In her youth she was beautiful. Her fine lines and graceful sheer, her lightly upturned head, the classic quarter galleries and restrained carvings gracing her 18th-century transom stern–all flowed together flawlessly in this magnificent creature of the sea. Her loft rig spread more sail than any European frigate. In fact, she and her two sisterships were larger in every way than their contemporaries. She is the USS Constitution–the oldest warship afloat anywhere in the world. This proud old warrior has seen–and participated in–virtually all our nation’s history. She fought in four wars; circled the world as a symbol of American power; was commanded by the superstars of American naval history: Preble, Decatur, Bainbridge, Rodgers, Hull, Stewart, MacDonough. Constitution is the definitive American icon–older than the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, the White House.
But her age has been one of her greatest enemies, second only to bureaucratic indifference. The ship that rallied American in the second war of independence later found herself reduced to a floating classroom at Annapolis, and still later became a barracks for transient seamen. Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Navy even recommended that she be towed to sea for gunnery practice. In 1830, rumors that she was to be scrapped prompted Oliver Wendell Holmes to write his epic poem, “Old Ironsides.” The ensuing public clamor brought Constitution a complete overhaul. She was rescued by the public again in 1876 for the American Centennial, and given a cosmetic makeover in 1907. In 1927, she received an extensive restoration, funded in part by collections from school children.
Now, 200 years after her launching, this living link with our nation’s beginnings is again preparing to sail. Old Ironsides is the story of this great ship, told by Professor Thomas C. Gillmer, the man the Navy chose to assess her structure and recommend procedures to restore her strength and form. Gillmer answers nagging questions surrounding the true identity of Constitution‘s designer, settles the controversy about the 1850s-era frigate masquerading as the original frigate Constellation in Baltimore, charts the history of Constitution‘s major and minor reconstructions, and provides a detailed analysis of her true condition today.
Old Ironsides‘s pages are filled with drawings, plans, and photographs, many never before published, that are a treasure trove for maritime historians. The book includes a full-color section detailing Constitution‘s earlier triumphs by celebrated marine painter William Gilkerson, commissioned especially for this book. If ships may be considered living beings, Constitution is the last living link with our nation’s beginnings–and Old Ironsides brings her to life.