naval infantry that manned the fighting tops armed with rifles to fire down into the decks of the enemy ship.
President Adams ordered all US Navy ships to sea in late May to patrol for armed ships of France and to free any American ship captured by them. Constitution was still not ready to sail, and eventually had to borrow sixteen 18-pound cannons from Castle Island before finally being readied. Constitution put to sea on the evening of 22 July 1798 with orders to patrol the Eastern Seaboard between New Hampshire and New York. A month later she was patrolling between the Chesapeake Bay and Savannah, Georgia when Nicholson found his first opportunity for capturing a prize: off the coast of Charleston, on 8 September, he intercepted Niger, a 24-gun ship sailing with a French crew en route from Jamaica to Philadelphia, claiming to have been under the orders of Great Britain. Perhaps not understanding his orders correctly, Nicholson had the crewmen imprisoned, placed a prize crew aboard Niger, and brought her into Norfolk, Virginia. Constitution sailed south again a week later to escort a merchant convoy, but her bowsprit was damaged severely in a gale, requiring her return to Boston for repairs. In the meantime, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert had determined Niger was operating under Great Britain as claimed, and the ship and her crew were released to continue their voyage, with the American government paying a restitution of $11,000 to Great Britain.
Departing Boston on 29 December, Nicholson was to report to Commodore John Barry near the island of Dominica for patrols in the West Indies. On 15 January 1799 Constitution intercepted the English merchantman Spencer, which had been taken prize by the French frigate L'Insurgente a few days prior. Technically, Spencer was a French ship operated by a French prize crew; but Nicholson, perhaps hesitant after the affair with Niger, released the ship and her crew the next morning. Joining Barry's command from , Constitution almost immediately had to put in for repairs to her rigging due to storm damage, and it was not until 1 March that anything of note occurred. On this date, she encountered , the captain of which was an acquaintance of Nicholson. The two agreed to a sailing duel, which the English captain was confident he would win, but after 11 hours of sailing, Santa Margarita lowered her sails and admitted defeat, paying her reward of a cask of wine to Nicholson. Resuming her patrols, Constitution managed to recapture the American sloop Neutrality on 27 March and, a few days later, the French ship Carteret. Secretary Stoddert had other plans, however, and recalled Constitution back to Boston. She arrived there on 14 May, and Nicholson was relieved of command.
Routine patrols would again occupy Constitution for the next two months until 13 July when the mainmast trouble of a few months prior returned, requiring that she put into Cap Francois for repairs. With the terms of enlistment soon to expire for the sailors aboard her, she made preparations for return to the United States, being relieved from duty by on 23 July. Constitution set out on her return voyage escorting twelve merchantmen to Philadelphia, putting in on 24 August to Boston, where she received new masts, sails and rigging. Even with peace imminent for the United States and France, Constitution again sailed for the West Indies on 17 December as squadron flagship, rendezvousing with ,, , , and . Although no longer allowed to pursue French shipping, the squadron was assigned to protect American shipping and continued in that capacity until April 1801 when arrived with orders for the squadron to return to the United States. Constitution returned to Boston where she lingered, finally being scheduled for an overhaul in October which was later canceled. She was placed in ordinary on 2 July 1802.
In response to an 1801 demand from Yussif Karamanli, the Pasha of Tripoli, for $225,000 in tribute from the United States, Thomas Jefferson had sent a group of frigates to defend American interests in the Mediterranean. The first squadron had been under the command of Richard Dale in and the second under the command of Richard Valentine Morris in . Both squadrons had been unsuccessful in blockading shipping of the Barbary States leading to the dismissal of Morris in 1803.
Captain Edward Preble arrived at the Boston Navy Yard on 13 May 1803 recommissioning Constitution as his flagship making preparations to command a new squadron and to begin a third blockade attempt. Constitution required the copper sheathing on her hull replaced and it was the first of many times that Paul Revere would supply the copper sheets necessary for the job. Constitution departed Boston on 14 August and on 6 September near the Rock of Gibraltar encountered an unknown ship in the darkness. Constitution went to general quarters then ran alongside of her. Preble hailed the unknown ship only to receive a hail in return. After identifying as the United States frigate Constitution, he received the same question again. Preble, losing his patience, said: "I am now going to hail you for the last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you." "If you give me a shot, I'll give you a broadside", the stranger returned. Asking once more, Preble demanded an answer. "This is His Britannic Majesty's ship Donegal, 84 guns, Sir Richard Strachan, an English commodore. Send your boat on board" came the reply. Preble, now devoid of all patience, exclaimed "This is United States ship Constitution, 44 guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel." And then to his gun crews: "Blow your matches, boys!" Before things could be carried any further, however, a boat arrived from the ship and a British lieutenant relayed his Captain's apologies. The ship was , a 32-gun frigate that Constitution had come alongside of so quietly that they had delayed answering with the proper hail while readying their guns. This was an act that began the strong allegiance between Preble and the officers under his command, known as "Preble's boys", as he had shown he was willing to defy a ship of the line.
