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Title: Some Stories of Old Ironsides
Author: Frost, Holloway Halstead
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Some Stories of Old Ironsides" ***

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                            SOME STORIES OF
                             OLD IRONSIDES

                Commander Holloway H. Frost, U. S. Navy
                      Author of _We Build a Navy_

    [Illustration: Medallion]

                             U. S. NAVAL INSTITUTE
                          ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

            {Copyright 1931 · United States Naval Institute}

                        DESIGNED AND PRINTED BY
                           MENASHA, WISCONSIN

                         LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

  Preble’s First Attack on Tripoli                                      4
  Old Ironsides                                                         5
  Chase of the _Constitution_                                          12
  Edward Preble                                                        13
  _Constitution_ and _Guerriere_                                       20
  Capture of the British Frigate _Java_                                21
  The Night Battle Between the U.S.S. _Constitution_ and H. M. Ships
          _Cyane_ and _Levant_                                         28
  Stephen Decatur                                                      29

    [Illustration: Bowsprit]

    [Illustration: _From a painting by M. Carne_
    Preble’s First Attack on Tripoli
    The _Constitution_ (large ship right center foreground) leading the
    attack on Tripoli, August 3, 1804.]

    [Illustration: _From a painting by C. R. Patterson_
    “Old Ironsides”]

                                 ACT I
                         _In the Mediterranean_

                   SCENE I. ENTER THE “CONSTITUTION”

On a September day in 1803 an American frigate bowled along the rocky
Spanish coast toward Gibraltar. From her bluff bows curled back a foamy
wave. Above the blue waters rose a gracefully proportioned black hull.
Around it, halfway up from the water line, ran a broad white stripe.
This was broken at regular intervals by the dark squares of the gun
ports. Spars tapered aloft. White rectangles of billowing canvas
completed a picture of beauty unsurpassed on the Seven Seas. Such was
the United States ship _Constitution_. Joshua Humphreys, naval
constructor, had done his work well.

Watchers on the famous Rock might have noted, had the beauty of this
strange ship gained their full attention, that from the mizzen truck
flew the broad blue pennant of a commodore. His name was then unknown.
It is not too well known even now. But as time passes the conviction
grows that Edward Preble should be classed in the first rank of our
naval commanders. He was soon to prove that he was every inch a
commodore. His pennant flew from a splendid ship, but one which had as
yet no tradition of victory. Edward Preble was to begin that long series
of successful cruises and spectacular sea fights which was to endear
“Old Ironsides” to every American.

Countless ships for countless years had passed these far-famed Pillars
of Hercules. Some had sailed on errands of peace, but most on the grim
business of war. Phoenician traders had sailed out northward to Britain
for cargoes of its precious tin. Carthaginian merchants under Hanno had
ventured far down the Atlantic coast of Africa. Scipio Africanus with
his legions had come this way to complete the conquest of Spain. Moorish
galleys had ferried to Europe those fierce Moslem horsemen who overran
the Iberian Peninsula and fought for world empire on the battlefields of
France. Norse sea kings had sailed on through to Sicily and
Constantinople. Stout De Ruyter and his Dutch seamen had followed in
their track to make his last campaign in the blue waters of the
Mediterranean. And only five years before the greatest sea captain of
them all, a certain Horatio Nelson, had hastened by to match his wits
with a General Bonaparte and annihilate his fleet at the mouth of the

The entry of Edward Preble in a Yankee frigate into the great sea which
had supported so many war fleets seemed doubtless at that time utterly
devoid of historical significance. But now, as we look back over a
century and a quarter, it takes on a new importance. It was to bring our
young Navy to a new plane of efficiency. It was to demonstrate to
Americans in a striking manner the value of an efficient naval service.
It was to establish our Navy as a permanent American institution. And,
what is more, it signaled to watchful eyes abroad the rise of a new sea
power. It indicated, not only to African pirates, but also to astute
European statesmen, that this American Republic had become a factor they
would have to reckon with in framing their diplomatic policies.

We believe that, as much as any other man of that era, it was bold and
forceful Edward Preble who gave the United States that initial impulsion
along the path of astounding prosperity, unparalleled commercial power,
and world-wide influence.

