USS CONSTITUTION in the War of 1812
1812 - 1815
2012-2015 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.”
The Great Chase | Guerriere Battle | Java Battle | Cyane & Levant Battle | War of 1812 Battle Streamers
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 was 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.
Less than a month after the United States declared war on Great Britain, USS CONSTITUTION, under the command of Capt. Isaac Hull, was en route to New York, to join Commodore John Rodgers' squadron. Off the coast of Egg Harbor, NJ, she spent more than 50 hours outmaneuvering five English warships (HMS Aeolus, HMS Africa, HMS Belvidera, HMS GUERRIERE and HMS Shannon) in an agonizingly slow motion chase that proved her commanding officer’s leadership, her new crew’s teamwork, and her own ability to sail. In short, she demonstrated her readiness for the war and battles that lay ahead.
At about 4 p.m. on July 16, USS CONSTITUTION’s crew sighted an unknown ship to the northeast, which was joined by more ships early the next day - vessels Capt. Hulls initially believed were American. “One Frigate astern within about five or six miles, and a Line of Battle Ship, a Frigate, a Brig, and Schooner, about ten or twelve miles astern all in chase of us, with a fine breeze, and coming up very fast it being nearly calm where we were,” Hull wrote to the secretary of the Navy a few days later. “Soon after Sunrise the wind entirely left us, and the Ship would not steer…”
Greatly outnumbered and desperate to outrun his British adversaries, Capt. Hull ordered the nearly 500 men under his command into action, to make the 2,200-ton ship lighter and sail faster. They discharged thousands of gallons of drinking water over the side and doused the sails with water to take full advantage of the occasional light winds. As a defensive measure, the Sailors moved long guns on the frigate’s spar and gun decks to point astern at the closing enemy vessels. Additionally, small boats were launched for a towing operation called kedging - carrying small anchors ahead of the ship to be dropped into the coastal waters, and then painstakingly using the capstan to pull the ship forward to the submerged anchors.
The English forces concentrated their own kedging efforts on moving a single ship closer and closer to the American frigate, while ineffectual shots were occasionally fired between the British warship and their distant quarry throughout July 17-18.
By about 4 p.m. on July 18, USS CONSTITUTION had a 3-4 mile lead over her nearest pursuer. Hull ordered his men to shorten the ship’s sails in preparation for a squall a few hours later, and when the British ships did the same, the American captain unfurled the ship’s sails. USS CONSTITUTION raced away at 11 knots, almost her top operating speed, and the Royal Navy ships gave up the chase early the next morning.
The 44-gun frigate USS CONSTITUTION was actually outfitted with 55 guns when she encountered the 38-gun frigate HMS GUERRIERE (armed with 49 at the time) off the coast of Nova Scotia, at about 2 p.m. Closing the distance of several miles between the two warships, HMS GUERRIERE raised three British ensigns as an invitation to a duel; USS CONSTITUTION’s Capt. Isaac Hull answered with four American ensigns.
Aboard HMS GUERRIERE, Capt. James Dacres ordered his small but highly experienced crew to begin firing broadsides early. USS CONSTITUTION’s commanding officer chose to hold fire until just after 6 p.m., Hull wrote soon after the engagement, “…within less than a Pistol Shot, we commenced a very heavy fire from all of our Guns.”
In the course of this 35-minute battle, an astonished sailor observed British 18-lb. iron cannonballs, bouncing harmlessly off USS CONSTITUTION’s 25-inch oak hull, and he cried out, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!” Henceforth, USS CONSTITUTION carried the nickname “Old Ironsides.”
USS CONSTITUTION’s 24-lb. shots were devastating, bringing down the English warship’s masts, and entangling the two ships when they collided. The first United States Marine Corps officer to die in combat at sea was Lt. William Bush, who was shot on USS CONSTITUTION’s aft-rail while attempting to board HMS GUERRIERE.
By 7 p.m., a wounded Dacres ordered a gun fired to leeward, signaling HMS GUERRIERE’s surrender to the American frigate.
“The Guerriere was so cut up, that all attempts to get her in would have been useless,” Capt. Dacres explained in a letter to his superiors in England. “As soon as the wounded were got out of her, they set her afire, and I feel it my duty to state that the conduct of Captain Hull and his Officers to our Men has been that of a brave Enemy.”
HMS GUERRIERE sank into the sea in flames on Aug. 20, and USS CONSTITUTION returned to Boston on Aug. 30, to great fanfare.
The British reaction was summed up by the London Times, which stated, “It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken, after, what we are free to confess, may be called a brave resistance, but that it has been taken by a new enemy, and enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them. …how important this triumph is in giving a tone and character to the war. Never before in the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American.”
Less than five months after sinking HMS GUERRIERE, USS CONSTITUTION engaged a second British frigate during the War of 1812, this time about 30 miles off the coast of Brazil. Under the command of Capt. William Bainbridge, "Old Ironsides" was outfitted with 54 guns, and sailed under Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton's directive: "to annoy the enemy and afford protection to our commerce."