Arriving at Gibraltar on 12 September, Preble waited for the other ships of the squadron. His first order of business was to arrange a treaty with the Emperor of Morocco, who was holding American ships hostage to ensure the return of two vessels the Americans had captured. Departing Gibraltar on 3 October, Constitution and arrived at Tangiers on the 4th and by the next day and had arrived. With four American warships in his harbor, the Emperor was more than glad to arrange the transfer of ships between the two nations, and Preble departed with his squadron on 14 October, headed back to Gibraltar.
On 31 October , under the command of William Bainbridge, ran aground off Tripoli while pursuing a Tripoline vessel. The crew were taken as prisoners and Philadelphia was refloated by the Tripolines and brought into their harbor. Preble planned to scuttle Philadelphia using the captured ship Mastico. She was renamed and under the command of Stephen Decatur entered Tripoli Harbor on 16 February 1804, quickly overpowering the Tripoline crew and then setting Philadelphia ablaze.
Withdrawing the squadron to Syracuse, Sicily, Preble began planning for a summer attack on Tripoli, procuring a number of smaller gunboats that could move in closer to Tripoli than was feasible with Constitutions deep draft. Arriving the morning of 3 August, Constitution, , , , , the six gunboats and two bomb ketches began operations. Twenty-two Tripoline gunboats met them in the harbor and in a series of attacks in the coming month, Constitution and her squadron severely damaged or destroyed several gunboats, taking their crews prisoner. The Bashaw remained firm in his demand for ransom and tribute. On the evening of 3 September, Richard Somers assumed command of Intrepid, which had been fitted out as a "floating volcano" with of gunpowder, and was to sail into Tripoli harbor and blow up in the midst of the corsair fleet close under the walls of the city. That night, she got underway into the harbor, but exploded prematurely, killing Somers and his entire crew of thirteen volunteers. and arrived on 9 September with Samuel Barron in command, and Preble was forced to relinquish his command of the squadron to Barron, who was senior in rank. Constitution was ordered to Malta on the 11th for repairs, and while en route captured two Greek vessels attempting to deliver wheat into Tripoli. On 12 October a collision with President severely damaged Constitutions bow area including her figurehead of Hercules. The collision was attributed to an "Act of God" from a sudden change in wind direction.
Rodgers remained in command of the squadron, tasked with sending warships back to the United States as they were no longer needed. Eventually all that remained were Constitution, Enterprise and Hornet for routine patrols and observance of the French and Royal Navy operations of the Napoleonic Wars. Rodgers turned command of the squadron and Constitution over to Captain Hugh G. Campbell on 29 May 1806 and after more routine patrols she put into Lisbon for refitting in September, lasting three months. Captain James Barron and were ordered to sail on 15 May 1807 to replace Constitution as the flagship of the Mediterranean squadron, but soon out of Norfolk encountered , resulting in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, thereby delaying the relief of Constitution. Unaware of the delay of Chesapeake, Constitution continued patrols, arriving in late June at Leghorn where she took aboard the disassembled Tripoli Monument for transport back to the United States. Arriving at Málaga she learned the fate of Chesapeake, and Campbell immediately began preparing Constitution and Hornet for possible war against England. The crew, upon learning of the delay in their relief, became mutinous and refused to sail any further unless the destination was the United States. Campbell and his officers threatened to fire a cannon full of grapeshot at the crew if they did not comply, thereby putting an end to the conflict. Ordered home on 18 August, Campbell and the squadron set sail for Boston on 8 September, arriving there 14 October. Constitution had been gone over four years.
Constitution was recommissioned in December with Captain John Rodgers again taking command to oversee a major refitting. She was overhauled at a cost just under $100,000 however, Rodgers inexplicably ignored her copper bottom plating, later leading him to declare her a "slow sailer". She spent most of the following two years on training runs and ordinary duty. When Isaac Hull took command in June 1810, he immediately recognized the necessity to have her hull bottom cleaned, removing a noted "ten waggon loads" of barnacles and seaweed. Hull then prepared for a voyage to France, carrying the new Minister Joel Barlow and his family, departing on 5 August 1811 and arriving on 1 September. Remaining near France and Holland through the winter months, Hull continually held sail and gun drills to keep the crew ready for possible hostilities with the British. After the events of the Little Belt Affair the previous May, tensions were high between the United States and Britain, resulting in Constitution being shadowed by British frigates while awaiting dispatches from Barlow to carry back to the United States, where she arrived on 18 February 1812.
