The world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat is the USS Constitution, a sailing frigate launched in Boston in 1797. She was built from 2,000 trees with sturdy oak planks that measured up to seven inches thick. Paul Revere forged the copper bolts that held the timbers in place and the copper sheathing that helped protect the hull.
The Constitution first put to sea in July 1798 to cruise the West Indies, protecting U.S. merchant ships from French privateers. In 1803 President Jefferson sent her to the Mediterranean to fight the Barbary pirates. The Constitution led an American squadron that chased the pirates and bombarded fortifications until the Barbary States agreed to stop preying on American merchant vessels.
On August 19, 1812, during the War of 1812, the Constitution met the British frigate Guerriere and within twenty minutes had turned it into a dismasted hulk. The British seamen watched in amazement as their cannonballs seemed to bounce harmlessly off the Constitution’s tough hull. “Her sides are made of iron!” one sailor cried—and the nickname “Old Ironsides” was born. With every battle won, the ship’s reputation spread.
In 1830 a Boston newspaper reported (inaccurately) that the Navy had plans to scrap the aging ship. When poet Oliver Wendell Holmes learned of the report, he dashed off a verse titled “Old Ironsides” to warn his countrymen that the “eagle of the sea” was in peril. The public outcry helped convince the Navy to refurbish the vessel, and the poem cemented the public’s affection for the ship.
In 1941 the Navy placed the Constitution in permanent commission. Now open to the public at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, millions have visited this proud old symbol of America’s strength, courage, and liberty.