    [Illustration: Squadron at sea]

For two years we had been at war with the Moslem principalities which
lined the Mediterranean coast of Africa. For many years before that,
their piratical craft had captured our merchant ships and sold their
crews into slavery. We had first begged and then bribed these pirates to
desist from piracy. And, finally, after all diplomatic measures had
failed, that task was given the Navy. That service had been in existence
only a few years. It was, we must confess, not properly prepared to
conduct a difficult campaign so far from its home bases. So two years of
desultory fighting had accomplished little. In despair, our statesmen
had descended again to the artifices of bribery. But, fortunately for
us, the piratical chieftains did not think our offers worth their while.
So the Navy was given a final chance and Edward Preble the command. The
backbone of his squadron were the fine frigates _Constitution_ and
_Philadelphia_. For inshore work there were the brigs _Argus_ and
_Siren_ and the schooners _Enterprise_, _Nautilus_, and _Vixen_. It is
true that seven ships constituted a small force to keep in good humor
Morocco, Algiers, and Tunis and bring to a favorable conclusion the war
with Tripoli. But the ships were all finely commanded, well officered,
and manned with the best sailors in the world. The ships themselves were
well built, adequately equipped, and completely stored for a long
campaign. So it was with high hopes that Preble commenced his difficult
task—one, it may be added, which had baffled Cardinal Ximenes, Charles
V, Andrea Doria, Blake, De Ruyter, and Duquesne.

                   SCENE II. EXIT THE “PHILADELPHIA”

An effective demonstration off Tangiers soon cooled the ardor of the
Sultan of Morocco. He reconfirmed the old and highly favorable treaty of
1786. One potential enemy had been removed. On now for Syracuse, the
naval base from which our campaign against Tripoli was being conducted.

Off the coast of Sardinia the _Constitution_ hailed H.M.S. _Amazon_, a
frigate attached to the squadron of Lord Nelson. From her Preble
received “the melancholy and distressing intelligence of the loss of the
U.S. ship _Philadelphia_.” Here, Commodore, is a problem which will put
to the test all your intelligence and stoutness of heart.

At Syracuse Preble learned the full extent of the disaster. The fine
frigate had been run aground off Tripoli. Captain Bainbridge,
discouraged by his ill fortune, had surrendered too quickly. Three
hundred and fifteen of our officers and men had been led ashore in
triumph. In his haste Bainbridge had not even taken effective measures
to destroy his own ship. She was floated and brought into the harbor of
Tripoli. Her guns were fished out of the water and remounted. She was
manned with a strong Tripolitan crew. Thus she contributed to the
strength of the defenses, and constituted a threat to every merchant
vessel in the Mediterranean. Gloomy were the thoughts of poor Bainbridge
as he viewed these developments from his prison window.

Preble was not the man to worry over past disasters. He was concerned
with future successes. How could he counteract, in part at least, the
loss of the _Philadelphia_? There was no direct method for rescuing the
crew. But there might be a chance to regain the ship, or at least
destroy her so that the enemy could not use her. Bainbridge, through the
connivance of the Danish consul at Tripoli, had suggested that she be
attacked by a party of men secreted in the hold of a merchant vessel.
The capture of a Tripolitan ketch provided the means of carrying through
this daring plan. The next essential item was a cool and daring

The commodore invited to this post of honor and danger Lieutenant
Stephen Decatur, then in command of the _Enterprise_. To this young
officer might well be applied a sentence from Plutarch: “Being ever
thirsty after honor, and passionate for glory, if anything of a greater
or extraordinary nature was to be done, he was eager to be the doer of
it himself.” Decatur eagerly accepted his commodore’s invitation.

Once the squadron got wind of the venture and of the commander selected,
there was no lack of volunteers. Decatur naturally gave first choice to
the people in his own ship. Five of her officers and sixty-two of her
sailors shifted over to the ketch. This was formally commissioned and
appropriately renamed _Intrepid_. Five midshipmen from the
_Constitution_ completed the complement. Last, but by no means least,
was a brave Sicilian pilot, Salvador Catalano.

Edward Preble took upon himself full responsibility for the hazardous
enterprise. “It is my order,” he wrote Decatur, “that you proceed to
Tripoli, in company with the _Siren_, Lieutenant Stewart; enter the
harbor in the night; board the _Philadelphia_; burn her; and make good
your escape.” The courage it requires to write such an order is seldom
appreciated. If the expedition had failed, as certainly it looked very
probable, all the blame would have fallen on Preble. He would have been
accused of sending officers and men to their death while he remained in
safety. And, if the attack should succeed, the credit and honor would
belong to Decatur. But Preble was not guarding his own interests. He was
striving to further those of the Navy and the country.

    [Illustration: In Tripoli harbor]

For two weeks the _Intrepid_ was battered about by a succession of
storms. On this little craft, much smaller than a submarine chaser,
seventy-four men were crowded. Their sufferings can scarcely be
imagined. But at last the weather moderated and the long-awaited
opportunity was at hand. As a reënforcement Midshipman Anderson and nine
sailors rowed over in one of the _Siren’s_ cutters. This was towed
astern of the _Intrepid_. She started in.

The sea now was smooth. The wind lulled slowly to a calm. As night came
on, a young moon, the enemy’s emblem, diffused a gentle light over the
phosphorescent waters. Wary Odysseus might have turned back his prow at
sight of such an unfavorable omen, but not all the gods on Olympus could
have turned back Stephen Decatur that night.

