“Old Ironsides” is the nickname that was given to the USS Constitution, one of the first six frigates built for the U.S. Navy during the early years of our country. Initially, the frigate was used in the Quasi War with France and the Barbary Wars, but it is perhaps most famous for its performance during the War of 1812.
USS Constitution defeated four English warships.
A former captain of USS Constitution, Tyrone G. Martin, later wrote a history of the ship. He describes the effect of these victories: “The losses suffered by the Royal Navy were no more than pinpricks to that great fleet: They neither impaired its battle readiness nor disrupted the blockade of American ports. . . . What Constitution and her sister [ship] did accomplish was to uplift American morale spectacularly and, in the process, end forever the myth that the Royal Navy was invincible.”
The ship earned its nickname during a battle fought on August 19, 1812.
On that day, Constitution encountered HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia. The two ships got within about 50 yards of each other and began firing their cannons. Constitution was causing great damage to the British ship, even as the British cannon balls were bouncing off the hard oak sides of Constitution. One of the American crewmen saw what was happening and was heard to yell: “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!”
The nickname “Old Ironsides” was born!
The British surrendered roughly one hour after the attack began. Guerriere was badly damaged and had to be sunk after the battle. The British captain later reported: “The Guerriere was so cut up, that all attempts to get her in would have been useless. As soon as the wounded were got out of her, they set her on fire; and I feel it my duty to state that the conduct of [American] Captain Hull and his Officers to our Men has been that of a brave Enemy.”
If the victory provided a psychological boost to Americans, it seems that it was equally demoralizing to the British. The London Times mournfully reported: “Never before in the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American.”
Old Ironsides has been preserved and can still be seen at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Massachusetts. It’s well worth the visit.
Donald R Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (2012 edition)
Spencer Tucker, The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812: A Political, Social, and Military History (Vol. 1; 2012)
Tyrone G. Martin, A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of Old Ironsides (rev. ed. 2003)