USS Constitution—Significant Rebuilding/Repair/Restoration Periods
USS Constitution at May’s Wharf, Boston, for overhaul, including: new decking, select hull planking, repairs to chain and fire pumps, new yards, and other spars; hove down for new copper sheathing, hull caulking, and preparations for departure for Mediterranean Sea as squadron flagship.
Collision between USS Constitution and USS President, 12 September, Tripoli; extensive damage to Constitution’s bow area included: complete destruction of Hercules figurehead and cutwater; flying and standing jib booms and sprit sail yard carried away. Throughout the rest of September and into mid-October, Constitution’s bow was rebuilt, including a new billethead for decoration, re-caulking of decks, rigging, and spar work, etc.
April–June: Overhauled, Washington Navy Yard — included heaving down to clean and repair copper sheathing, new decking, new spars and rigging.
1812 and 1813
Repairs from battles with HMS Guerriere (19 August 1812) and HMS Java (29 December 1812), included being hove down, Charlestown Navy Yard.
Overhauled, Charlestown Navy Yard — included repairs from battle damage from 20 February 1815, battle with HMS Cyane and HMS Levant; hove down and copper sheathing replaced; prepared for departure for the Mediterranean.
Winter/spring — “a complete overhaul” at Port Mahon, according to George Jones’ 1829 Sketches of Naval Life…from the Brandywine and Constitution Frigates, vol. 2; 219. Fall — survey of physical condition of USS Constitution at the Charlestown Navy Yard in preparation for extensive rebuilding.
First ever dry docking of Constitution, Charlestown Navy Yard (24 June 1833 docked) — extensive hull and structural replacement work.
Constitution “docked” — dry docked — at Norfolk Navy Yard in late 1843 or only in January 1844, in preparation for her around-the-world cruise; several sheets of copper along the keel were replaced; below-the-waterline condition otherwise good, according to Captain John Percival.
Overhauled, Charlestown Navy Yard — included longitudinal plans drawn of the ship by Samuel Pook, dated 1847 and 1849; beginning transition of USS Constitution from active warship to sailing training vessel for the United States Naval Academy.
Constitution at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard; hauled (1858), part of the transition to a stationary school ship at the U.S. Naval Academy; classrooms and separate spaces set aside below decks for the instruction of the midshipman, including a structure over the main hatch and a poop cabin on the after part of the quarter deck; it is likely that the stern windows were changed during this rebuild, from six original windows at the captain’s cabin to three windows and two portholes, and three windows at upper transom level.
On-again, off-again rebuild of Constitution, Philadelphia Navy Yard; hauled, hull planking stripped off, billet head replaced along with much bow work; ship was used as one of two transport vessels to take the U.S. exhibits to the Paris Exposition of 1878; cargo capacity of Constitution had to be at its greatest for this trip.
17 January — While sailing from France back to the United States, Constitution ran aground off the south coast of England
21 January — Dry docked at Dock #11, Portsmouth Shipyard, England, to assess damage (if any)
24 January — Undocked; no visible damage from grounding
5 September — Dry docked, Brooklyn Navy Yard
10 September — Undocked, Brooklyn Navy Yard
“Cosmetic” work on Constitution, Charlestown Navy Yard; considered the first true restoration of the ship as the goal was to strip away the receiving ship “house,” restore a sailing rig, correct the hull structure to her 1812 era, and create replica long guns so that Constitution would exhibit an outward appearance of that of a War of 1812 vessel. The restoration work was well-intentioned, but historically inaccurate concerning the replica guns and elements of the rig; little-to-nothing below decks was restored or updated.
First significant 20th century restoration; 85% of Constitution was replaced while she was in Dry Dock #1, Charlestown Navy Yard; ship’s plans from several 19th century eras used, thereby creating a representation of a warship that had never actually existed in the U.S. Navy; for 80 years, the vessel created from the 1927 restoration was billed as representing Constitution from her War of 1812 era, which was not the case.
USS Constitution was dry docked occasionally during this period for hull plank replacement, caulking, rigging work including masts and yards, etc. There is no significant work executed on the ship during this nearly 30-year period of time; in the 1960s the transition from hemp to polypropylene rigging occurred and the use of laminated white oak and Douglas fir began.
Constitution dry docked (1973-1974) and significant below-the-waterline work was executed, including replacing the copper sheathing installed in the 1927 restoration, some framing and rigging work; beginning of research into the 1812 configuration of Constitution’s hull.
Constitution dry docked (1992-1995) for the second most important 20th century restoration; using research into the historical record, this dry docking put forward the 5-part strengthening initiative — recreating and installing into the ship structural elements with which she had been built, but which had long ago been lost; replacement of spar deck; significant updating of the ship’s rig — the oldest known model of USS Constitution, the 1812 “Isaac Hull” model at the Peabody Essex Museum, was an important 3-D piece of historic documentation that helped to inform the upgrade to the rigging, etc.
21 July 1997
USS Constitution sailed under her own power, downwind for one hour, for the first time in 116 years, in commemoration of her 200th anniversary.
Water-borne restoration of Constitution; the upper bulwarks were lowered, and the waist bulwarks were opened as per 1812 configuration — 20 tons of unnecessary upper hull structure removed, thereby relieving excess weight from 215-year-old keel; spar deck replaced; select deck beams replaced; select hull planking replaced.
19 August 2012
USS Constitution sailed for ~15 minutes, downwind, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and in particular Constitution’s victory over HMS Guerriere on 19 August 1812.
18 May 2015
USS Constitution entered Dry Dock #1, Charlestown Navy Yard, for 26-month restoration including replacement of select hull planks, the 1995 copper sheathing and below-the-waterline caulking, deck beams, etc.
23 July 2017
USS Constitution undocked from Dry Dock #1, Charlestown Navy Yard.
1. Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship, A Narrative History of Old Ironsides. Naval Institute Press (Annapolis, MD: 1997).
2. Martin, Tyrone G. "Constitution’s Major Maintenance", list compiled from Martin’s essay "USS Constitution – Historical Maintenance & Structural Information", as part of the USS Constitution Maintenance Manual, 1982.
3. Desy, Margherita M. "USS Constitution - Dry-dockings & Costs: 20th Century", researched & written 2012, up-dated 2014.
4. Knox, Capt. Dudley W. Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers. United States Government Printing Office (Washington, DC: 1939+), volume V.
5. Percival, John to David Henshaw, Secretary of the Navy, January 16, 1844. Record Group 45 "Captains’ Letters", Roll 308, #83, National Archives & Records Administration
Researched and written by the Historian, Naval History & Heritage Command, Detachment Boston, updated April, 2019.