Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 10: October 2008

Documents, Artefacts and Imagery

USS Constitution under Refit

By John R. Grodzinski

During a July 2008 visit to Boston, Massachusetts, I had an opportunity to visit “Old Ironsides,” USS Constitution at her home in the Charlestown Naval Yard. Authorised as one of six frigates in 1794 resulting from increased problems with the North African Barbary powers (and in particular Tripoli), Constitution was launched in Boston on 21 October 1797. This coincided conveniently with another diplomatic crisis resulting in the Quasi-War with France, a dispute over the rights of neutral trade.

Constitution was a 44 gun frigate fitted with various combinations of guns during her long career; during 1812, her armament included 30-24 pdr long guns, one 18-pdr long gun, 24-32 pdr carronades. The standard complement was a crew of 450-480.

Constitution captured three prizes during the Quasi-War, after which she was temporarily laid up before being recommissioned in 1803 and sent to the Mediterranean. Following the peace with Tripoli, Constitution was again laid up in 1807 for two years.

Constitution enjoyed considerable success during the War of the 1812, destroying HMS Guerrière (also 38 guns) on 19 August 1812 and HMS Java (38 guns) on 29 December 1812. Part of 1813 was spent on refit and much of 1814 was spent at anchor in port due to the Royal Navy blockade. Constitution captured HMS Schooner Pictou (16 guns), on 14 February 1814 and HMS Cyane (22 guns) and HM Sloop Levant (20 guns) on 20 February 1815. She also captured a number of merchantmen during the war. Constitution earned her nickname “Old Ironsides” following an engagement where her stout timbers reportedly deflected British shot.

Following the War of 1812, Constitution served on seven three-year cruises followed with visits to the Pacific, service in home waters and with the anti-slavery patrol. Between 1844 and 1846, she circumnavigated the globe on a goodwill tour. After a survey in 1830, Constitution was almost paid off, but a restoration soon found her back in service, before being assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy as a school ship. Constitution was grounded following a trip to France in 1877, but refloated with help from the Royal Navy and repaired at Portsmouth.

Between 1879 and 1882, USS Constitution served as a sail training ship before being moved to the Portsmouth Naval Yard at Kittery, Maine (just across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth, NH), where it was decked over and used as a receiving ship for new recruits. A partial restoration commenced in 1907, followed by a full refit in the 1920s. In 1931, Constitution was re-commissioned as the Honorary Flagship of the Atlantic Fleet and was then again rebuilt in 1971 in anticipation of the American Bicentennial celebrations. It is now a museum ship in Boston Harbor. USS Constitution remains the oldest commissioned warship afloat, while HMS Victory is the oldest warship in commission.

The images below include various views of USS Constitution, which began a two year restoration in October 2007. These views include work underway on the spar deck, the bow and include a photo of the dockyard museum. All of these images were taken by the author.

Click on the image for a larger picture.

USS Constitution Undergoing a Refite - July 2008
USS Constitution Undergoing a Refite - July 2008
USS Constitution Undergoing a Refite - July 2008
USS Constitution Undergoing a Refite - July 2008USS Constitution Undergoing a Refite - July 2008
USS Constitution Undergoing a Refite - July 2008
USS Constitution Undergoing a Refite - July 2008
USS Constitution Museum


Chapelle, Howard I. The History of the American Sailing Navy. New York: W.W. Norton, 1949.

Dudley, William S. ed. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. Volumes I and II. Washington: Naval Historical Centre, 1985 and 1992.

Malcomson, Robert. Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2006.

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