Old Ironsides And Our Family Connection

Boston Daily Advertiser

Tuesday, September 14, 1830

Old Ironsides.   It has been affirmed upon good authority that the Secretary of the Navy has recommended to the Board of Navy Commissioners to dispose of the frigate Constitution. Since it has been understood that such a step was in contemplation we have heard but one opinion expressed, and that in decided disapprobation of the measure. Such a national object of interest, so endeared to our national pride as Old Ironsides is, should never by any act of our government cease to belong to the Navy, so long as our country is to be found upon the map of nations. In England it was lately determined by the Admiralty to cut the Victory, a one-hundred gun ship (which it will be recollected bore the flag of Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar), down to a seventy-four, but so loud were the lamentations of the people upon the proposed measure that the intention was abandoned. We confidently anticipate that the Secretary of the Navy will in like manner consult the general wish in regard to the Constitution, and either let her remain in ordinary or rebuild her whenever the public service may require.”   (note:  “in ordinary” refers to placing the ship in a reserve fleet.  sm)

In 1830, Oliver Wendell Holmes read the preceding paragraph and was startled.  No, he was more than startled, he was quite upset.  The USS Constitution, Old Ironsides, sent to the scrap heap?  Unthinkable!  No!  This should not happen!  This will not happen!

He was moved to write a poem, and the following day, The Advertiser published it.  Soon after, newspapers in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington reprinted it.  The Nation was aroused!  And The Constitution was saved!

Aye, 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 hulk

Should sink beneath the wave;

Her thunders shook the mighty deep,

And there should be her grave;

Nail to the mast her holy flag,

Set every threadbare sail,

And give her to the god of storms,

The lightning and the gale!

Today, USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned navy ship still afloat, in the world.

Why is this ship special?  What happened aboard her to cause the American People to rise up and demand she be allowed to live on?

To answer that, we must go back in time, to the War of 1812, the Second War of American Independence.  The second time the United States fought a war against the forces of Great Britain.  The reasons for that war were many, but one was the fact that even though we had won our independence from England in the American Revolution, we were not being treated by our Mother Country as an equal among nations.  American ships were being stopped and boarded at sea.  American sailors were being pressed into service in the British Navy.

 As a young man, in the late nineteenth century, Theodore Roosevelt wrote a book, The Naval War of 1812, a book still widely read by historians and students of Naval Warfare today.  In it, he asserts that ironically, this very impressment of American seamen into the British Navy served as a magnificent training ground for the men of our own fledgling Navy.  Where better to learn how to fight the greatest naval force the world had seen than from right within the ranks of that navy?

 Americans were natural sailors.  Since the earliest Colonial days, the vast majority of Americans lived within a few miles of the coast, or bays and rivers leading to the coast.  Road systems were poor.  There were no railroads.  The sea provided our main means of commerce.

 But, until 1794, there was no United States Navy.  Following the Revolution, the Continental Navy, authorized by Congress in 1775, was disbanded.  But, there were problems.  American merchant ships were sailing the seven seas, and in the Mediterranean, were being harassed by pirates, from the Barbary States of Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis.  In 1793, the long war between Portugal and Algeria ended, the Portuguese blockade of the Mediterranean was ended, Algerian ships once again sailed the Atlantic Ocean.  In less than a year, eleven American merchantmen had been captured by these pirates.  President Washington requested that Congress authorize a navy.

With limited funds, there was no way the fledgling nation could build a huge navy with seventy-four gun line of battle ships and all the support vessels such ships required.  Instead, it was decided to begin construction on six ships officially classified as frigates.

Historically, frigates were smaller than line of battle ships, built for maneuverability and speed, and carrying up to twenty-eight guns.  These would be different.  Four of the six, Chesapeake, Constitution, President, and United States would carry forty-four guns.  Congress and Constellation would carry thirty-six.  Only the most durable materials available would be used for construction, mostly white pine, longleaf pine, white oak, and southern live oak.  Strong, dense, and long lasting, live oak weighs up to seventy-five pounds per cubic foot when freshly cut.  This tough wood would be used for framing the ships.

