Visiting Old Ironsides

One of the benefits of living near Boston is the proximity to U.S. history, especially the , the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy. Visiting the ancient warship, also known as Old Ironsides, is an activity I prefer to do on a quiet Sunday morning before the tourists hit, as I did this August.

The Constitution had been in dry dock for just over two years undergoing an extensive restoration and had only been out in the water for a week when I visited that recent morning. She looked glorious.

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed visiting the ship. Looking up at the flags on the masts – Old Glory and the Don’t Tread on Me flag (Figure 1) – to the gun placements and the Captain’s quarters below, you get a sense of history that is only enhanced by the presence of the current crew: active-duty U.S. Navy personnel who double as historians.

Figure 1: Don’t Tread on Me.

I asked the sailors how much of the original ship is left and was told only about 12 percent remains from the original ship, most of that in the hull. That 12 percent is more than 200 years old (Figure 2).

Commissioned in 1797 and named by President George Washington as the third of eight ships slated to be built under the Naval Act of 1794, the USS Constitution was undefeated in battle and gained its fame during combat with the British Royal navy during the War of 1812, earning her nickname when she defeated the HMS Guerriere. Just as I did, visitors can learn much of this history in the USS Constitution Museum, a nonprofit entity located across from the ship, but not run by the Navy. If you want to learn more about the Battle of 1812 and the Constitution’s role in it, I recommend reading “1812: The War That Forged A Nation” by Walter R. Borneman.

The latest restoration – and the first in more than 20 years – was performed by restorers and riggers from the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston. No electronics engineers needed. The work included:

  • Replacing the lower hull planking and caulking
  • Removing and replacing 2,200 sheets of copper
  • Refurbishing and replacing the ship’s rigging, upper masts, and yards
  • Rebuilding sections of the cutwater and trailboards on the bow
  • Refurbishing and rebuilding the gun carriages

Figure 2: USS Constitution.

Sailors on board told me that she will set sail some time this fall around Boston Harbor. If you’re in town at that time, be sure not to miss her sail. If you do tour the ship, make time to engage her crew, as they are friendly experts and happy to answer every question.

The crew is also a group of overachievers, as competition for serving on the USS Constitution is fierce. The sailor I spoke to told me she came right out of boot camp and her duty will be two years, while those who earn the spots from the fleet serve on board for three years.

According to the Navy’s website for the USS Constitution (, Navy personnel looking to serve onboard “must be able to interact with the public with maturity and tact, and be an exceptional representative of the U.S. Navy. They must have an impeccable appearance and exceptional military bearing. Chief Petty Officers and Petty Officers must be high-caliber individuals ready to serve as sharp military role models for junior crew members and strong leaders.”

It is a great honor for sailors and officers to earn this duty. While the ship never goes to battle and doesn’t deploy to foreign waters anymore, it remains revered within the Navy and within the U.S military. For Navy personnel interested in serving on Old Ironsides, visit

During your conversations with them about the Constitution’s exploits be sure to thank the crew for their service, too, and for that matter, every serving man and woman you meet. They earned it.

And if you want to back that “thank you” up with money or time, I recommend checking out the charity we highlight in this month’s issue on page 46. Each issue, we highlight a different military charity and provide a donation, giving back to those who help protect us.

Some of the charities we’ve highlighted include Wounded Warrior Foundation, the Folds of Honor Foundation, Operation Homefront, the Navy Seal Foundation, Operation Delta Dog, the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, and many more. To view our our list of supported military charities, visit


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