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What is the USS Constitution?

By Steve R.
Updated May 17, 2024
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The USS Constitution, also known as “Old Ironsides,” is a famous and durable ship that was commissioned by President George Washington. The wooden frigate, or naval combat vessel, that could hold more than 40 guns first set sail 21 October 1797, and is known particularly for its exploits during the War of 1812. Removed from active duty in 1855, the USS Constitution resides in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Massachusetts, and the ship is a popular stop along the Freedom Trail.

The warship was built in response to attacks on US ships in the Mediterranean soon after the Revolutionary War. To protect American trade and sailors who were being enslaved, the United States authorized the creation of a Navy, which included the creation of six frigates. One of these frigates was the USS Constitution.

Designed by Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox, the Constitution was built to be strong enough to overpower any enemy ship within her class and quick enough to sail past more powerful enemies. The wood used for the ship came from trees from across the country. The ship’s hull is made of three layers of oak that in some points is 24 inches (about 61 cm) thick. This three-layered design allowed cannonballs to bounce of the ship, giving her the nickname “Old Ironsides.” Paul Revere, the famous patriot, built the Constitution's copper fastenings.

The USS Constitution was capable of traveling more than 15 miles per hour (about 24 kilometers per hour) and carried a crew of more than 450 men. Thanks to technology innovations, the frigate was capable of carrying guns much heavier than other comparable warships. The USS Constitution made use of diagonal riders that incorporated massive pieces of wood that transferred the frigate’s weight evenly preventing warping. This advantage allowed the USS Constitution to carry as many as 60 guns that were capable of shooting a range of 1,200 yards (about 1,097 meters).

During the War of 1812, Old Ironsides flexed her muscle. In 1812, the ship defeated HMS Guerriere in a battle that lasted a little more than a half hour. The American forces only lost seven men in the battle. During the war with Great Britain, the Constitution also scored decisive sea victories over HMS Java in 1812. In 1815, the Constitution had the last of her great major battles, defeating both the HMS Cyane and HMS Levant.

Old Ironsides was believed to have been scrapped in 1830. However, sympathy for the ship was fueled by a poem penned by Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1833, Congress appropriated funds for the ship to be restored. From 1927-1931, the Constitution went through a major overhaul. In 1934, Old Ironsides was brought to a Boston Navy yard, and now serves as a Naval ambassador to the public.

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