USS Constitution History Page






USS Constitution Timeline

Historical Collage USS Constitution


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1794:   March 27 - President George Washington signs "an act to provide a naval armament." By authorizing the construction of six frigates (what we would call "cruisers" today) the Third Congress in effect creates the U.S. Navy. The immediate issue is the need to protect the large American merchant fleet from continuous and increasing attacks by the North African "Barbary pirate" states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli-as well as from aggressive high-seas practices of the British. The ships are designed by Mr. Joshua Humphreys, a Philadelphia Quaker and an innovative naval architect, and are to be built at six different cities. The contract for one of these ships, to be named the CONSTITUTION, is given to Edmund Hartt's shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts.
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1794-1797:   The CONSTITUTION is under construction. Being built to defend the young American nation, the ship is nearly as old as the historic document for which President Washington names her. Both the document and the ship have proven to be resilient symbols of America's strength, courage, and liberty.
The CONSTITUTION is designed to be powerful enough to outfight any enemy warship approximately her same size, and yet fast enough to outsail a larger opponent. Built at Edmund Hartt's shipyard, in Boston, her construction team is made up of superintendent Capt. Samuel Nicholson, chief constructor Col. George Claghorne, and naval agent Gen. Henry Jackson. Initial funded appropriation is $115,000-although her final cost will be $302,700. Made from approximately 2,000 trees (with specialty woods obtained from Maine to Georgia), armed with cannons cast in Rhode Island, and fitted with copper fastenings provided by the famous Boston smith Paul Revere, the vessel is truly a "national" ship. Launched on October 21, 1797, she doesn't put to sea until 1798. But, having remained part of the U.S. Navy since her launching day, the CONSTITUTION is today the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.

