The most famous American frigate at that time was the Constitution, which came out safely from so many hard fights that she earned the nickname of “Old Ironsides.” When war began, the Constitution had just come home. In her first cruise she fell in with a British squadron, and as she could not face several ships at once she tried to get away.
Now, you know sailboats depend upon the wind, and when there is none, they remain almost in the same spot. The wind having suddenly gone down, the American frigate and British fleet lay close together. The American officer was Captain Isaac Hull, a nephew of the man who surrendered to the British at Detroit. He was a very clever seaman, and, hoping to save his ship, he launched her small boats and had her towed along by his sailors. The British could not at first discover how the Constitution was handled, but as soon as they saw how it was done, they followed Hull’s example. The pursuit went on so for about twenty–four hours; then a storm arose, and, taking advantage of it, the Constitution escaped.
A few months later, the Constitution left Boston to go in search of the Guerrire, a British vessel whose captain had boasted that “a few broadsides from England’s wooden walls would drive the paltry striped bunting from the ocean.” After capturing several merchant ships, Hull met the Guerrire.
His men were so eager to begin fighting that he had some trouble in keeping them quiet until they got very close to the enemy. Then Hull cried: “Now, boys, pour it into them!” The men obeyed with such spirit that fifteen minutes later the Guerrire was nearly disabled. But the Constitution was by that time afire, for the British officer Dacres had been fighting with great courage, too.
The two ships tried to get close enough to board each other, but the sea was too rough to permit their doing so. Hull, having put out the fire on his ship, sent a cannon ball which broke the mainmast of the Guerrire and left it quite helpless. He then sent one of his officers to the British frigate to ask if it was ready to surrender.
The American officer, addressing Captain Dacres, said “Commodore Hull’s compliments, and he wishes to know if you have struck your flag.” The British officer, who hated to confess he was beaten, would not at first give a direct answer; but when the officer threatened to resume the battle, he slowly said: “Well, I don’t know; our mizzenmast is gone, our mainmast is gone, so, upon the whole, you may say we have struck our flag.”
Not only was his ship helpless and riddled with cannon balls, but about seventy of his men were killed or wounded. The Americans took possession of the ship, and finding it was too much damaged to be of any use, they removed all their prisoners to the Constitution. Then the Guerrire was set afire and blown up.
Captain Hull, who had won such a brilliant victory, was a very stout man. As was the fashion of the time, he wore a tight pair of breeches. We are told that in the excitement of the battle he made a quick motion, which split them from top to bottom. But, in spite of that uncomfortable accident, he staid on deck until the Guerrire surrendered, before going below to change his garments.
The naval victory won by Hull made his name known throughout our whole country. It is because he was such a hero in the War of 1812 that his tomb in Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Philadelphia, is still often visited.
This same Captain Hull was a very generous man; he proved it by giving up the Constitution, so that his brother officers could have a chance to win honors with it too. Captain Bainbridge, who next commanded it, soon after won a great victory over the Java, another British frigate, which was also destroyed.
The Constitution was in many a fight all through the War of 1812, and afterwards in the Mediterranean. It won so many victories that all Americans felt proud of it. Many poems have been written about it, and the most famous of all is by Oliver Wendell Holmes. He wrote it when our government first talked of taking the old and almost useless war ship to pieces. When the Americans read this poem, they all felt that it would be a shame to lay a finger upon the vessel, and made such an outcry that it was kept as a school ship.