It put up only four sails, but it was the symbolism that counted. The U.S. Navy's oldest commissioned warship sailed under its own power for just the second time in more than a century Sunday to commemorate the battle that won it the nickname 'Old Ironsides,' CBS station WBZ-TV reports.
USS Constitution (’Old Ironsides’) sails again - photo Steven Senne/AP
The USS Constitution, which was first launched in 1797, was tugged from its berth in Boston Harbor Sunday morning to the main deepwater pathway into the harbor.
It then set out to open seas for a 17-minute cruise at a top speed of 3.1 knots.
The Constitution's crew of about 65, accompanied by 150 sailors selected to be part of event, unfurled four of its 36 sails.
The tug boats stood by as a precaution when the Constitution sailed on its own.
The short trip marked the day two centuries ago when the Constitution bested the British frigate HMS Guerriere in a fierce battle during the War of 1812. It follows a three-year restoration project and is the first time the Constitution has been to sea on its own since its 200th birthday in 1997.
Before that, it hadn't sailed under its own power since 1881. The Constitution is periodically tugged into the harbor for historical display.
Chief Petty Officer Frank Neely, a Constitution spokesman and crew member, said the crew wants to honor and preserve the Constitution with Sunday's sail.
'This ship is a national icon to us. ... She's very special to us. We think she's very special to the United States,' he said.
The Constitution was under the command of Capt. Issac Hull when it engaged the Guerriere off Nova Scotia on Aug. 19, 1812. The young war was not going well for America, which had surrendered Detroit to the British with basically no resistance a week earlier.
But the Guerriere proved no match for the Constitution, which was heavier and longer. The vessels blasted away at each other at close range, even colliding at one point, during the 35-minute battle. The Constitution's 24-pound cannonballs felled the Guerriere's mast, while the British vessel's 18-pound cannonballs had trouble penetrating the Constitution's two-foot thick live oak hull, said Matthew Brenckle, a historian at the USS Constitution Museum.
Brenckle said a sailor's memoirs recorded how one cannonball seemed to slightly penetrate the ship, before dropping into the sea. The sailor then called out the quote that would give the Constitution its nickname, 'Huzzah, her sides are made of iron! See where the shot fell out!'
It wasn't the first naval win in what would be a divisive, expensive war, but it set off celebrations around the country, Brenckle said.
'Strategically, it really did nothing to change the course of the war,' he said. 'But the morale boost that that provided for the American cause, I think was quite important.'