This Day in History… August 19, 1812

USS Constitution Earns Much-Needed American Victory at Sea 

U.S. #951

On August 19, 1812, the USS Constitution dueled with the British HMS Guerriere and reigned victorious.

Made from sturdy oak trees, the Constitution first launched in U.S. waters in 1797. Not yet 20 years old when the War of 1812 began, the tiny U.S. Navy was clearly inferior to the mighty Royal Navy. Once the conflict began, its ships were ordered out to sea so the British couldn’t block them into port.

The Constitution sailed out of Chesapeake Bay with Captain Isaac Hull commanding, heading north to join Commodore John Rodgers’ squadron. It was fitted with 44 guns to give it an advantage over British vessels.

Hull avoided capture off the coast of New Jersey, sailed to Boston to replenish their supply of drinking water, and then headed northeast. On August 19, 1812, the British frigate Guerriere was spotted off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The naval battle began when the two ships were just 25 yards apart. During the fighting, one sailor noted that the British cannonballs simply bounced off the Constitution’s oak hull, proclaiming it was “made of iron.” This earned the ship its famous nickname – “Old Ironsides.”

U.S. #4703

The two ships traded broadsides and collided three times before the Guerriere’s fore and main masts toppled overboard. Unable to maneuver, the ship’s captain struck the Guerriere’s colors in surrender. Hull’s men transferred the wounded British sailors and prisoners to the Constitution and set the enemy ship on fire, leaving it to sink.

The Constitution’s crew returned to Boston Harbor as heroes. They’d earned a rare victory at a time when the Americans were suffering devastating losses. This win at sea helped to inspire and encourage Americans, and prove to the rest of the world that America was a force to be reckoned with.

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