by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. For this article no other song would do besides the jaunty, rousing fight song of the United States Naval Academy, “Anchors Aweigh.” Strongly associated, too, with the United States Navy, it was composed in 1906 by Charles A. Zimmerman with lyrics by Alfred Hart Miles. Zimmerman was at the time a Lieutenant, and had been bandmaster of the United States Naval Academy Band since 1887. Miles was Midshipman First Class at the Academy, in the class of 1907. The song was originally written for the class of ’07 to be used as a football march. It takes great fortitude and control not to jump and march when you hear its unmistakable sound. I own up to having neither when the band in full swing goes by playing this. Go now to any search engine and find the rendition you like best. Then play it loud and clear to get yourself into the mood for this tale of “Old Ironsides.”
“Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!”
Perhaps the most perilous battle she faced, literally a matter of life and death occurred in September, 1830 when the pettifogging bureaucrats in the naval department, eager to pinch pennies, ordered the greatest ship of the young Republic, now past her prime, to be broken up, just so much salvage.
A young Boston Brahmin named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. learned of this intended act of short-sighted barbarism while at breakfast reading the “Boston Daily Advertiser.” At one he decided to take action to save the ship which could no longer fight to save herself. He titled his fast-penned poem “Old Ironsides” and it ran September 16, 1830.
“Ay, tear her tattered ensign down! Long has it waved on high, And many an eye has danced to see That banner in the sky; Beneath it rung the battle shout, And burst the cannon’s roar; The meteor of the ocean air Shall sweep the clouds no more.
Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood, Where knelt the vanquished foe, When winds were hurrying o’er the flood, And waves were white below, No more shall feel the victor’s tread, Or know the conquered knee; The harpies of the shore shall pluck The eagle of the sea.
Oh, better that her shattered bulk Should sink beneath the wave; Her thunders shook the mighty deep, And there should be her grave; Nail to her mast her holy flag, Set every threadbare sail, And give her to the god of storms, The lighting and the gale!”
By the evening of the 16th, author Holmes was famous… and his fervent verses, overwrought, overdone, overfraught, were making even the most committed pennypinchers abashed and ashamed. “Old Ironsides” was saved… but it was a very close run thing. One shudders to think what would have happened had young Mr. Holmes not been of a poetical disposition.
The great warship is born, 1797.
Now that the former American colonies had become the new American nation, the powerful British fleet, which had always protected them and cost them nothing, became the new nation’s prime antagonist. Thus, this nation found itself in the unenviable position of having virtually no ships to protect them and their crucial maritime commerce. Constructing a navy became a priority, at least for the mercantile East and New England. It was their ships and cargoes, after all, their British antagonists aimed to capture and disrupt.
And so, the USS Constitution, named by President George Washington, was authorized as one of 6 original frigates by the Naval Act of 1794. These ships were larger and more heavily armed and built than standard frigates of the period, a fact which was very important for all six ships, but particularly Constitution, which used this advantage to earn the most glorious battle record of them all.
Right from the first, she was needed and served in the Quasi-War with France (1798) and in the war against the Barbary pirates, practiced thieves of North Africa who had hitherto preyed with impunity on American vessels and crews. Constitution helped win the First Barbary War (1801). But these useful services were just a preface to her greatest service in the otherwise lackluster and regrettable War of 1812, a conflict both Americans and British wanted, but brought neither laurels, treasure, territory or satisfaction.
In this conflict, only the Constitution and its string of oceanic victories stood out, so much so that the British Admiralty ruled that warships combating Constitution and her sisters should never fight alone, only in packs. It was testament to just how good these vessels were, especially Constitution. She defeated one of His Majesty’s ships after another… each victory thrilled a nation irritated, frustrated, exasperated by what the American army couldn’t seem to do… and by a similar lack of results by other ships of the brand new navy.
But Constitution caused Americans to rush to the harbor and shout “Huzzah” as news arrived about victory… first, over the Guerriere. This was the engagement which gave Constitution its celebrated sobriquet. For cannon balls shot from the doomed British warship seemed to bounce off Constitution without effect. An unknown sailor shouted, “Her sides are made of iron!”… and the nickname stuck, to thrill the proud nation which looked for any hopeful news to cheer at in this entirely unhappy war.
HMS Java was next… then HMS Cyane… and HMS Levant… and HMS Lord Nelson, bearing the most famous name in British naval history… captured as a prize along with everything needed to celebrate Christmas, a meal they so enjoyed… with one toast after another heartily drunk from the defeated captain’s fine liquors. How sweet that was… and sweeter still the cheers, plaudits, and resounding thanks of the nation when on 15 May, 1815 she came home, full of honors and renown.
As navy men will tell you, each new ship embodies the best of current technology; as these ships are launched they push previous vessels to obsolescence and the scrap heap, for there is nothing so useless as a vessel, costing money everyday, without the ability to fulfill its bellicose purpose. No ship, not even ones covered with glory like Constitution, can avoid this sad fate. Thus as she aged, the vultures and scrap metal merchants circled… and for all her victories, she also would have been broken up, no more to sail, protect the nation, and make every citizen proud. Sic transit gloria mundi. But providence intervened in the person of Mr. Holmes and his facile pen.
The subsequent history of Constitution and how she continued to serve is mundane compared to her maritime glories. No matter. She survived, though there were always those ready to sacrifice the legendary vessel to save a few pence. Her luck held… not least because of the many who worked mightily to save her and give her the honorable place in the Navy as the world’s oldest floating commissioned warship along with a museum which opened in 1976, the same year H.M. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip trod her decks when they visited Boston as part of the nation’s Bicentennial observations. Her ancestor George III, owner of the ships humbled by Constitution, no doubt spun in his imperial grave.
Now, just in time for the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, the U.S. Postal Service has released the design for an “Old Ironsides” stamp. The beleaguered postal service, in the process of closing 3,700 post offices throughout the United States, hopes to use Constitution to sell commemoratives for needed funds. And because closing post offices means losing such sales… they have launched this new stamp on Facebook, thereby hoping to reach millions of folks of philatelic bent. And so her good uses continue… her future now, we hope, secured. Next time you visit Boston, do visit, for she has always been one of the glories of the nation and so she remains.