Slowly and silently steals the _Intrepid_ toward the harbor entrance.
This cold wintry night there are no vessels on patrol. Only irregular
ranks of jagged rocks keep watch. The moonlight discloses these ever
present sentinels. The ship passes through.

Quietly there on deck stand Decatur, Catalano, and ten seamen—all
disguised as Sicilians. Close down behind the bulwarks crouch the
remainder of the crew. Ahead looms up the great hulk of the
_Philadelphia_. Her foremast has not been replaced, but the main and
mizzenmasts, with their network of rigging, trace a spider web of black
against the dull red glare of the city’s lights. Fifteen gaping gun
ports are dotted with the muzzles of frowning 18-pounders, loaded,
shotted, and ready to be touched off. High overhead towers the dark mass
of the Bashaw’s castle, its embrasures filled with one hundred and
fifteen cannon.

The frigate’s bell rings out the hour. It is ten-thirty in the evening
watch. Her sentinel hails. Catalano answers with long-rehearsed lines.
He has lost his anchors. May he not secure alongside the frigate for the
night? The answer is, “Yes.” Lawrence lowers a small boat. With a line
from the _Intrepid_ he pulls for the frigate’s bows. Quickly he secures
his end to the fore chains. At the other end crouching seamen haul away.

Watchers on the frigate, if they had not been too sleepy, might have
wondered at the hidden power which draws the little craft so steadily
upon her prey. It is not until she is almost alongside that they see the
crowd of men on her decks. “Americanos!” yells the sentinel. But now it
is too late. Another pull brings the _Intrepid_ alongside. Then rises a
confused din as her crew begin a wild scramble for the honor of being
the first over the enemy’s side. Decatur trips on his scabbard. Morris
passes him. Over the high bulwarks, sword in teeth, he disappears.
Lieutenants, midshipmen, sailors follow him. Here have ceased the
privileges of rank. Those of courage begin.

Surprise has won the day. There is no resistance on the upper decks. The
startled enemy dive over the side or scuttle below. Wild Americanos or
hungry sharks—what a choice to have to make! Some twenty Tripolitans
fall before the former. How many succumb to the latter we may only
guess. In twenty minutes the ship is everywhere ablaze. As the flames
shoot up the guns ashore fire on the clearly illuminated target. Back
into the ketch our sailors spring. Lines are cut with battle-axe and
cutlass, just in time to evade the outrushing flames. Out ring three
good American cheers above the crackling roar of fire and the thunder of

The flames now have mounted the frigate’s rigging turning night into
day. The _Intrepid_ is clearly disclosed to the enemy gunners. From
every direction shot converge on the little ship. Out are run sixteen
great sweeps. Strong men, willing galley slaves for an hour, double-bank
their handles. Their long blades churn the waters into foam. Away she
races through the shell splashes.

    [Illustration: _From an old painting_
    Chase of the _Constitution_]

    [Illustration: _From the painting by John W. Jarvis_
    Edward Preble]

Thus ended with complete success what Lord Nelson called the most bold
and daring act of the age. When, three days later, the _Intrepid_ sailed
through the American squadron in Syracuse, each ship gave Decatur and
his men a deafening salute of cheers. What music to a sailor’s ears!


As spring came on the commodore pushed his preparations for a naval
attack on Tripoli. He now had only one large ship, the _Constitution_.
There were five brigs and schooners. A captured Tripolitan brig,
commissioned as the _Scourge_, made a sixth. Preble knew that these
ships could not get in close enough to the enemy to win the decisive
results he was determined to have. So he borrowed six gunboats, two bomb
vessels, and ninety-six sailors from the King of Naples. Even with this
reënforcement, Preble had but one thousand and sixty men to attack a
strongly fortified town defended by twenty-five thousand soldiers and
sailors. Still his hopes for success were high.

Early in August, 1804, the orders for a grand attack were issued. This
was to be no distant cannonade. The _Constitution_ was to attack the
batteries at point-blank range. The gunboats were to board the enemy
flotilla. The bomb vessels were to toss their 13-inch grenades into the

The Bashaw, as the Tripolitan ruler was called, saw that a storm was
about to break over his head. In addition to formidable batteries
ashore, he had twenty-one gunboats. These were manned by from
twenty-four to forty men. Each carried one large and two small guns. We
must not mistake these Tripolitans. They were splendid seamen and fierce
fighters. Boarding was their usual method of attack. Nine of their
gunboats were stationed outside the reefs east of the harbor entrance.
Five were under the powerful batteries to the westward. The remainder
lay inside the harbor in reserve.

    [Illustration: Under sail]

At two o’clock in the afternoon of August 3, the flagship displayed the
long-awaited signal for attack. Our six gunboats, under Decatur, were to
attack the nine Tripolitan craft east of the harbor. Only three of his
detachment, for various reasons, reached the enemy. Now three against
nine were big odds. But, thought our young fellows, the bigger the odds
the greater the glory. And they had Stephen Decatur—himself worth a
couple of gunboats—to lead them. He, like the Spartans, “was not wont to
ask how many but where, the enemy were!”

