THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (Aug. 19-Aug. 25)
Having narrowly escaped a British squadron off New England a month earlier, the U.S.S. Constitution and her captain, Isaac Hull, are hungry for action when the 55-gun American frigate sails out of Boston Harbor on Aug. 2.
Hull briefly cruises the waters off Halifax, Canada without any luck and then heads south. On Aug. 19, 700 miles east of Boston, a lookout spots a sail on the horizon. It is the HMS Guerriere, a 49-gun frigate.
The two ships maneuver for advantage for 45 minutes before opening fire. Hull sails up on the British ship and unleashes a broadside that staggers the Guerriere. In half an hour, the British ship, her masts shot away and her gun deck awash, surrenders before the American warship can fire another broadside. It is the first major naval engagement of the war.
During the sea battle — so the story goes — a young sailor watching British cannonballs bounce harmlessly off Constitution’s side, exclaims “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron.” And thus the legend of ‘Old Ironsides” is born. Now that may be more story than fact but there’s no doubt that Oliver Wendell Holmes penned the poem “Old Ironsides,” in 1830 when the Navy was considering whether to repair or retire the old ship. The public outcry to save the historic vessel persuaded the government to restore “Old Ironsides,” according to Thomas C. Gillmer in his book Old Ironsides, The Rise, Decline and Resurrectin of the USS Constitution.
Guerriere is so badly damaged that Hull decides to sink her. After transferring the British crew to his ship, Hull has Guerriere set afire on Aug. 20..
In the North Atlantic, another American frigate, the U.S.S. President, commanded by Capt. Stephen Decatur captures the British schooner L’Adeline on Aug. 17.
Two hundred years later, the U.S.S. Constitution, berthed in Charlestown, Massachusetts outside Boston, is the oldest ship still in the U.S. Navy. and the oldest commissioned warship in the world.