Dates of Service: 6/17/1810 - 9/15/1812
Birth Date: 3/9/1773
Death Date: 2/13/1843
The son of Sarah Bennett Hull and American Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Hull, Isaac Hull was born on March 9, 1773 in Derby, Connecticut. Strongly influenced by his father, he skipped school to go to sea, and by 1793 was the master of a merchant vessel. He accepted a lieutenant’s commission in the new United States Navy in 1798, and became Constitution’s fourth lieutenant. He served in Commodore Edward Preble’s Mediterranean Squadron during the operations against Tripoli in 1804, and was promoted to master commandant later that year. As one of Preble’s commissioned officers, Hull received a Congressional silver medal. Two years later, he was promoted to captain and took command of a frigate. He was in command of President in 1810, when Captain John Rodgers, his senior, ordered him to exchange ships. Hull gained Constitution in the process.
Hull was completing repairs on Constitution at the Washington Navy Yard when war with Great Britain began in June 1812. Leaving Chesapeake Bay early in July, he headed north to rendezvous with Commodore Rodgers’ squadron, but had a three-day chase and a narrow escape from a British squadron instead. After a stop at Boston, he attacked British shipping off the Gulf of St. Lawrence. On the afternoon of August 19, he met HMS Guerriere in the first frigate battle of the War of 1812. Hull opened fire at close range. In a few minutes, Guerriere’s mizzenmast fell, causing her to collide with Constitution. Seeing the British trying to get clear of the wreckage, Hull crossed close ahead of the vessel – too close, for there was a second collision. When the ships pulled apart, Guerriere’s remaining masts fell, ending the fight. While British casualties numbered in the dozens, Hull had only seven men killed and eight wounded. During the action, British cannonballs were seen to bounce off Constitution’s thick oak sides, giving rise to the nickname “Old Ironsides.” When Constitution returned to Boston, the country was electrified by the victory. Congress voted Hull a gold medal, as well as $50,000 to share with the crew. Great Britain was stunned. The Times of London wrote, “It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken after, what we are free to confess, may be called a brave resistance, but that it has been taken by a new enemy, an enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them… Never before in the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American.”
Hull left Constitution in September 1812, when a death in his family required his attention. He later commanded the Boston, Portsmouth, and Washington navy yards, served on the Board of Naval Commissioners, and commanded the Mediterranean and Pacific Squadrons. He died in Philadelphia on February 13, 1843.
Isaac Hull’s service has been commemorated by the naming of a sidewheel steamer (1862) and four destroyers (1903, 1924, 1935, and 1958) in his honor.