So Decatur led the charge. He made for a large gunboat armed with a huge
29-pound cannon and two howitzers. Her crew, as we learned later,
numbered thirty-six. Decatur also has one cannon, a long 24-pounder. He
sails in close until he can see the white of their eyes. Then he fires.
A hail of grapeshot sweeps the enemy’s deck. As the two ships crash
together our boarders are away. For a few minutes the fight is furious.
But American pikes and cutlasses are irresistible. When only five of
their people remain unwounded the Moors cry for quarter. Here is a
victory, decided, as the old saying goes, by push of pike.

Meanwhile Sailing Master Trippe is having a bad quarter of an hour. He
runs his gunboat alongside another enemy ship. Boarding is the order of
the day. That is a good way for Americans, as well as Tripolitans, to
fight. Trippe springs into the enemy gunboat. Midshipman Henley and nine
sailors follow. Then the ships drift apart. Here now is a situation.
Trippe sees that, being too weak for defense, it is necessary to attack.
He lunges at the enemy captain with his pike. The Tripolitan is a good
swordsman, and his scimitar is sharp. He rains blows on Trippe’s chest
and shoulders—wounds him eleven times in all. But the sailing master
gets in one effective thrust with his pike, and this more than evens up
matters. Another Moor, whose cutlass is descending on Trippe’s head from
behind, is bayoneted by Marine Sergeant Jonathan Meredith. Having lost
their captain and twenty of their comrades, the remaining Tripolitans
now surrender.

To cap the climax, Decatur boarded a third enemy gunboat, somewhat
smaller than his first prize. Here occurred that famous hand-to-hand
combat between Decatur and the gigantic Moorish captain. The devotion of
Seaman Daniel Frazier, and his own coolness gave Decatur victory. All
but three of the enemy were killed or wounded before they would
surrender. This was real schooling for a young Navy.

Lieutenant Richard Somers, bravest of the brave, had not been able to
join Decatur. So single-handed he attacked the five enemy craft west of
the entrance. “They still advanced to within pistol-shot,” Somers wrote,
“when they wore round and stood for the batteries. I pursued them until
in musket shot of the batteries, which kept up a continued fire of round
shot and grape.” That was how Somers fought.

The _Constitution’s_ heavy battery, reënforced by six Neapolitan
29-pounders, had been engaging these same batteries at point-blank
range. Several times she was brought within four hundred yards of the
rocky coast of which no chart was available. The bomb vessels had
launched a quantity of their huge 13-inch shells into the city, but many
of them did not explode. At four-thirty the wind shifted and a
withdrawal was signaled. Preble covered it in great style. “Tacked
ship,” he wrote, “and fired two broadsides in stays, which drove the
Tripolitans out of the castle and brought down the steeple of a mosque.”

This three-hour battle had proved highly successful. But do you think
the commodore was contented? Admiral Gleaves tells how, after the
battle, Decatur came on board the _Constitution_ to make his report.
Approaching Preble on the quarter-deck, he said: “Sir, I have the honor
to report that I have captured three of the enemy’s gunboats.” “Three,
Sir!” replied the commodore, “where are the rest of them?” This incident
well illustrates the inflexible character of Edward Preble. In his
official report, however, he was careful to express complete
satisfaction with the manner in which his subordinates had conducted
their attacks.

As the summer wore on four more attacks were made. All were conducted
with great gallantry. They were not made without loss, for the
Tripolitans always gave us a good fight. Pirates though they were, we
must give them credit where due. The last attack, conducted at night,
was particularly effective. On that occasion, “to draw off the enemy’s
attention and amuse them while the bombardment was being kept up,” the
_Constitution_ fired eleven thunderous broadsides at point-blank range.

In the fall Preble returned home. During his year of command not a
court-martial had been ordered nor a duel fought. Among the many letters
of congratulation he received was a unique tribute from the Pope: “The
American commander, with a small force and in a short space of time, has
done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations
of Christendom have done for ages.” His countrymen received the
returning commodore with every honor. Congress voted him a gold medal.
The Navy had again come into its own. And the _Constitution_, now a
veteran of five battles, had firmly established her reputation as a
lucky and successful ship.

Thus ends the first act of our drama. Eight years pass before the second

                                 ACT II
                             _On the Ocean_


At last the day has come. Long and eagerly awaited has it been by
American seamen. A tall-sparred frigate plows through the purple waters
of the Gulf Stream. From her mastheads lookouts report a tiny speck upon
the clear horizon. Sharp eyes distinguish it from the far-distant masses
of cumulous clouds it counterfeits so well. Larger and larger it grows.
It becomes, in fact, another frigate, equally large and beautiful.
Across one of her topsails is painted a cryptic phrase, “Not the Little
Belt.” This may have little meaning to us today. But in the year of our
Lord 1812 it was full of grim significance. From her peak flutters a
white ensign, barred with red, the proud emblem of the Royal Navy.

