Today in Military History: On Aug. 19, 1812, two months after the start of the War of 1812, the USS Constitution commanded by Capt. Issac Hull defeated the HMS Guerriere commanded by Capt. James Richard Dacres about 600 southwest of Newfoundland.
After a fierce action that lasted nearly an hour, the 38-gun British ship is badly damaged and set ablaze by 44-gun American frigate’s heavier and more accurate fire. Having lost all three masts and with the largely unscathed Constitution bearing down to reengage, the Guerriere fires a lee gun to surrender.
The British ship suffered heavy damage and casualties, sinking the following day. Constitution rescued some 200 sailors, taking the prisoner of war.
The battle is historically significant in shaping America’s reputation as a seapower.
The victory over Guerriere represented the young American Navy’s first triumph over a Royal Navy ship during the War of 1812, giving a welcome morale boost after setbacks on land. Constitution would go on to defeat four other British warships during the war.
In its age, Constitution was a technological marvel: a larger and heavier than other frigates of the era, she was also faster — top speed of 13 knots (15 mph) — than ships that could outgun her. Built of live oak and heavy bracing, her sides were 21 inches thick but also more resilient to enemy fire. It was during the engagement with Guerriere that Constitution earned her nickname “Old Ironsides,” after an American sailor, seeing an enemy round bounce off his ship, exclaimed that her sides were made of iron.
Constitution was one of six frigates proposed by President George Washington and authorized by the Naval Act of 1794. She was designed Joshua Humphreys and built at Edmund Hart’s shipyard in Boston’s North End. Constitution was ordered on March 1, 1794, and commissioned on Oct. 21, 1797. Some 60 acres of trees were used to build her, while Paul Revere supplied bolts and copper sheeting for her hull.
She has remained in service with the US Navy ever since, serving various duties including training ship for the US Naval Academy, and is the world’s oldest commissioned ship afloat.
Today, Constitution has a crew 60 officers and sailors, with Cmdr. Robert S. Gerosa Jr. serving as the ship;s 74th commanding officer.