At 2 p.m., USS CONSTITUTION opened fire on HMS JAVA, a 38-gun ship that was smaller and faster than her adversary and commanded by Capt. Henry Lambert. HMS JAVA's opening salvo damaged USS CONSTITUTION's rigging and spars and wounded Bainbridge. Raking fire from HMS JAVA to the American frigate's stern shattered the helm and killed or injured the four helmsmen. Wounded a second time in the thigh, Bainbridge passed steering orders to Marines in the ship's tiller room, who moved the rudder using block and tackle.
Setting the fore and main courses, USS CONSTITUTION closed fast and delivered a broadside that destroyed HMS JAVA's bowsprit cap, jib boom and head sails. When the British frigate's bowsprit became entangled in the opposing vessel's mizzen rigging, Bainbridge seized the opportunity to fire a final broadside. USS CONSTITUTION's boarding party salvaged the helm from the dismasted HMS JAVA, to be outfitted aboard "Old Ironsides."
In his journal kept aboard USS CONSTITUTION, Bainbridge described the final moments of the battle that led to HMS JAVA's surrender at 5:25 p.m., shortly before sinking: "Got very close to the Enemy in a very effectual Raking Position, athwart his Bows, and was at the very instance of Raking him, when he most prudently Struck his Flag; for had he suffered the Broadside to have Raked him, his additional Loss must have been extremely great, as he laid an unmanageable Wreck upon the Water."
As many as 60 British seamen were killed in action, including Capt. Lambert. USS CONSTITUTION lost nine.
Following this battle, the British Admiralty - then the world's foremost maritime superpower - decreed their warships would no longer engage American frigates in combat unless in squadron force - that is, two or more to one.
The captains of USS CONSTITUTION, and the men-of-war HMS CYANE and HMS LEVANT, had no way of knowing that the War of 1812 had ended three days prior to this battle.
Sailing off the coast of Madeira, Spain, “Old Ironsides” encountered two smaller British ships in the afternoon. Outfitted with 52 guns, USS CONSTITUTION began exchanging fire with both ships, the 24-gun HMS CYANE (commanded by Capt. Thomas Gordon Falcon), as it sailed in formation behind the 18-gun HMS LEVANT (commanded by Capt. George Douglas). What followed would be one of the most brilliant examples of seamanship and tactics in the war.
In his official report, Capt. Stewart described the battle’s beginnings, at 6:05 p.m., “…commenced action by broadsides, both ships returning fire with great spirit for about 12 minutes, then the fire of the enemy beginning to slacken, and the great column of smoke collected under our lee, induced us to cease our fire to ascertain their positions and conditions.”
When the heavy gunpowder smoke that enclosed the three vessels cleared, USS CONSTITUTION was sailing parallel to HMS LEVANT, and delivered a broadside that prompted HMS LEVANT to disengage for repairs. At about that time, Capt. Stewart noticed HMS CYANE coming up on USS CONSTITUTION's stern. To avoid being raked, Captain Stewart ordered his men on the masts and the yards to "back sails," or sail the ship backward into a position where he delivered a crippling broadside to HMS CYANE. Capt. Falcon attempted to disengage, but after being raked again, had little choice but to strike HMS CYANE’s colors at 6:45 p.m.
Damaged but not yet defeated, HMS LEVANT returned at around 8:40 p.m. After 90 minutes of pursuit and at a range of about 50 yards with “Old Ironsides,” HMS LEVANT struck her colors shortly after 10 p.m.
With the two prize ships in company, Stewart turned his British prisoners over to the Portuguese in the Cape Verdes, but British frigates recaptured HMS LEVANT shortly afterward. HMS CYANE was sailed to America, where she was purchased by the U.S. Navy and recommissioned USS CYANE, and served in the fleet until in 1827.
Naval records reveal that USS CONSTITUTION was manned by about 451 men and boys during this battle, with about 7 – 14 percent being free black men. Among these was a boy named David Debias, who was born in Boston, in 1806, and worked as an officers’ servant aboard “Old Ironsides” from 1814-15. With the defeat and subsequent capture of HMS CYANE and HMS LEVANT, Debias was aboard the latter when it was recaptured by British forces, and became a prisoner of war and incarcerated in Barbados. Following his release, Debias served a second term in the U.S. Navy aboard USS CONSTITUTION from 1821-24.
The use of battle streamers had its beginnings in antiquity when various emblems were carried into combat. Today, this battle streamer recognizes 14 significant actions by the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812. It is one of 28 authorized to be affixed to the military flags of the United States as colorful symbols and reminders the decisive influence of sea power on the establishment of the nation. Stars on the Navy streamers follow the practice initiated during the World War II period for ribbons and medals -- that is, a bronze star for each action, and a silver star in lieu of five bronze stars. The Navy applies stars to appropriate ribbons throughout its history.
1. Constitution-Guerriere (19 August 1812)
2. United States-Macedonian (28 October 1812)
3. Constitution-Java (29 December 1812)
4. Chesapeake-Shannon (1 June 1813)
5. Essex-Phoebe and Cherub (28 March 1814)
6. Constitution-Cyane and Levant (20 February 1815)
7. Sloop-of-war and brig single ship actions
8. Commerce raiding in the Atlantic
9. Operations against whaling fleets in the Pacific
10. Battle of Lake Erie (10 September 1813)
11. Battle of Lake Champlain (11 September 1814)
12. Defense of Washington (July-August 1814)
13. Defense of Baltimore (September 1814)
14. Battle of New Orleans (December 1814-January 1815)