War was declared on 18 June and Hull put to sea on 12 July, attempting to join the five ships of a squadron under the command of Rodgers in . Hull sighted five ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey on 17 July and at first believed them to be Rodgers' squadron, but by the following morning the lookouts had determined they were a British squadron (, , and ) out of Halifax that had sighted Constitution and was giving chase. Finding themselves becalmed, Hull, from a suggestion given by Charles Morris, instructed the crew to put boats over the side to tow their ship out of range, using kedge anchors to draw the ship forward, and wetting the sails down to take advantage of every breath of wind. The British ships soon imitated the tactic of kedging and remained in pursuit. The resulting 57 hour chase in the July heat saw the crew of Constitution employ a myriad of methods to outrun the squadron, finally pumping overboard of drinking water. Cannon fire was exchanged several times, though the British attempts fell short or over their mark, including an attempted broadside from Belvidera. On 19 July Constitution pulled far enough ahead of the British squadron that they abandoned the pursuit. She arrived in Boston on 27 July and remained there only long enough to replenish her supplies; Hull sailed without orders on 2 August to avoid being blockaded in port. Heading on a northeast route towards the British shipping lanes near Halifax and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, she captured three British merchantmen, which Hull ordered burned rather than risk taking them back to an American port. On 16 August Hull was informed of the presence of a British frigate to the south and sailed in pursuit.
A frigate sighted on 19 August was determined to be , with the words "Not The Little Belt" painted on one of her topsails. Guerriere opened fire upon entering range of Constitution, but Hull held his ship's guns in check until the two warships were a mere apart, at which point he ordered a full double-loaded broadside of grape and roundshot. Over the course of the engagement, the ships collided, and at one point they rotated together counter-clockwise while Constitution continued firing broadsides. Guerrieres bowsprit became entangled in Constitutions rigging. When the two ships pulled apart, the force of the extracting bowsprit sent shockwaves through Guerrieres rigging. Her foremast soon collapsed and it took the mainmast down with it shortly afterward. Guerriere was now a dismasted hulk, so badly damaged that she was not worth towing to port, and Hull ordered her scuttled the next morning. Using his heavier broadsides and his ship's sailing ability, Hull had managed to surprise the British and to their astonishment, their shot seemed to rebound harmlessly off Constitutions strong live oak hull. A sailor reportedly exclaimed "Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!" and Constitution acquired the nickname "Old Ironsides". Arriving back in Boston on 30 August, Hull and his crew found that news of the defeat had spread like wildfire, and they were hailed as heroes.
On 8 September William Bainbridge, senior to Hull, took command of "Old Ironsides" and prepared her for another mission in British shipping lanes near Brazil. Sailing with on 27 October, they arrived near Sao Salvador on 13 December sighting in the harbor. Bonne Citoyenne reportedly was carrying $1,600,000 in specie to England, but her Captain refused to leave the neutral harbor lest he risk losing his cargo. Leaving Hornet to await the departure of Bonne Citoyenne, Constitution sailed offshore in search of prizes. On 29 December she met with , a frigate of the same class as the "Guerriere", and at the initial hail from Bainbridge, Java answered with a broadside that severely damaged Constitutions rigging. She was able to recover, and returned a series of broadsides to Java. A shot from Java destroyed her helm, and Bainbridge, wounded twice during the battle, directed the crew to steer her manually from the tiller for the duration of the engagement. Similar to the battle with Guerriere, Javas bowsprit became entangled in Constitutions rigging, allowing Bainbridge to continue raking her with broadsides until her foremast collapsed, sending the fighting top crashing down two decks below.
Drawing off to make emergency repairs, Bainbridge approached Java an hour later, and her first officer struck his colors and surrendered. Determining that Java was far too damaged to retain as a prize, Bainbridge ordered her burned, but not before having her helm salvaged and installed on Constitution. Returning to Sao Salvador on 1 January 1813, she met with Hornet and that ship's two British prizes to disembark the prisoners of Java. Being far away from a friendly port and needing extensive repairs, Bainbridge ordered Constitution to sail for Boston on 5 January, leaving Hornet behind to continue waiting for Bonne Citoyenne in the hopes that she would leave the harbor (she did not). Constitutions action against Java would appear in detail when Patrick O'Brian wrote his fictional novel The Fortune of War. Her victory over Java, the third British ship in as many months to be captured by the United States, would prompt the British Admiralty to order their frigates not to engage American frigates. Only British ships of the line or squadrons were permitted to come close enough to these ships to attack. Constitution arrived in Boston on 15 February to even greater celebrations than Hull had received a few months prior.
