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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Old Ironsides

by Elaine Marie Cooper

I first met her when I was a young teenager and I’ve never forgotten her beauty. Her nickname is “Old Ironsides” and she is the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat.

For years now she has been berthed at the Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston but her anchoring has not kept her from occasional voyages to celebrate her greatness. She sailed under her own power in 1997 to celebrate her 200th birthday.

Her official name is the USS Constitution and she was one of six vessels authorized for construction by the newly formed United States Navy, enacted by the Naval Act in 1794. She was given her name by none other than President George Washington in honor of this nation’s Constitution. Her launching in 1797 was attended by then-President John Adams. She and the other frigates were built larger than traditional ships of that day: They needed to be strong enough for war.

The Constitution did not have to wait long to fulfill her purpose. She was assigned to protect American merchant vessels from pirates along the Barbary Coast of North Africa in the early 1800’s.

She is most well known for her involvement in the War of 1812 as we, once again, fought against Great Britain, following our victory in the American Revolution. She defeated five British warships, including HMS Guerriere. That was the victory that earned her the name, “Old Ironsides.”

During the Civil War, she was used for training purposes by the United States Naval Academy. Old Ironsides was retired from active service in 1881.

For years, the love of the American people has kept her from the scrap heap that is the burial ground for most naval vessels that have served their country. Affection has kept her afloat and today, she is a museum ship visited by thousands every year. In August of 2012, she did a victory sail to commemorate the 200th anniversary of her victory over the Guerriere.

Her mission today—for she is still a fully commissioned US Navy ship—is to promote understanding of the Navy’s role in both war and peace. The USS Constitution is staffed by a crew of sixty active-duty officers and sailors. Their assignment is to participate in special events and educational programs.

From the moment I stepped aboard Old Ironsides so many years ago, I fell in love with her. She stirred both an affection for history and a pride in our country that has never left my heart. She will always remind me that, although the Constitution may go through many a battle, she can stay afloat in the storms, with God’s help.

                                                             *     *     *
Oliver Wendell Holmes

This poem, written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, first appeared in the Boston Daily Advertiser on September 16, 1830. It was in response to a proposal to break up the old ship as unfit for service.


Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar;--
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor's tread,
Or know the conquered knee;--
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered bulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

Elaine Marie Cooper grew up in the Boston area, visiting the historical sites of our nation's founding. She has written Fields of the Fatherless, a young adult novel based on a true story from the American Revolution. You can visit her website/ blog here.


  1. Lovely post, Elaine! The poem was a great addition. We have the Mariner's Museum in Newport News (America's National Maritime Museum) which has all kinds of cool stuff. Used to be a member but haven't been in a while. Now you make me want to get out and do something nautical! Thanks, Elaine.

  2. Grab your sailor's cap, Carrie! ;) I would love to visit the Mariner's Museum some day. I am so grateful for the history left behind that so many have endeavored to preserve. Thanks for commenting, Carrie!

  3. Love this! I had no idea this ship was so old! Interesting that they wanted to decommission her less than 35 years after it was built. She must have seen some hard wear during her early life!

    1. I can only imagine the scars she bore, Shannon! Thank God public outcry won the day so we can still treasure her beauty. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Enjoyed your post Elaine. What a great reminder of our history. Years ago my husband and I went to Williamsburg, VA and visited Jamestown. We took a tour of one of the ships there, which really opens our eyes to how the men on these ships lived.

    1. It is mind-boggling, isn't it? The close quarters, low must have been miserable, especially if you were feeling at all seasick. :( I hope I can visit the ships near Jamestown some day. It must have been amazing! So grateful you stopped by, Miss Tina!

  5. Great post Elaine. I've never been aboard the Constitution, but I've sailed on the SS Independence and SS Constitution in the 1950's.

    The ships at Jamestown are all different sizes and smaller than Old Ironsides. I wouldn't even go out on the James River (where they are located) in the smallest one. I have a friend that has sailed in them. Low ceilings and close quarters is right.

  6. Visiting these historic ships is an unforgettable experience, Janet. I would love to visit Jamestown and hope to someday. Not certain if I'd have the courage to sail on one of those ancient hulls, though, but it would be amazing! :) Thanks for commenting!

  7. Thanks for this interesting post Elaine. Would love to visit this great ship. Do they let people go inside? We have the Texas battleship here about 20 min. from where I live. It's parked near the San Jacinto Monument is, which was a battle with mexico. I went down in it when my oldest children were small. Saw the bunks and even the jail. Didn't care for the stairs either. I had a friend visit from WYO. and took him out to see it. His brother had served on that ship. But was closed so he couldn't go inside. But I was happy to take his picture beside it to show to his other brothers. I would love to visit Old ironsides.You girls make me want to see so many places that will never happen. Thanks for the post.
    Maxie > mac262(at)me(dot)com <

  8. Hi Maxie. Yes, you get to go inside! It is a wonderful tour and I'll never forget the Naval uniforms on mannequins that were so small, they looked like they'd fit a child! Nutrition was not always the best in those days. :( The ceilings were so low, my very tall brother-in-law had to bend over to walk inside! I truly hope you can visit her someday, Maxie. She is a beautiful remembrance of early America!

  9. When she was taken out to the harbor for the War of 1812 Bicentennial, I got a bit misty-eyed!

  10. When my oldest children were young, we visited Boston and went aboard. I was amazed how clean the deck was ~ you could have eaten off of it. A beautiful memory of this magnificent ship of our heritage. Kathleen ~ Lane Hill House


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