On the first ship there is a muffled roll of drums, a brief hurrying of
men about the decks, a period of well-ordered activity—then quiet.
“Silent is the path of duty for every well-drilled man.” Up to her
mastheads creep balls of bunting. These at a quiet word of command break
out into strips of red and white, stars of white against a blue
field—battle ensigns of the United States. _Constitution_ and
_Guerriere_ have met. A great moment of history is at hand.

The famous duel between these two frigates cannot, of course, be
compared to the many sea battles between great fleets which have made
naval history. But often small events have a far-reaching influence.
This fight certainly was one of the most important and decisive single
ship actions ever fought.

To show why this was so we must set the scene before we begin the play.
To Great Britain, engaged in a death struggle with Napoleon, our little
war was nothing more than a side show—of even less importance than the
entry of a Balkan nation into the World War struggle. The chief concern
of the British statesmen was that it might interfere with the supply of
Wellington’s army in Spain—a task performed almost exclusively by
American merchant vessels. It never occurred to them that our frigates
would put to sea, or, if they should, that they could last long against
the British cruisers which literally covered the Seven Seas. Theodore
Roosevelt has stated that during the previous twenty years the Royal
Navy had fought two hundred single-ship actions where there was
approximate equality in power, i.e., neither ship had a superiority of
over three to two. In these actions only five British ships had been
captured. With such a record of success, it was only natural that the
British captains should give scant consideration to our young and
comparatively inexperienced Navy.

It is true that the _Constitution_ was about 7 per cent larger than the
_Guerriere_; that she carried 24-pounder guns against the 18-pounders in
the British frigate, thus giving us a ten to seven superiority in weight
of metal; and that her sides were very thick, stouter in fact than those
of a British ship-of-the-line. But the British captains showed not the
slightest concern over these American advantages, which at that time
were not considered as such. In fact, it was thought that we had
overweighted our ships with guns and timbers so that their speed and
handiness were decreased. Captain Dacres of the _Guerriere_ had
challenged any American frigate to meet him in single combat. He had bet
Captain Isaac Hull, so the story goes, a perfectly good hat that he
would beat the _Constitution_. Even after the fight Dacres said he would
be happy to fight him again with “a frigate of similar force to the
_Guerriere_.” All the propaganda of our frigates being disguised
ships-of-the-line was a much later concoction, disseminated after we had
proved in three battles the advantage of our heavier guns and thicker
sides, as well as the efficiency of our officers and sailors.

But now let the fight begin. For some hours the _Guerriere_ kept away,
trying to gain some advantage. But at 6:00 P.M. Dacres decided to end
this useless maneuvering and get to business. He headed directly before
the wind, decreased sail, and waited for the American frigate. Hull,
increasing his sail power, came swiftly down upon him. Zero hour was
about to strike. What could Yankee seamen do against the might of

    [Illustration: _From the painting by Thomas Birch_
    _Constitution_ AND _Guerriere_]

    [Illustration: _Macpherson Collection_
    Capture of the British Frigate _Java_ by the U.S. Frigate
    _Constitution_ off the Coast of Brazil, December 29, 1812]

Moses Smith, sponger of No. 1 gun, describes how the _Constitution_ went
into action. “Hull was now all animation. He saw that the decisive
moment had come. With great energy, yet calmness of manner, he passed
around among the officers and men, addressing to them words of
confidence and encouragement. ‘Men,’ said he, ‘now do your duty. Your
officers cannot have entire control over you now. Each man must do all
in his power for his country.’ The Stars and Stripes never floated more
proudly than they did at that moment. All was silent beneath them, save
the occasional order from an officer, or the low sound of the movement
of our implements of war. _Every man stood firm to his post._”

By 6:05 the Constitution was two hundred yards on the _Guerriere’s_ port
quarter. Hull then yawed his ship’s head slightly away from the enemy
and threw his broadside full upon her. As the guns bore on the target
they fired in rapid succession. “We instantly followed the thunder of
our cannon with three loud cheers, which rang along the ship like the
roar of waters, and floated away rapidly to the ears of the enemy.”

The cannonading was terrific. Our gunners, in the heat of battle, looked
well to their aim. By 6:20 the _Constitution_ was abreast the British
frigate, distant one hundred yards. Then with a splintering crash came
down Dacres’ mizzenmast. “Huzza, boys! We’ve made a brig of her!” The
mast, with its tangle of sails and rigging, dragged in the water and
checked the _Guerriere’s_ headway. Here was Hull’s chance, and he was
not the man to miss it. Spinning his wheel to the right, he charged
across his enemy’s bow. Those terrible 24’s raked her with great effect.
As the _Constitution_ shot past and her guns would no longer bear there
was a brief lull in the fight. Seaman Daniel Hogan climbed to the dizzy
height of the fore truck to replace the battle ensign which had been
shot away.