Off the coast of Bermuda on 27 March, it was discovered that her mainmast had split, requiring immediate repair. Stewart set a course for Boston, where on 3 April two British ships and picked up pursuit. Stewart began ordering drinking water and food to be cast overboard to lighten her load to gain speed, trusting that her mainmast would hold together long enough to make way into Marblehead Harbor. The last item thrown overboard was the supply of spirits. Upon Constitutions arrival in the harbor, the citizens of Marblehead rallied in support, assembling what cannons they possessed at Fort Sewall, and the British called off the pursuit. Two weeks later, Constitution made her way into Boston, where she would remain blockaded in port until mid-December.
Stewart saw his chance to escape out of Boston Harbor on the afternoon of 18 December, and again set course for Bermuda. On 24 December he intercepted the merchantman Lord Nelson and placed a prize crew aboard.Lord Nelsons stores readily supplied a Christmas dinner for the crew of Constitution as she had left Boston not fully supplied. Off Cape Finisterre on 8 February 1815, Stewart learned the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, but realized that before it was ratified, a state of war would still exist. On 16 February Constitution captured the British merchantman Susanna with her cargo of animal hides valued at $75,000. Sighting two British ships on 20 February she gave chase to HMS Cyane and , sailing in company.
Cyane and Levant began a series of broadsides against Constitution, but Stewart soon out maneuvered both of them. Forcing Levant to draw off for repairs, he concentrated fire on Cyane, which soon struck her colors. Levant returned to engage Constitution, but once she saw that Cyane had been defeated she turned and attempted escape. Constitution soon overtook her, and after several more broadsides, she too struck her colors. Stewart remained with his new prizes overnight while ordering repairs to all ships. Constitution had suffered little damage in the battle, though it was later discovered she had twelve 32-pound British cannonballs embedded in her hull, none of which had penetrated through. Setting a course for the Cape Verde Islands, the trio arrived at Porto Praya on 10 March.
The next morning three British ships were spotted on a course for the harbor, and Stewart ordered all ships to sail immediately. , and had learned of Constitutions escape from Boston Harbor the previous December and had mounted a search for her, only catching up now. Cyane was able to elude the squadron and make sail for America, where she arrived on 10 April, but Levant was overtaken and recaptured. While the enemy squadron was distracted with Levant, Constitution made another escape from overwhelming forces.
In April 1820 Isaac Hull, commandant of the Charlestown Navy Yard, directed a refitting of Constitution to prepare her for duty with the Mediterranean Squadron. Joshua Humphreys' diagonal riders were removed to make room for two iron freshwater tanks, and timbers below the waterline along with the copper sheathing were replaced. She was also subjected to an unusual experiment where, at the direction of Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson, manually operated paddle wheels were fitted to her hull. If stranded by calm seas, the paddle wheels were designed to propel her up to by the crew using the ships capstan. Initial testing was successful, but Hull and the new commanding officer of Constitution Jacob Jones were reportedly unimpressed with paddle wheels on a US Navy ship; Jones had them removed and stowed in the cargo hold before he departed 13 May 1821 for a three year tour of duty in the Mediterranean.
Constitution experienced a very uneventful tour, sailing in company with and , until the behavior of the crews during shore leave gave Jones a reputation as a Commodore who was lax in discipline. Weary of receiving complaints of the crew's antics while in port, the Navy ordered Jones to return, and Constitution arrived in Boston on 31 May 1824, upon which Jones was relieved of command. Thomas MacDonough took command and sailed again on 29 October for the Mediterranean under the direction of John Rodgers in . With discipline restored, Constitution again resumed uneventful duty. MacDonough resigned his command for health reasons on 9 October 1825. Constitution put in for repairs during December and into January 1826, until Daniel Todd Patterson assumed command on 21 February. By August she had put into Port Mahon, suffering decay of her spar deck, and she remained there until temporary repairs were made in March 1827. Constitution returned to Boston on 4 July 1828 and was placed in ordinary.
On 24 June 1833 she entered drydock in company of a crowd of observers, among them Vice President Martin Van Buren, Levi Woodbury, Lewis Cass and Levi Lincoln. Captain Jesse Elliott, the new commander of the Navy yard, would oversee her reconstruction. With of hog in her keel, Constitution remained in drydock until 21 June 1834. This would be the first of many times that souvenirs would be made from her old planking; Isaac Hull ordered walking canes, picture frames and even a phaeton that was presented to President Andrew Jackson. Meanwhile, Elliot had directed the installation of a new figurehead of President Jackson under the bowsprit, which became a subject of much controversy due to Jackson being politically unpopular in Boston at the time. Elliot, a Jacksonian Democrat, received death threats. Rumors circulated about the citizens of Boston storming the Navy yard to remove the figurehead themselves.
