After a renovation project costing $985,000 to replace decayed timbers and extensive additional support for the hull, the famous fighting ship “Old Ironsides” was back to fighting form. The new cannons were replicas, but much more authentic in appearance than the replica-cannon installed in 1907.
On July 2, 1931, USS Constitution and a crew of 81 sailors, officers, and Marines cast off on a three-year, three-coast tour around the United States. This National Cruise was a public “thank you” to the men, women, and children who, from 1925-1930, helped raise over $985,000 to fund the renovation.
Under Commander Louis J. Gulliver, “Old Ironsides” traveled 22,000 miles, visited 90 ports, and welcomed more than 4.5 million visitors; over two million in California alone. The tour began up the East Coast as far north as Bar Harbor, ME, and then south through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast as far as Bellingham, WA,. She was towed by the minesweeper USS GREBE and, occasionally, by the submarine tender USS BUSHNELL.
Marking the events of the U.S. Frigate Constitution’s visit to the many ports, an extensive number of special cachets were produced and special cancellations noting each port visited. Some stops, without harbors, are posted, for example ‘OFF PORT SAN LUIS’ for San Luis Obispo. The cachets are designs by the major First Day Cover artists, such as Crosby, plus special cachets sponsored by chambers of commerce and civic/patriotic groups.
June 8th 1934 marked the date of return of ‘Old Ironsides’ to Boston and its docking to this day at the Boston Navy Yard.
“While she sails the seas no more,
May the spirit of ‘Old Ironsides’
go sailing on!”
The legacy of the U.S. Frigate Constitution began during the War of 1812. Off the coast of Nova Scotia the ship to become known as ‘Old Ironsides’ defeated the British frigate Guerrière, boosting the new nations spirits and resolve, confronting the might and power of Britannia. Witnesses to the battle claimed that the British shot merely bounced off the Constitution’s sides, as if the ship were made of iron rather than wood. By the war’s end, “Old Ironsides” destroyed or captured seven more British ships.
The Constitution was one of six frigates that Congress authorized to be built in 1794 to help protect American merchant fleets from attacks by Barbary pirates and harassment by British and French forces. The bolts fastening its timbers and copper sheathing were provided by the industrialist and patriot Paul Revere. Launched on October 21, 1797, the Constitution was 204 feet long, displaced 2,200 tons, and was rated as a 44-gun frigate.
Its maiden voyage was in July 1798, with a crew of 450, headed for the West Indies to protect U.S. shipping from French privateers. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson ordered the American warship to the Mediterranean to fight Barbary pirates off the coast of Tripoli. The vessel performed commendably during the conflict, and in 1805 a peace treaty with Tripoli was signed on the Constitution’s deck.
In June 1812, as hostilities broke out with Britain, the Constitution was commanded by Isaac Hull, who served as lieutenant on the ship during the Tripolitan War. On July 16, the Constitution nearly meet her end as she encountered a squadron of five British ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Finding itself surrounded, the Constitution was preparing to escape when suddenly the wind died. With both sides dead in the water and just out of gunnery range, a legendary slow-speed chase ensued. For 36 hours, the Constitution’s crew kept their ship just ahead of the British by towing the frigate with rowboats and by tossing the ship’s anchor ahead of the ship and then reeling it in. At dawn on July 18, a breeze sprang, and the Constitution was far enough ahead of its pursuers to escape by sail.
One month later, on August 19, the Constitution caught the British warship Guerrière alone about 600 miles east of Boston. After considerable maneuvering, the Constitution delivered its first broadside, and for 20 minutes the American and British vessels bombarded each other in close and violent action. The British man-of-war was de-masted and rendered a wreck while the Constitution escaped with only minimal damage. The unexpected victory of Old Ironsides against a British frigate helped unite America behind the war effort and made Commander Hull a national hero. The Constitution went on to defeat or capture seven more British ships in the War of 1812 and ran the British blockade of Boston twice.
After the war, Old Ironsides served as the flagship of the navy’s Mediterranean squadron and in 1828 was laid up in Boston. Two years later, the navy considered scrapping the Constitution, which had become unseaworthy, leading to an outcry of public support for preserving the famous warship. The navy refurbished the Constitution, and it went on to serve as the flagship of the Mediterranean, Pacific, and Home squadrons. In 1844, the frigate left New York City on a global journey that included visits to numerous international ports as a goodwill agent of the United States. In the early 1850s, it served as flagship of the African Squadron and patrolled the West African coast looking for slave traders.
In 1855, the Constitution retired from active military service, but the famous vessel continued to serve the United States, first as a training ship and later as a a touring national landmark.