Hull wore his ship and again headed across the bow of the almost
unmanageable _Guerriere_. His gunners had moved across the deck and cast
loose the port guns. Again they raked the British frigate. But this time
Hull had come a bit too close. The ships came together. Boarders were
called away. A storm of musketry broke out. Sharpshooters in the tops
fired down on the crowded decks. Lieutenant William Bush of the Marines
fell dead. Lieutenant Charles Morris, who first had scaled the
_Philadelphia’s_ side, was severely wounded. So also was Sailing Master
John Aylwin, a brave and skillful officer. At 6:30 the ships came clear.
And then the _Guerriere’s_ foremasts and mainmasts plunged over her
side. Twenty-five minutes had sufficed for Yankee gunners to dismast a
British frigate.

Seeing that the fight was won, Hull hauled off to repair his rigging. He
must be prepared for another enemy if one should appear. At 7:00 he
returned to receive the surrender of Captain Dacres. The prize was so
completely wrecked that there was no hope of bringing her into port.
After her crew had been taken off, she was set on fire. From the
_Constitution’s_ quarter-deck Captain Dacres watched. At length her
magazine exploded and she disappeared beneath the waters. A sad omen it
must have seemed to the British captain. A new sea power had arrived!

That this was fully appreciated is shown by an article in the London
_Times_. “It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken,
after, what we are free to confess may be called a brave resistance, but
that it has been taken by a new enemy, an enemy unaccustomed to such
triumphs, and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them. He
must be a weak politician who does not see how important the first
triumph is in giving a tone and character to the war. Never before in
the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American.”

In our country the effect was magical. Where before political strife,
sectional differences, and commercial rivalries combined to bring our
people to the verge of civil war and secession, now a wave of wildest
enthusiasm spread like a forest fire. For here was a deed of which every
man and woman from Maine to Louisiana might be proud. “Thank God for
Hull’s victory” was a watchword which passed from state to state. It
gave impetus to naval operations and fired our captains with impatience
to get to sea and bring the enemy under their guns. It encouraged swarms
of privateers to cover the Seven Seas and attack the enemy’s vital trade

Admiral Sir John Jervis is reported to have said to his flag captain as
he sighted the Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent that a victory was
very necessary to England at that moment. With equal justice Isaac Hull
might have made a similar remark on sighting the _Guerriere_. Our
country needed a victory then as it never had before nor has since.
Napoleon said that in war the moral is to the physical as three to one;
in this case it was many times more. The mere sinking of a frigate meant
nothing to England. But the fact that it was sunk by an American frigate
at the cost of only fourteen casualties meant a great deal to England,
and to our United States. What had been done once could be done again!

                    SCENE II. AND NOW FOR THE “JAVA”

While the _Constitution_ was taking a little rest in Boston Stephen
Decatur in the sister-ship _United States_ had taken the sea. In the
latter part of October he encountered the British frigate _Macedonian_,
likewise a sister-ship of the _Guerriere_. So the scene was set exactly
as in the previous battle. But, whereas Hull had decided the issue by
sheer overpowering force at point-blank range, Decatur fought a distant
battle in an effort to capitalize to the full his superiority in gunnery
and seamanship. He won his fight at the cost of only eleven casualties.
In ninety minutes his gunners had put a hundred shot into the
_Macedonian’s_ hull and killed or wounded one hundred and four of her
crew. This time the prize was brought safely into port. Here was a
convincing confirmation of American naval efficiency.

    [Illustration: Firing a cannon]

By the time this fight had been won the _Constitution_ was again at sea.
This time she was commanded by William Bainbridge, the unlucky officer
who had lost the _Philadelphia_ off Tripoli. But now he was in a luckier
ship. Soon fortune sent a fine British frigate into his arms. This
happened on December 29 off Bahia on the coast of Brazil.

The _Java_ was considerably more powerful than the other British
frigates previously captured. She was commanded by an excellent officer,
Captain Lambert. In weight of metal she was inferior to the
_Constitution_ only as nine to ten. Neither captain had any idea of
dodging the issue. Each made ready to fight to the finish. Fighting
topsails were spread. Battle ensigns decorated every masthead. At 2:10
P.M. the battle began. At first the range was long. But in a few minutes
the ships were in to two hundred yards. Then the real business of the
day began. It was as finely contested a frigate action as ever was
fought. Both Bainbridge and Lambert maneuvered their ships with masterly
skill. First one ship would gain an advantageous position, then the
other. Like two skilled wrestlers, each in turn gained a hold, only to
have it broken by his opponent.

