USS Constitution was one of the first six ships built for the new United States Navy in 1797. Constitution, a wooden ship, is often called “Old Ironsides,” a nickname she got in battle during the War of 1812 when sailors watched in amazement as cannonballs bounced off her thick oak sides.
The famous frigate is still afloat today; nearly a million people visit her every year in Boston Harbor.
When you step on board Constitution, the first thing you notice is how big she is. She stretches 207 feet long and the mainmast towers 210 feet high, as tall as a 20-story building. All three masts could carry a total of 44 sails—almost an acre of canvas. When she sailed in battle, she carried as many as 55 heavy cannons on two decks, making her a force to be reckoned with.
If you walked the deck 200 years ago, you would have noticed how crowded it was. Today, the active-duty US Navy crew numbers between 60 and 70 men and women, but when Constitution set sail from Boston during the War of 1812, she carried more than 480 officers, sailors, and Marines. The ship needed most of those hands to control the sails and fire the guns, but the officers also knew that they would need extra hands; some men would die from accidents and disease, and if they captured any enemy vessels, they’d need sailors to navigate those ships to friendly ports. Therefore, navy ships always tried to sail with as many men as they could fit on board.
What kind of people signed on as crew back then? The USS Constitution Museum in Boston has been researching each individual sailor in the ship’s War of 1812 crew to learn what his life was like. Using all sorts of government records stored in the National Archives in Washington, DC, as well as birth, death, and census records, we’ve learned a lot about them. The typical navy sailor back then was young. Although the average age in a full crew was 26 years old, some sailors were as young as 9 and others as old as 52. Most of Constitution’s crew was born in Massachusetts, but there were also crewmembers on board from all over the United States, Great Britain, and Western Europe. 7 to 14 percent of the crew were free men of color who, at a time when slavery was still legal in this country, earned the same wages as their white shipmates.
Most navy seamen had worked as sailors for years before they joined the service. Most of the 40 men from Marblehead, MA, for example, were fishermen by trade. Even though the able seamen were skilled sailors, they probably could not read or even write their own names.
Constitution was undefeated during the War of 1812, and, compared to the experiences of sailors in other navy ships in battle, relatively few of her crewmen died or were wounded in battle. With luck, the typical sailor who served in Old Ironsides survived the war without a scratch, and when his two-year enlistment ended, he returned home with a pocket full of prize money!
This is the common experience—the average taken from the life stories of nearly 1,200 men who sailed on the ship during between 1812 and 1815. As historians do more research, we continue to learn about the sailors and Marines who fought for “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights!”
Did You Know?
The Age of Sail was said to be the domain of “wooden ships and iron men,” but sailing ships also had boys on their official crew lists.
Today, you have to be 14 years old before you can get a job in most states in the US, but in the Age of Sail both merchant ships and navy vessels signed on boys as young as seven years old as regular members of the crew.
What were these kids doing on board sailing ships?