A merchant captain named Samuel Dewey, a cousin of George Dewey, accepted a small wager that he could complete the task of removal. Elliot had posted guards on Constitution to ensure safety of the figurehead, but—using the noise of thunderstorms to mask his movements—Dewey crossed the Charles River in a small boat and managed to saw off Jackson's head. The severed head made rounds between taverns and meeting houses in Boston until Dewey personally returned it to Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson; it remained on Dickerson's library shelf for many years. An 1855 letter to the editor of The New York Times reported the story again years later. The addition of busts to her stern depicting Isaac Hull, William Bainbridge and Charles Stewart escaped controversy of any kind and the busts would remain in place for the next forty years.
As flagship of the Pacific Squadron under the command of Captain Daniel Turner, she began her voyage on 1 March 1839 with the duty of patrolling the western side of South America. Often spending months in one port or another, she visited Valparaíso, Callao, Paita and Puna while her crew amused themselves with the beaches and taverns in each locality. The return voyage found her at Rio de Janeiro where Emperor Pedro II of Brazil visited her about 29 August 1841. Departing Rio, she collided with the ketch Queen Victoria, only suffering minor damage, and returned to Hampton Roads on 31 October. On 22 June 1842 she was recommissioned under the command of Foxhall Alexander Parker for duty with the Home Squadron. After spending months in port she only put to sea for 3 weeks during December and was again put in ordinary.
Leaving Singapore she arrived at Turon, Cochinchina (present day Da Nang, Vietnam) on 10 May. Not long after, Percival was informed that a French missionary, Dominique Lefevre, was being held captive and had been sentenced to death. Percival and a squad of Marines went ashore to speak with the local Mandarin. Percival demanded the return of Lefevre and took three local leaders hostage to ensure his demands were met. When no communication was forthcoming, he ordered the capture of three junks, which were brought to Constitution. Percival released the hostages after two days, attempting to show good faith towards the Mandarin who had demanded their return. During a squall the three junks escaped upriver, requiring a detachment of Marines to pursue and recapture them. When the supply of food and water from shore was stopped, Percival had to give in to another demand for the release of the junks in order to keep his ship supplied, which he did, expecting Lefevre to be released. Soon realizing that no return would be made, Percival ordered Constitution to depart on 26 May.
Arriving at Canton, China on 20 June, she spent the next six weeks there while Percival made shore and diplomatic visits. Again the crew suffered from dysentery due to poor drinking water, resulting in three more deaths by the time she reached Manila on 18 September. Spending a week there preparing to enter the Pacific Ocean, she sailed on 28 September for the Hawaiian Islands, arriving at Honolulu on 16 November. At Honolulu was Commodore John D. Sloat and his flagship ; Sloat informed Percival that Constitution was needed in Mexico as the United States was preparing for war after the Texas Annexation. Provisioning for six months, she sailed for Mazatlán, arriving there 13 January 1846. Sitting at anchor for over three months, she was finally allowed to sail for home on 22 April, rounding Cape Horn on 4 July. Arriving in Rio de Janeiro, they learned the Mexican War had begun on 13 May, soon after their departure from Mazatlán. Arriving in Boston on 27 September, she was placed in ordinary 5 October.
Recommissioning on 22 December 1852, Constitution carried Commodore Isaac Mayo for duty with the African Squadron, departing the yard on 2 March 1853 in a leisurely sail towards Africa, where she arrived 18 June. Making a diplomatic visit in Liberia, Mayo arranged a treaty between the Barbo and the Grebo. Mayo had to resort to firing cannons into the village of the Barbo in order for them to agree to the treaty. This may have been the last time Constitution fired her cannons in anger. Near Angola on 3 November, in what would be her last capture, the American ship H. N. Gambrill was determined to be involved in the slave trade and taken as a prize. About 22 June 1854, Mayo arranged another peace treaty between the Grahway and Half Cavally tribes. The rest of her tour passed uneventfully and she sailed for home on 31 March 1855. She was diverted to Cuba, arriving at Havana on 16 May. Departing there on the 24th, she arrived at Portsmouth Navy Yard and was decommissioned on 14 June, ending what was to be her last duty on the front lines. In June 1853, her sister ship was ordered broken up; part of her timbers would be used to construct the next .
