All Hands on Deck: Learning Adventures Aboard Old Ironsides
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USS Constitution, Johnson

Getting Started    Key Words & Concepts    Glossary    Activities    Recommended Resources     Scuttlebutt

  Getting Started USS Constitution

Students might be interested to know that Constitution’s crew did a lot of practicing. Firing the guns and maneuvering the ship in battle took skill and split second timing. Their tactics, or knowledge of the options and ability to figure out what to do next, were also good.

Key Words and Concepts

Shooting the long guns required following prescribed steps in rapid succession. The 14 sailors on a gun had to know their roles. During drills, the team had to respond rapidly to 24 commands starting with, “Silence!” The order to fire was 12th in the sequence. In between were such orders as “Cast loose your guns,” “Take out your tompions” (the wooden plugs in the mouth of the gun), “Level your guns at the object,” and “Blow on your matches,” which were smoldering lead-soaked pieces of cotton rope called slow match, not the matches we know today.

Handling the sails was another critical job during battle. With practice, Constitution’s crew was able to set her sails in five minutes! When Constitution went into action, the
topmen, well-trained crew assigned to work aloft, would furl the lowest and highest sails and set the topsails and jibs. Some of her yards were taken down or secured in slings so that if shot loose they would not endanger lives by crashing to the deck.

To give students a feeling for tactical decision making, read the challenges below and allow the class to figure out what to do. After you read a challenge, ask for a volunteer to describe the situation in his or her own words. Then provide the clues. Tell students that some of the clues might be
red herrings, true but unrelated pieces of information thrown in to distract them. Finally, open the discussion to identify the tactics that allowed Constitution to succeed.

Challenge #1
In the summer of 1812, under the command of Captain Isaac Hull, Constitution found herself in the company of four enemy frigates and several other enemy vessels, cutting her off from the coast near Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Although Constitution was fast, Captain Hull described in his diary a dire predicament where she would not move:

“At day light, or a little before ... saw [a squadron of enemy ships] ... all in chase of us, it being nearly calm where we were. Soon after Sunrise, the wind entirely left us, and the Ship would not steer....”

What would you do?
Clues: Constitution carried cutters, or large rowing boats, on her spar deck. Constitution had anchors on board. The water was fairly shallow, about
20 fathoms (120 feet).

Red herring: Towing was sometimes used to move a ship out of harm’s way when the wind died. Sailors called this back-breaking labor a white ash breeze, because what moved the ship was nothing more than sailors pulling on oars, which were made of white ash.
Tactics: The British chased Constitution for 60 hours. At one point, as the enemy began to close in, Captain Hull used Constitution’s boats to tow her. A quick-thinking officer, First Lieutenant Charles Morris, knowing the shallow depth of the water, suggested kedging. Seamen rowed a cutter out ahead of the ship carrying a small anchor attached to Constitution on a 200-yard cable. When the anchor was dropped to the bottom, sailors on board Constitution drew the ship up to the anchor, using the capstan, a massive winch with radiating handles that sailors pushed to haul up heavy objects. While one team of sailors heaved round the capstan, a second team rowed another anchor out ahead. The scheme worked. The British, having reached the same calm, took half an hour to figure out what Constitution was doing. This was a break Constitution needed to escape the
British squadron.

Challenge #2
At the end of this same chase off New Jersey, Captain Hull spotted an American merchant ship approaching one of the British frigates, which was flying an American flag. Hull knew the American would shortly be taken captive, but Constitution was too far away and too outnumbered to help.

What would you do?
Clue: Flying an enemy flag was a typical ploy in wartime, considered fair play as long as a ship’s true colors were hoisted before the first shot was fired.
Tactics: Captain Hull hoisted a British flag and set more sails, as if Constitution were about to chase the American. It worked! The American vessel quickly sailed out of harm’s way.

Challenge #3
After defeating HMS Cyane, Constitution pursued Cyane’s companion ship, HMS Levant. Within fifteen minutes of setting sail in chase, commanding officer Captain Charles Stewart found himself bearing down on Levant, who was heading directly for him. As they passed, both ships fired broadsides, inflicting damage on one another, but not sufficient for either to win. Constitution now needed to deliver a decisive blow to win this battle.

What would you do?
Clue: In firing parallel to an enemy ship, you have the disadvantage of being in the direct line of its guns.
Red Herring: Constitution always tried to maneuver to windward of the enemy so that gun smoke would blow clear of her and blanket the enemy.
Red Herring: Constitution ended this battle with a dozen 32-pounder shots embedded in her hull, not considered serious enough damage to declare her unfit to fight.
Tactics: Using her fine maneuverability, Constitution “spun on her heel” and crossed directly behind the enemy, where enemy guns couldn’t get her. From here she raked, or fired down the length of Levant, considerably damaging her rigging and masts.


  • cutter: a ship’s rowing boat, wide and deep of hull, used to carry stores and passengers to and from the ship
  • kedging: (KEH-jing) to move a ship, usually in harbor, by taking a light anchor out ahead with a boat, dropping it, and winching the ship up to it; repeating the process in succession using two anchors; way to move the ship when wind and tide are unfavorable
  • capstan: a massive cylindrical device with one or more drums around which to wrap a rope or chain to haul up heavy objects. Sailors pushed bars radiating from the center and walked
    in a circle to power the winch.






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