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.
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.
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.