Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Today In History: Old Ironsides.

On this date in 1812, one of the touchstone episodes in the history of the U.S. Navy occurred.

A British naval squadron had been pursuing the U.S. frigate Constitution. On August 19, one of their number, HMS Guerrierre, had the misfortune of catching her.

The battlecruisers of their day, the U.S. 44-gun frigates were unusually heavy for their class; anything they couldn't out-shoot, they could outrun. Anything they couldn't outrun...

Constitution shot Guerrierre to ribbons, dismasting her in a short, sharp fight, and earning her nickname of "Old Ironsides" as the British broadsides proved ineffective against her thick timbers of Georgia live oak. The victorious ship became something of a mascot to the U.S.N., so far did its exploits go to boost morale in the fledgling service.

USS Constitution is still on the Navy's rolls, and remains afloat in Boston.


Anonymous said...

And excellent design for fighting the 800lb naval gorilla of it's day, the RN. And generally fighting fuzzy wuzzy's and other riff raff.

The USN couldn't hope to meet the ships of the line of the major powers, so they designed something that could maul lessor units and run away from larger units.

Similarly, the British of the just earlier period had a couple of lightly built "ships of the line" e.g. HMS Honster, that were very fast and stayed around the British Isles for the sole purpose of dealing with French/Dutch/etc... privateers and pirates.

Overwhelming firepower and decent speed made them very frightening to same, but almost useless dukeing it out gunport to gunport in a line battle against Spanish or French 3 deckers though due to lighter build. Excellent to clean up Frigates and small fry.

Jay G said...

Chalk up one benefit to living in MA.

I can walk aboard Ol' Ironsides pretty much any time I want.

In fact, I think it's about time my son took a tour...

JD said...

She is well worth the visit if you ever get the chance

Anonymous said...

The "super-frigates" were so powerful that the Brits gave orders that no RN frigate was to engage one-on-one with a USN super-frigate. Minimum ratio was two to one.

Oldsmoblogger said...

I believe I'll raise a Commodore Perry IPA to Joshua Humphreys this evening.

Freddyboomboom said...

And the tour guides, in their period uniforms, are active duty squids.

I would have liked to get that duty, but I definitely wasn't squared away enough to try for it.

docjim505 said...

Tam - The victorious ship became something of a mascot to the U.S.N., so far did its exploits go to boost morale in the fledgling service.

A few thoughts on Old Ironsides and the Navy in general.

1. Constitution certainly deserves first place among the great ships of our Navy, but our bluejackets had already proved that they were the match for the 800 pound gorilla both during the War for Independence and in other ships during the War of 1812, establishing a tradition of courage and skill unsurpassed by any other navy in the world (given that the competition includes the British, Germans, and Japanese, that's saying something).

2. There were only a few ships like Constitution. Indeed, there were only a few ships in the US Navy at the time. The fact that Britain enjoyed naval superiority (virtual naval supremacy) is due entirely to feckless politicians, notably President Jefferson, who thought that having a large, blue-water navy was a waste of time and money for the United States. Jefferson had the mad idea that we could have fleets of small gunboats (the contemporary equivalent of a PT boat) that could keep the coasts free of enemy ships. A stupid idea even if he'd bothered to build such fleets.

Did I mention that President Jefferson was what we would now consider to be a (spit) democrat?

3. I recall reading that Constitution was barred entry into Boston harbor at one point during the War of 1812. It seems that the (ahem) good citizens of that city wanted a US warship around about as much as modern-day San Francisco. But I guess I shouldn't question their patriotism. I believe the term used back then was "Mr. Madison's War". Why does this sort of thing sound familiar?

Long and short: our country has always been blessed with great naval fighting men... no thanks to certain (ahem) misguided Americans who think that we can have peace by being ready to merely defend ourselves when the enemy comes... or by pretending that it's somebody else's war.

Our motto ought always to be "A Navy Second to None". And an Army, and an Air Force. I would also add the Marines, but IMO they are already second to none.

Anonymous said...

My father-in-law, a mister P. R. Evans, went on the Connies last cruise. It was a goodwill tour around the world I think.
He was a special guest on her birthday in Boston and was recieved very well by the Captain.
He is 92 now and is the 'Greeter' at the Star of India [an old Bark which still sails] in San Diego.
If any old salts have time for a story or two, say hi to him and ask about his last cruise.

Irishdoh said...

Once again, I read a post, follow a link and find that two hours have gone by. Between you and Lawdog, I swear I get nothin done somedays.... Keep up the great work!

Larry said...

Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat in the world (HMS Victory is the oldest commissioned warship, but it's in permanent drydock).
Thanks for remembering her Tam.

Ed Foster said...

The trick to making Old Ironsides and her sister ships was using live oak, the carbon composite of it's day, as special ribs inside the regular ribs.
Each live oak stringer travelled from under it's gun to the center of the keel, keeping the weight of all that ordnance in the middle of the ship.
When the Brits tried it without the stringers, the keels hogged (bowed)and the guns had to be removed to keep the frigates from breaking in half.
A few of their larger frigates, mostly captured Frenchies, carried 18 pounders. The older, mass produced Athena class soldiered (sailored?)on for more than half a century with 12 pounders.
Our 24 pounder frigates could go gun to gun with a British two decker in bad weather, when they couldn't open their lower gunports without foundering. The sides of Old Ironsides are white oak, about two feet thick, counting the ribs.

Kristopher said...

The Constitution class were not, technically, Frigates.

They were purpose-built Razees. The shipwright was impressed by the performance of some French Razees ( 2nd rate Ships Of the Line that were chopped by removing the top deck, but leaving the bottom two decks and masts/sails intact ).

He built all three of the Constitution class ships using those Razees as a rough guide.

This resulted in a frigate sized ship, with 2nd class SOL sails and guns on two decks, and a SOL thickness hull.

Just plain nasty for that day.

markm said...

I'd say that even though they were the size of a razee, they were frigates in that the hulls were purpose-built for speed. Lots of speed. Most were designed by Baltimore naval architects in the tradition that began with inventing the schooner and ended with the clipper ships. Very few of the British frigates could match their speed, so British frigate captains rarely managed to follow that Admiralty order to fight our frigates only at two-to-one odds. The problem was that the ships had to come home now and then, and that put them in narrow waters where they might be forced into a fight they didn't choose, maybe even into slugging it out with a ship of the line - and those ships had even thicker sides and heavier guns. But yes, as long as they stayed out of traps, the spar-deck frigates could outrun anything they couldn't outfight, and sometimes it was surprising what they could outfight.

There was another factor besides the ships: American crews were far superior. After 20 years of fighting the French, the Brits were scraping the bottom of the barrel for naval manpower. Their crews were old and tired, ours were fresh. Theirs were informally drafted by press gangs, ours were volunteers. Also, the Admiralty thought target practice was a waste of expensive powder and shot, and gunsights were useless; the USN felt quite differently, and so the Connie could not only pump out about twice as much lead per minute as a British frigate, but a lot more of it went where it counted.