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 under Silas Talbot. He was promoted to first lieutenant and served in that role from June 1799 to September 1801. After Talbot resigned, Hull was briefly in charge of USS Constitution as a lieutenant while the ship was overhauled at Boston. He remained in charge until being transferred to USS Adams in April 1802.
After serving as first lieutenant of USS Adams, Hull commanded the schooner USS Enterprize and the brig USS Argus as part of Edward Preble’s Mediterranean Squadron during the operations against Tripoli in 1803 and 1804. As one of Preble’s commissioned officers, Hull received a Congressional silver medal. He was later promoted to captain and 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.