Boston, Massachusetts - USS Constitution commemorated the 204th anniversary of her victory over His Majesty's Ship (HMS) Cyane and HMS Levant at Pier One of the Charlestown Navy Yard, February 20.
USS Constitution's Executive Officer, Cmdr. John Benda, opened the ceremony with a summary of the factors which led President James Madison and the United States to declare war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812 as well as Constitution’s participation in the War of 1812 leading up to the battle.
“The reason for war was the American citizens’ outrage at the ruthless practice of impressment, the act of taking men into the British naval service by force without notice,” said Cmdr. Benda. “This was epitomized by Constitution’s sister ship USS Chesapeake whom, unprepared for battle upon meeting the HMS Leopard in peacetime, was blindsided by the aggressor and boarded. Her and the nation’s sovereignty were disrespected by the British when they impressed four of Chesapeake’s Sailors, Sailors with confirmed or just assumed British roots and who were suspected as defectors from the cruel British fleet. This type of treatment was encapsulated by the war rallying cry of ‘Free Trade and Sailors Rights’ that spread throughout the country and moved President James Madison on June 18, 1812 to sign Congress’ Declaration of War.”
Following the Executive Officer’s remarks, Seaman Ashley Watston, Constitution's Command Historian, read deck log entries made during the battle by Constitution’s Commanding Officer, Capt. Charles Stewart.
Carl Herzog, USS Constitution Museum’s Public Historian, spoke about the sailing tactics and seamanship that led ‘Old Ironsides’ to victory that day.
“Over a grueling 12-hour period, from the time they first made chase until one in the morning when both enemies were captured and the ship was ready again for battle, the crew of Constitution was in a state of near constant motion,” said Herzog. “Setting sails to catch the first ship sighted only to have the upper section of the mainmast break away under the strain. Without even giving up the chase, the crew replaced that mast section with a spare from the deck, re-rigged the upper yards and sails and continued their pursuit.”
Herzog then described the Sailing tactic back winding, that was essential in Constitution gaining the victory.
“At the height of the battle, shrouded in the clouds of black powder gun smoke coming from all of the guns, Stewart stopped the crew’s firing long enough to survey the situation. He realized Constitution had crept ahead of Cyane, who was now threatening to cross behind Constitution and deliver what could have been a deadly raking fire over Constitution’s stern. Stewart immediately ordered the crew to back the sails, to pivot the yards so that the wind was blowing the ship backwards to literally and essentially put the ship in reverse, backing back into the cloud of smoke that they had just parted. It was the crew’s swift execution of this order that worked. They blocked Cyane’s crossing attempt and the broadsides continued.”
Herzog concluded his statements by saying that, because of her victories over Cyane and Levant, Constitution had fulfilled her mission of being created to be a fast frigate that could both outsail and outgun superior opponents.
The ceremony concluded with Cmdr. Benda speaking about the legacy of the War of 1812.
“The war bolstered a sense of pride and the feeling of true and indisputable liberation from Great Britain. America’s independence was solidified.”
Finally, Cmdr. Benda gave the order to "Make ready your gun," at which point Sailors assigned to USS Constitution fired one round was from the ship’s saluting battery.
On Feb. 20, 1815, Constitution sighted the British warships Cyane and Levant sailing off the coast of Madeira Island in the North Atlantic and gave chase. Cyane and Levant began a series of broadsides against her, but Stewart outmaneuvered both and forced Levant to disengage. He concentrated fire on Cyane, which soon surrendered. After critical repairs, Levant returned to engage Constitution, but she turned and attempted to escape when she saw that Cyane had been defeated. Constitution overtook her and, after several more broadsides, Levant surrendered as well. Constitution suffered little damage in the battle, though it was later discovered that she had twelve 32-pound British cannonballs embedded in her hull, none of which had penetrated. Constitution and her two prizes then set a course for the Cape Verde Islands and arrived at Porto Praya on March 10.
Constitution, America’s Ship of State, actively defended sea lanes against global threats from 1797-1855. The World’s Oldest Commissioned Warship Afloat, Constitution embodies 221 years of maritime heritage and unwavering service to her country. Now a featured destination on Boston’s Freedom Trail, Constitution and her crew of active duty U.S. Navy Sailors offer community outreach and education about the ship’s history and the importance of naval sea power to more than 500,000 visitors each year. Constitution is berthed at Pier One in Charlestown Navy Yard.