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1797:   Oct. 21 - Although her construction is almost halted by a 1796 peace treaty with Algiers, the CONSTITUTION is launched-christened by visiting Capt. James Sever using a bottle of Madeira. It is actually the third attempt to launch her; the first was a month earlier, when the ship sticks after moving only 27 feet. Two days later she moves another 31 feet before sticking once again. For the third attempt, workers make the launching ways steeper, which finally enables a successful event. The public, which includes several French aristocrats, is warned beforehand that the launch of such a large ship might cause a dangerously large wave, but none actually materializes during the event.
1798:   May 5 - Secretary of War William McHenry orders the CONSTITUTION made ready for sea.
1798:   July 22 - Underway and out to sea for the first time, commanded by Capt. Samuel Nicholson.
1798-1801:   She cruises in the West Indies, during the "Quasi-War" with France, protecting U.S. merchant shipping from French privateers. The CONSTITUTION is not engaged in battle with any warship, but captures/recaptures several privateers and victims of privateers.
1802-1803:   She is laid up in Boston.
1803-1805:   President Thomas Jefferson sends the CONSTITUTION to the Mediterranean Sea as flagship of the third Mediterranean squadron. The mission is to attempt to force the Barbary pirates from their renewed policies of aggression against U.S. merchant shipping. With Commodore Edward Preble initially in command, the CONSTITUTION and other ships of the squadron mount five attacks against Tripoli.
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1805:   June 3 - A peace treaty with Tripoli is completed on board the CONSTITUTION in the captain's cabin; this is followed by a similar treaty with Tunis signed on August 14th.
1806-1807:   Port calls and peaceful service in the Mediterranean. The CONSTITUTION returns to Boston in October 1807.
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1807-1811   Out of active service-and then a partial overhaul-in and around New York.
1811-1812   Cruise to Europe; overhaul at the Washington Navy Yard.
1812-1815:   War of 1812 against Great Britain.
1812:   Aug. 19 - The CONSTITUTION's historic fight with HMS GUERRIERE takes place some 600 miles east of Boston on the afternoon of August 19, 1812. After an hour of inconclusive maneuvering and shooting, the two settle down to a short-range slugfest. After 20 minutes the Briton's mizzenmast falls, and a short time later both her remaining masts go overboard. At some point in the battle, someone reportedly sees a British shot bounce off the CONSTITUTION's side, and shouts, "Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!"-and so is born the nickname "OLD IRONSIDES." The Americans have 14 casualties; the British, 79. The GUERRIERE is so badly damaged she has to be sunk after the surviving crew are brought onboard the CONSTITUTION. In recognition of this spectacular victory-incredibly motivating to a nation that had seen many military defeats in the war to date-Congress awards Capt. Isaac Hull a special gold medal, his officers medals of silver, and the crew $50,000.
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1812:   Dec. 29 - The CONSTITUTION is about 30 miles off the coast of Brazil on 29 December 1812 when, at about 2 in the afternoon, she begins a fight with the faster HMS JAVA. Commodore William Bainbridge, now in command of "Old Ironsides," is wounded twice, and the ship's steering wheel is shot away, but for more than 3 hours he maneuvers masterfully and fights tenaciously until, finally, the JAVA has no masts left standing and her captain lays dying. This time there are 34 American casualties as opposed to around 130 British. Like the GUERRIERE, the JAVA is too badly damaged to bring home - but before he sinks her, Bainbridge has her wheel removed to replace the one shot away on the CONSTITUTION.
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At the end of February, the CONSTITUTION returns to Boston, where there is great rejoicing over the victory over the JAVA. Commodore Bainbridge and the crew also receive considerable recognition-medals and prize money-in recognition of this second, spectacular triumph over the Royal Navy.
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1814:   January-April - Under the command of Capt. Charles Stewart, the CONSTITUTION runs the blockade of Boston. She captures H.M. Schooner Pictou as well as several small vessels during a cruise to the Windward and Leeward Islands.
