USS Constitution: Presence Then, Presence Now

Aug. 19, 2014 | By Cmdr. Sean Kearns 73rd Commanding Officer USS Constitution
The Chief of Naval Operations Guiding Principles (Warfighting First, Operate Forward, Be Ready) were as important and applicable to the early chapters of our Navy's history as they are today. In the months leading up to our declaration of war against Great Britain, Captain Isaac Hull personally witnessed the rising tension between our Navy and the Royal Navy. As he departed Cherbourg to bring USS Constitution home in January 1812, he was hailed by British ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Upon reaching Washington, D.C., Captain Hull's suspicions that our country was on a trajectory to war were confirmed. By early-March, Constitution was undergoing a major refit and on June 18, the very day war was declared, Constitution sailed from Washington to Annapolis and received orders to sail to New York to rendezvous with other ships. Less than a month later, Constitution was nearly ambushed by a squadron of five British warships while executing these orders. Captain Hull and his First Lieutenant, Charles Morris, expertly evaded capture in the face of negligible winds and high temperatures in a 57-hour affair July 15-17, 1812 that became known as the "Great Chase."

On August 19, Constitution came across one of the five ships she evaded the previous month - HMS Guerriere. The ensuing 35-minute battle with Guerriere resulted in America's first victory over a ship of the Royal Navy and earned Constitution her famous nickname, "Old Ironsides." This victory would not have been possible without foresight and attention to world affairs and current events by Captain Hull. Nor would this victory have been possible without Captain Hull's determination to train his crew in sailing their ship and firing her guns. And, perhaps most-importantly, this victory would not have been possible without the willingness and determination of Captain Hull to sail into harm's way. This victory embodied principles laid out by John Paul Jones during the American Revolution; these principles live on in the CNO's Guiding Principles. One can conduct a cursory review of the events surrounding this chapter in USS Constitution's history and easily find the Secretary of the Navy's Four Ps (People, Platforms, Power, and Partnerships).

At the time of her construction, USS Constitution was an expression of outer limits of shipbuilding technology; a hull design with a higher length-to-beam ratio for speed, heavy construction employing Southern Live Oak that made "Old Ironsides all but impenetrable, diagonal riders to reduce hogging, and a heavy gun armament. These signature features made for a strong ship that could sail fast and easily defeat ships of equal size.

The U.S. Navy of 1812 was, as is the case today, a volunteer force which, because the U.S. Navy certainly offered a better quality of life and more pay than the Royal Navy or many of the merchants, attracted high-quality Sailors. Without the best and brightest Sailors or Captain Hull's leadership, Constitution could never have served her long and distinguished career. After the War of 1812, Constitution would serve the Navy as a tool for diplomacy and partnership. From 1844 to 1846, the ship sailed around the world; her feats during this voyage include transporting the U.S. Minister to Brazil, rescuing hostages from Da Nang, and impressing the Hawaiian King Kamehameha with a demonstration of the Paixhans guns (precursor to the Dahlgren gun that fired exploding shells). She even received Pope Pius IX - the first Pontiff to ever set foot on sovereign American territory - on August 1, 1849, during her last voyage to the Mediterranean Sea. For more on the USS Constitution click here.