Old Ironsides Earns Her Nickname: The USS Constitution versus HMS Guerriere

Post written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian

The logbook’s entry for the morning, 200 years ago, of August 19, 1812 records hazy weather, temperature 64° in the air and a similar 65° in water. By “3/4 past 11 am” the weather is cloudy with fresh breezes, so the mizzen topsail is set.
And then it ends.

PR 47, Irving S. Olds Collection of Naval Prints.

But for the U.S. frigate Constitution, it is very much a beginning—of an illustrious record in the War of 1812 and a long and beloved identity as “Old Ironsides.” By the afternoon of August 19 about 600 miles east of Boston the US Frigate Constitution sights and engages the HMS Guerrière in its famous sea battle.The New-York Historical Society owns multiple logbooks of the Constitution kept by Captain Isaac Hull during the years of his command beginning in 1809. They come courtesy of the Naval History Society. This particular book was sold at New York by the stationers Prior & Dunning, of 111 Water Street, and begins in August 1811. It only appears to finish on the fateful morning of August 19; on closer examination, one can see that the ending pages, those naturally describing the famed sea battle, are cut out. Looking further, other pages are lacking—those chronicling the days in July when the Constitution is chased by a British squadron off the coast of New Jersey over 57 hours. The frigate’s escape is actually thought to demonstrate the more masterful seamanship, while in the subsequent engagement with the Guerrière, Captain Hull’s tactics were conventional. In fact, some claim that Hull’s report of the August 19 battle was embellished to make it appear swifter and less grueling, and perhaps it was he who used the torn pages to prepare his reports in Boston. Some naval commentators attribute Hull’s success more to luck, a larger crew, and the design and sturdy oak construction of the vessel as it survived collisions. It was here, as the Constitution withstood enemy shot, and the sailors were said to have cheered, “Huzza, Her sides are made of iron!” that “Old Ironsides” acquired her nickname.

Hull, Isaac. Log Book US Frigate Constitution, 1811 August 2-1812 August 19, entry for August 18, 1812. Naval History Society Collection—Hull, vol. 5.

A complete log of the Constitution does exist at the National Archives, but even without the famous battle pages, the New-York Historical Society’s logbook well describes the routine of a man o’ war. The crew frequently beats to quarters in preparation and is constantly vigilant.  On the day prior to the engagement, shown here, they carefully approach what appears to be a vessel “bottom up,” only to discover it is a dead whale. Later that night they make chase of a sail of what turns out to be an American privateer, the Decatur, who has desperately thrown over 12 of her 14 guns only to discover her pursuer was a friendly naval ship. Hull, the Constitution, and his prisoners—the Guerrière was too badly damaged to take as a prize—sailed into Boston ten days later to extraordinary acclaim.

Naval Victory, Obtained by the American Frigate Constitution. (New York, N.Y.: Sold at No. 473 Pearl-Street, 1812?). Broadside. SY 1812-15W no. 52.

Much as the war, declared on June 18, was unpopular in New England, the victory gave credibility to the young United States’ capacity to stand up to the Royal Navy, and took the sting away from the early defeats on land, as—ironically—it was Isaac Hull’s uncle, William Hull, who had surrendered the garrison at Detroit less than two weeks earlier in the most the humiliating episode of the war.

Captain Hull’s pattern would repeat itself, as America’s naval officers were able to defeat the Royal Navy in a number of morale-boosting, single-ship engagements on the high seas. Captains were eager for glory and advancement and would sometimes set out even without orders so as to avoid being stuck in port due to the British blockade. The derring-do of these patriotic officers was celebrated in cities up and down the coast, pictured in artful prints, and sung about in popular ballads. The Historical Society is exceptionally rich in these examples of early American national pride.



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