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This Month in Naval History


A configuration of stars.

(Fr: dp. 1,265; Ibp. 164'; b. 40'6"; dph. 13'6"; cpl. 340;
a. 38 guns)

The first Constellation, a frigate authorized by congressional enactment of 27 March 1794, was the design of naval constructors, J. Humphreys and J. Fox whose plans were altered in the execution by builder, D. Stodder, and supervisor of construction, Captain T. Truxtun. She was built at the Sterrett Shipyard Baltimore, MD., and was launched on 7 September 1797, the second of the United States frigates to go down the ways.

Constellation's first cruise, from June through August 1798, in which she convoyed merchant ships to sea showed admirable qualities, including a sailing speed which could win her the nickname "Yankee Race Horse," and ensure an outstanding career of service.

Constellation figured actively in five wars. Her actions which closely parallel the course of American national involvement began with glorious achievement in the undeclared naval war against France. Here, as a unit of the newly reborn U.S. Navy, Constellation helped establish traditions of discipline and organization—the firm basis upon which United States naval power has grown to preeminence. Under the command of Captain T. Truxton, she departed for the Caribbean in December 1798 to join the West India Squadron in protection of American commerce. On 9 February 1799 she received her baptism of blood capturing the 40-gun frigate, L'lnsurgente in battle off Nevis, West Indies, in a hard fought victory, and bringing her prize into port. In succeeding months, she also encountered and seized two French privateers, Diligent and Union.

After a brief voyage without incident under Captain S. Barron, Constellation, commanded again by Truxtun, sailed in December 1799 for the West India patrol. On the evening of 1 February 1800 she sighted the 52-gun frigate Vengeance and engaged her in a lengthy, furious battle. Although Vengeance twice struck her colors and was close to sinking, she was able to utilize the hover of darkness to escape from Constellation who, disabled by the loss of her mainmast, was unable to pursue. More success came to her in May 1800 with the recapture of three American merchantmen from French possession.

At the end of the Franco-American dispute, Constellation sailed back to home waters. Anchoring in Delaware Bay on 10 April 1801, the ship was caught in winds and an ebb tide which laid her over on her beam ends to ground, thereby occasioning need for extensive repair and refitting.

National interest next called her to serve in the Mediterranean Squadron which sought to eliminate depredations being inflicted by the Barbary pirates. Sailing with the squadron of Commodore R. Morris, and later, with that of Commodores S. Barron and J. Rodgers, Constellation acted in the blockade of Tripoli in May 1802; cruised widely throughout the Mediterranean in 1804 in demonstration of United States seapower evacuated in June 1805 a contingent of Marines, as well as diplomatic personages, from Derne at the conclusion of a remarkable fleet-shore operation against Tripoli; and took part in a squadron movement against Tunis which culminated in peace terms in August 1805. Constellation returned to the States in November 1805, mooring at Washington where she later was placed in ordinary until 1812.

Constellation underwent an extensive repair in the Washington Navy Yard in 1812-13 which added 14" to her beam.

With the advent of our second war with England, Constellation, now commanded by Captain C. Stewart, was dispatched to the Hampton Roads area. In January 1813 shortly after her arrival she was effectively blockaded by an imposing British fleet. Turning frustration into success, she took station between the enemy and the fortification at Craney Island and acted as a buffer thwarting every British attempt to destroy the fort or to capture the ship.

The Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 was followed closely by the renewal of naval action against the Barbary powers who had enriched themselves considerably during our struggle with England. Constellation, attached to the Mediterranean Squadron under Commodore S. Decatur sailed from New York on 20 May 1815 and joined in the capture of the Algerian frigate, Mashuda, on 17 June 1815. With this demonstration of United States naval prowess Decatur was enabled to exact treaties of peace from Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. Constellation was called upon to remain with the squadron under Cummodorey W. Bainbridge, I. Chauncey, and J. Shaw to enforce the agreements, returning to Hampton Roads only in December 1817.

With but brief periods of repair in 1828-29, 1832 1834-35, and 1838-39, Constellation's career in the interval between this action against the pirates and the outbreak of the Civil War proved varied and colorful. From 12 November 1819 to 24 April 1820 she served as flagship of Commodore C. Morris on the Brazil Station patrolling to protect American commerce against privateers and to negotiate favorable trade agreements with the South American nations.

On 25 July 1820, she sailed for the first time to Pacific waters where she was attached to the Squadron of Commodore C. Stewart and remained for 2 years patrolling in defense of our trading ships off the coast of Peru, an area whose disquiet erupted into revolt against Spain.

