2012 marks the bicentennial of this conflict with England and her former North American colonies, a two-and-a-half year series of land and sea battles that has been referred to as the United States’ “Second War of Independence.”
USS CONSTITUTION was developed and built in response to the threat of Barbary corsairs, which threatened American merchant shipping off northern coast of Africa. Following the American Revolution, the United States' Continental Navy and disbanded, leaving the new nation without a credible seapower to defend its interests abroad. Signed into law on March 27, 1794 by President George Washington, the Naval Armament Act called for the construction of six frigates, to be built at shipyards along the eastern seaboard. The 44-gun USS CONSTITUTION, built in Boston, was launched on Oct. 21, 1797.
Following the American Revolution (1775-1783), the United States was a neutral and successful maritime trading party with England and France, countries that had been at war with each other since 1793. The British imposed embargoes and trade restrictions on America’s merchant fleet to limit trade with France, and, desperate for sailors to man her 600-ship fleet, impressed (kidnapped) more than 5,000 American sailors suspected of being former English subjects and forced them to serve aboard her ships. Also, territorial disputes over the Canadian border and America’s western frontier strongly contributed to the onset of the war.
As many Americans rallied around the slogan “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights,” President James Madison declared war on England on June 18, 1812.
At the outset of the War of 1812, USS CONSTITUTION had already won all of her engagements in two wars: the Quasi War with France (1798-1801) and the Barbary Wars (1801-1805). During the War of 1812, to the surprise of both the Americans and the British, she defeated four English warships, earning each of her three captains
a congressional gold medal. Upon returning to Boston from each victory at sea, the ship and her sailors were honored with parades and public adoration, and her legend grew into the national icon that “Old Ironsides” remains to this day.
USS CONSTITUTION was among the 22 commissioned warships of the United States’ 18-year-old Navy, compared to more than 80 British vessels on station off America’s eastern seaboard in 1812. While the American fleet boasted many successes during the War of 1812, their actions had little impact on the outcome of the war.
“Objective analysis of the War of 1812 must conclude that the victories of Constitution … had no direct effect on the course of the war,” explained Tyrone G. Martin in his history of USS CONSTITUTION, A Most Fortunate Ship. “The losses suffered by the Royal Navy were no more than pinpricks to the great fleet: they neither inspired its battle readiness nor disrupted the blockade of American ports… What Constitution did accomplish was to uplift American morale spectacularly and, in the process, end forever the myth that the Royal Navy was invincible.”
Throughout the next four decades following the War of 1812, USS CONSTITUTION secured numerous bloodless victories until she was taken out of active service in 1855. However, she is best remembered for that unparalleled string of successes two centuries ago, and she has never fired a round in combat since February, 1815, during her battle with HMS CYANE and HMS Levant.
Although a peace treaty between the United States and England was signed on Dec. 24, 1814 in Ghent, Belgium, and ratified on Feb. 15, 1815, sporadic battles between the two erupted for the next several months. The War of 1812 marks the last time America and Great Britain were on opposing sides of an armed conflict, and the beginning of the former’s rise to joining the latter as the world’s premiere maritime superpower.