"Editor's Note: On May 10, 2022, Naval History and Heritage Command will commemorate the 225th anniversary of the launch of the first of the U.S. Navy's six frigates (United States), which began the new United States Navy. The launch of the frigates is a significant moment in both U.S. Navy and American history, and the U.S. Navy's earliest heroes, achievements, and traditions are part of the six frigates story."
The first part of this story, on the use of southern live oak in the building of the original six frigates of the new United States Navy can be found in “…to procure the most durable wood in the world – the live oak of Georgia…”: Building the New U.S. Navy in the 1790s.
, today berthed in the Charlestown Navy Yard,
National Parks of Boston, is the sole survivor of the original six frigates and provides us with a clear understanding of why Joshua Humphreys and Henry Knox urged the use of live oak when constructing the new U.S. naval fleet. Constitution
’s body is made up of inner and outer white oak horizontal planking with live oak vertical framing sandwiched in between. The frames are bolted together in pairs with just a few inches of space between each pair for air to circulate. At the waterline, Constitution
’s structure is over 22” thick. Each of the other five frigates hulls were constructed in a similar fashion.
was famously nicknamed “Old Ironsides” after its War of 1812 battle against HMS Guerriere
when it was observed that some of the enemy’s shot were repelled by its thick oak sides. William James, a British attorney who re-fashioned himself as a naval historian after the War of 1812, also took note of the immense wooden structures of the U.S. frigates: “The relative stoutness of top-sides cannot be fully expressed by feet and inches; for, while the timbers of the American 44 are placed as close together as they well can be, there is a considerable space between each timber of the British 38. About three inches below the main-deck port-sills, the President
’s sides are twenty-two inches through. In fact, an American ship of war is almost a bed of timber.”
Ten years after the War of 1812, Royal Navy officer John Cunningham was also impressed by the structure of an American 44-gun frigate. He noted in his journal after visiting USS United States
in 1824: “The States
] is a tremendous frigate…and what may be called a bed of timber…. Her scantling throughout is considerably above that of the Cambridge
[an 80-gun Royal Navy ship-of-the-line], according to actual measurement. Her [United States
’s] are thicker by several inches…. They told me that during her late repairs a quantity of the Macedonian
’s shot were taken out of her sides which had not penetrated.” 
Maintaining a fleet of live oak warships required an ever-ready supply of Quercus virginiana
. As early as 1799 the federal government passed the Federal Timber Purchasers Act which included the purchase of Blackbeard’s and Grover’s Islands for the express purpose of maintaining live oak reserves for the exclusive use of the Navy.
And yet, even as the U.S. Navy was expanding in the immediate decades after the War of 1812, ready access to usable live oak for repairs and building continued to be a problem. The first naval live oak plantation for the cultivation
of the valuable wood was acquired in 1828, the Santa Rosa Peninsula near Deer Point in Pensacola, Florida.
The purchase was just in time, for as Pensacola Congressman Joseph M. White noted in 1831, USS Constitution
was in danger of succumbing to decay without a ready supply of live oak: “….The [live oak] timber is disappearing by exportation, by sales, and by clearing up the country for cultivation…. The woods are annually fired by the hunters and stock owners, and the young trees destroyed, so that if natural product is our dependence, we shall be, in half a century, without live oak enough to repair a vessel as the Constitution
, and shall have to sell her ex necessitate
. The time has now arrived when we must decide whether it is in the interest of the United States to resort to artificial culture [i.e., deliberately cultivate live oak], and plantations of live oak, or to do without them.
Judge H.M. Breckenridge in his 1831 letter to the Secretary of the Navy communicated “some facts in relation to the live oak” which, nearly 100 years later, had a profound effect on the long-term preservation of USS Constitution
. “Unless the full grown [sic
] tree is to be cultivated, it is better, therefore, to cut it down when it is found on public lands, transport it to the navy yards, and put it away under sheds, or in ponds of fresh water, where it will keep a thousand years. The navy yard at this place [Pensacola, Florida] has ponds of fresh water, within two hundred yards of it, of sufficient size to contain a million of cubic feet…”
In 1931, Commander Louis J. Gulliver, USS Constitution
’s commanding officer, detailed the ship’s 1927-1931 restoration for Marine Review
. In his article, Gulliver noted live oak timbers that were cut and stored in the mid-nineteenth century by enslaved labor at the former Pensacola Navy Yard were still viable for “Old Ironsides’” restoration sixty-seven years after the trees had been harvested: “Live oak timbers for the new framing were almost absolutely necessary. Where were they to be found? Almost providentially a supply was located immersed in Commodore’s pond [sic
] Pensacola, Fla. The good luck that has always followed the CONSTITUTION was still with her in the matter of the precious live oak: the supply in Florida was sufficient in quantity and in suitable sizes. It had been placed there by slave labor in 1860.”