The last sailing frigate of the US Navy, , had been commissioned in 1855, and as steamships began service with the US Navy in growing numbers during the 1850s, many sail powered ships were assigned to training duty. Since the formation of the United States Naval Academy in 1845, there had been a growing need for quarters in which to house the students. In 1857, Constitution was moved to drydock at the Portsmouth Navy Yard for conversion into a training ship. Some of the earliest known photographs of her were taken during this refitting, which added classrooms on her spar and gun decks. Reduced in armament to only 16 guns, her rating was changed to a "2nd rate ship". She was recommissioned on 1 August 1860 and moved from Portsmouth to the Naval Academy.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861, Constitution was ordered to relocate farther north after threats had been made against her by confederate sympathizers. Several companies of Massachusetts volunteer soldiers were stationed aboard for her protection. towed her to New York City, where she arrived on 29 April. She was subsequently relocated, along with the Naval Academy, to Fort Adams near Newport, Rhode Island, for the duration of the war. Her sister ship was abandoned by the Union and then captured by Confederate forces at the Gosport Shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia, leaving Constitution the only remaining frigate of the original six frigates.
During the war, to honor Constitutions tradition of service, the US Navy bestowed the name on an ironclad that was launched on 10 May 1862 as part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and participated in the bombardment of Fort Sumter on 7 April 1863. Unfortunately, New Ironsides' naval career was short-lived; she was destroyed by fire on 16 December 1865 while in ordinary at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862 had shown that ships clad in iron were the future of Naval warfare. In August 1865 Constitution moved back to Annapolis, along with the rest of the Naval Academy. During the voyage she was allowed to drop her tow lines from the tug and continue alone under sail. Despite her age, she was recorded running at and arrived at Hampton Roads ten hours ahead of the tug.
Settling in again at the Academy, a series of upgrades were installed that included steam pipes and radiators to supply heat from shore along with gas lighting. From June to August each year she would depart with midshipman for their summer training cruise and then return to operate for the rest of the year as a classroom. In June 1867 her last known plank owner, William Bryant, died in Maine. George Dewey assumed command in November and served as her commanding officer until 1870. In 1871 her condition had deteriorated to the point where she was retired as a training ship and towed to the Philadelphia Navy Yard where she was placed in ordinary on 26 September.
Oscar C. Badger took command on 9 January 1878 to prepare her for a voyage to the Paris Exposition of 1878, transporting the artwork and industrial displays of American manufacturers to France. Three railroad cars were lashed to her spar deck and all but two cannons were removed when she departed on 4 March. While docking at Le Havre she collided with the French steamer Ville de Paris, which resulted in Constitution later entering drydock for repairs. Remaining in France for the rest of 1878, she got underway for the United States on 16 January 1879 but poor navigation ran her aground the next day near Bollard Head. She was towed into the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard (makes her home there today), where only minor damage was found and repaired.
Her problem-plagued voyage would continue on 13 February when her rudder was damaged during heavy storms, resulting in a total loss of steering control. With the rudder smashing into the hull at random, three crewman went over the stern on ropes and boatswain's chairs, managing to secure the rudder and the next morning rigging together a temporary steering system. Badger set a course for the nearest port and she arrived in Lisbon on 18 February. Slow dock services delayed her departure until 11 April and her voyage home did not end until 24 May. Crewmen Henry Williams, Joseph Matthews and James Horton would receive the Medal of Honor for their actions in repairing the damaged rudder at sea. Constitution returned to her previous duties of training apprentice boys, and on 16 November another crewman, James Thayer, received a Medal of Honor for saving a boy from drowning.
Over the next two years she continued her training cruises, but it soon became apparent that her overhaul in 1876 had been of poor quality, and she was determined to be unfit for service in 1881. Lacking funds for another overhaul, she was decommissioned, ending her days as an active duty naval ship; she would not sail again for 116 years. Moved to the Portsmouth Navy Yard sometime in 1882, she was used as a receiving ship. There, she had a housing structure built over her spar deck, and her condition continued to deteriorate, with only a minimal amount of maintenance performed to keep her afloat. In 1896, Massachusetts Congressman John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald became aware of her condition and proposed to Congress that funds be appropriated to restore her enough to return to Boston. She arrived at the Charlestown Navy Yard under tow on 21 September 1897, and after her centennial celebrations in October, she lay there with an uncertain future.
In 1900 Congress authorized restoration of Constitution, but did not appropriate any funds for the project; funding was to be raised privately. The Massachusetts Society of the United Daughters of the War of 1812 spearheaded an effort to raise funds, but ultimately failed. In 1903 the Massachusetts Historical Society's president Charles Francis Adams requested of Congress that she be rehabilitated and placed back into active service.
In 1905, Secretary of the Navy Charles Joseph Bonaparte suggested that she be towed out to sea and used as target practice, after which she would be allowed to sink. Storms of protest over this proposal prompted Congress to authorize $100,000 for her restoration in 1906. First to be removed was the barracks structure on her spar deck, but the limited amount of funds only allowed a partial restoration. By 1907 she began to serve as a museum ship with tours offered to the public. On 1 December 1917 she was renamed Old Constitution, to free her name for a planned new . Originally destined for the lead ship of the class, the name Constitution was shuffled around between hulls until was given the name, only to be canceled in 1923 due to the Washington Naval Treaty. The incomplete hull was sold for scrap, and Old Constitution was granted the return of her name on 24 July 1925.
