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On This Day: USS Constitution Earns Nickname “Old Ironsides”

Last updated: February 14, 2023

On Aug. 19, 1812, the American frigate USS Constitution routed British forces in a War of 1812 battle in the North Atlantic Ocean, earning the nickname “Old Ironsides.”

“Old Ironsides” Is Born

In August 1812, the USS Constitution sailed north from Boston to launch a raid on British bases in the Canadian Maritimes. On Aug. 19, off the coast of Nova Scotia, it engaged the British frigate Guerriere in battle.

The two ships grew near to each other, about 50 yards apart, at around 6:00 p.m., and began firing cannons at point-blank range. The larger Constitution quickly inflicted great damage on the British frigate.

Capt. Isaac Hull, commander of the Constitution, described the battle in a letter to the secretary of the Navy: “we commenced a very heavy fire from all our guns, loaded with round, and grape, which was done with great execution, so much so that in less than fifteen minutes from the time, we got alongside, his mizzen mast went by the board, and his main yard in the slings and the hull and sails very much injured, which made it difficult for them to manage her.”

The attacks launched from the British ship were having little effect, as its cannon balls seemed to be deflected by the Constitution’s tough oak sides. Upon seeing this sight, one of the crewmen on board the Constitution exclaimed: “Huzza, her sides are made of iron!” Thus, the legendary nickname “Old Ironsides” was born.

The two ships soon drew up close enough to launch boarding attacks. The Guerriere’s foremast collapsed as the ships were separating, leaving the ship defenseless. The British were forced to surrender, just about an hour after the battle had begun.

When all was said and done, the Constitution had 14 casualties compared to Guerriere’s 79. The HMS Guerriere was so badly damaged that it had to be sunk after the surviving crewmembers were brought to safety. In celebration of the inspiring and motivating victory, the U.S. Congress awarded Capt. Hull a special gold medal for his service.

“This battle, the first of several U.S. Navy victories in ship-to-ship contests, encouraged Americans and chagrined the British,” according to the Naval Historical Center. “Despite the rational excuse that Royal Navy frigates were not as large and powerful as their American counterparts, the real causes of these outcomes were inspired seamanship and vastly better gunnery.”

The History of the USS Constitution

Sources in this Story

  • Naval Historical Center: USS Constitution captures HMS Guerriere, 19 August 1812
  • EyeWitness to History: Old Ironsides earns its name, 1812
  • Naval History & Heritage Command: Constitution: History
  • Time: Old Ironsides
  • USS Constitution Museum: Museum’s Mission and History
  • U.S. Army Center of Military History: American Military History: The War of 1812

The USS Constitution is one of the most renowned warships in American history. It was among the first frigates built for the U.S. Navy, launching for the first time in Boston on Oct. 21, 1797.

After its victory against the Royal Navy, Americans were thrilled and saw the USS Constitution as a symbol of their nation’s great honor and perseverance. The beloved ship still remains afloat today in Boston, but it had to overcome some obstacles.

In September 1830, a report in the Boston Daily Advertiser stated that the Navy had plans to scrap the USS Constitution after decades of service. Though the report turned out to be inaccurate, poet Oliver Wendell Holmes published a poem in response to the article on Sept.16, 1830. His poem, entitled “Old Ironsides,” echoed the public outcry supporting the Constitution and is often credited with saving the historically important ship.

By 1931, the ship was suffering from decay and neglect, detracting from its vestige of honor. Curtis Wilbur, former secretary of the Navy, set out to revamp the ship and bring it back into naval service. He sponsored the “collection of thousands of pennies from thousands of school children to pay for the reconstruction of this black, chunky relic,” wrote Time.

The USS Constitution currently sits afloat in the Charlestown Navy Yard in the waters of the Boston Harbor. It is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat.

Thanks to the creation of the USS Constitution Museum in 1972, many people have had the opportunity to step onboard the famed ship and visualize the place where brave Americans fought off the powerful British Navy almost 200 years ago.

Historical Context: The War of 1812

The War of 1812 was a conflict between the United States and Great Britain that began in 1812 and lasted until early 1815. Congress, backed by President James Madison, declared war on Britain after a series of economic sanctions that nearly crippled U.S. trade, and because of national outrage over the impressment of U.S. Navy sailors.

While the United States focused on attacking British territories in North America and out at sea, Britain’s army was able to cause much damage to the United States. Among the worst losses to the U.S. was Britain’s march on Washington and the burning down of the White House and U.S. Capitol building.

By 1814, the war was dragging on and had cost both countries massive amounts of resources. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on Dec. 24, 1814, officially ending the war. It returned relations between the United States and Britain to their original status before the war.

News of the treaty did not reach America for two weeks, however, and the war continued in the interim. On Jan. 8, 1815, Gen. Andrew Jackson led American troops to victory at New Orleans, the last major conflict of the War of 1812.

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