A Maritime Point of View . . .
Christopher T. George

Current View Says 1797 Constellation Was Scrapped in 1853--But Was She?

B ack in 1972, I wrote an article for Baltimore magazine about the U.S.S. Constellation in celebration of the 175th Anniversary of the U.S. Navy frigate's launch at Harris Creek, Canton, in 1797. For that article, I interviewed the late Baltimore naval architect Leon D. Polland. Polland had served as chief of construction and repair for the Constellation Foundation since 1958, shortly after the ship was towed to Baltimore in 1955. Polland told me, "The ship, when we got her, was what everyone calls a hulk." Taking me on a tour of the old ship, he explained, "Nothing you see here--the spar deck, the bulwarks, the masts, existed as you see it when we received the ship." He said that in addition to recent decay, naval modifications in 1853 in Norfolk, Virginia, "had modernized her" into a 22-gun sloop of war. He added that the Constellation Foundation was "in the process of rebuilding her into a frigate."

     In 1972, Polland and the then Constellation Foundation claimed that the ship contained timbers, materials, and equipment from the original 36-gun frigate that entered Norfolk Navy Yard in 1845. It thus came as a shock to me realize in the past several years that today's Constellation Foundation, under recently departed director Louis F. Linden, was saying that the original Constellation was completely scrapped in Norfolk in 1853 and a new ship of the same name built in her place. But did this really happen? The Secretary of the Navy of the day was a Baltimorean, John Pendleton Kennedy, a man of letters and Renaissance man, a patron of Edgar Allan Poe. Would Kennedy have allowed Baltimore's Constellation to be scrapped and a new ship built?

     One of the "facts" given to support the ship being completely new is that the 1853-4 rebuild resulted in a round stern instead of the square stern of the 1797 frigate. However, research by the Historic Fells Point Foundation indicates that repair records show that the ship received a new stern in a rebuild of 1829-30. In 1833, Constellation was almost lost in a hurricane force storm in the Mediterranean. To celebrate her survival, an Italian artist, Michael Funno, was commissioned to paint a portrait of the ship in the storm. The portrait clearly shows a ship with a rounded stern. Moreover, the testimony of a midshipman of 1830 states that the captain's reception stateroom at the stern of the ship was circular.

     The hull of a wooden ship has to be rebuilt on average every 16 years in order for the ship to remain seaworthy. The present-day renovation of the hull of the ship at Locust Point at a cost of $9 million is yet another example of this necessity. The earliest repairs to Constellation, in fact, occurred in 1801, only three years after she was commissioned in 1798. She had just finished her first extensive rebuild when war broke out in 1812. Unfortunately, she failed to clear the Chesapeake capes in early 1813 before the British blockaded the Bay. Thus, she did not take part in any of the ship-to-ship encounters with the Royal Navy for which her more renowned and larger (44-gun) sister frigate Constitution was famed during the War of 1812.

     Presumably the claim that Constitution in Boston harbor is an original ship of 1797 is true. You may recall that "Old Ironsides" has just celebrated her Bicentennial. By contrast, because Constellation is now viewed as the "last surviving ship of the Civil War," the Bicentennial of the frigate built in Baltimore went unrecognized. However, a little acknowledged fact is that Constitution was also rebuilt more than once. The Irish actor Tyrone Power saw Constitution being repaired in Boston in the early 1830's. The ship was being rebuilt right down to her keel or "keelson." Power recalled, "She was stripped down to her kelson [sic] outside and in, for the purpose of undergoing a repair that will make her, to all intents, a new ship." He also added that "on a straight keel, she will prove the fastest ship afloat."

     In 1858, Constitution was converted into a school ship and she received a new armament of 16 guns. Her official classification was changed to "2nd rate ship," effectively making her a sloop of war, the same classification given to Constellation, which became a 22-gun ship after her rebuild of 1853-4.

     Warships are essentially floating gun platforms. In fact, in 1798, Secretary of War James McHenry ordered the commander of Fort Whetstone, soon to be renamed "Fort McHenry," to deliver ten 12-pounders to Constellation. During the defense of Baltimore in 1814, a number of guns from USS Erie and USS Ontario in Baltimore harbor were transferred to Hampstead Hill to strengthen the eastern defenses of the city. The principal difference between a floating gun platform or warship and a land gun platform was its short life. Without frequent major repairs to her hull, a wooden warship became unseaworthy.

     The Historic Fells Point Foundation has data which show that the estimated cost of a small frigate of 32 guns in 1797 was $110,000, of which just over $30,000 was the cost of building the hull with the masts and labor and coppering the bottom to prevent marine pests boring into the hull. The majority of the cost was for rigging, sails, joiner work, anchor, chain, cable, cordage, copper sheets, guns, and ammunition. The Historic Fells Point Foundation maintains that the 1853-4 rebuild did not make Constellation a new ship, because much of the material outlined above was retained from the original ship and used to equip the rebuilt ship. The Constellation that exists today, the Foundation says, is in a continuous historic provenance from the original ship launched in the shipyard of David Stodder at Harris Creek, Canton, in 1797.

     The Historic Fells Point Foundation urges the Constellation Foundation to restore Constellation to her Baltimore heritage and stop maintaining the myth that the ship in their possession was built in Norfolk in 1854. That way the sign on the Constellation Visitor's Center in the Inner Harbor to "bring Constellation home" will have true meaning.

[Device] Christopher T. George is a local free-lance writer and poet and the author of the recent picture book on our city, Baltimore Close Up, from Arcadia Publishers, on sale at local bookstores.

Questions or comments about this article for Mr. George.

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