All this time the guns’ crews were fast at work, rushing from one
battery to the other as their captains tacked and wore. It was work,
hard and grim—hauling at the gun tackles, ramming home powder and shot,
and slewing around the clumsy gun carriages to point the guns squarely
at the enemy. Acrid smoke clouds swept along the decks and clouds of
splinters flew around.

For a time the action is very closely fought. But, barring a lucky
accident, the issue is really never in doubt. For Yankee gunners are
incomparable and they have _iron sides_ to protect them—twenty inches of
stout oak beams. They cannot be beaten in such a ship. Slowly but surely
our superiority in gunnery wears down the enemy. One after another the
_Java’s_ tall spars crash down. Heroic Lambert fights well but is
killed. Lieutenant Chads, already wounded, takes command. Half his crew
is killed or wounded. Still he fights.

The _Constitution_ also has her losses. Bainbridge himself is severely
wounded, but he still keeps the deck. Brave Aylwin, who already wears a
wound stripe for the _Guerriere_ battle, is again shot down. This will
be the last fight for him. Well, he will live long enough to see a
second British frigate lower her battle flags. Over thirty others lie
dead or wounded about the decks or under the surgeon’s knife in the
cockpit. British frigates cannot be taken without losing men.

For two long hours the battle rages. Chads does well but he cannot do
the impossible. Finally the _Java_ must give in. Here is a fight in
which there is honor enough for all, vanquished as well as victor. And
Bainbridge, after such buffets of fate as few have received, at last has
won his well-deserved victory. A third British frigate had been taken.

When “Old Ironsides” reached Boston a great reception awaited the
commodore. There he marched through the streets, arm in arm with Rodgers
and Hull—three commodores of whom any country might be proud. Fifes and
drums played _Yankee-Doodle_ as the procession moved through the
streets. It was a big Navy Day!

                       SCENE III. THE LAST FIGHT

The _Constitution_ took a long rest after this battle. The _Java’s_ shot
had discovered some rotten spots in her sides. A long overhaul was
required to make her again ready for sea. Meanwhile the Navy had won
many a victory and had suffered some defeats. Our little sloops-of-war
won a long succession of splendid successes. Gallant James Lawrence,
hero of the _Hornet-Peacock_ fight, lost the _Chesapeake_ to the British
frigate _Shannon_—crying, as he lay dying, “Don’t give up the ship!”
Sewing this motto on his blue battle flag Perry annihilated the British
squadron on Lake Erie. Macdonough saved the northern frontier with a
complete victory on Lake Champlain, which a British marine thought more
desperately fought than Trafalgar. Our privateers were gathering in
their prizes on every sea in constantly increasing numbers and sending
the insurance rates three times higher than all previous levels.

    [Illustration: Close combat]

But the war could not well end without a third victory by the
_Constitution_. Now she was commanded by Charles Stewart, a worthy
successor to Hull and Bainbridge. On February 20, 1815, north of
Madeira, the American frigate came in contact with the British corvette
_Cyane_, thirty-four guns, and the sloop _Levant_, twenty-one. Their
fifty-five guns threw a slightly heavier weight of metal, but their
armament consisted mostly of short-range carronades which could not be
compared with the terrible long 24’s which filled the _Constitution’s_
gun-deck ports. Still the two Britons formed column and accepted
Stewart’s challenge.

Stewart might have fought at long range where the British carronades
could not have reached him. But night was coming on, and, if he were to
take both ships, there was no time to waste. “At five minutes past six,”
he wrote, “ranged up on the starboard side of the sternmost ship, about
three hundred yards distant, and commenced the action by broadsides,
both ships returning our fire with the greatest spirit for about fifteen
minutes.” Stewart’s tactics have a lesson: When you are anxious to
engage and night is approaching, do not try to get all the conditions in
your favor. Take things as they are and fight in the most decisive
manner. Otherwise you will never capture your _Cyane_ and _Levant_.
Perhaps we have here a lesson for the battles of peace as well as those
of war.

After this first engagement smoke clouds obscured the range and fire
ceased. But not for long, for now the _Constitution_ began a series of
beautiful maneuvers—raking each enemy ship in turn. They separated and
made off. Stewart hung close to the _Cyane_ and soon forced her to
surrender. By eight o’clock she had been manned by a prize crew. Stewart
started in search of the _Levant_.

Captain Douglass of the _Levant_ had now repaired his damages. Instead
of trying to escape, he sailed back to assist his comrade. But he was
too late. At eight-thirty he ran into the _Constitution_. Attempts to
escape proved futile and at ten the second prize was made. “At 1:00
A.M.,” Stewart reported, “the damages to our rigging had been repaired,
sails shifted, and the ship in fighting condition.” The price of this
double victory was only fifteen casualties.

