The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The USS Constitution Takes to the Seas

If you missed seeing it in person, provides a short piece about yesterday's historic sailing of the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. The sailing marked the 200th anniversary of the ship's victory over the British frigate HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812 and was the first time the ship has sailed on its own since 1997. It is estimated that thousands of spectators came out to catch a glimpse of the almost 215-year-old ship at sail.

This was by far not the first time the Constitution attracted a crowd in the Boston's harbor. On 16 September 1797 Revolutionary War hero Henry Knox wrote to fellow veteran David Cobb stating:

As relates to Harry. He is well, and as busy as a devils needle, in preparing for the launch which is fixed for Wednesday the 20. The President of the United States, and all the eastern world will be here. From the probable crowd and indiscretion, it may be expected as many lives will be lost as in a small action. (David Cobb papers, reel 1, Massachusetts Historical Society.)

Indeed on 20 September 1797 crowds of spectators did gather to view the maiden voyage of the Constitution. Although he did not comment on it in his correspondence, newspapers reports indicate that President John Adams and his "suite" were indeed present for the launch. But that day the crowd left disappointed, as mechanical problems prevented the ship from getting out to the open sea. On a subsequent attempt, 21 October 1797, the ship completed her maiden sail. According to historian Justin Winsor, in his Memorial History of Boston (Boston: James R. Osgood & Company, 1881), the weather on the 21st was overcast and cold, keeping the large crowds at bay that day. 

The Constitution garnered much attention during the War of 1812, earning the nickname Old Ironsides. She remained in service for many years after that war. On the eve of the Civil War, the ship was again at sea. In our collections we have found at least two letters referencing the Constitution while the ship was near Annapolis in late April 1861.

Charles Bowers, a lieutenant in the 5th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, wrote to his wife in Concord:

In the afternoon the young men about 170 in number were removed in the U.S. Sloop Constitution to Newport R.I. It was a sad sight. It was a great disappointment for them to leave, and almost all were in tears. They marched in a bevy to the wharf the splendid band of the Constitution offering musick. The thousands of troops lined their way, the feelings of the whole subdued in sympathy for the noble looking lads so suddenly separated from scenes and friends they loved. (Charles Bowers Letters, Massachusetts Historical Society.)

Another Massachusetts native, although a resident of New York at the time of the outbreak of the war and serving in a New York regiment,offers a slightly different perspective to his brother in Massachusetts:

So we kept up the bay, and at daylight on Monday morning, found ourselves off Annapolis with the Old Frigate Constitition alongside, and another steamboat something like ours aground in the harbor with Ben Butler again, and his men on board. ... He [Butler] came to Annapolis on Saturday night, and found the Constitution lying near the Naval School Station and uable to get out, on account of her heavy guns, beside being short men. ... General Butler took out of her half her guns and lightened her so much that he could tow her out beyond the reach of the shore; which he did, and afterward sent 100 of his own men (able seamen from Marblehead and thereabouts) to fill up her crew. (Charles Henry Dalton Correspondence, Massachusetts Historical Society.)

We will keep an eye out for other Constitution references in our collection, and hope that perhaps in the not too distant future, we can see her sail again.

permalink | Published: Monday, 20 August, 2012, 8:00 AM


Aug 20, 2012, 2:03 pm

J. L. Bell

Wasn't John Adams the President on the date of the launch, and present for the event?

Aug 21, 2012, 6:12 am


Thanks for the keen eye, J.L. Good to know we have readers that are paying attention. Now off to the stacks to determine whether Mr. Adams was in attendance.

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