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Matthew J. Singleton
[email protected]
Port of New York
The Pride of a Young Nation
She rests alongside her berth at Charlestown, in the shadow of Bunker Hill, an old war horse in its
pasture. There is no hum of machinery or coils of steam rising in the cold morning air as you would see from
her modern grey sisters. Instead, the only sounds are the gulls circling her tall masts and the waters of Boston
Harbor lapping at her oak hull. The oldest commissioned warship in the world, she is the United States Ship
Constitution; and after 215 years since her hull first tasted salt water, still the heart and soul of the U.S. Navy.
Together with her five sister frigates that were ordered by President Washington to defend the coasts and trade
of the new nation, she formed the backbone of American naval power well into the mid-1800s. During the War
of 1812 when the American Army and militia were repeatedly out maneuvered by the vastly more experienced
British Army, it was the U.S. Navy that regularly scored the nation’s victories on the remote and storm tossed
battlefields of the world’s oceans.
When Constitution was launched in Boston on October 21, 1797, for a total cost to the tax payers of $302,718,
she was one of the most technologically advanced machines of the time. Her brilliant designer Joshua
Humphreys had not simply built another frigate; he had carefully taken into consideration the political and
military situation facing the United States at the time and built the best solution possible, a super-frigate.
Knowing the U.S. could never match her most likely foe, the massive Royal Navy, ship to ship, she was
uniquely designed to be a naval survivor. With her long keel, narrow beam and tall masts, Constitution was
able to out-sail any larger British ship-of-the-line, while her unusually heavy battery of 24 and 32-pounders
gave her superiority over any opponent in her own class or smaller. Great speed and heavy guns were
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combined with tough live oak planking and strong rib framing that turned out to be especially resistant to enemy
fire, earning the ship the timeless name “Old Ironsides.”
At the start of the War of 1812 the United States Navy consisted of the original six frigates, Chesapeake,
Congress, Constellation, Constitution, President and United States which were constructed during the
administrations of Presidents Washington and Adams, as well as 14 smaller vessels plus the also small but fast
vessels of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. Added to this were several hundred privateers authorized by
Congress to make war on British shipping, but owned and operated independently of Navy control. Though
small the U.S. Navy was a professional force, its vessels well maintained and its officers and crews were
expertly trained and proficient at their calling. Already, this young organization had developed a strong sense
of pride and dedication to duty; this pride being one of the causes that started the War of 1812.
Because of its all-out effort to defeat France and its allies during the Napoleonic War, the Royal Navy
was quickly running out of man power. Its vast fleet was stretched thin trying to maintain a presence around the
world while also attempting to keep the French and Spanish fleets blockaded in port. Some British sailors had
escaped from fleet service by joining the U.S. merchant fleet and Navy. To Great Britain this gave the Royal
Navy the excuse it needed to stop not only American merchant ships but also naval vessels, to search for and
regain their escaped seamen as well as any cargo that did not originate in or was not bound for a British port. In
an age before real documentation, however, it was often difficult to differentiate English sailors from
Americans. In one case that truly enraged the U.S. Navy and the American people, the British frigate HMS
Leopard stopped the frigate U.S.S. Chesapeake, opened fire on it without provocation killing several of its crew,
and then took several men off for service onboard. This was a serious insult to the young nation and helped to
set the fuse towards war.
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By the War of 1812, the Royal Navy had already been engaged in the Wars of the French Revolution
and the Napoleonic War for almost two decades. Britain’s massive fleet of 600 ships, 175 of which were ships
of the line rated for major combat, was deployed around the world to maintain the Empire and its trade. The
British fleet at one point was in action simultaneously against the French, Spanish, Dutch and Danish navies,
defeating them all by battle and blockade. Fortunately for the United States, Britain was still primarily focused
on defeating Napoleon in 1812, which tied up the majority of its massive fleet in Europe. Never-the-less, the
Royal Navy was still able to launch major amphibious campaigns against the Americans, leading to the capture
and burning of Washington D.C. and its attempt to take New Orleans.
Within hours after the U.S. declared war against Great Britain, Captain of the U.S.S. Constitution Isaac
Hull was in Washington D.C. clarifying to America’s leaders what role the Navy could play in the new conflict.
Initially, President Madison and his cabinet had intended for the Navy to remain in the secure littoral waters of
the United States in order to protect returning merchant shipping; but after successful efforts by Commodore
John Rodgers to advocate forming two squadrons of ships with the mission of searching for Royal Navy
convoys, Madison authorized two roving squadrons “afford our returning commerce, all possible protection.”
Before the order could reach Commodore Rogers and his squadron of four ships led by U.S.S. President, he had
already sailed from the port of New York in search of British convoys.