The first effort was sponsored by the national Elks Lodge with programs presented to schoolchildren about Old Ironsides encouraging them to donate pennies towards her restoration, eventually raising $148,000. In the meantime, the estimates for repair began to climb, eventually reaching over $745,000 after costs of materials were realized. In September 1926, Wilbur began to sell lithographic copies of a painting of Old Ironsides at 50 cents per copy. The silent film Old Ironsides, which portrayed Old Ironsides during the First Barbary War, premiered in December and helped spur more contributions to her restoration fund. The final campaign allowed memorabilia to be made of her discarded planking and metal. Among the items sold were ashtrays, bookends and picture frames. The committee eventually raised over $600,000 after expenses—still short of the required amount—and Congress approved up to $300,000 to complete the restoration. The final cost of the restoration was $946,000.
Lieutenant John A. Lord was selected to oversee the reconstruction project, and work began while the efforts to raise funds were underway. Materials were difficult to find, especially the live oak needed; Lord uncovered a long-forgotten stash of live oak (some 1,500 tons) at Naval Air Station Pensacola that had been cut sometime in the 1850s for a building program that never began. By the mid 1920s even the tools needed for the restoration were difficult to find, and some came from as far away as Maine. Constitution entered drydock with a crowd of 10,000 observers on 16 June 1927. Meanwhile, Charles Francis Adams had been appointed Secretary of the Navy and he proposed that Constitution make a tour of the United States upon her completion as a gift to the nation for its efforts to help restore her. She emerged from drydock on 15 March 1930, and many amenities were installed to prepare her for the three year tour of the country, including water piping throughout, modern toilet and shower facilities, electric lighting to make the interior visible for visitors and several peloruses for ease of navigation. The old camboose was replaced with a modern stove to mess the crew.
Constitution, no stranger to controversy, experienced another episode when Assistant Secretary of the Navy Ernest Jahncke made comments doubting the ability of the modern US Navy to still sail a vessel of her type. Veterans groups from around the country had proposed that she should make the tour under sail, but due to the schedule of visits on her itinerary, she was towed by the minesweeper . Nevertheless, she was recommissioned on 1 July 1931 under the command of Louis J. Gulliver with a crew of sixty officers and sailors, fifteen Marines, and their mascot, a pet monkey named Rosie. Setting out with much celebration and a 21-gun salute, the tour of 90 port cities along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts began at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a port well known to her from the War of 1812. She went as far north as Bar Harbor, Maine on the Atlantic coast, through the Panama Canal Zone, and up to Bellingham, Washington on the Pacific coast. shared part of the towing duties on the return trip from San Diego to the Canal Zone during March and April 1934. Constitution returned to her home port of Boston in May 1934 after more than 4.6 million people had visited her during the three-year journey.
Settled in Boston again, she returned to serving as a museum ship, receiving 100,000 visitors per year. She was maintained by a small crew that watched over her and were berthed on the ship, requiring that a more reliable heating system be installed, eventually leading to a forced-air system in the 1950s and the addition of a fire sprinkler system that would help protect her from potential fires. With limited funds available, she experienced more deterioration over the years, and items began to disappear from the ship as souvenir hunters picked away at the more portable objects available. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt placed her in permanent commission along with , the latter being moved to join Constitution side by side in Boston. General Bruce Magruder gave the nickname "Old Ironsides" to the 1st Armored Division of the United States Army in honor of the ship. In early 1941, she was assigned the hull classification symbol IX-21 and began to serve as a brig for officers awaiting court-martial. The United States Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating "Old Ironsides" in 1947 and an act of Congress in 1954 made the Secretary of the Navy responsible for her upkeep. The same act directed that Constellation be donated to a non-profit group in Baltimore.
The privately run USS Constitution Museum opened on 8 April 1976 and one month later, Commander Martin dedicated a tract of land located at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division in Indiana as "Constitution Grove". The now supply the majority of the white oak required for future repair work on Constitution. On 10 July Constitution led the parade of tall ships up Boston Harbor for Operation Sail, firing her guns at one minute intervals for the first time in approximately 100 years. On the 11th she rendered a 21-gun salute to the Royal Yacht Britannia as Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, arrived for their state visit. Her Majesty and Prince Philip were piped aboard and privately toured the ship for approximately thirty minutes with Commander Martin and Secretary of the Navy J. William Middendorf. Upon Her Majesty's departure the crew of Constitution rendered three cheers for the Queen. Over 900,000 visitors would tour "Old Ironsides" that year.
