March 27, 2009 by D Stack
U.S.S. Constitution is berthed at Pier 1 of Boston’s former Charlestown Naval Yard. She is the oldest commissioned warship afloat, over 200 years old. My introduction to her was in the as a kid in the 1980s when she appeared on the GI Joe cartoon – the GI Joe team used her against Cobra after that vile terrorist organization fired a pulse modulator to disable electronics. Less than a year after I moved to Massachusetts she sailed for the first time under her own power over a century. She became one of my favorite destinations in Boston. My six-year old daughter loves visiting her. In 2007 we watched her perform her annual turn-around cruise via a Constitution-museum sponsored tour boat. So there’s now two people in my household with an interest in the history of the US Navy. March 27th marks the birthday of that navy, as I’ll discuss below.
Now technically I’m not quite right about today being the navy’s birthday. On October 13, 1775 the Continental Congress authorized the construction of a navy during the American Revolution. However, after the end of the war the navy was disbanded, with the final vessel sold in 1785 by the Congress of the Confederation (the US Congress under the Articles of Confederation, before the adaptation of the US Constitution).
The US Constitution, ratified in 1788, provided for the creation and maintenance of a navy. However, no such navy was formed initially. Lacking a navy, United States merchant ships were easy prey for pirates, especially those of the Barbary Coast. By the end of 1793 a dozen American ships had been captured by these pirates and their crews sold to slavery. On March 27, 1794, Congress authorized the formation of a navy with six frigates: USS United States, USS President, USS Constellation, USS Chesapeake, USS Congress, and USS Constitution. The first of the frigates, USS United States, was commissioned and launched in 1797, with the others entering service over the next several months and years.
This was fortunate, as the young nation would soon be in need of a navy. Though France had been an ally of the United States during the Revolution, the Revolutionary government of France was enraged by the US normalizing relations with Great Britain, its neutrality in the Revolutionary Wars of Europe, and its refusal to repay its war debt to the Revolutionary Government of France (the US stating that the debt was owed to the government that the French Revolution had overthrown). France began seizing US vessels. In July of 1798 the US Congress rescinded its treaties with France and authorized the seizure of French vessels. This traditionally marks the beginning of the “Quasi-War” with France, which was fought exclusively on the seas and ended in 1800.
In 1800, 20 percent of the US government’s revenue was spent on ransom and tribute to the Barbary Coast pirates. In 1801 the Pasha of Tripoli made additional tribute demands from the United States. The newly inaugurated President Jefferson refused to comply. Tripoli, followed by Algiers and Tunis, declared war on the United States. In response, Jefferson sent several frigates to the Mediterranean, marking the beginning of the First Barbary War. The war came to an end shortly after the Battle of Derma in 1805, with US Marines, joined by Arab, Greek, and Berber mercenaries seized the Tripolitan city of Derma. In response Tripoli agreed to a peace treaty.
The fledgling Navy’s finest hour came in the War of 1812. On the Atlantic Ocean, Great Lakes, and Lake Champlain, the frigates of the US Navy won numerous engagements against British frigates. USS Constitution gained her nickname “Old Ironsides” in battle against HMS Guerriere after cannon-fire from Guerriere bounced off her hull. Victory in the Battle of Lake Champlain stopped the British offensive in the North and prevented the British from gaining exclusive rights to the Great Lakes in the Treaty of Ghent which ended the war.
Every Independence Day my eldest daughter Victoria and I now have a tradition where we watch the Constitution turnaround. Last year (and this one) the turnaround is unfortunately short due to maintenance being performed on Constitution, though in 2010 she should return to her longer cruises. We’re really hoping to be able to participate in the turnaround aboard Constittion some year.