Monday, January 3, 2011

USA – Old Ironsides

This block of four stamps was issued to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of The U.S. frigate 'Constitution' which is the world’s oldest warship still afloat. Commissioned in 1797, she is thus about 213 years old now. Despite extensive overhauls and repairs over the years, she still retains her original keel and therefore is considered an 'original ship'. She lies today as museum ship in Boston. In 1812, during combat with HMS 'Guerriere', American sailors observed that the British frigate’s balls (I mean cannon balls) could not penetrate ‘Constitution’s hull, earning her the everlasting nickname, 'Old Ironsides'.

Throughout the 18th century, the Mediterranean and the Straits of Gibraltar were feared hunting grounds of the Barbary pirates from Morocco, Tunis, Tripoli, and Algeria. France and England paid hefty tributes to the Pashas of the Berbercoast and were left in peace. Without a navy to protect them, American ships became easy prey to these pirates. In 1793 eleven American ships were captured and faced outrageous demands for ransom . Something had to be done. The U.S. ministers to France and England, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, said it would be cheaper to build a navy to protect American shipping than to pay tribute. Finally, in March of 1794 Congress passed a bill leading to the building of six frigates. These American frigates were to be superior in firepower to any other frigates and fast enough to outrun any British warship, while outmaneuvering any vessel of the same size. Here is some data to the 'Constitution': Construction period from 1794 to 1797 in Boston. L 204 ft, B 43.5 ft, D 22.5ft. Foremast 198 ft, mainmast 220 ft, mizzenmast 172.5 ft, displacement 2,200 tons, Sail area 42,710 square feet with Leesails, speed max. 14 kn, able to to be close hauled 6 points to the wind. Armament: 32 24-pounders, 20 32-pounders and two 24-pounders in the bows. The hull, an oak skin from 1.3 to 1.7 ft thick, was fitted with copper plates. Crew 450 men. When the British saw these frigates, they reached the conclusion that the Americans had created ugly hybrids, half frigate, half ship-of-the-line, and combining few of the advantages of either type. They would soon find out differently. The ‘Constitution' was dispatched against the French in the Caribbean. She made two prizes which however had to be given up, being British ships previously taken by the French. In 1801 the Pasha of Tripoli intended to extort more tribute capturing American ships and locking up the crews. In 1803 the Americans sent a fleet with the 'Constitution' into the Mediterranean. Tripoli was bombarded. In June of 1805 a peace treaty was signed on board the 'Constitution'. Thereafter she became the flagship of the U.S. North Atlantic fleet.

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