Public outcry can sometimes stay a government’s hand. One of the best examples of public outcry forcing a change in policy occurred in 1830, when the publication of a poem helped fuel public outrage over the federal government’s decision to scrap the USS Constitution, popularly known as Old Ironsides. I refer, of course, to the publication of the poem “Old Ironsides,” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, on September 16, 1830, in the Boston Daily Advertiser. In fact, the wooden-hulled ship remains the oldest commissioned ship in the world. Its maiden voyage occurred 213 years ago this past week on July 22, 1798. Named the USS Constitution by George Washington himself, the iron in Old Ironsides came, most appropriately, from the “Constitution State” itself - Connecticut.
The Naval Act of 1794 authorized the building of six frigates for the US Navy; the USS Constitution was one of those ships. She was built in an era when the useful service life of a wooden-hulled ship was less than twenty years. The fact that Old Ironsides remains in the water and, in 1997, actually cruised around Boston Harbor, is simply amazing. Still manned by active duty naval personnel, the Constitution remains docked in Boston Harbor as a museum ship with a crew of 60.
The ship’s hull was built with the densest of all of the oaks - Southern Live Plantation; furthermore, the hull was a full three inches thicker than most frigates of her times - 21 inches. As a consequence, the weight of the 204-foot ship made its launch very difficult; in addition, whenever Old Ironsides collided with another ship, the other ship got the worst of it. All of the iron on the Constitution came from the northwest hills of Connecticut. A particularly good vein of brown hematite iron ore runs through Salisbury, which is located in the Litchfield hills. According to John Pawloski’s book Connecticut Mining, the iron used in the building of the USS Constitution came entirely from the Mt. Riga blast furnace in Salisbury, CT. That would include her forty-four cannon.
There are other Connecticut connections to America's most famous ship. One of its early commanders was Isaac Hull, born in 1773 in Derby, CT. During the War of 1812, Hull was in command when the Constitution encountered the British warship HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812. To the utter delight of the nation, while under Hull’s command, the Constitution obliterated the British warship with its Connecticut-made cannons. In fact, as a result of its encounter with the Guerriere, the Constitution got its nickname - -Old Ironsides- - as several shots from the Guerriere actually bounced off the sides of the American ship. After that battle Old Ironsides forever endeared itself to the American public. Another Nutmegger, Commodore Oscar C. Badger, born in Mansfield, CT on August 12, 1823, also served as commander of the USS Constitution during his final sea command from 1878-1879.
Twice the Navy thought of decommissioning Old Ironsides. Twice the American people rose up in defiant outrage to beat back “the Harpies of the shore” and to preserve this iconic frigate. As a result, in its 213-year history, the USS Constitution has had to undergo several overhauls. From one of those overhauls, some original planks saved from the ship were used to make the front door at the C on 154 Bank Street in New London, Connecticut - another of the many connections that this legendary ship has with the Nutmeg State. So, if you cannot get to Boston to visit the ship, just go to New London, and you can touch a piece of Old Ironsides!
Notes, Sources, and Links:
- It is considered a high honor for navy personnel to be assigned to duty onboard the Constitution.
- Connecticut Mining by John A. Pawloski (2006)
- The Commodore Isaac Hull Bridge connects Derby with Shelton over the Housatonic River.
- Destroyer #126 is named the Badger after Commodore Badger of Mansfield.
- Old Ironsides: The Fighting Constitution by H. Hansen (Landmark Book #51).
- Click on this link to view a very good video of the Salisbury Iron District.