Finally, the American Navy set out to find the Royal Navy, which outnumbered it by almost 50 to 1.
Within two months the Constitution engaged and sank the British frigate HMS Guerriere, from which she
received her name of “‘Ol’ Ironsides,” as Guerriere’s cannon balls were seen bouncing off Constitution’s sides.
On 29 December 1812, Constitution then encountered the 38-gun HMS Java off the coast of Brazil, taking her
after a sharp fight and later burning her due to the extreme damage she received, in addition U.S.S. President
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fought and captured HMS Macedonian earlier in October 1812 while U.S.S. Essex caused a swath of damage to
British trade in the Pacific capturing 15 merchantmen and whalers before finally being tracked down and
captured by two British warships.
After many American defeats ashore, among them General Hull’s (a relative Constitution’s Captain,
Issac Hull) of surrender of Detroit in August 1812, a renewed source of pride and good morale came from U.S.
Naval victories at sea. Notable among such victories was the September 5th 1813 battle between U.S.S.
Enterprise and HMS Boxer. The vicious 40 minute engagement was viewed by hundreds of spectators on shore,
standing on Maine’s Pemaquid Point and Monhegan Island. Never before had the average citizen been so
directly exposed to war, and it was said that as the firing began to stop and smoke began to clear, the people of
the island and peninsula “strained their necks to see which way the two ships would sail.” West to Portland
Harbor would indicate that the U.S.S. Enterprise had been victorious and taken HMS Boxer as her prize, but
East to the Royal Navy’s Halifax base would tell the opposite. To the delight of American bystanders, the
Enterprise was victorious. This occurrence alone gave Americans immeasurable trust in their Navy.
While the most memorable naval actions of the war were single-ship actions, the U.S. Navy also
participated in large fleet actions. Ironically, none of these were at sea, but instead on the strategically
important North American lakes. At the start of the war the U.S. launched several poorly planned attempts to
invade Canada, all of which were thwarted by the British Army and Canadian militia. The British then used
Canada as a springboard to invade the United States. During the Battle of Lake Erie on 13 December 1813, an
American fleet of nine vessels built on the lake and commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry fought and defeated a
6-ship British fleet. This victory allowed the U.S. to maintain control of the lake, recover the city of Detroit,
which was captured earlier by the British, and helped to break up the alliance between Britain and Native
American allies. A year later on 11 September 1814, a British fleet of 4 ships and 12 gun boats attempted to
support an army moving down along Lake Champlain, New York, to begin an invasion of the northern states.
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However, an equal fleet of U.S. Navy vessels met the British and defeated them off the coast of the city of
Plattsburgh.
By 1814 the Napoleonic War had ended and Great Britain was able to transfer significant forces at last
to the American theater. At this point most of the U.S. Navy found itself blockaded in port. In the summer of
1814 the British launched their Chesapeake Campaign during which the Royal Navy was able to land an army
that later seized and burned Washington D.C. As great a setback as this loss was to the American cause,
Britain’s attack on Baltimore was defeated as described in Frances Scott Key’s famous poem “The Star
Spangled Banner.” On 24 December 1814 the Treaty of Ghent was signed, effectively ending the war.
However, due to the slow speed of trans-Atlantic communications at the time, hostilities continued. Outside the
city of New Orleans, General, and future U.S. president, Andrew Jackson successfully defeated a British
invasion while U.S.S. Constitution captured HMS Levant and Cyane, both after the treaty had been signed. The
final naval action of the war occurred on 30 June 1815 when the sloop U.S.S. Peacock captured the East India
Company brig Nautilus.
The sea engagements of “Mr. Madison’s War” not only represented another field of battle, but also one
of the last major conflicts of the “Age of Fighting Sail” as C.S. Forester had titled it. Soon after the war’s
termination, vessels could be seen with steam and smoke rising from funnels, and paddles propelling them
through the seas. And with the end of such an era, also came the end of what could be called “Chivalry at sea.”
Naval Officers of the time period were known as maritime warriors of the highest honor, meeting their foes in
on the sea, harnessing the winds of Earth herself to do battle. These men who lived by an unwritten code were
often known as “Knights of the Sea.” It was during this war that men of Mother England and the United States
met as foes in battle for the last time, and that the little United States Navy helped to establish a sense of pride
in it’s still young nation that can be seen in the heart of every American today.
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While the Royal Navy was America’s greatest opponent at sea during the War of 1812, its traditions, customs
and practices became the foundation of the U.S. Navy. This long and close relationship the two services shared
developed over two centuries, which were forged while fighting side by side in two world wars, and continues
today in naval operations around the globe.
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