Home Flashback Photos Flashback Photo: Old Ironsides Rescued From the Scrap Heap

Flashback Photo: Old Ironsides Rescued From the Scrap Heap


The U.S. Navy considered the legendary Navy frigate Old Ironsides a big piece of junk in 1833,  until a young Harvard student found out about it.

Old Ironsides

Old Ironsides

Old Ironsides, the nickname for the USS Constitution, was hauled into dry dock at Charlestown Navy Yard on June 24, 1833.

She was 36 years old and had never been defeated in battle. She earned each of her three captains a congressional gold medal and, for herself, parades and public adoration.

During the Quasi-War with France she had come to the rescue of Haiti’s revolutionary government. She besieged Tripoli in the Mediterranean during the Barbary Wars.

Old Ironsides defeated four English warships of the supposedly invincible British Navy during the War of 1812.

So when Oliver Wendell Holmes read Old Ironsides was destined for the scrap heap, he was so indignant he wrote a poem about her and sent it to the Boston Daily Advertiser. Old Ironsides begins:

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;

(Read the whole thing here.) Holmes scolded the Navy in the second stanza as ‘harpies of the shore’ who would ‘pluck the eagle of the sea!’ The story goes that Holmes’ poem was published the next day and persuaded the harpies of the shore not to pluck the eagle.

The Great Chase

Pictured above is the Great Chase of July 16-19, 1812, one of Old Ironsides’ legendary maneuvers.

Shortly after the War of 1812 began, Old Ironsides was en route to New York under the command of Capt. Isaac Hull. While becalmed off the New Jersey coast, she encountered a squadron of British Navy ships closing in on her. What followed was a three-day slow-motion chase.

Hull ordered his crew of 500 to lighten the ship as much as possible. They dumped overboard thousands of gallons of drinking water and wet the sails to better catch the light breeze. They moved long guns to the stern, aiming them at the approaching enemy vessels. Sailors were ordered into long boats to tow the frigate along by kedging — dropping small anchors ahead of the ship and then using capstans to pull the ship forward.

By 4 pm on July 18, Old Ironsides was three or four miles ahead of her pursuers. Hull ordered the sails shortened in anticipation of a squall. When the storm struck, Old Ironsides took off at top speed. The British gave up the chase early the next morning.

Old Ironsides Saved

It wasn’t just Holmes, actually, who saved Old Ironsides. Even before the poem was published, the New York Journal of Commerce reported the Navy had received such an outcry it would probably not decided not to junk the old frigate.

“We confidently anticipate that the Secretary of the Navy will in like manner consult the general wish in regard to the Constitution,” wrote the Journal of Commerce, “and either let her remain in ordinary or rebuild her whenever the public service may require.”

You can visit Old Ironsides year round at the USS Constitution Museum in Boston.

With thanks to Naval History & Heritage Command. This story updated in 2022.


Hwo Wright June 24, 2014 - 2:48 pm

Love these posts!

Bobo Leach June 24, 2014 - 3:17 pm

She’s a beautiful lady 🙂

Kim Kupczewski June 24, 2014 - 8:34 pm

Onward she sails !!!

Salvatore Mauro June 25, 2014 - 8:02 am

And to think that she is perhaps the OLDEST commissioned naval vessel IN THE WORLD.

Marc Muirhead June 25, 2014 - 9:50 am

I LOVE this painting.

David Sandy Bouldry June 26, 2014 - 12:32 pm

This is awesome, as a history buff I love it !!!

David Sandy Bouldry June 26, 2014 - 12:32 pm

This is awesome, as a history buff I love it !!!

Six Historic Boats, From Schooners to Submarines - New England Historical Society August 4, 2018 - 9:25 am

[…] simply couldn’t leave the legendary naval frigate Old Ironsides off our list of historic […]

When Annapolis Moved to Newport, RI - New England Historical Society June 3, 2019 - 7:14 am

[…] Capt. George S. Blake, the Academy’s superintendent, made the decision to move the Naval Academy to a northern site. Not only did he have concerns about the safety of his staff and officer candidates, he knew the Academy’s training ship was a tempting target for the Confederates. For the Naval Academy had been using as a training vessel the most famous ship in the Navy – Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution. […]

Comments are closed.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!