A sross-section model of Old Ironsides made from wood removed from the ship during the 1927-1931 restoration.  2200 hours of work were required to build this model, which illustrates the thick oak sides that gave USS Constitution her nickname.

A cross-section model of Old Ironsides made from wood removed from the ship during the 1927-1931 restoration. 2200 hours of work were required to build this model, which illustrates the thick oak sides that gave USS Constitution her nickname.

Then, as now, there were huge cost over-runs, and politics interfered with construction.  On October 21, 1797, Constitution was the third to be launched, following United States and Constellation earlier in the year.  But funds for completion and manning them were withheld until the Quasi-War with France speeded up the process.

During the Quasi-War, Constellation fought and captured the French frigate Insurgente, in the first major victory of an American designed and built warship.  Constitution captured a French merchantman in that “war”, and was later involved in defeating the Barbary Pirates.

Constitution became the “stuff of legend” when the United States declared war on England in 1812.  Up to that time, it was British policy in time of war for any navy ship to engage an enemy vessel of equal or lesser rating.  Indeed, it would be a court-martial offence if a captain failed to do so.  Shortly after the outbreak of war, on August 18, 1812, the British thirty-eight gun frigate HMS Guerriere sighted USS Constitution about four hundred miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Americans pressed into service aboard the Guerriere were permitted to quit their guns when Constitution raised the Stars and Stripes.  For a half-hour, the two frigates exchanged broadsides.  The British ship was outclassed, fighting with thirty-eight guns, a 526-pound broadside, and crew of 272 versus the Americans with forty-four guns, a 950-pound broadside, and crew of 450.  After a fierce battle, Captain Dacres of Guerriere ordered a shot fired in the opposite direction of Constitution.  Captain Isaac Hull sensed that this might be an attempt to signal surrender, and ordered a boat to bring one of his lieutenants to ask if they were prepared to surrender.  Dacres replied, “Well, Sir, I don’t know. Our mizzen mast is gone, our fore and main masts are gone-I think on the whole you might say we have struck our flag.”

PEM series 1 copy

PEM series 2 copy

PEM series 3 copy

A series of four paintings hanging in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. depicting the action between HMS Guerriere and USS Constitution at the beginning of the War of 1812

A series of four paintings hanging in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. depicting the action between HMS Guerriere and USS Constitution at the beginning of the War of 1812

Hull refused Dacres’ sword, saying he could not accept it from one who fought so gallantly. British sailors were transferred to Constitution and Guerriere, clearly sinking, was set afire.  While Constitution was virtually undamaged and carried two-thirds of its ammunition, still in a position to continue its cruise, Hull decided to return home to tell the American public of the victory.  When he arrived ten days later, with his two hundred prisoners, there was widespread rejoicing!  A ship of the United States had defeated a ship of the Greatest Navy In The World!

Captain Isaac Hull was succeeded by William Bainbridge, who had previously commanded USS Philadelphia, the ship that accidently grounded during the blockade of Tripoli in the First Barbary War.  He had been taken prisoner, along with his crew, and was held for a year and a half.  Stephen Decatur, commanding USS Intrepid in a daring night raid into Tripoli harbor, destroyed the captured Philadelphia, an action immortalized in the Marine Hymn.  Bainbridge was exonerated of any malfeasance in his conduct in the affair.  Upon succeeding Hull he was assigned to cruise the South Atlantic.

Portrait of Commodore Bainbridge, painted by Gilbert Stuart, hanging in the Old Ironsides Museum

Portrait of Commodore Bainbridge, painted by Gilbert Stuart, hanging in the Old Ironsides Museum

In December, 1812, off the coast of Brazil, HMS Java, thirty-eight guns, was on her way to the East Indies, carrying over four hundred officers and seamen to be stationed there, the newly appointed governor of Bombay and his staff, and dispatches for every British port in the Indian and Chinese Seas.  Java’s crew was inexperienced, having had only a single day’s gunnery drill.  Bainbridge’s crew on Constitution was well trained, and when the two frigates engaged, Java was cut to pieces.  A lucky shot took out the helm (wheel) on Constitution, and Bainbridge himself was twice wounded.  After the surrender, Java’s helm was used to replace that on the Constitution, and while some say it has since been replaced in some subsequent refitting, there are others who claim it remains to this day.  Java was burned and sunk.  The celebrations in Boston in February 1813 when Constitution arrived in port were even greater than when Hull arrived with the news of Guerriere. 

