“No firing at random!” shouted Captain Isaac Hull. The British frigate Guerriere was attacking the U.S.S. Constitution, inflicting casualties, and his lieutenant kept pressing for permission to shoot back.
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When the U.S. declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812, the Empire ruled the waves: 600 cruisers in commission, with 85 ships patrolling American waters. By contrast, the U.S. Navy had a total of 22 commissioned vessels.
When the Constitution pulled within two dozen yards of the enemy, Hull ordered his crew to open fire with every gun on the starboard side. The Guerriere was immediately filled with dead and dying men, blood poured down as if a “washtub full had been turned over,” and the mizzenmast went by the board.
In the war’s first significant naval battle, the American victory took 25 minutes.
Sailing into Boston, the ship was greeted with huzzahs from crowds gathered at the harbor. Nicknamed “Old Ironsides,” the Constitution went on to defeat and capture many more British ships.
Today, with a crew of 60, she is the world’s oldest floating commissioned naval vessel, a museum ship on Boston’s Freedom Trail.
I spoke with Stephen Budiansky, author of “Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815,” on the following topics:
1. The Forgotten War
2. America Divided
3. David vs. Goliath
4. Stunning Victories
5. U.S. Navy Established
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)