BOSTON — Tall ships and naval vessels from around the world arrive in Boston this week to celebrate Independence Day and mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812 during Harborfest.
The USS Constitution, which is docked at the Charlestown Navy Yard, earned its nickname, “Old Ironsides,” during the War of 1812.
Each year, about 530,000 people step aboard the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world for a lesson in America’s rich Colonial and maritime history.
Each morning at 8 a.m. — regardless of weather — there’s cannonball fire and the national anthem is sung as the American flag is raised from the stern.
Commissioned in 1794, the USS Constitution was launched into Boston Harbor three years later.
There are about 70 active-duty sailors — men and women — currently on the crew. They replicate rituals and drills two centuries old, maintain the ship, and give maritime demonstrations — often times dressed in period uniforms.
“Apart from the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry, the Constitution is the most important artifact from the War of 1812,” said Matthew Brenckle, a research historian at the USS Constitution Museum.
Brenckle explained how during the War of 1812 the wooden warship’s exploits earned her the nickname Old Ironsides.
“In the battle with the HMS Guerriere, American seamen supposedly witnessed British cannonballs bouncing off of the Constitution’s hull,” Brenckle said. “This cry arose: ‘Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!’ ”
“When you actually get a chance to look and see the sides of the Constitution, the hull is almost two feet thick,” said Commander Matthew Bonner, the 72nd commanding officer of the USS Constitution. “To picture what the noise must have been like and hearing those cannonballs hit as the guns were thundering out in response to the enemy, it must’ve just been crazy, especially up on deck where you’re not protected.”
Bonner says most people know about the ship’s involvement in the War of 1812 — often called the second war of independence — but, he says, few people know about the ship’s history in Vietnam more than 100 years before the U.S. entered a war there.
“Captain Mad Jack Percival, some say, fired the first shot in Vietnam during his round-the-world cruise in the late 1840s,” Bonner said.
Research historian Brenckle says Old Ironsides, under the command of Captain Percival, just happened to be anchored in the region.
“They ended up off the coast of Vietnam, but basically he got embroiled in local politics,” Brenckle explained. “There was the issue of a French priest who had been taken captive and the Americans swooped in and tried to rescue him while bombarding several villages.”
Bonner — the current commanding officer — says that action seemed to foretell later U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
“As a history major, I learned those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it and it seems 100 years later we kind of let the same mistake,” Bonner said. “We didn’t go in with a good plan and as a result we were there for a long time without a lot of success.”
Over the past two centuries, Brenckle says the USS Constitution was almost lost to history on more than one occasion.
“In the 1830s there was a rumor that the Navy was going to scrap the ship and Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote his stirring poem, ‘Old Ironsides,’ to rally people in Boston — and eventually people in the nation — to save the ship,” Brenckle said.
“The ship almost fell into the hands of the Confederacy during the Civil War, but she was rescued in 1861 and brought to Newport from Annapolis. And then there really was the period after the Civil War, of neglect and disrepair. It wasn’t until 1897 it was brought back to Boston and started this cycle of restorations that is still going on today.”
These days the primary mission of the USS Constitution is education and public outreach. The ship is the the last stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail.
The ship also has been declared America’s Ship of State. That designation, in 2009, allows the president, top administration officials and members of Congress to use Old Ironsides to host visiting heads of state. It also makes the ship a venue for signing legislation related to the armed forces and maritime treaties.