Detail from ship's log on day of action with HMS Java

Detail from ship’s log on day of action with HMS Java

Painting of USS Constitution and HMS Java fighting off the coast of Brazil

Painting of USS Constitution and HMS Java fighting off the coast of Brazil

The long-standing policy of England’s navy was amended.  British captains were ordered not to engage American ships in single ship actions, and were only to engage when overwhelming superiority of arms existed.

In April 1814, under command of Captain Charles Stuart, and after capturing several British merchantmen and the fourteen-gun HMS Pictou, a split in Constitution’s mainmast was discovered and she headed to port, in Boston for repair.   Two British ships, HMS Junon and Tenedos commenced pursuit.  Stuart ordered water and food dumped overboard, the last to be dumped being the liquor supply.  The mainmast held long enough to gain the harbor at Marblehead.  The local citizens responded by assembling whatever cannon they could locate and the Royal Navy called off the pursuit. 

Old Ironsides escaping from the British fleet.   Painting hanging in Old Ironsides Museum.

Old Ironsides escaping from the British fleet.
Painting hanging in Old Ironsides Museum.

Later in the war, actually after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, but prior to ratification (so a “State of War” between the United States and England still existed) still under command of Stuart, Constitution engaged and took two armed British merchantmen, Cyane and Levant. Suffering no substantial damage from the action, it was discovered that twelve thirty-two pound cannonballs were embedded, but had not penetrated, in Constitution’s sides.  After repairs to all three ships, the trio set sail for the Cape Verde Islands.

In the meantime, Captain George Collier of the British navy was sent to North America with a squadron of ships including the fifty-gun HMS Leander to pursue the American frigates that were wreaking havoc among British merchantmen.  The two squadrons met, and in the ensuing action, Levant was retaken, but Cyane, under a prize crew, eluded the British and headed for America.  Constitution made good her escape from the overwhelming British force.

The USS Constitution returned to service after the American public was so aroused following the publication of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem, Old Ironsides.  An old, outdated ship, she served in mainly ceremonial posts.  Funds for restoration were never abundant, but Navy officials were reluctant to arouse the indignation of the American Citizenry by suggesting she be removed from service.  In 1905, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, Secretary of the Navy, did just that when he suggested she be towed out to sea and used for target practice.  Once more, the public responded.

Since 1907, the USS Constitution, still a commissioned ship of the United States Navy, has served as a floating museum.  From 1925 to 1931, she underwent a complete restoration, largely funded from citizens groups.  She made a three-year tour of American ports, from Bar Harbor, Maine to Bellingham, Washington, passing through the Panama Canal.  She was towed, however, throughout the tour by the minesweeper USS Grebe, not under sail.

USS Constitution in New York Harbor in 1931

USS Constitution in New York Harbor in 1931

To celebrate her 200th Anniversary, in 1997, it was decided that USS Constitution should sail, for the first time in more than a century.  An 1819 navy sailing manual was used to train her crew for the historic mission.  On the evening of July 19, the classic silent film Old Ironsides was shown, with her actual cannon being fired in sync with the film.  The following day she was towed to an overnight mooring in Marblehead.  Enroute, she made her first actual sail in 116 years, with a recorded speed of six knots.  The next day, July 21, 1997, she was towed five miles offshore, where the towline was dropped.  Six sails were set and for forty minutes the USS Constitution sailed, under her own power on a course of south southeast, winds of fourteen miles per hour, and a recorded speed of four knots.  With many dignitaries aboard, she was saluted by USS Ramage (guided missile destroyer) and the frigate USS Halyburton, and overflown by the Blue Angels.  Returning to port in Charlestown, she herself rendered a twenty-one-gun salute to the American People off Fort Independence in Boston Harbor.

