Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Copper Sheathing for USS Constitution

Margherita M. Desy, Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command, Detachment Boston

On March 27, 1794, Congress passed the “Act to provide a Naval Armament” which authorized President George Washington to acquire a fleet to create the new United States Navy. Joshua Humphreys, a ship designer in Philadelphia, had persuasively argued for frigates (medium-sized sailing warships) as they would be the most economical, allowing the new Navy to get the most ship for the $600,000 allocated for creating the fleet.

Paul Revere, of “Midnight Ride” fame in the American Revolution, was a 60-year-old silversmith, merchant, and foundry man in 1794. He contracted with Henry Jackson, the Boston Naval Agent in charge of obtaining materials for the building of USS Constitution, to provide the copper and brass fittings for the ship “…as cheap as anyone and as well.”1 Revere manufactured a 242-pound bell, the copper rudder chains, and other fittings for Constitution.2

Each of the six frigates was to be “copper bottomed”; that is, covered below the waterline in thousands of pieces of overlapping copper sheets. England’s Royal Navy began copper cladding its warships in 1758 and found it extended the life of the ships by preventing boring mollusks from destroying the wood. Copper sheathing also allowed for greater ease in cleaning barnacles and crustaceans from ships’ bottoms.3 The new U.S. Navy was to do the same and, because rolled copper sheathing was not yet manufactured in America, Paul Revere became the “middleman” and acquired sheet copper that was manufactured in Great Britain and sold to the U.S. Navy. Enclosed with a letter dated April 21, 1794, Joshua Humphreys listed “An estimate of the quantity of Timber Plank &c for a frigate…” the size of Constitution, including the copper needed “12000 feet of sheet copper for bottom.”4

On July 2, 1797, just months before Constitution was to be launched in Boston Harbor, the Secretary of War wrote to George Claghorne, Constitution’s Naval Constructor, "It being of importance to the United States that the Frigate Constitution should be coppered on the Stocks before she is Launched into the Water – you will therefore be pleased to cause the said Ship to be coppered as high as light water mark as soon as the Bottom is prepared, as it will prevent heaving down afterwards and a Consequent heavy expense…”5

In early 1803, USS Constitution was readied by Commodore Edward Preble for a lengthy voyage to and deployment in the Mediterranean Sea against the North African Barbary Corsairs. The 1797 copper sheathing was worn out, and new sheathing was needed. Enter Paul Revere again and, by the 1803 re-fit of Constitution, he had a copper rolling mill in operation in Canton, Massachusetts, and was able to provide the thousands of sheets of copper needed for the ship.

Throughout the 19th century, Constitution’s copper sheathing would be periodically replaced. Beginning with the 1833 docking of the ship in the Charlestown Navy Yard’s new dry dock, souvenirs were fashioned from the copper sheathing (a miniature copper kettle was made from copper removed in the mid-19th century). In the 20th century, the sheathing was replaced several times. In the 1927–1931 extensive restoration of Constitution, the final restoration report tallied the following about the copper:

"Ship has been copper sheathed from keel to 23’ 6” aft and to a height of 21’ 0” forward - 3,400 sheets of copper, 14” x 48”, in various weights; 28-oz. between keel and shoe, 26-oz. at turn of bilge and at water line; remainder 22-oz., all of which is secured to wood planking by 1 1/8” and 1 ¼” copper sheathing nails. Approximately 12.5 tons of sheathing copper, 1600 pounds [copper] sheathing nails, 38.4 tons new copper fastening[s] used; 4 tons old copper fastening [reused?], 8 tons old copper left in ship; a total of 63.7 tons of copper now in the ship.” 6

The ship’s copper sheathing was replaced in the 1973-1974 docking and again in the 1992-1996 dry docking and restoration. The Revere Copper Company bid and supplied the 3,200 sheets installed in 1995. Twenty-two hundred sheets of the 1995 Revere Copper Company sheathing were removed and replaced in the 2015-2017 dry docking and restoration. Several different copper companies supplied the sheathing for the 2015-2017 restoration.

Notes

1.   As quoted in: Esther Forbes, Paul Revere & the World He Lived In (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943), 378.

2.   Edgard Moreno, “Patriotism and Profit: The Copper Mills at Canton,” in Paul Revere – Artisan, Businessman, and Patriot: The Man Behind the Myth, The Paul Revere Memorial Association (Boston, Massachusetts: The Paul Revere Memorial Association, 1988), 98.

3.   Joshua Humphreys’ enclosure in letter, Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton from Secretary of War, James McHenry, 21 April 1794. Naval Documents Related to the…Barbary Powers, Volume 1, 1785-1801 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1939), 73, 75.

4.   Secretary of War, James McHenry, to George Claghorne, 27 July 1797. Naval Documents…Barbary Wars, Volume 1, 205.

5.   Commandant, [U.S. Navy Yard], Boston, “U.S. Frigate Constitution (IX21) – Research Memorandum,” date stamped “Nov 27 1931,” 60. The final phrase, “…total of 63.7 tons of copper now in the ship” is ambiguous—does this weight refer to all copper in the ship’s structure, including pins, bolts, etc.? Or, did it mean only the copper sheathing and sheathing nails used below the waterline (whether new or re-used copper)?

6.   Note: The 1992–1996 restoration weights provided do not include copper bolts in USS Constitution, therefore this is not a weight of the total amount of copper currently in the ship.

Published: Tue Dec 12 07:45:08 EST 2017