In 1827 Constellation acted briefly as flagship for the West India Squadron on a twofold mission involving the eradication of the last of the pirates end' the interception of slavers operating in the area. In August 1829 she cruised to the Mediterranean to exercise vigilant watch over American trade and to collect indemnities owing from previous losses suffered by United States merchantmen. While en route to her station, she carried the American ministers to France and England to their posts of duty. Returning to the United States in November 1831, she underwent minor repair and departed again for her Mediterranean station in April 1832 where she remained until an outbreak of cholera forced her home in November 1834.

In October 1835 the frigate sailed for the Gulf of Mexico to assist in crushing the Seminole uprising. She landed shore parties to relieve the Army garrisons and sent her boats on amphibious expeditions. Mission accomplished, she then cruised with the West India Squadron until 1838 serving part of this period in the capacity of flagship for Commodore A. Dallas.

The decade of the 1840's saw Constellation circumnavigate the globe. As flagship of Captain Kearny and the East India Squadron, her mission, as assigned in March 1841, was to safeguard American lives and property against loss in the Opium War, and further, to enable negotiation of commercial treaties. En route to home in May 1843 she entered the Hawaiian Islands in time to express American disapproval of the impending British annexation of the islands, and thereafter she sailed homeward making calls at South American ports.

Laid up in ordinary at Norfolk from 1846 through 1863, she was found to be greatly in need of extensive repair. Thus, in 1864 she was brought into the yard and, in keeping with the needs of the time, modified into a 22-gun sloop-of-war.

Constellation was recommissioned on 28 July 1866 and departed under the flag of Captain C. Bell for a 3-year cruise with the Mediterranean Squadron to protect American interests. This was followed in June 1868 by a brief tour in Cuban waters where she safeguarded United States ships against unlawful search on the high seas.

Decommissioned for a short time, she was placed back into service in June 1869 and named flagship of the African Squadron. Her mission was to obliterate the slave trade; and here she performed well, capturing the brig Delicia in 1869, the bark Cora in 1860; and the brig Triton in 1861.

The Civil War brought Constellation home in September 1861 whereupon she was ordered to serve in the Mediterranean guarding Union merchant ships against attack by Confederate cruisers and privateers. She was thus occupied from April 1862 through May 1864 when she returned to Hampton Roads via the Gulf Coast.

It was fitting indeed that this fine ship, resplendent in her own accomplishments and imbued with the spirit of the United States Navy, should be selected to serve as receiving and training ship. She carried out one or the other of these duties at Norfolk, Philadelphia, Annapolis, and Newport in various periods of commission between January 1866 and June 1933 with the exception of time devoted to six special missions.

The first of these special assignments was a cruise to France in March 1878, wherein she transported displays for the Paris Exposition and was an ambassador of good will. On 10 November 1879 she was placed in commission for a special voyage to Gibraltar, carrying crew and stores for the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron and thereafter returning to New York.

In March 1880 she sailed on a mission of charity occasioned by the famine in Ireland. Under Commander E. Potter, Constellation brought most welcome relief to the suffering with stores donated by generous Americans.

Again active in September 1892 she continued to arouse interest and win praise for her country when she sailed for Gibraltar in order to assemble works of art for the Columbian Exposition, stopping en route at Naples and Le Havre, and arriving home in New York in February 1893.

Following repairs at Norfolk in 1893, Constellation was towed to Newport, there resuming her duties as a receiving and training ship which she continued until 1914 when she was again overhauled at Norfolk. In September 1914 she sailed to Baltimore via Annapolis and participated in the centennial celebration of the "Star Spangled Banner."

It is an interesting fact that this venerable lady of the seas on 1 December 1917 was renamed "Old Constellation" in order to permit use of the original name for a projected new battle cruiser which, however, was scrapped before completion in accordance with the naval limitations agreement of 1922. Her original name was restored on 24 July 1926.

In the grave days of World War II President F. D. Roosevelt looked for a symbol of American glory to inspire American citizens to the task which lay ahead. One symbol was Constellation, recommissioned in August 1940, and classified IX-20 on 8 January 1941. From 1941-43 she was assigned as the shore based relief flagship of Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, and later of Commander, Battleship Division Five, Atlantic Fleet. Thus she rendered her final service to the Fleet.

Plans to memorialize Constellation brought her to Boston in October 1946 but lack of funds delayed the project. Decommissioned for the last time on 4 February 1955, this, the then-oldest ship in the United States Navy, arrived at Baltimore on 9 August 1955, was stricken from the Navy List on 15 August 1955, and transferred to a patriotic group of citizens who are restoring her as a visible evidence of the United States' enduring need of the sea.


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