The good ship Constitution was built by order of Congress to fight the pirate ships of Algeria. She was built in Boston, and was designed to be a little bigger and a little better than any other fighting ship of her kind afloat.
The Constitution was made of the best material and with the greatest care. Workmen searched the lumber-yards of the South for oak, cedar and pine. Paul Revere, who made the famous midnight ride, furnished the copper. It took three years to build the frigate, and, when she was gone, her timbers had seasoned until they were hard as iron.
The Constitution played her part in the war against the pirates of the Barbary Coast in Africa. For two years there was plenty of fighting, in which the frigate seemed to bear a charmed life. She never lost her mast, nor was she ever seriously injured in battle or in storm. She never lost a commanding officer, and only a few of her crew were killed.
It was during the War of 1812 that the Constitution won her chief glory. Her most remarkable feat was her escape from a British squadron.
At daybreak, toward the middle of July, 1812, off the New Jersey coast, the frigate found herself surrounded by a fleet of British ships that had crept up in the night. They were waiting for dawn to begin the attack. Captain Isaac Hull was in command of the Constitution, and had no idea of surrendering his ship. He thought only of means to escape from his danger.
Not a breath of air ruffled the water, and the sails of all the ships were useless. One of the British frigates was being towed by all the boats of her squadron, so as to get her near enough to the Constitution to open fire. The boats then expected to bring other frigates into position, and thus begin a general battle. This would seal the doom of the Constitution. Without wind, there was no chance for her to get away. But Hull was not to be caught. He thought of his anchor and windlass.
"How much water have we under this ship?" he shouted. Upon being told he had twenty fathoms, he cried out,
"Bring up the anchor and all the spare ropes and cable. Then all hands to the boats!"
The order was quickly obeyed. Putting the anchor into a boat, it was carried a mile ahead and dropped into the ocean. The ropes and cables attached to it were still fastened to the windlass. The men on the ship began to wind up the windlass, and gradually drew the boat along to the place where the anchor was dropped.
Then the anchor was moved ahead another mile, and the boat drawn up again. In this manner, slow progress was made through the water, but it was better than not making any headway at all.
The pursuit was kept up for two days. But slowly the Constitution gained on her pursuers, until, after a two days' chase, the enemy was four miles astern.
A squall gave Hull his chance to open sails and hide behind the rain and cloud-banks. In a few hours, the weather cleared, and the British were almost out of sight. They soon abandoned the chase, and Hull took his frigate into Boston harbor, amid the cheers of the people.
In less than two weeks, he was out again, searching the ocean for British craft, and ready to give battle to any vessel he might meet. The British had a fine frigate, named the Guerriere, commanded by Captain Dacres, who was a personal friend of Captain Hull. The Guerriere had challenged any vessel of the American fleet to battle, and was cruising on the Atlantic, waiting for an answer. The Constitution went out to accept the challenge.
Years before this, Dacres and Hull had been talking about a possible battle between their frigates. "If we ever meet in combat, I wager a fine hat I will make you surrender," said Dacres to Hull.
"Agreed," was the laughing reply of Captain Hull. "I expect to win that hat some day."
In August, about seven hundred miles from Boston, the two vessels met. The Constitution and the Guerriere were the finest frigates in the world, their Commanders equally brave, their men equally matched. It was a question of ship management and gun power.
The British frigate flung out a flag of defiance from each topmast. Her guns began to roar, but the balls fell short of the Constitution.
"Don't fire until I give the word. Let the two vessels draw near together before we open. Keep steady and ready, and never mind their guns," said Hull to his men.
The two ships drifted nearer and nearer. The enemy's broadsides tore through the rigging of the Constitution. One of the enemy's balls struck the side of the vessel, and fell into the sea. A sailor, looking overboard, said, "See the balls falling away from her. She's an old ironside, sir, an old ironside."
THE GUERRIERE WAS A HELPLESS HULK IN THE WATER.
From that time on, the Constitution was called "Old Ironsides."
The two vessels came fairly abreast, near enough for the men to see each other, and for good pistol shot.
"Ready, men, do your full duty and fire," shouted Hull.
Broadside after broadside was poured into the Guerriere. First her mizzen mast fell, then her foremast was cut down, then her rigging and flag; she was soon a helpless hulk in the water.
Dacres surrendered, and came on board the Constitution to deliver his sword to his old friend. But Hull smilingly said,
"No, Dacres, you can keep the sword, for you are too brave a man to be without one. I want that hat you and I wagered some years ago."
When "Old Ironsides" sailed into Boston on the last day of August, you may well believe the people shouted themselves hoarse, and waved flags, and hung out bunting, and gave grand dinners in honor of this great naval victory.