Old Ironsides fires a salute while under sail as the Navy's Blue Angels fly overhead!

Old Ironsides fires a salute while under sail as the Navy’s Blue Angels fly overhead!

Today, annually, she makes a “turn around” cruise, into Boston Harbor, performs demonstrations including a gun drill, and returns to dock, tied in the opposite direction to ensure even weathering.

The crew of the Constitution and her commanding officer, Commander Matt Bonner, during the bicentennial observances of the War of 1812, sailed Constitution under her own power on August 19, 2012, the anniversary of her defeat of HMS Guerriere.  Bonner is Constitution’s seventy-second commanding officer.

The first woman sailor assigned to USS Constitution.  I haven't been able to find when this happened or who she was.   Can anyone out there in "bloggerland" help?

The first woman sailor assigned to USS Constitution. I haven’t been able to find when this happened or who she was.
Can anyone out there in “bloggerland” help?

Some very famous people have walked the decks of Old Ironsides.  This is Queen Elizabeth.

Some very famous people have walked the decks of Old Ironsides. This is Queen Elizabeth.

... and General Douglas MacArthur

… and General Douglas MacArthur

There is a very personal connection within my family to the USS Constitution.  I asked my brother, Fred, to write the following, which I am happy to include with this story:

(Fred)    On December 29, 1812, USS CONSTITUTION, commanded by Commodore William Bainbridge, 30 miles off the coast of Brazil sighted the HMS Java.

      It had been less than five months since the USS CONSTITUTION had engaged and defeated the HMS Guerriere. This battle earned two important distinctions for the USS CONSTITUTION. It was noted by the British sailors on board the Guerriere that their 18 pound iron cannon balls were bouncing off the sides of the CONSTITUTION. One of the sailors declared,”Her sides must be made of iron!”  She earned the nickname, “OLD IRONSIDES”  Of greater importance was the fact that the USS CONSTITUTION became the first ship to defeat a British man of war in the history of the British navy.

     It took 12 hours for Commodore Bainbridge to close on the Java, delivering the first broadside at 2:00 pm. The Java’s first salvo wounded Commodore Bainbridge. He remained on the Quarterdeck, and engaged in an epic two and a half hour battle during which time CONSTITUTION’s rudder was disabled, and he had to steer by using block and tackle, passing orders down below decks. He was wounded a second time but refused to be treated. At 5:25 pm, HMS Java surrendered, striking the British Ensign, becoming the second ship in the history of the British empire to surrender. The British Admiralty issued new orders to the entire fleet. ” Do NOT engage with any vessel of the American Navy unless you outnumber them by at least two to one”

   Upon returning to Boston, Commodore Bainbridge assumed command of the Navy Yard in Charlestown, Massachusetts while he recuperated from his wounds. Somehow during his departure from Old Ironsides, his family bible was left behind. Was it left in his sea cabin, and in the haste to remove the badly wounded Captain, forgotten? 

     November 16, 1972, 160 years later on board the USS ENTERPRISE CVAN 65 in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of Vietnam, I, a young sailor on my first cruise had the thrill of seeing the only four nuclear powered surface ships in the world, join in formation and steam together. The USS ENTERPRISE CVAN 65, USS LONGBEACH CGN 9, USS TRUXTUN CGN 35, AND USS BAINBRIDGE CGN 25 . The fourth ship in the US Navy to carry the name of Commodore Bainbridge. In a Navy steeped in tradition, these four ships steaming together had 16 previous ships combined with those time honored and battle proven names. It was a sight that would remain in my memory forever.

     1985, Pontiac Michigan Naval Recruiting Station- now on recruiting duty  I answered the ringing telephone in my office. Four other sailors in the office might have answered. Had they, this story would not be being told. An elderly woman was on the phone. She asked if this was the US Navy? 

    I replied that it indeed was the US Navy, and how could I help her? She proceeded to tell me that they were in the process of moving from the home that had been in the family for many years, and they had found an old trunk in the attic. 

