18 Jun Have You Sailed Aboard Old Ironsides?
If you were anywhere near Boston Harbor on Friday, June 8th, you may have seen the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides” moving placidly through the inner harbor on one of several “turnarounds” of the 1790s ship, or you may have heard her 21-gun salute at Fort Independence in South Boston or at the Cassin Young in the Navy Yard
Built in Boston beginning in 1794, the USS Constitution was launched in 1797 as part of the young American effort to build a Navy and maritime defense. The ship saw skirmishes on the Barbary Coast in the early 19thcentury and traveled frequently along the east coast and Caribbean. It is best known for its extraordinary success in battles of the War of 1812, when it also took on the nickname “Old Ironsides” since its hull seemed impenetrable to opposing cannon balls.
The ship has traveled throughout the world on behalf of the US Navy over its 221 year history, and has experienced many restorations and “re-fits” over the centuries. It was almost lost, particularly around 1830, when Bostonian Oliver Wendell Holmes published his call to action the poem “Old Ironsides.”
Another famous campaign in the 1920s, when the ship needed substantial restoration, was the Pennies campaign. The Secretary of the Navy aimed to supplement budgeted funds for the ship with a campaign of pennies donated by children throughout the country. Although the grassroots campaign raised only $150,000 of the roughly $400,000 necessary, it captured the public’s attention and encouraged the Navy to find the rest through a combination of public budgets and the sale of promotional materials like posters, and even objects made from rope and wood from the ship as it was restored.
Today, the USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned military ship afloat in the world. It is manned by commissioned Navy officers and sailors who support its important ceremonial and historical functions. It sits in the Charlestown Navy Yard, which is managed and interpreted by the National Park Service.
The practice of “turning around” or “winding a ship” is a centuries old effort to shift a wooden ship at least once annually for its hull to weather evenly and avoid deterioration if it does not move occasionally in the water.
There are several turnarounds for the USS Constitution annually and they usually correspond to an important day in American or sea faring history. June’s turnaround with roughly 400 people on board – including the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of the Interior – commemorated the Battle of Midway in World War Two. Several veterans of that war were on board, including one member of the Tuskeegee Airmen.
Another turnaround is coming up on July 4thto commemorate American Independence, and an October 21stevent marks the USS Constitution’s birthday. Those who make it aboard the ship are chosen by lottery, so you too have a chance to join a ride on the great ship. But, even without a ceremonial ride, visiting the USS Constitution at its pier in the Charlestown Navy Yard and the Constitution Museum, which you can do throughout the year, is a rich experience in American history and Boston’s importance in the early republic.
We learned a lot about the US Navy, the history of ship building in America, and the operation of a vessel at war in the 19thcentury. We witnessed the great ceremony of a 21-gun salute at Fort Independence in South Boston, and a 17-gun salute at the World War Two-era Cassin Young. And, like a 19thcentury Bostonian, we had the great pleasure of seeing our city from the water.