1814:   April - "Old Ironsides" escapes into Marblehead, MA while being chased by two British frigates. She shortly returns to Boston for repairs.
1814:   Blockaded in Boston for eight months, from April to December. Finally, taking advantage of bad weather and poor visibility in December, Captain Stewart slips past the enemy and out to sea
1815:   Feb. 20 - Capt. Charles Stewart has the CONSTITUTION about 180 miles from Madeira when he encounters the British men-of-war CYANE (34 guns) and LEVANT (21 guns). This two-against-one fight begins as the sun is setting. Through superb sail handling and tactics, Stewart swiftly closes on CYANE and deals her tremendous damage to her masts and rigging. Then he blasts the LEVANT hard enough to put her out of action for awhile, during which time he closes again on the CYANE and forces her surrender. After putting a prize crew in the CYANE, he turns his attention again to the LEVANT, chasing and firing into her until she also surrenders. Stewart has 18 killed and wounded; his two opponents have around 80 casualties. He hopes to bring both captures home, but runs into a British squadron that retakes the LEVANT. The CONSTITUTION and CYANE return safely to New York on May 15, 1815-Captain Stewart recently learning, at Puerto Rico, that the war has ended. The CYANE is purchased into the U.S. Navy and becomes the USS CYANE. For his victories, Stewart receives a gold medal from Congress, and the crew is awarded considerable prize money; "Old Ironsides" is the only ship to have all her War of 1812 captains decorated by Congress. Thus, the CONSTITUTION's wartime service ends-but she is widely recognized for having played a glorious part in our defense of freedom and our naval heritage.
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1816-1821:   Laid up "in ordinary" (we would nowadays say "in mothballs") at the Boston Navy Yard.
1821-1828:   The CONSTITUTION serves in the Mediterranean Squadron-for several years as the flagship-under the command of Capt. Jacob Jones and Commodore Thomas Macdonough. During this time she is visited by the famous English poet Lord Byron. She returns to the U.S. once during this period, in 1824, to refit and change crews.
1828-1833:   Laid up at Boston. During this time the Navy requests that Navy Yard commanders conduct surveys on all ships laid up in ordinary-including "Old Ironsides"-to determine how much work needs to be done to bring the ships into active commission. This information reaches a local publication, which misreports that the Navy intends to immediately "scrap" the CONSTITUTION. Student Oliver Wendell Holmes quickly writes and publishes a stirring poem, called Old Ironsides. In response to the surveyor's report, as well as public outcry, the Navy directs the refurbishment of the CONSTITUTION.
1833-1834:   The CONSTITUTION is the first ship to enter the new and massive Drydock No. 1 (in itself a technological and civil engineering marvel for our country) at the Boston Navy Yard. (After many years of significant service, this historic drydock will also claim the distinction of having "Old Ironsides" as the last ship to be overhauled within her walls-during 1992-1995).
1834:   The CONSTITUTION becomes embroiled in a political controversy concerning the installation of a new figurehead that depicts the current president, Andrew Jackson. Her original figurehead, representing the demi-god Hercules, was lost in a collision during the Barbary Wars and had been replaced for many years by a relatively simple "billet head" decoration. President Jackson is extremely unpopular in Boston at this time; feelings run so high that the commandant of the Boston Navy Yard has his life threatened over the issue. Despite an armed guard, a merchant skipper manages, under cover of a thunderstorm, to row across the harbor, climb onto the ship, and cut the head off the figurehead. The man personally returns the head to the Secretary of the Navy; the figurehead is repaired and graces the CONSTITUTION's bow for many years.
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1835-1838:   Serves as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron under Commodore Jesse D. Elliott.
1839-1841:   Serves as flagship of the Pacific Squadron under Commodore Alexander Claxton.
1842-1843:   Serves in the "Home Squadron," mostly idle in Norfolk.
1844-1851:   The CONSTITUTION circumnavigates the world from 1844-1846, under Captain John "Mad Jack" Percival, sailing 52,370 miles in 495 days at sea.

