Connecticut residents should take note that "Old Ironsides" was back on the high seas again this week. By far the oldest active naval ship in the world, the Constitution took sail this week for 17 minutes to commemorate its inspiring, morale-boosting victory over the British warship Guerriere exactly 200 years ago this week during the War of 1812.
Though the historic ship is based in Massachusetts, its connections to Connecticut are many, including the fact that five men from Connecticut have commanded the iconic ship.
The first Connecticut native to command Old Ironsides was its most famous — Isaac Hull of Derby. Hull took command on June 17, 1810, and served as the ship's captain until Sept. 15, 1812.
On Aug. 19, 1812, Hull's ship engaged the HMS Guerriere — French for "Warrior" — at close range and easily defeated her. Dismasted by repeated blasts from the Constitution's Connecticut-made cannon, Guerriere was reduced to a floating wreck. Nearly 40 percent of the crew was killed or wounded. After the remaining British prisoners were transferred onboard, Hull ordered the Guerriere to be burned.
It was the encounter with the Guerriere that led to the Constitution's nickname — "Old Ironsides." Cannonballs from the British vessel were seen to bounce off the Constitution's extra thick hull, and thus the nickname "Old Ironsides" was born. Constructed with the densest of all oaks — Southern Plantation Oak from Georgia — the hull of the USS Constitution was 21 inches thick. That's three inches thicker than the average warship of the time.
Having come a few days after the U.S. had to surrender Detroit to the British during the War of 1812, the victory over the Guerriere provided a much-needed morale boost to the American public. Furthermore, it proved to the world that the much-heralded British navy could be defeated. Connecticut's Hull became a major naval hero and has had a remarkable five naval ships named after him, including four destroyers in the 20th century and a sidewheel paddle steamship in the 19th century.
The last destroyer named the USS Hull was decommissioned in the 1980's. Its World War II predecessor was present at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese sneak attack and later participated in many other major engagements in the Pacific during the war, including Guadalcanal. In fact, the ship received an impressive 10 battle stars for its World War II service before being lost at sea.
The USS Hull sank in December of 1944 during a severe typhoon. Only 57 members of its crew survived. Several survivors reported that some junior officers had planned to take over command of the ship and steer it to a safer course during the storm. This incident aboard the Hull became the basis of the idea behind novelist Herman Wouk's writing of the Caine Mutiny. Wouk, still alive today at age 97, was himself a naval officer in the Pacific during the war and was well acquainted with the near mutiny on the USS Hull.
All of the iron on "Old Ironsides" came from the Northwest hills of Connecticut. A particularly good vein of brown hematite iron ore runs through Salisbury in the Litchfield hills. According to John Pawloski's book, Connecticut Mining, the iron used in the building of the USS Constitution came entirely from the Mt. Riga blast furnace in Salisbury, CT, including the 44 cannons that were used to destroy the Guerriere 200 years ago.
One of Hull's lieutenants onboard the Constitution was Glastonbury native George Campbell Read; in fact, Hull asked Lt. Read to accept the British surrender of the Guerriere. Two months later, on October 25, 1812, Read was aboard the USS United States under the command of Stephen Decatur when it captured the HMS Macedonian, the 2nd British ship to be captured in the War Of 1812. Later, Commodore Read commanded the Constitution from Jan. 23, 1826, until Feb. 21, 1826 — not quite one month.
Commodore Oscar C. Badger, born in Mansfield, CT, also commanded the Constitution. Badger's command lasted 19 months, from Jan. 9, 1878, until Aug. 2, 1879.
Few families can boast the level of involvement with the U.S. Navy as the Badgers. Commodore Badger's son and grandson also became admirals; furthermore, his cousin, George E. Badger, a former Yale student, was the 12th Secretary of the Navy. Five different naval ships have been named after four members of the Badger family. The most recent ship, DE-1071, was a destroyer which served from 1970-1988, including a tour of duty in the Vietnam War. It was named for all four members of this distinguished naval family. DE-1071 was decommissioned and sunk as a target in 1988.
( Next week's column will cover the other two Connecticut natives who have commanded "Old Ironsides" as well as Glastonbury native Gideon Welles, whose actions during the Civil War likely saved the USS Constitution from destruction.)