By lex, on August 11th, 2010
Took off from the afternoon session at the conference yesterday for to travel to Charlestown, and visit a very old lady.
Her topmasts were struck down, and her yards uncrossed, which was much to be expected, even as it was tenderly regretted. The ship will get under way on her own power in 2012, it is said, but a ship in lay-up needs to dress down, the better to avoid a sudden squall. We are none of us as young as once we were.
Directly behind me in the line was a French family, a careworn father wearing a Yankees ball cap, the shame of it. His lovely wife and two small children, including a bespectacled young man of maybe 10 summers who wanted to be elsewhere on a hot summers day. Hsst, his mother told him. “C’est important.” Before me was an eastern European family that I took to be Polish. Sometimes you forget that the struggle against tyranny is not ours alone.
I opted for the unguided tour, which I later regretted, since we were restricted to the spar deck alone, with its 32-pound carronades – “genuine smashers” at close range. Only the guided tours could go below to the gun deck itself, with its 30, 24-pound long guns.
Constitution is a 44-gun heavy frigate, laid down in 1794 and constructed largely of southern live oak, a particularly dense wood that can weigh as much as 75 pounds per cubic foot. She was built to settle accounts with the Barbary corsairs, whose demands for tribute had finally outpaced a fledgling nation’s willingness to pay. She claimed her first prize during the Quasi War on the 8th of September, 1798, when she captured the Niger, a French crewed 24-gun ship out of Jamaica. The Niger was found to be sailing under British orders, and the US was forced to pay reparations in the sum of $11,000. It was an uncharacteristically inauspicious start for a ship that would go on to win 33 victories at sea without ever facing defeat.
I was met at the brow by an anachronistic and winsome young lass in period seagoing rig, who smiled bravely in the heat and offered to answer any questions I might have while making it clear that I was to remain topside, grand dad. An airman first class stood petty officer of the watch duties in regulation crackerjacks, and I soon learned that he was nearing completion of his first, 2-year tour and on his way to aviation electronics technician school in Pensacola. He quickly surmised that I was a veteran, and we exchanged career insights – he was looking to go forward to a Japan-based carrier, but I talked him into one of the forward deployed naval force squadrons instead, which is a much better place for a youngster to start out.
“Did you enjoy your career?” he asked.
“Oh yes, very much,” I said. “I did 26 years.”
“And what rank did you retire at?”
“Oh, I was a captain,” I answered.
I went forward to look over the bowsprit, and heard him whisper to the female sailor, “He’s a retired captain.”
Which, that and $3.95 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
I walked off the ship, which I had last visited nearly 20 years before, slightly vexed not to have had the opportunity to go below. My vexation turned to craftiness as I saw a guided tour just getting started at the pier. I slipped in behind and went back aboard, a finger to my lips as I met the quarterdeck watch.
Another young sailor, this one the interpretive historian of the crew, led us below to the gun deck, where the real murder was done at ranges above a thousand yards. He explained the hardships of naval life in the early 19th century with evident pride at the hardiness of our naval forbears. We chatted by the scuttlebutt and took turns looking at the sailor’s berthing, where some 250 men who had not showered in a month of Sundays dozed for four hour turns while the other 250 were turned out on deck, manning the sails and rigging, making and mending, putting the ship through her paces or saying their devotions to shipboard cleanliness with the holystones on the spar deck. These weren’t the only kind of stones necessary to sail the seas in the early 19th century.
As he turned to the 19th of August, 1812, our interpretive historian’s narrative turned to the first person plural, present sense:
The British had been long engaged in their war against Napoleonic France, and the island nation had a desperate need for able bodied seamen. Some British captains remained unreconciled to the newly independent United States, and did not forbear to “discover” fled countrymen aboard American merchantmen. The HMS Leopard actually took the USS Chesapeake under fire on the pretense of sheltering escaped tars, killing three sailors and impressing four, three of whom had become legal American citizens. The fourth was hanged.
Between that dishonor and the British suppression of American trade with continental Europe, war was declared between the United States of America and the world’s most powerful empire, buttressed by the world’s most powerful navy.
At four bells of the mid-day watch, a sail was spotted to leeward. Having the benefit of the weather gage, Constitution bore down to investigate, discovering the 38-gun HMS Guerriere at about the same time that Guerriere made Constitution. Both captains called all hands on deck, beat to quarters and shortened sail.
Captain James Dacres of the Guerriere fired his first broadside at 1000 yards, but the rounds fell short in rough seas. Captain Isaac Hull called his gunners to see to their aim, and await his command to fire. Dacres attempted to flee his heavier opponent downwind, yawing from time to time to fire his main batteries. Most of his shots fell harmlessly into the sea, while one bounced off Constitution‘s heavily fortified sides, leading one enthusiast to cry, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” Hull packed on sail to come along side, and at the murderous range of 25 yards exchanged broadside after broadside. After 15 minutes, Guerriere lost her mizzen, and with it her ability to maneuver. Hull surged ahead, crossed her bow and raked her stem to stern with yet another broadside, causing Guerriere’s mainyard to come crashing down upon the bloody deck.
Hull wore around for yet another raking broadside, but the ships became entangled in close combat. Dacres was wounded by small arms fire, and Constitution broke free, taking with her Guerriere‘s fore and mainmasts. Constitution made clear to set her wounded rigging to rights, returning to find that Dacres had run out of fight. No masts at all, not even a bowsprit to carry a handkerchief, 15 men killed and another 78 wounded against seven dead and seven wounded aboard the victorious American warship.
Thirty-five minutes after the first shot was fired, Dacres struck his colors, surrendering to Hull the hulk that was left of his once proud command. Finding Guerriere unrepairable, Hull had her burned. He refused Dacres’s proferred sword, averring that the British captain had fought gallantly.
The Constitution had won the first major fight of her 33 battles at sea, and the US Navy had announced its presence on the world stage.
It was a great tour, I found myself immensely proud of the young men and women who kept the old girl going and telling her tales. I left the ship regretfully. As I got to the quarterdeck, I turned to the national ensign on the oldest active warship still afloat. And then I remembered: only one of us is still in commission.
I smiled to myself sheepishly, and walked away from history.