‘Old Ironsides’: Still in Commission After 225 Years
Length: 304 feet (bowsprit to spanker)
Beam: 43 feet 6 inches
Height: 220 feet (mainmast)
Draft: 23 feet (aft)
Tonnage: 1,576 tons
Displacement: 2,200 tons
Sail plan: 42,710 square feet
Speed: 13 knots (15 mph)
Original complement: 450 (including 55 Marines and 30 boys)
Original armament: Thirty 24-pounder long guns, twenty 32-pounder carronades and
two 24-pounder bow chasers
Maximum range: 1,500 yards
After nearly a decade with no national maritime force, a reluctant Congress in March 1794 authorized the construction of six armed frigates as the nucleus of a new U.S. Navy. Designed under the direction of Joshua Humphries, an experienced shipwright from Philadelphia, the vessels were each built in a different seaport. The three smallest were Chesapeake (36 guns; built in Norfolk, Va.), Congress (38 guns, built in Portsmouth, N.H.) and Constellation (38 guns; built in Baltimore). Humphries’ masterpieces, however, were the three larger frigates— President (built in New York), United States (built in Philadelphia) and Constitution (built in Boston). Each displaced 2,200 tons and mounted a formidable 44 guns (often increased to 50), designed to counter the great naval powers with warships that could outrun whatever they couldn’t outgun and outgun anything they could not outrun. Laid down in Edmund Hartt’s shipyard on Nov. 1, 1794, Constitution was launched on Oct. 21, 1797, and logged its maiden voyage on July 22, 1798.
Initially dismissed abroad as oversized freaks, the three large American frigates enjoyed a measure of success, setting a standard for the next generation of sailing frigates after 1815. Constitution proved the standout. It was aboard Constitution in 1805 that representatives of the United States and Tripoli signed the treaty ending the First Barbary War. During the War of 1812 Constitution sank the British frigates Guerrière and Java and captured the light frigate Cyane , the sixth rate Levant and the schooner Pictou. Its final capture was the American illegal slave ship Gambril in 1853. From 1860 to ’71 Constitution served as a training ship for the U.S. Naval Academy. Restored in 1877, 1907, 1931, 1976 and 1995, Constitution —the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat—operates as a museum ship [ussconstitutionmuseum.org] at Boston’s historic Charlestown Navy Yard.