In 1849, while the ship is operating in the Mediterranean, she is visited by Pope Pius IX at Gaeta, Italy; he is the first Pontiff to "step" onto U.S. territory.
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1851-1852:   Laid up in ordinary at New York.
1853-1855:   The CONSTITUTION sails as flagship of the African Squadron. She patrols the West African coast, looking for slave traders, as well as "showing the flag" via many port calls. On this assignment she sails 42,166 miles in 430 days at sea.
1855-1860:   Her days of regular operational duties are over. "Old Ironsides" is laid up at the Navy Yard in Portsmouth, NH, for conversion into a training ship.
1860:   August 1 - The CONSTITUTION begins a decade-long stint as a school ship at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.
1861:   April 21 - Clear threats are made against her safety upon the outbreak of the Civil War. As preparations are being made for her movement farther north, a group of Massachusetts volunteer soldiers arrives at Annapolis onboard the steamer MARYLAND. Several companies of these troops are placed onboard the CONSTITUTION; unfortunately, the ship runs aground as they try to leave harbor. After some difficulty, she is towed by the steamer BOSTON into deeper water. On April 26 she begins a three-day trip to New York, towed by the steam gunboat R.R. CUYLER.
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1861-1865:   The CONSTITUTION moves to Newport, RI, where the Naval Academy relocates. She resumes duty as a training ship for the duration of the Civil War.
1865:   August - "Old Ironsides" moves back to Annapolis, along with the rest of the Naval Academy, after the end of the war. During the voyage she proves faster than her tug, and is allowed to continue alone under sail. At one point, despite her age, she is recorded running at nine knots; she arrives at Hampton Roads ten hours ahead of the steam tug.
1871-1877:   In 1871, after it is determined that she is in critical need of repair, the CONSTITUTION is moved to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Initial plans are to restore her for exhibition in 1876, the nation's centennial; however, work delays prohibit this from happening-and in any event the restoration is incomplete and marred by poor workmanship.
1877-1878:   She serves as a training ship in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
1878-1879:   The CONSTITUTION's last cruise in foreign waters. She carries the American exhibits for the world-wide Paris Exposition, docking in Le Havre, France. She stays in Le Havre for nine months waiting to carry the exhibits back to the U.S.
1879   January 16 - While returning from France, she runs aground beneath the White Cliffs of Dover, England. A British tug eventually pulls her free.
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1879:   May 24 - Arrives in New York.
1879-1881:   The CONSTITUTION sails the Atlantic, to various points between the West Indies and Nova Scotia, as a training ship for naval apprentices. This is her final role as an active unit of the Navy.
1882-1897:   "Old Ironsides" is laid up in New Hampshire at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, serving as a receiving ship for new recruits. A barn-like "barracks" structure is built on top of her hull.
1897:   September 21 - The CONSTITUTION is moved to the Boston Navy Yard just prior to her 100th birthday. This is brought about in part due to the efforts of Massachusetts Congressman John F. Fitzgerald, grandfather of President John F. Kennedy.
1897-1900:   "Old Ironsides" is on exhibition at the U.S. Navy Yard, Boston.
1900:   February 14 - Congress authorizes repairs to restore the CONSTITUTION's hull and rigging to the condition they had been when she had been on active sea service. Adequate funding, around $100,000, is not available until 1906.
1907:   Limited repairs are completed, to include removing the barracks-like structure from her main deck, as well as replacing much of her rigging, spars, masts, and some other woodwork. In addition, she receives some replica cannon in preparation of being opened to the public.
1916:   The CONSTITUTION is leaking up to twenty-five inches of water into her hold per week at dock, indicating significant deterioration of her hull.
1924:   She now needs daily pumping to stay afloat; experts assess at least $400,000 is needed to do essential repairs and restoration.
1925-1927:   A national, voluntary campaign for restoration funds is created-the initiative of Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur. Numerous patriotic organizations and the nation's schoolchildren respond by contributing almost $250,000 (children donate $148,000-much of it in pennies-while U.S. Navy, Marine, Coast Guard personnel donate $31,000).
1927:   June 16 - The CONSTITUTION is docked, for an extensive reconstruction, in Boston's Drydock No. 1-the same drydock she was the first to enter ninety-four years before.
1927-1930:   During the extensive restoration effort, considerable decayed timber is replaced and the interior of the hull is given extensive additional support. The ship is restored to approximately resemble her appearance during the 1850s. New replica guns are installed-far more accurate replications than those done in 1907. 
1930:   March 15 - "Old Ironsides" is floated out of drydock, her repairs nearly completed. The total cost of this restoration approximates $987,000.
1931:   July 2 - The CONSTITUTION leaves Boston, for the first time in over thirty years, for a goodwill tour of ports on the New England coast. Due to her overwhelming popularity, she then embarks on a similar tour to include all coastal states.
1931-1934:   Under Commander Louis J. Gulliver, "Old Ironsides" travels 22,000 miles, visits 90 ports, and welcomes more than 4.6 million visitors-over two million in California alone. The tour takes her as far north as Bar Harbor, ME, on the east coast, and Bellingham, WA, on the west coast-and as far south as the Panama Canal. She is towed by the minesweeper USS GREBE and, occasionally, by the submarine tender USS BUSHNELL.
1934:   May 7 - The CONSTITUTION returns to Boston, where she remains today, beginning duty as "America's Ship"-representing our proud naval heritage and all those who have fought so gallantly to preserve America's freedom.
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1954 . July 23 - A public law passes, signed by President Eisenhower, that states in part, "The Secretary of the Navy is authorized to repair, equip, and restore the United States Ship CONSTITUTION, as far as may be practicable, to her original appearance, but not for active service, and thereafter to maintain the United States Ship CONSTITUTION at Boston, Massachusetts."
1972-1975:   "Old Ironsides" undergoes another major restoration prior to being put on display for the nation's bicentennial in 1976. In 1974, during this restoration, the Boston Navy Yard officially closes as a working naval station and it becomes part of the Boston National Historic Park.
1976   July 11 - The CONSTITUTION is officially visited by her majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, as well as by her consort, Admiral of the Fleet the Prince Philip, Royal Navy.
1992:   Sept. 25 - The ship is drydocked, once again in Drydock No. 1, for another major repair and restoration. With the help of newly rediscovered documentation, this restoration enables the CONSTITUTION to more than ever reassume her appearance circa 1812.
1995:   Sept. 26 - "Old Ironsides" floats out of drydock, in the best shape she's been in over 180 years.
1997:   July 21 - The CONSTITUTION sails under her own power, not under tow, for the first time in 116 years. This event is conducted just outside Boston Harbor captained by Commander Michael C. Beck. Six of the ship's sails are used.

October 21 - "Old Ironsides" celebrates her own bicentennial. Crewmembers parade from her "birthplace," the Boston's Coast Guard Integrated Support Command-approximate site of the old Hartt's Shipyard-to the Old South Meeting House.

1998: . July 21-23 - Naval vessels and "tall" ships from around the world come to Boston Harbor to honor the CONSTITUTION. The Deputy Secretary of Defense breaks his flag onboard, and returns the salutes from visiting warships.
The ship receives a formal blessing, in conjunction with a wreath being laid at the gravesite of the CONSTITUTION's first captain, Samuel Nicholson, at the Old North Church.
. July 11 - "Old Ironsides" leads a "Parade of Sail" with over 120 tall ships into Boston Harbor-as part of "Sail Boston 2000" festivities.

The CONSTITUTION and the USS Constitution Museum launch a six-year collaborative educational outreach program, entitled "Old Ironsides Across the Nation," to bring the CONSTITUTION's story to citizens throughout the nation.