    Wondering where this story was going, and what it had to do with the US Navy, and having lots of work to do before I could go home, something made me stay on the phone with her and let her continue her story. Besides, old trunks in an attic can be interesting. Eventually, she told me that they opened this dusty old trunk, and there were some old things in the trunk, one of which was an old Bible. And there was a name in the Bible along with some things that made her believe that it had something to do with the Navy. She than asked me if I would like to come out to her house and get this Bible from her? 

     At this point, I asked her if she could read to me what was written on the inside of the Bible, and she opened it up and told me that the name in it was William Bainbridge, and it said something about the USS CONSTITUTION, and there was a date of 1812.

     THIS was getting interesting, and a lot more fun than making phone calls trying to put people in the Navy. I told her that Commodore Bainbridge was a Naval hero, and that the USS CONSTITUTION was the most famous ship in the Navy, and what she had found in her attic was indeed something that might be of interest to the Navy. She again asked me if I wanted to come and get it. I told her the significance of what she was holding, and that I wanted to make some phone calls, and that I would be back in touch with her very soon. She agreed, gave me her name and telephone number and thanked me for listening to her story.

     Seconds later, I was dialing information in the Boston area. The first number was the general information about the hours of touring Old Ironsides. Not really what I wanted. After several phone calls, I was able to get in touch with the Officer of the Deck on board USS CONSTITUTION. After a brief conversation between fellow sailors, I told him the story about my phone call. I asked him if I could talk with the commanding officer, and he agreed that it would be a good idea. He took my name and telephone number in case we got disconnected, and put me on hold. He must have been as excited about this as I was, because in less than a minute, the Commanding Officer of USS CONSTITUTION was on my phone. Talk about history, and the Navy being steeped in tradition, here I was talking with a man that was in command of the same ship that Commodore Bainbridge had commanded 173 years ago. Commanding officer of a ship that has been in Naval service since 1797. I felt like I was part of American History.

     After telling him who I was and where I was stationed, I gave him the story as I knew it so far. When I gave him some of the dates that the elderly woman had given me, he got very excited, and asked me to hold for a minute while he got the ships log. Minutes later, he was reading to me from Commodore Bainbridge’s own handwriting from the original ships log. Not a copy, not a printout, but the details of the battle in the original ships log. He told me that an engagement that lasted as long as the battle with the HMS Java was very rare, most battles usually lasted about half an hour. The seamanship exhibited in engaging a ship that was smaller and faster than Ironsides was incredible. He was as excited as I was about the Bible. He took all the information that I had, and told me that he would be in touch. 

     All the wheels had been set in motion, and I called the woman back and told her someone from Old Ironsides would be in touch with her. The Captain of Old Ironsides called her that same day, and soon the Department of the Navy was in touch with her. 

     It turned out that a distant relative of hers was the ships surgeon and somehow the Bible was with his belongings. Was it misplaced during the evacuation of the wounded Commodore? Only the spirits of American sailors still walking below decks on Old Ironsides know. The decks that were painted red to disguise the blood that was shed by the sailors that shaped our history. The same sailors that gave Old Ironsides her nickname. The sailors that forever upended the myth that the Royal British Navy was invincible. 

    Many years later, when I took my son Stephen to Boston, we went to USS CONSTITUTION. After touring the ship we went through the museum and there behind glass in the Commodore Bainbridge section, was his family Bible. The same Bible that the elderly woman had wanted me to come to her house and get. I was proud to tell my son the small part that I had in bringing the Bible to the museum. Proud to tell him of the feeling that it gave me inside to do the right thing, and in a small way to become part of American History.

(Steve again)  On Tuesday, May 21, Chari and I went to see Old Ironsides.  We checked on-line for parking in the area, and found a local parking garage.  Since we are a somewhat oversized vehicle (a full sized crew-cab pick-up truck with two kayaks and a canoe on top) I called to find out if we would fit.  No, we wouldn’t, but there was plenty of metered street parking in the area, we were told.  Well, there was metered parking there, but there was a two-hour limit, and the nearest open spot was a few blocks away, maybe a fifteen minute walk.  We drove around a bit, and found a marina.  I explained our situation, and asked if we could park there for a few hours…  we’d be happy to pay a fee.  “Sure, go ahead.  Stay all day if you want.  No charge.”  Bostonians can be very friendly people!