Constitution entered drydock in 1992 for what had been planned as an inspection and minor repair period but turned out to be her most comprehensive structural restoration and repair since she was launched in 1797. Over the 200 years of her career, as her mission changed from a fighting warship to a training ship and eventually a receiving ship, multiple refittings removed most of her original construction components and design. As early as 1820 the diagonal riders originally specified by Joshua Humphreys had been removed to make room for drinking water tanks. In 1993 the Naval Historical Center Detachment Boston reviewed Humphreys' original plans and identified five main structural components that were required to prevent hogging of a ship's hull, as Constitution had at this point of hog. Using a 1:16 scale model of the ship, they were able to determine that restoring the original components would result in a 10% increase in hull stiffness.
Using radiography, a technique unavailable during previous reconstruction, 300 scans of her timbers were completed to find any hidden problems otherwise undetectable from the outside. Aided by the United States Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory, the repair crew used sound wave testing to determine the condition of the remaining timbers that may have been rotting from the inside. The of hog was removed from her keel by allowing the ship to settle naturally while in drydock. The most difficult task, as during her 1920s restoration, was the procurement of timber in the quantity and sizes needed. The city of Charleston, South Carolina donated live oak trees that had been felled by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and International Paper also donated live oak from its own property. The project would continue to reconstruct her to 1812 specifications while she remained open to visitors who were allowed to observe the process and converse with workers. The twelve million dollar project was completed in 1995.
As early as 1991, Commander David Cashman had suggested that Constitution should sail under her own power to celebrate her 200th anniversary in 1997. The proposal was approved, though it was thought to be a large undertaking since she hadn't sailed in over 100 years. When she emerged from drydock in 1995 a more serious effort was begun to prepare her for sail. As in the 1920s, education programs aimed at school children helped collect pennies to purchase the sails to make the voyage possible. Eventually her six-sail battle configuration would consist of jibs, topsails, and driver. Commander Mike Beck began training the crew for the historic sail utilizing an 1819 navy sailing manual and several months of practice, including time spent aboard the Coast Guard cutter Eagle. On 21 July 1997, she was towed from her usual berth in Boston en route to an overnight mooring in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The visit to Marblehead marked the first time since 1934 that the ship had been absent overnight from her berth in Charlestown. Embarked dignitaries among the approximately 450 personnel onboard included the Secretary of the Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps (General Richard I. Neal), Senator Kennedy, and avid sailor Walter Cronkite.
A little more than offshore, the tow line was dropped, and Commander Beck ordered her six sails set. She then sailed unassisted for 40 minutes on a south-south-east course. With true wind speeds of about , the ship attained a top recorded speed of . While under sail, her modern naval combatant escorts, and , rendered passing honors to "Old Ironsides" and she was overflown by the Blue Angels. Inbound to her permanent berth at Charlestown the following evening, she rendered a 21-gun salute to the nation, off Fort Independence (Castle Island) in Boston Harbor. In August, Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton made light of her historic sail by including an anecdote in a speech about Old Ironsides where he described the voracious drinking habits of sailors during the War of 1812.
The Naval Historical Center Detachment Boston is responsible for planning and performing her maintenance, repair and restoration, keeping her as close to her 1812 configuration as possible. She is berthed at Pier 1 of the former Charlestown Navy Yard, at one end of Boston's Freedom Trail. She is open to the public year round. The privately run USS Constitution Museum is nearby, located in a restored shipyard building at the foot of Pier 2. Constitution normally makes one "turnaround cruise" each year and is towed out into Boston Harbor to perform underway demonstrations, including gun drill, and then is returned to her dock where she is berthed in the opposite direction to ensure that she weathers evenly. The "turnaround cruise" is open to the general public based on a "lottery draw" of interested persons each year.
In 2003 the special effects crew from the production of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World spent several days using Constitution as a computer model for the fictional French frigate Acheron, using stem to stern digital image scans of "Old Ironsides". In 2007, her commanding officer, Thomas C. Graves, was relieved of command and reassigned after being accused of abusing his subordinates. The charges were settled at a private U.S. Navy hearing on 26 October 2007. During October, she entered a period of repair expected to last until September 2009. During this time the entire spar deck will be stripped down to the support beams and the current Douglas fir decking will be restored to the original white oak and yellow pine. The maintenance will also restore the original camber to the deck which will allow water to drain overboard and not remain standing on the deck areas. Constitution will remain open for visitors but there will be no public "turnaround cruise". Lieutenant Commander John Scivier of the Royal Navy, commanding officer of HMS Victory, paid a visit to Constitution in November, touring the local facilities with Commander William A. Bullard III, commanding officer of "Old Ironsides". The officers discussed arranging an exchange program between the two ships.