5 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Old Ironsides

On October 21, 1797, the USS Constitution, better known as Old Ironsides, was launched into Boston Harbor, and would go on to become famous during the War of 1812. Here are five surprising facts you may not know about Old Ironsides...


It’s The US Navy’s Oldest Warship The USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned naval vessel that is still afloat. She was one of six original frigates that were constructed as a result of the Naval Act of 1794. President George Washington chose the name Constitution among a group of 10 names, which were submitted by Secretary of War Timothy Pickering for the six frigates. The Constitution was built in a shipyard in the north end of Boston, Massachusetts. Her initial mission was to protect American merchant shipping during the Quasi-War with France and to combat the Barbary pirates during the First Barbary War.

Copper In The Hull Was Forged By Paul Revere Boston shipbuilder Edmund Hartt was responsible for the ship’s construction under the supervision of U.S. Navy Captain Samuel Nicholson. Paul Revere, whom you may remember from the American Revolution, forged the copper that was used on the hull of the ship. When the ship was first launched in 1797, she was so heavy it was difficult to get her into the water and took multiple attempts. The shipyard warned those near the harbor that launching could create a huge wave. Overall, the ship displaced 2,200 tons of water once it was out of dry dock. 


She Earned The Name “Old Ironsides” During The War Of 1812 The Constitution was made of wood, as was standard in the 1700s, but its construction was unusually thick, with three oak layers and copper sheathing among the ship's features. This tough-for-its-times hull was so strong that the cannonballs lobbed by the British frigate HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812 bounced off the sides of the oak-clad Constitution. Crew members allegedly shouted that the sides were made of iron. Many historians believe the press dubbed the ship “Old Ironsides” when reporting the account of the battle.

The Secretary Of The Navy Suggested Using The Ship For Target Practice In 1905, Secretary of the Navy Charles Joseph Bonaparte came up with the idea of using the Constitution for target practice. He suggested towing her out to sea and shooting her until she sank. A businessman in Massachusetts offered to buy the ship for $10,000 instead. This spurred a public campaign that eventually forced Congress the following year to authorize $100,000 to restore the ship. She was turned into a museum ship and was opened to the public.

There’s A Lottery To Participate In The Ship’s Annual “Turnaround Cruise” The USS Constitution is open to the public all year long. Every year it usually makes one “turnaround cruise.” The public is allowed to get on board the turnaround cruise, but they have to enter a lottery to earn a coveted ticket. The ship is towed into the harbor where it performs a drill and other demonstrations. While she has been heavily restored over the years, it’s estimated that 10-15 percent of the ship’s timber is original.