Old Ironsides: How a Poem Saved America’s Favorite Warship

April 19, 2023Mac Caltrider
Old Ironsides

USS Constitution fires a 21-gun salute toward Fort Independence on Castle Island during an underway to celebrate “Old Ironsides'” 213th launching day anniversary. US Navy photo by Kathryn Macdonald.

When USS Constitution defeated HMS Guerriere in battle 700 miles off the coast of Boston, the War of 1812 had only been underway for two months. It was a much needed victory for the fledgling American Navy. 

The Constitution — one of the fleet’s six original frigates — had come to the fight with more firepower than the 38-gun Guerriere. Not only was the Constitution armed with more guns — a total of 55 — most of them were 24- and 32-pounders. Guerriere’s 18-pounders were measly by comparison. In fact, when the Brits fired the first salvo, most of the shots fell short. And the few cast-iron cannonballs that did reach their target harmlessly bounced off the Constitution's white oak hull. Witnessing this, one of the American sailors shouted, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” 

With her hull still fully intact, the Constitution made quick work of her foe, severing all three of Guerriere’s masts and killing much of the British crew. Returning home to Boston victorious, she would be known from then on by the nickname — Old Ironsides.

Old Ironsides

Old Ironsides in Boston Harbor, Sept. 10, 2019. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

America’s Warship

With her oaken armor and giant arsenal of cannons, Old Ironsides was one of the most formidable ships on the sea in the 19th century. She defeated four more British warships and captured numerous merchant vessels before the War of 1812 was over. 

Yet, though she weathered many battles, Old Ironsides was not impervious to the corrosive sands of time. Like all wooden vessels of that era, she had a maximum life expectancy of just 15 years. Ships retired from the fleet were typically scrapped for parts.

In the fall of 1830, an article in The Boston Advertiser announced that Old Ironsides was heading to the scrapyard. Two days later, the same paper published a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Titled Old Ironsides, it lamented the ship’s impending fate and sang her praises, extolling her as a symbol of American glory.

Old Ironsides

USS Constitution faces off against HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812. Artwork by Michel Felice Come, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Holmes’ words reverberated like the boom of one of Old Ironside’s mighty cannons. A public outcry ensued and the Navy soon found itself bombarded with pleas to spare the beloved frigate from an inglorious death. The protests were successful. Secretary of the Navy, John Branch, approved the necessary costs to refurbish Old Ironsides, and within weeks she was in a dry-dock undergoing renovations. 

Nearly 200 years later, the Constitution sits anchored in Boston Harbor, where it remains the world’s oldest ship still afloat. 

Related: Dirty Boat Guys: An Expansive History of Navy SWCC

The Poem That Saved America’s Oldest Ship

Old Ironsides

By Oliver Wendell Holmes

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.

USS Constitution

USS Constitution fires a 17-gun salute near U.S. Coast Guard Base Boston during the ship's Independence Day underway demonstration in Boston Harbor, July 4, 2014. US Navy photo by Seaman Matthew R. Fairchild.

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!

Read Next: Don’t Give Up the Ship: Why the Navy’s Mantra Really Belongs to the Marines

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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