As Constitution’s War of 1812 victories mounted, the ship began to acquire a well-deserved reputation for indestructibility. Her record spoke for itself, but it was helped along by the popular press. The American newspapers quickly circulated anecdotes of incidents that allegedly happened on board in the midst of the battles. The news editors were likely repeating tales told by the ship’s own crew when they returned home.
If American seamen had good reason to be proud of their ship’s reputation, we can be sure that British seamen looked on her with a mixture of fascination and apprehension. We can only imagine the sort of forecastle yarns they wove about the seemingly invincible American frigate, although occasionally we get a hit of what some of these must have sounded like.
|Constitution’s terrifying broadside…
Years after the Treaty of Ghent, Boston-born Josiah Cobb published an account of his wartime experiences. He had been captured by the British frigate Leander, and as soon as he came on board he learned of that ship’s obsession with Constitution:
As a stimulant for the men to keep a sharp look-out, on the mainmast of the frigate was a placard, which I noticed when first mounting the deck, offering a “reward of £100 to the man who shall first descry the American frigate Constitution, provided she can be brought-to,” with a smaller reward should they not be enabled to come up with her. Every one was eager in his inquiries about this far-famed frigate, and most of the men appeared anxious to fall in with her; she being a constant theme of conversation, speculation, and curiosity. There were, however, two seamen and a marine (one of whom had had his shin sadly shattered from one of her grape-shot,) who were in the Java frigate when she was captured; these I have often heard to say, in return to their shipmates’ boastings, “if you had seen as much of the Constitution as we have, you would give her a wide berth, for she throws her shot almighty careless, fires quick, aims low, and is altogether an ugly customer.”1
Niles’ Weekly Register, the Democratic-Republican newspaper, frequently published stories plumping the American naval reputation. Whether or not the stories were true was beside the point: they made for some great copy!
The following anecdote….was communicated to us by an acquaintance, who was informed of it by an American captain, who was a prisoner at the time in Plymouth.
The British ship Captain, formerly admiral Nelson’s flag ship, having accidentally taken fire in the port of Plymouth, (Eng.) and her cable having been burnt, she was drifted towards the dock, where it was apprehended she would do great damage to the shipping, naval stores, &c. The ships of war, and among them three 74’s, were ordered to fire into and sink her. After a constant fire of 15 minutes, without producing any effect, and the fire ship still drifting, a sailor belonging to one of the 74’s (and who had been captured in the Guerriere or Java) vehemently exclaimed, “by G_d, if the Constitution was here, she would sink her in ten minutes.2
1 Josiah Cobb, A Green Hands First Cruise, Roughed out from the Log-book of Memory, of Twenty-five Year’s Standing (Boston: Otis, Broaders and Co., 1841), 135.
2 Niles’ Weekly Register, 15 April 1815.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.