An Up Close Look at USS Constitution

Imagine being 222 years old and still going to work every day. If your name is ‘Old Ironsides’, that is exactly what you do.

USS Constitution at home in Boston Harbor
Historical Society Host Paul Saulnier welcomes the overflow audience and introduces Hollistonian, US Navy Commander (CDR) John Benda
CDR Benda – currently the Executive Officer (called the 1st Lieutenant on Old Ironsides) – soon to be the Commanding Officer – only the second person to be promoted in this way.

Speaking on behalf of Old Ironsides, CDR Benda regaled the audience with stories about how the ship became one of the first ships in the United States Navy through its impressive service to our nation.

CDR Benda’s pride for his ship and his crew was evident throughout his remarks. While he could ‘talk for days’ about USS Constitution, he succeeded in keeping his remarks to just about one hour. In this article we’ll try to capture some highlights.

Then –

The USS Constitution was one of six fast frigates commissioned by George Washington to become the United States Navy. It first saw action during the War of 1812. Captain Issac Hull (the first person to be promoted from 1st Lieutenant to Commanding Officer) was ordered to go out and fight British ships.

USS Constitution’s first victory was the time she became known as Old Ironsides. Following a battle with HMS Guerriere, Captain Hull asked for a damage report. Members of the crew reported that cannon balls were embedded in the outer hull of the ship and others had apparently bounced off the triple layer oak planks – ‘as if the sides were made of iron’ the story says. Captain Hull affirmed the report declaring the ship to have ‘Ironsides.’

CDR Benda revealed the secret to the strong hull. Sandwiched in between two thick layers of local (she was built in Boston) White Oak was a layer of southern Live Oak. Live Oak trees are still grown by the Navy to keep Old Ironsides replenished with raw materials.

The ship’s battle record is 33 wins and no losses. Naval warfare in the 18th and 19th century was not unlike a heavy weight boxing match. Two well- armed vessels came within 25 yards of each other and fired away with their heavy guns.

Keeping the ship and its guns in the fight required great training and skillful sailing. US Navy gunners were able to fire – reload – and fire again in about 90 seconds!

CDR Benda shared three instances when Old Ironsides almost lost a battle. On one of its earliest encounters with the British fleet, the Constitution spied a British vessel and made ready to attack – until the captain spied four more British vessels – making it a five-on-one fight.

A ‘tactical withdrawal’ was ordered by the American captain. Unfortunately the winds died down and all the ships were becalmed – almost in shooting distance of one another. The Constitution was able to tow itself away using its long boats and a clever anchor maneuver until the winds picked up.

On another occasion, a cannon ball blasted right through the ship’s wheel (and badly injured the Captain who was at the wheel). No wheel meant no way to navigate in the battle. The injured captain got the crew to man ropes that controlled the rudder, and he steered that way to win the encounter.

The most amazing win was due to the captain making a desperate move while under attack by two British vessels (the word was out that more than one vessel was needed to best Old Ironsides). With cannon fire from two ships hitting his vessel he steered into the wind (which is very risky on a large square-rigged vessel). The Constitution virtually stalled in the water as the two British vessels sailed by on either side to avoid a collision and were blasted by Old Ironsides 44 guns – disabling both enemy ships!

Now –

The USS Constitution’s modern mission is to ‘preserve, protect, and promote the United States Navy and Old Ironsides as a symbol of our heritage.’ Today Old Ironsides is as much a museum as it is a ship of the line. 600,000 visitors crossed the ship’s deck in 2019. The crew of 85 (30 of whom are women) conduct training and lead tours of the ship during a two year tour of duty attached to USS Constitution. The dock at which the ship is berthed is part of the National Park system.

CDR Benda’s enthusiasm for the ship’s history may only be exceeded by his commitment to the future during his tenure as Commanding Officer. He has put the word out through his chain of command that he plans to actually sail (with tugs nearby maybe) Old Ironsides in 2021.

CDR Benda is all smiles while he climbs Old Ironsides’ rigging.

A big challenge is getting his crew trained in the ancient art of square-rigged sailing given the small number of such functioning ships on which to learn. As you can see below, CDR Benda has been up in the rigging himself – leading by example.

In the spring of 2019, we got a tour of Old Ironsides with CDR Benda as we prepared the story about his service prior to Holliston’s 2019 Memorial Day parade -> http://archive.hollistonreporter.com/article/15311/memorial-day-parade-marshal-announced.html

CDR Benda and local Naval Historian Paul Guidi (whose family first opened the Holliston Superette) stand near a display of naval artifacts – Photo courtesy of Paul Saulnier

On Saturday, 29 February 2020, Commander Benda will officially become the 76th Commanding Officer of the USS Constitution during a Change of Command ceremony held on the deck of Old Ironsides. The next time you see Commander Benda in his colonial uniform, he will be wearing epaulets on each shoulder – the visual sign of the Commanding Officer.

As sailors on Old Ironsides might say ‘Huzzah Captain Benda!’

CDR Benda’s presentation was recorded by HCAT and should be available here -> https://www.hcattv.org/

Chris Cain

2 Comments

  1. Peter Simpson on February 28, 2020 at 9:59 am

    This is one of the reasons I love living in New England. Wooden boats are still made, and people are still interested in making and repairing them. A lot more work and knowledge required, but this has always been a seafaring region. The Constitution is a gem, and a living museum.

    Thanks for this article!

  2. Jack Chambers on March 1, 2020 at 12:09 pm

    I worked on the Constitution for 3 years. It was for the 200th anniversary (1985-1988) it was a great privilege to be part of the restoration of this great ship, but like many things nowadays it was frowned upon by some people. I had one lady who was with what apparently was her young son, approach the barrier that protected the workers from the public. I’m working to install one of the many knees that hold up the ships flooring. The young boy asked his mother what I was doing. She then turned to me and said ” he’s ruining the ship” You can’t please everyone.

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