Battle-tested ‘Old Ironsides’

She’s an old warship that gained fame — and the famous “Old Ironsides” nickname — more than 200 years ago. She last saw conflict many decades before the Civil War, yet sailors still walk her decks and proudly speak of her as the battle-tested warrior she is.

The USS Constitution was launched in 1797 and, like warships of that era, was meant to last for 10 or 20 years. On July 23, after more than two years in dry dock undergoing an extensive renovation, she floated again into Boston Harbor to tie up at her usual wharf in Charlestown.

Even under repair Old Ironsides was a big attraction. Active duty U.S. Navy sailors in their early 19th century garb were always ready to answer tourists’ questions, and to occasionally demonstrate the speed and skill honed by the original ship’s crew to load and reload the huge cannons they aimed against British warships in the War of 1812.

It was in the first major battle of that war that the Constitution earned her stripes and nickname.

Facing off against the British frigate HMS Guerriere — a French ship that had been seized and outfitted by the Brits — the Constitution pulled to within 25 yards and both ships opened fire. The resulting damage and chaos must have been tremendous, as the shredded sails and tangled rigging of the Guerriere brought down the main mast amid carnage on deck.

The brief battle disabled the British ship, which was later set ablaze and sunk. Seven Americans, including Lt. William Bush, the first U.S. Marine Corps officer to die in combat, were killed in the battle, along with 13 British sailors.

History says that a sailor aboard the Constitution, seeing the British cannon balls bouncing off her thick oak sides, cried out, “Huzza, her sides are made of iron!” Whether fact or just a good story, the name stuck.

Old Ironsides went on to win two other battles during that war, which was the extent of her combat.

— The Gloucester Times

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.