The Old Ironsides Museum is a privately run not-for-profit museum, not officially connected with the ship itself.  The first exhibits explained, as I did in the beginning of this post, the reasons for the six original frigates being built, the Quasi-War with France, and the war with the Barbary Pirates.  Other exhibits showed the actual construction of the ship.  An interesting bit of trivia is that during construction of The Constitution, fifteen tons of drawn copper bolts used for fastening the ship’s planking were provided by Paul Revere.  He also provided the ship’s bell.  In 1801, he established the first copper rolling mill in America, and was thus able to provide the copper sheets placed on her hull in the 1803 refitting.

Normal ship construction of the time consisted of wooden framing (ribs) attached to a bottom center keel, upon which planking was fastened to both the interior and exterior.  The ribs were generally spaced apart by about sixteen to twenty inches.  These American ships, however, had a spacing of about two inches between the ribs, which were sixteen inches square of solid Georgian live oak.  Interior and exterior planking was four inches of white oak, making an almost two-foot thick solid wall of some of the densest wood on earth.  No wonder cannon balls bounced off her sides!

Exhibit on the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812

Exhibit on the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812

Then came exhibits explaining the causes and build-up to the War of 1812 with Great Britain, followed by one dealing with the action against HMS Guerriere.  When we came to the Java exhibit, I was immediately drawn to the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Commodore Bainbridge, and there, in a glass display case under the portrait, was the Bible.

The "Bainbridge Bible"

The “Bainbridge Bible”

A museum employee saw my interest, and came over to see if he could answer any questions.  I told him Fred’s story.  Yes, he said, there is indeed an inscription in the book that mentions Bainbridge and the year 1812.  One day each year, he told me, the book is opened to the inscription page, but it is generally kept closed to keep the light from destroying the image. ” I would love to see it, I told him. “ He told me to wait, and returned a few minutes later with a photocopy of the inscription page.

Dulany Forest's inscription

Dulany Forest’s inscription

The story, as it turned out, was somewhat different from the story Fred told.  But no less interesting!  While Fred had taken the call from the woman who found the book in her attic, and had initiated contact with the proper authorities, he had never actually met the woman, or seen the book, until his visit to the museum with his son, Steve, when, as I did, he only saw the outside cover through the glass case.  The actual inscription, verified by the museum’s archivist who I presume did the necessary research, told another story.

The Bible never belonged to Commodore Bainbridge.  It actually came off HMS Java.  Immediately following the battle, Java was boarded by sailors and officers of USS Constitution, to take prisoners, and to see if the ship could be salvaged.  But sailors then were no different than sailors today, or the soldiers of Julius Caesar, for that matter.  These men knew they had just made history, and they wanted souvenirs!  A midshipman, Dulany Forrest by name, grabbed the Bible for himself and squirreled it away before Java was sunk.  That same evening, December 29, 1812, he wrote:       

             Dulany Forrest’s Book

                         Coast of Brazil

                        December 29th



This book was taken

from the British frigate

Java when she was

Captured by the U States

Frigate Constitution

Commanded by Commodore

William Bainbridge.

                                    Dec. 29th 1812

The Bible was later presented to a US Navy Surgeon, and presumably, it was this surgeon who was the ancestor of the woman who called the Navy Recruiting Office in Detroit.  I don’t  know what arrangements were made between her and the Navy, but isn’t it wonderful that this priceless piece of history was able to find its way to this museum instead of some private collection, where it would be enjoyed by a select few.  Knowing this story makes me wonder about all the other seemingly mundane items we see in museums, a soldiers tobacco pouch, a politicians cane, a dinner plate from a colonial home, that have equally fascinating stories.

After touring the museum, we walked over to the ship herself, USS Constitution, Old Ironsides, but before we go, there is one more interesting display to tell you about.  Another seemingly mundane display, but one with an equally fascinating story behind it.

Unfortunately, as I write this, we are in an area with an extremely poor internet connection, so I cannot research my facts.  I’ll tell the story from memory, but I can’t recall the dates when this took place, and I may have some of the story wrong.

