On August 19, 1812, the USS Constitution earned its nickname: Old Ironsides. Launched in 1797, the wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate, under the command of Captain Isaac Hull, “sailed from Boston on August 2, 1812 to off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. On the afternoon of August 19, 1812 Hull and his crew sighted the British frigate HMS Guerriere, under the command of Captain James Richard Dacres.
As Guerriere closed to within a mile of the Constitution, the British hoisted their colors and the two ships engaged in a fire fight. The Constitution’s thick hull, composed of white oak planking and live oak frames, proved resilient to enemy cannonballs. During the engagement, an American sailor was heard exclaiming, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron! See where the shot fell out!”. After intense combat, the severely damaged Guerriere was forced to surrender.
The next morning, writes Naval History and Heritage Command, Hull made the difficult decision to scuttle Guerriere. Constitution sailed for Boston and arrived on August 30. News of Constitution‘s victory quickly spread through town and throngs of cheering Bostonians greeted Hull and his crew. A militia company escorted Hull to a reception at the Exchange Coffee House and more dinners, presentations and awards followed in the ensuing weeks, months, and years. USS Constitution, for her impressive strength in battle, earned the nicknamed “Old Ironsides.”
This victory not only boosted American morale during a challenging time but also solidified the ship’s legendary status.
In recognition of its historical significance, efforts have been made to preserve and maintain USS Constitution over the centuries. The ship underwent several restorations and rebuilds, and it continues to serve as a living testament to the nation’s maritime heritage. Today, Old Ironsides is docked at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, Massachusetts, and remains open to the public as a museum ship, providing visitors with an opportunity to step back in time and experience the life of a sailor during the early 19th century.
Beyond its military importance, USS Constitution holds a special place in American culture and memory. Its enduring legacy is a symbol of the United States Navy’s dedication to duty and honor. Through its storied history, “Old Ironsides” continues to inspire generations, reminding us of the values of courage, strength, and perseverance that have shaped the nation’s identity.
During the American Civil War, she served as a United States Naval Academy training ship. In 1878, she transported American artwork and industrial exhibits to the Paris Exposition. Retiring from active service in 1881, the Constitution transitioned to a receiving ship and later acquired museum ship status in 1907. A notable event in 1934 involved a comprehensive three-year, 90-port tour across the nation. In 1997, she marked her bicentennial by sailing under her own propulsion, and a similar voyage was undertaken in August 2012 to commemorate her victory over the Guerriere.
Today, the Constitution’s primary purpose is to enhance awareness of the Navy’s historical and contemporary roles in times of conflict and peace. This objective is achieved through educational outreach, historical reenactments, and enthusiastic involvement in public gatherings as a component of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Functioning as a fully commissioned Navy vessel, a crew composed of 75 officers and sailors actively engages in ceremonies, educational initiatives, and special occasions, while also ensuring year-round access to visitors through complimentary tours. The ship’s personnel, consisting entirely of active-duty Navy members, fulfill this duty as a distinct assignment. Typically berthed at Pier 1 within the former Charlestown Navy Yard, situated at one terminus of Boston’s Freedom Trail, the Constitution remains a symbol of historical significance and enduring maritime heritage.