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USS Constitution Heavy Frigate (1797)

Authored By Staff Writer | Last Updated: 11/5/2010

The historic USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned floating vessel anywhere in the world, relegated to ceremonial roles as needed.

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The USS Constitution was a product of changing times in America's policy. Fresh off of their independence war decades earlier, the US Navy found itself with nary a capable vessel of defending her merchant force and her interests from French aggression and pirate attacks. The resulting design initially encompassed some six ships of great gun strength but this was eventually curtailed to the USS United States, USS Constellation and the USS Constitution.

At her core, the USS Constitution was a traditional-looking three-masted great ship of oak wood hull construction and protected by copper sheathing throughout. She carried 32 x 24-pdr (pounder) long guns - supplemented by 20 x 32-pdr carronades and 2 x 24-pdr bow chasers making her a 44-gun heavy frigate. The crew complement was 450 personnel though today the vessel is supported by only 55 personnel in a primarily ceremonial role. She was partially launched on the 20th of September in 1797 where her weight prevented the official launching from completing. As a result, the reworked Constitution was once again ceremoniously launched on October 21st, 1797 in Boston Harbor.

The following year, the USS Constitution was actively patrolling the waters off of the southeast portion of the United States. During this time - the time of the Quasi-War with France, a conflict never formally declared and surprisingly fought entirely at sea - she saw action in support of marine units and was deserving of distinction in the conflict. By 1803, the vessel was serving in the Mediterranean Sea and fought along the North African coast to combat African nations seeking a sort of tax for American use of local Mediterranean trade ways. As the troubles in the Mediterranean subsided, a brewing conflict with the British was underway. The USS Constitution faced off with the HMS Guerriere in 1812 to which the Constitution earned her "Old Ironsides" nickname when British cannon rounds seemingly bounced off the American vessel's hull. After several more years of storied engagements and more years undergoing repairs for damaged received in those engagements, the Constitution was placed through major reconstruction which was completed by 1835 at the request of the United States Congress.

The Constitution was back in action in the American Civil War though she was not used in anger and merely moved to a safe location so as to protect her from Southern assault. The ironclad "New Ironsides" instead fought on in her name. With the close of the war and the arrivial of steam-powered vessels, wind-powered ships like the USS Constitution were less and less in need and would spend her days as a training ship for the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Following a world tour, the ship would be in dock once more for refitting and repair. She would later take part in her 200th celebration on July 21, 1997. The voyage of the Constitution would eventually find her in a home in Charleston Navy Yard.

Though a "show boat" in many regards, the USS Constitution is actually crewed by active sailors and commanders where it is regarded as an honor to serve on and underneath her decks for any chosen man. The vessel was first ordered in 1794, laid down that same year and launched in 1797. Acting US President George Washington is credited with naming the vessel after the United States Constitution. The Constitution completed a round-the-world voyage in March of 1844, taking some 30 months to accomplish the feat. In a bit of interesting trivia, she remains the only known vessel afloat to have sunk an enemy ship with true cannon fire.

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Specifications for the
USS Constitution
Heavy Frigate


Country of Origin: United States
Initial Year of Service: 1797
Operators: the United States of America


Crew: 450


Length: 204ft (62.18m)
Beam: 44ft (13.41m)
Draught: 0ft (0.00m)
Displacement: 2,200tons


Machinery: 3 x masted sails

Surface Speed: 13kts (15mph)
Range: Essentially Unlimited


Armament:
32 x 24-pounder long guns
20 x 32-pounder carronades
2 x 24-pounder bow chasers


Ship Class: IX-21 class
Number-in-Class: 6
Ships-in-Class: USS United States; USS Constellation; USS Constitution