Postcard History: the USS Constitution


By Carla Charter

CHARLESTOWN, MA.- Gracing the Charlestown Navy Yard is an elegant lady from the 1800’s.  Saved by school children’s pennies she beckons visitors back to the days of tall ships and battles at sea.

The USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the United States was built by the Edmund Hartt Shipyard in 1797.  She was named by President George Washington after the U.S. Constitution.

As an active warship she was home to up to 450 sailors and glided across the open ocean under the power of 42 to 46 sails, according to Carl Herzog, Public Historian of the USS Constitution Museum. The ship served in a number of wars including the Barbary Wars in North Africa and the Quasi-War, an undeclared war between the United States and France, in 1798 and 1780.

The War of 1812 though, was where the ship gained her reputation and earned her nickname ‘Old Ironsides’. In the summer of 1812 she fought the HMS Guerriere. The Guerriere shot cannon balls at her adversary’s hull, which bounced off of the Constitution. “The Guerrire crew screamed ‘Huzzah it is made of Iron,’ thus the name “Old Ironsides,” according to Herzog. The Constitution also fought several other successful battles during the war, including one against the HMS Java and another against the HMS Cyane and the HMS Levant, both in the winter of 1812

After the Constitution’s active sailing career was over, the ship fell into disrepair and was at risk of being broken apart and scuttled. In the 1920’s schoolchildren waged a successful national campaign to restore and preserve the vessel, by collecting pennies.

The last time the Constitution sailed under its own power was in 1997 when it sailed to Marblehead for the bicentennial of its launch. It also sailed for a short time under its own power in 2012 to honor the anniversary of the war of 1812. The ship still has turn arounds in the harbor during the summer months.

In the 1970’s, the USS Constitution Museum was created, which tells the story of the USS Constitution and the War of 1812, through interactive exhibits, artifacts and documents. More information on the USS Constitution and the USS Constitution Museum can be found at