A few months ago, there was an episode on The History Detectives on PBS Television.  For those of you who have never seen the show, it’s fantastic.  Ordinary people, like the lady who found the “Bainbridge Bible”, will find something in their attics or basements, or maybe make a purchase in a garage sale, or maybe have an item that has been handed down within their family for generations, that they believe has some sort of historical significance.  Maybe it would be a pistol that their great grandfather told them had been given to him by General Custer, or a diary from a pioneer traveling west in a covered wagon.  It could be anything.  These people contact The History Detectives, who will come knocking on their door, listen to their story, and then try to find out the real history behind the item.

This particular episode concerned a piece of hand-carved wood, a few inches in size, that didn’t look like much of anything.  But, the story went, it was really the chin from the head of a statue of Andrew Jackson.  Could the Detectives find out anything?

President Jackson was an extremely popular president in the South, but this wasn’t the case in New England. Indeed, he was hated in this part of the country.  Sometime, I’m guessing in the 1840s, the Navy, in its infinite wisdom, decided that the USS Constitution needed a new figurehead, and thought that a wonderful subject for this figurehead would be President Andrew Jackson.  Keep in mind that Old Ironsides was then, as now, a Boston based ship.  As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with the Bostonians.  On a dark moonless night, a few locals rowed out to the ship to remove the figurehead.  Unable to do so, they took a saw and decapitated President Jackson.  The head disappeared from history, but could this block of wood really be the President’s chin?  To make a long story short, The History Detectives were able to actually find the rest of the head, which was indeed missing its chin.  And lo and behold, the type of wood from the head and the chin were the same!  Wherever the head was located, they travelled there with the chin, and placed the two together.  YES!!!  A perfect fit!  The head and chin of President Jackson, now forever reunited, are on display at the museum.

Andrew Jackson, with his chin!

Andrew Jackson, with his chin!

Chills ran up my spine when we stepped onto the deck of the USS Constitution.  The third ship commissioned by the United States Navy, and the oldest warship in the world, still commissioned and manned by officers and sailors of the US Navy and still afloat.  Yes, HMS Victory, Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship, and the ship on which he lost his life at Trafalgar, is still to be seen on the Thames in London, but Victory has been sitting on a bed of concrete for decades.  Old Ironsides is still afloat, and should never, WILL never, if history minded citizens have anything to say about it, die.  The ship is huge.  I’ve been on many tall ships, both replicas and actual old ships, but wasn’t prepared to see a ship of this magnitude from so long ago.  Again, as I write this, I don’t have internet access so can’t research the actual dimensions, but it is more than a hundred yards in length.  The ship my dad served on in WWII, a sub chaser, by comparison was only 120 feet.  The masts towered overhead.  I was walking where heroes walked.




Below Decks

Below Decks


Our guide

Our guide


Steve at the helm!

Steve at the helm!

A sailor gave us a tour, both above and below decks, of the ship.  Before leaving, we noticed a family hoisting an American flag over the aft deck.  They lowered it, and with a sailor there, folded it and took it with them.  I asked, and was told that we could purchase a flag, fly it over the USS Constitution and take it home.  We had been thinking about getting an American flag to fly on our trailer, and here was a great opportunity.  So we now have flying in front of our home on wheels, a flag that flew over Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution.

Hoisting "Old Glory" over "Old Ironsides"!

Hoisting “Old Glory” over “Old Ironsides”!

Proudly she waves!

Proudly she waves!

Folding the flag

Folding the flag

Proudly she waves again!

Proudly she waves again!

One more thing before leaving you.  A few days later, Memorial Day, we were touring Boston, walking the Freedom Trail.  The Freedom Trail is a Boston National Historical Park, overseen by the National Park Service.  It includes such things as the Old North Church, The Old Statehouse, The Constitution, etc.  Our ranger guide paused as she told us about the Boston Massacre, when a loud BOOM sounded.  “That’s Old Ironsides,” she told us.  “She is firing a twenty-one-gun salute throughout the day in honor of our fallen heroes.”

What a thrill!  (Steve)


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