[August 19, 2019] A few years ago, I wrote an article about the U.S. Congressional leadership authorizing attacks on British vessels in 1776. That strategic decision helped win the War of Independence. Later, with the U.S. Naval Act of 1794, Congress authorized the building of six frigates; one of the six built was named the USS Constitution. It earned its place in history during the War of 1812 when its crew defeated the British frigate HMS Guerrière in a furious engagement.
Witnesses claimed that the British shot merely bounced off the Constitution’s sides as if the ship were made of iron rather than wood.1 By the war’s end, “Old Ironsides” destroyed or captured seven more British ships. These successes against the supposedly invincible Royal Navy provided a major boost in morale for the young American republic.
Good, old fashioned leadership made this happen. While leadership is accomplished in a variety of ways and using many techniques, the basics of leadership never go out of style. A combination of the U.S. Congress recognizing a need and funding the building of those original frigates, Joshua Humphrey’s ship design and construction, and the ship’s captain and crew, made for one of the most advanced warships on the seas at the time.
Most people are not aware that the United States had no Navy from 1785 after the War of Independence had been won to the Navy Act of 1794; nearly a decade. During this time, U.S. maritime merchant ships were subjected to a series of attacks by the Barbary pirates. The history of this period was fully addressed in Ian W. Toll’s book Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy and my review can be found here (see link).
The tremendous importance of the USS Constitution to the United States both in war and peace has never been overlooked. Many times, the ship was destined for the scrapyard but public outcry saved it. Today, amazingly, the ship is the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat and retains a crew of 60 U.S. Navy active-duty personnel.2,3,4
The Battle of Guerriere was fought on this date, August 19, 1812, off the coast of Nova Scotia. It was commanded by Isaac Hull, who had served as a lieutenant on the ship during the Tripolitan War. In 1855, the Constitution retired from active military service, but the famous vessel continues to serve the United States and remains one of its most important historical treasures.
- The USS Constitution was built in an era when a ship’s expected service life was 10 to 15 years.
- As an interesting side note, when it was claimed the U.S. Navy was about to scrap the ship in 1830, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem about “Old Ironsides” in an effort to save the ship. His poem can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Ironsides_(poem)