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'Old Ironsides' Is Still Displaying Her Mettle

Charles Hillinger's America

January 24, 1988|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

CHARLESTOWN, Mass. — The USS Constitution last sailed under her own power in 1881. But if Navy Cmdr. David M. Cashman has his way, Old Ironside's sails may just wave again.

Cashman, 45, has already started preliminary planning for the 1997 bicentennial of the magnificent wooden frigate, originally named and approved for construction by George Washington.

A study has been initiated to determine whether the more than 2 miles of rigging is strong enough to hold the nearly acre of sails required, said Cashman, the ship's 62nd skipper.

Executive officer Thomas Doherty, 31, said he and Cashman often discuss the possibility of sailing Old Ironsides, the oldest commissioned warship in active duty.

"It's a fascinating thought. But whether it would be feasible is something else again," Doherty said.

When under full sail, the ship had a crew of 450 men and 36 flaxen sails flying from the foremast, mainmast and mizzenmast. It is 204 feet long and 43 feet wide.

"Where would we get the money to outfit her with 42,720 square feet of sail? Where would we get the men to sail her even if the rigging is strong enough?" the captain wondered aloud. "But what a marvelous sight she would be, her black hull slicing through the sea, her sails billowing full-blown in the wind . . . ."

Since the turn of the century, Old Ironsides has been tied up in historic Charlestown Navy yard on Boston Harbor. A regular Navy crew of 51 enlisted men and two officers proudly care for her, showing her off to visitors on a daily basis.

Doherty, Cashman and the crew are the only members of the U.S. Navy who wear 1812 Navy uniforms as their official dress.

"Visitors walk up the gangplank, see us in these odd uniforms and figure we're visitors from a foreign navy. We're often asked: 'Do you speak English?' " explained Bosun 1st Class Damon Heemstra, 27, of Lafayette, Ind.

The Constitution's crew wear the 19th-Century uniforms because the ship's celebrated victories played a key role in the winning of the War of 1812.

On Aug. 19, 1812--in the Atlantic 600 miles east of Boston--Capt. Isaac Hull and his crew engaged HMS Guerriere in the first one-on-one battle between American and foreign warships. The Constitution carried 55 cannons to the Guerriere's 49.

Sailors on the two frigates opened fire with a barrage of musket rounds and cannonballs, blasting the Guerriere's mizzenmast apart. Eventually, the foremast and mainmast crashed into the heavy seas and her captain surrendered. He and his crew were taken prisoners aboard the Constitution and the Guerriere was set afire and sunk.

In a half-hour of fierce fighting the Constitution had fired 953 cannonballs. Fifteen British sailors were killed and 63 wounded; seven American sailors were killed and seven wounded.

It was during that battle the Constitution received her colorful nickname when, after one of the British cannonballs bounced off her thick oaken side, an American sailor shouted: "Huzza. Her sides are made of iron."

Four months later, off the coast of Brazil, the Constitution sank the British frigate Java, killing 50 of her crew--including her captain--and injuring 100. The Constitution lost 12 sailors and 22 were injured, including Capt. William Bainbridge.

In the War of 1812, the Constitution also defeated two British frigates in battle at the same time, the Cyane and the Levant, off the Madeira Islands.

In her 190 years, Old Ironsides has had an illustrious career, fighting the Barbary pirates off Africa, the War of 1812 engagements, sailing to Europe, the Mediterranean, Caribbean, South America, and carrying the flag around the world on a four-year voyage in the 1840s under the command of Capt. John (Mad Jack) Percival.

During the Civil War, the Constitution was assigned to the Naval Academy to serve as a training ship for midshipmen. But on several occasions, Old Ironside has been slated for the scrap heap, the first time in 1830 when she was condemned as unseaworthy.

It was a 21-year-old law student named Oliver Wendell Holmes who penned a poem that year suggesting she at least be given a fitting burial at sea. The poem, "Old Ironsides," aroused the nation to demand that the Constitution be spared.

Sixty-seven years later, on the eve of the ship's 100th birthday, Rep. John F. Fitzgerald, President John F. Kennedy's grandfather, discovered the Constitution rotting away in the Portsmouth Navy yard and introduced legislation to save her.

In the 1920s, when the Constitution was badly in need of restoration, it was the schoolchildren of America who came to the rescue with enough pennies, nickels and dimes to bring her back once again.

From 1973 to 1976, Congress appropriated $4.4 million to renovate the ship for America's Bicentennial celebration. Many of the cannons, furnishings and fixtures aboard are original as is the keel and 20% of the ship's wood. The spokes and copper sheathing were provided by Paul Revere when the Constitution was built a mile from where she is berthed today.

Old Ironsides was absent from Boston Harbor from July 2, 1931 to May 7, 1934, when it was towed to 90 U.S. ports. During that voyage, more than 4 million people visited the ship.

America's most beloved ship is tied up to a pier at the Charlestown Navy yard that is part of the National Parks Services' Boston National Historic Park.

Across from the ship, in an 1832 shipyard building, is the USS Constitution museum, which is filled with memorabilia presented by descendants of those who served on Old Ironsides. Exhibited are log books, crew lists, photographs, captain's letters, charts and many artifacts documenting the history of Old Ironsides.

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