The USS Constitution has now graced the United States with her service for more than two hundred years. Authorized by Congress in 1794, built in 1797, and launched in 1798, Constitution saw action in one undeclared war and two official wars and was a powerful arm of the United States military capable of carrying American firepower to distant parts of the globe. Let us look back on the glorious career of this ship and her perfect battle record.
She first went to sea to defend the rights of American seamen and merchants. By the end of the eighteenth century, French privateers were seizing merchant vessels bound for England in an attempt to injure the trade of their enemy. The Quasi War between the French and the Americans was waged from 1797 to 1801 in the Atlantic and the West Indies. The French sought to capture American ships, while the U.S. Navy protected American merchants and hunted down French privateers. The capture of the Sandwich in port by the crew of Constitution is an especially daring exploit of this quasi-war.
After peace was arranged with the French, the Constitution sailed to the Mediterranean Sea. Again her mission was to protect American merchants, this time from the powers of the Barbary Coast of North Africa. These states preyed on the shipping of any country in the Mediterranean who did not pay them tribute. The United States early in its history had paid tribute like most European countries, but the Jefferson administration changed the American policy and sent a naval squadron to protect American interests. Constitution first sailed there in 1803 and remained for four years. The highlight of her military action in that conflict was the bombardment of Tripoli with the rest of the U.S. fleet in late summer 1804.
After the Barbary powers were subdued, shortly after the attack on Tripoli, the United States was at peace. American merchants, however, still found it sometimes perilous to travel the West Indies and Atlantic. British warships continued their habit of stopping American merchants and pressing members of the crew into service as well as confiscating cargoes bound for their enemy, France. In 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. The War of 1812 saw numerous naval engagements, several involving the Constitution. Although she was laid up in dry dock for six months and blockaded in Boston Harbor for another six, Constitution managed to get to sea and defeat four frigates of the mighty British navy, including two on one day. Her ability to defeat enemy men-of-war without sustaining much damage herself gained Constitution the famed nickname she still holds today, "Old Ironsides." The success of the Constitution forced the Royal Navy to abandon the practice of one-on-one encounters between their frigates and the larger U.S. frigates for fear of losing more men-of-war.
After the War of 1812, Constitution continued to serve her country in various tasks. In 1853 she was sent to be the flagship of the African Squadron under the command of Commodore Isaac Mayo. The African squadron counted among its tasks the stopping and seizing of any suspected slave traders. The importation of slaves into the United States had been banned by Congress as early as 1807. In 1819, the Navy was authorized to seize American ships involved in the trade, and in 1820 the slave trade was declared piracy. Finally, in 1842 the United States and Great Britain agreed to patrol the coast of Africa for suspected slavers. The U.S. Navy's African Squadron was authorized to search suspicious ships flying the U.S. flag. The seizure of the H.N. Gambrill was both the first and last capture of its kind for the Constitution. It also turned out to be the last prize taken by Constitution.
In this compilation of original documents "Old Ironsides" and her crew speak for themselves once again, not as they did two hundred years ago with canister and grape, but with their words. They describe the actions and victories of their ship as they witnessed them, and as they reported them back to their superiors or friends ashore. In some instances the losing commander describes what he faced in opposing Constitution. "Old Ironsides" has a perfect battle record, having never been defeated or boarded. This is her story in the words of the men who helped her gain and preserve that record.