In 1830, the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, distressed by plans to scrap the noble warship U. S. S. Constitution, wrote the following poem of outcry. Published immediately in a Boston newspaper, then in papers in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, his angry words stirred the public to outrage, and the plan itself was scrapped but not the gallant ship.
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!
Now berthed in Boston Harbor, the U. S. S. Constitution makes a turn-around cruise every Independence Day, so as to ensure that her sides weather equally. A tugboat offers respectful power, and fireboats spray high the way fore and aft. And dozens of other, lesser ships follow her progress around the harbor on that day. This year, we were a part of that escort. I took some pictures of the scene.
I sometimes forget the immediacy of the ocean, here in Boston, and all that that brings with it. There is always something compelling to see, out in the harbor, but none more wondrous than the sight of this noble vessel in her stately yearly circuit.
Pirates, not British warships, drove George Washington to establish a navy for the new United States. That’s right--Old Ironsides never fought in the Revolution, because she wasn’t launched until 1797. But she and her five new sister ships were needed to defend American shipping from troublesome pirates and marauding French vessels, in the West Indies and the Mediterranean.
Following gallant showing in several great battles against the British in the War of 1812--the mighty British navy!--she came to be called Old Ironsides. Cannon balls bounced off her dense hull of Georgia liveoak and New England white oak. She seemed invincible, and indeed in all her long history at sea she was never defeated, never even boarded.
Time, though, seemed more the enemy. Following her reprieve in 1830, again in 1897, 1905, and on into the 1920’s and 1950’s, she was threatened with decommission, rotting, scrapping, and worst of all, use as a bull’s eye in target practice.
But time was also the savior of U. S. S. Constitution. For gradually she had become a precious symbol of the newly-emerging power of the nation, of the great traditions of the sea and the navy, of the myths of American tradition. Time after time, the people and the Congress came to her rescue. The older she got, the more precious she became, and she is now a part of the Boston National Historical Park.
When you tour her decks, as you can in the Charlestown Navy Yard where she is berthed, you will learn that she is still a commissioned ship, the oldest afloat in any navy in the world. The sailor who narrates your visit has applied for this two-year tour of duty, interviewed and specially chosen for the assignment. She or he will tell you that 309 people have died while serving on her, and so “It’s an honor guard, and it makes us feel proud to serve on her.”
On this Fourth of July, as she made her majestic progress around the harbor, she paused as she always does to present a 21-gun salute to Fort Independence, in honor of the nation’s birthday; it’s returned in kind by the fort. A bit further on, she made a 17-gun salute to the Coast Guard station at the harbor’s edge.
There was a bit of competition. A large grey modern naval vessel, dressed in honor of Old Ironsides’ passage, as well as two cruise ships, dwarfed U. S. S. Constitution in size though never in beauty or proud history.
As the tugboat eased Old Ironsides gently back into her berth, where she will be undergoing four years of attentive restoration, it pleased me that still, even in these accelerated days of technology, there are still some quieter marvels of an older time which merit our attention. Are given our attention.
Huzzah! Happy Birthday, America!