’s subsequent 20th
restorations, live oak harvested in the nineteenth century and stored in navy yard timber ponds was re-discovered and used including:
- In 1941 live oak timbers, “more than two feet square and more than twenty feet long” were dredged up at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; the timber was described as “unmatchable’ for keeping [Constitution] in [its] original condition.” 
- In 1969 during excavation for a sewer pipe project, the old “Commodore’s Pond” and its live oak timbers were re-discovered at the Pensacola Naval Air Station (NAS) and the wood was ear-marked for future restoration work on “Old Ironsides.”
- In 1982 a local Naval Reserve diving team “removed eight live oak timbers from the fresh water pond behind Building 136” at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine; the wood may have been Pensacola NAS Commodore’s Pond live oak left over from Constitution’s 1927-1931 restoration; the pieces were shipped to Boston for work on “Old Ironsides.”
’s historic 1992--1996 restoration
, live oak donations from Georgia, Florida (Pensacola and Gainesville), South Carolina, and Texas –-- to name just a few of the locations –-- supplied the needed timber for the structural work performed on the nearly 200-year-old warship.
Approximately 10--15% of USS Constitution
is original to the warship’s 1794--1797 building period. Found below the waterline, the original material which has served “Old Ironsides” for over 225 years consists of the live oak vertical framing and the exterior white oak horizontal planking. (The interior, below-the-waterline planking was replaced many times over the warship’s long career, most recently in different twentieth century restorations.)
Captains John Barry, Richard Dale, and Thomas Truxtun’s 1794 prediction that, “…building these frigates of live oak will certainly be a great saving to the United States, as we are well satisfied…that their frames will be perfectly sound half a century hence, and it is very probable they may continue so for a much longer period”
has certainly been proven by the wooden walls of USS Constitution
, America’s Ship of State, which commemorates the 225th anniversary of its launch on October 21, 2022.
William James, A Full and Correct Account
… of The Late War Between Great Britain and The United States of America
(London: T. Egerton, 1817), 127–128.
L.G. Carr Laughton, “John Cunningham’s Journal,” The Mariner’s Mirror
IX (November 1923): 335.
Gerald W. Williams, “Private Property to Public Property: The Beginnings of the National Forests in the South,” The American Society for Environmental History (2003), 2.
Charles W. Snell, A History of the Naval Live Oak Reservation Program, 1794--1880: A Forgotten Chapter in the History of American Conservation
(National Park Service: Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida/Mississippi, September 1983), 43--60.
Joseph M. White to the Committee on Naval Affairs, 22January 1831, American State Papers
, Naval Affairs,
“Extracts of a letter from…H.M. Breckenridge to the Secretary of the Navy…, August 4, 1831,” American State Papers
, Naval Affairs,
4: 119, 120.
Commander Louis J. Gulliver, “Renaissance of Old Ironsides,” Marine Review
(July, 1931): 19. For a history of the use of enslaved labor at the Pensacola Navy Yard, see Thomas Hulse, “Military Slave Rentals, the Construction of Army Fortifications, and the Navy Yard in Pensacola, Florida, 1824--1863,” The Florida Historical Quarterly
88 (Spring 2010): 497--539.
“Civil War Ship Timbers Found at Navy Yard; Preserved in Water, They Will Be Used Now,” The New York Times
, September 7, 1941.
JO2 Danny Sloane, “Chevalier Field Gives Up Relics of NAS History,” Gosport
Naval Air Station Pensacola weekly publication, November 7, 1969.
“Timbers Reclaimed,” The Periscope
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard newspaper, May 28, 1982.
John Barry, Richard Dale, and Thomas Truxtun to Secretary of War Henry Knox, 18 December 1794. American States Papers, Naval Affairs
, 1: 8.