The _Cyane_ safely reached home. The _Levant_ was recaptured by a
British squadron in a neutral port. The _Constitution_ received her last
battle triumph in New York many months after peace had been signed. She
had fought her last fight. But for many long years she served her
country well by showing the flag in every part of the world. After that
she trained many classes of midshipmen at the Naval Academy. Now her
useful labors are ended but she serves a still more important purpose.
For this old hulk, whose iron sides protected iron men, is an
inspiration to every officer and man in the naval service—and to every

    [Illustration: _Courtesy U. S. Naval Academy_ _From an engraving by
    Sartain, after the original painting by Thomas Birch_
    The Night Battle Between the U.S.S. _Constitution_ and H. M. Ships
    _Cyane_ AND _Levant_
    On the left is the corvette _Cyane_, in the center the frigate
    _Constitution_, and on the right the sloop _Levant_. The
    _Constitution_ captured both vessels.]

    [Illustration: _From an engraving by Henry Meyer after the original
    painting by John W. Jarvis_
    Stephen Decatur]


  Scarce one tall frigate walks the sea
  Or skirts the safer shores
  Of all that bore to victory
  Our stout old Commodores.

So wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1865. Many years have passed since
then. Again a tall frigate walks the sea. She carries a message from
many a stout old commodore, many an alert topman, many a keen-eyed
gunner. In fact, she carries a message from our Navy to our People.

  All the stories of “Old Ironsides” in this little pamphlet are based
  on chapters of _We Build a Navy_, by Commander H. H. Frost, U. S.
  Navy, published by U. S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland.

                 _Information about the “Constitution”_

The building of the _Constitution_ resulted from the failure of the new
United States government to purchase protection from the Algerian
pirates. By a majority of two, the House of Representatives voted, in
March, 1794, to provide six frigates that “separately would be superior
to any European frigate.” The _Constitution_ was one of these. She was
designed by Joshua Humphreys of Philadelphia and built at Hartt’s Wharf
in Boston, near the present Constitution Wharf. The copper bolts and
fittings were supplied by Paul Revere. Construction was all but
abandoned after a new treaty was made with the pirates, but the
insistence of Presidents Washington and Adams, coupled with the rising
difficulties with revolutionary France, finally brought the work to
completion. She was launched in October, 1797, and commissioned quickly.

    [Illustration: Under construction]

The _Constitution_ was rated as a 44-gun frigate but has carried as many
as 55 guns at various times. The present arrangement closely follows
that of her early days. The guns on the spar deck are 32-pounder
carronades, short, light guns which threw heavy shots a short distance
(300 to 400 yards). On the gun deck are long 24-pounders, heavy guns
with much greater range but less smashing power than the carronade. In
the following table the ranges given are for one degree of elevation.
The long gun could attain ranges up to 2,000 yards by greater elevation,
the projectile leaving the gun with a velocity of about 1,500 feet per

The _Constitution_ cost $302,917. Her original dimensions were: length
over-all, 204 feet; beam, 43.5 feet; draft, forward 21 feet, aft 23
feet; displacement 2,200 tons. She was generally considered an excellent
sailer, the report being that “she works within eleven points of the
wind; steers, works, sails, scuds, and lies-to well; rolls deep and
easy, and sailing close-hauled has beaten everything sailed with.”

                        Guns of the Constitution

 Location        Type       No.  Length  Weight   Bore  Powder  Approx.
                                           lbs. inches  charge    range

 Gun deck,       24-pdr.,    12  9′ 5¾″   5,135  5.824  8 lbs. 700 yds.
 for’d. and aft  American
 Gun deck,       24-pdr.,    18 10′ 5¾″   5,733  5.824  8 lbs. 700 yds.
 amidships       English
 Spar deck       32-pdr.,    20   5′ 5″   2,240   6.41  4 lbs. 400 yds.
 Spar deck, bow  24-pdr.      2  9′ 9½″   4,170  5.824  8 lbs. 700 yds.

  The two bow chasers are 18-pounders bored for 24-pound shot. They are
  lighter than the standard 24-pounder to reduce top weights. Total
  weight of broadside, 734 pounds. As shot were frequently underweight,
  this figure is not exact.

Her complement was 400 officers and men, but she usually cruised with
about 50 men in excess. At sea the men were crowded closely together and
there was much sickness. The ration was fixed by law and it made a
monotonous diet. The legal ration for Sunday was 1½ lbs. beef, 14 oz.
bread, ½ lb. flour, ¼ lb. suet, ½ pt. spirits. On week days pork was
sometimes substituted for beef, with cheese or dried peas in place of
suet. The meat was usually salted, the bread stale and moldy, the
spirits good.

                          Transcriber’s Notes

—Silently corrected a few typos.

—Retained publication information from the printed edition: this eBook
  is public-domain in the country of publication.

—In the text versions only, text in italics is delimited by

—Inserted the original page-footer line drawings into the text.

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