Most Americans instantly recognize the nickname of one of our country's most famous fighting ships, the U.S.S. Constitution. And if you're planning on visiting it this summer in Boston, don't get alarmed and cancel your trip because of the headline above. Old Ironsides is in great shape at present, swaying gently and majestically at her moorings. But such was not always the case.
One of the first three naval vessels built in the United States, this 44-gun frigate with its solid oak hull and distinctive copper plating (courtesy of Paul Revere's shop) was launched in 1797, and began her legendary career within that year by ridding American waters of swarms of French privateers. In the early 1800's, African pirates based in Tripoli had so disrupted international sea traffic that the United States and others were humiliated into paying an annual tribute of "protection money" to keep trade going. In 1804, we had had enough and declared war on the piratical thugs of the Barbary States. As a consequence of the long procession of pirate vessels dispatched into the murky depths of the Mediterranean by our Constitution's pounding cannon, the Pasha of the Barbary States begged for unconditional surrender to bring "Operation Barbary Storm" to an end.
This episode alone would have been more than enough to ensure a place of honor in the annals of American naval history for this proud man-o'-war, but despite having to be remasted and repaired after each intense engagement, the indomitable Constitution continued to defend our shores and sea lanes as Britain's last attempt at regaining her truant colony, the War of 1812, reached across the Atlantic.
In August of 1812, with the British blockade of our eastern and gulf coasts strangling the flow of French trade goods, the Constitution broke free of Boston Harbor, then engaged the larger British frigate Guerriere in a long battle. The sight of cannonballs bouncing off her thick oak sides during this fierce contest prompted one gunner to taunt his British adversaries across the waves with "Huzzah, her sides are made of IRON," imparting a nickname she would carry forever. As final proof of the title, Old Ironsides reduced the Guerriere to floating rubble that wasn't even of value as a prize, then set her carcass on fire and sank her.
While there were many battles just as fierce before and after in the War of 1812, this particular incident occurred at a point when our morale was at its lowest point, with our national spirit still shackled by a centuries-old belief in Britain's Sovereignty of the Seas that needed to be shattered as it was on August 19th, 1812, before we could see the possibility of victory.
Her exploits would continue to make the U.S.S. Constitution the Grande Dame of the American fleet well into the next century, but the cost of battle had been high, and she now faced new enemies -- old age and bureaucracy. Faced with yet another expensive overhaul of her tradition-soaked decks, the government first toyed with dismantling Old Ironsides in the 1830s. A young Boston law student, Oliver Wendell Holmes, rallied the public's patriotic spirit to preserve this treasure when his poem was published nationwide.
AY TEAR her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar;
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.
Her deck once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying oer the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victors tread,
Or know the conquered knee;
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!
Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!
—Oliver Wendell Holmes
But time is an implacable enemy that would not ever be completely conquered, and in the early 1920s, faced with the most extensive reconstruction of the great ship's lifetime, a government unable to fully fund the project once again considered tearing Old Ironsides apart.
This time a prominent Massachusetts Elk learned of the ship's gloomy fate as it listed forlornly at the Boston Navy Yard docks. With the resources of the Order of Elks, the funding for repair could easily have been generated from within our ranks, but in our wisdom we saw that more was in need of repair than just the physical deterioration. Pledging the Orders support to stop any dismantling before it could begin, the Elks commenced a program throughout America's small towns and bustling metropolises that called on millions of our nations children to show their reverence for this unique defender of liberty and her brave crewmen.
Through a network in 1,400 Lodges and dozens of radio broadcasts, collection drives, dramatic programs and essay contests were carried out during the month of October, 1925, and the precious pennies, nickels and dimes of millions of American children poured in. Of course, there was no way to prevent adult patriots from doing their part in such a noble cause, and it is understandable that the bulk of the $537,000 needed came from them. Yet, as the Elks had anticipated, $136,436.79 came from the renewed love and pride in countless young hearts, and purchased for them a stronger sense of participation and dedication that would become evident as these children grew into the men and women who built and defended America in the tumultuous decades that followed.
Old Ironsides, kids and the Elks — a powerful American trio.
On June 20, 1997, the USS Constitution -- our country's beloved "Old Ironsides" -- will sail out of her berth at the Boston Navy Yard for the first time since the middle of the 1800s: Destination -- her new home at Marblehead, Mass., the birthplace of the American Navy.
Although a short and peaceful journey in comparison with her historical exploits on the high seas, all Elks and Americans wish this gallant lady bon voyage, and urge everyone to keep a lookout for television coverage of the event, which undoubtedly will include a large flotilla of patriotic mariners to give reverent escort to "Old Ironsides," a valiant warrior for democracy.
Due to numerous responses to our initial USS Constitution Piece, we have been informed that "Old Ironsides" did not move to a new berth at Marblehead, MA in June of 1997; the Grand Dame of the Seas just went for a sentimental "cruise" to visit the same port to which she fled when chased by the British in the War of 1812. The USS Constitution is again in residence at the Boston Navy Yard should anyone care to pay their respects. Visitors are please asked not to make any disparaging remarks about her aging "threads", however; a current PENNIES FOR SAILS CAMPAIGN is being conducted - once again in the classrooms of America - whereby our children's contributions will refit the Constitution with bright, crisp new sails. More details can be obtained from your local school or from your local Post of the American Legion who are administering this particular program. Lastly, the Elks Headquarters in Chicago are not the "experts" on Constitional lore as many inquirers assumed; we humbly defer to the ultimate source for all "Ironsides" answers:
USS Constitution Musuem
P.O. Box 1812
Boston, MA 02129