The USS Constitution is the oldest serving active duty naval vessel not only in the United States, but also in the world. Its 215-year-old history is both interesting and remarkable.
Commissioned in 1797, "Old Ironsides" is best known for its defeat of the British ship Guerriere during the War of 1812, while under the command of Captain Isaac Hull of Connecticut. It is therefore appropriate that to this day the active duty crew of the Constitution still wears 1812 uniforms, a tradition instituted by the ship's 58th commander — another Connecticut native — Commander Tyrone G. Martin, originally of Greenwich and one of five Connecticut natives who have commanded the ship.
Commander Martin took charge of the Constitution on August 6, 1974, and remained in charge of her until June 30, 1978 — nearly four years. Now living in North Carolina, Commander Martin is considered the world's leading authority on the history of the ship. The Greenwich native has authored several books on "Old Ironsides," including the definitive history entitled A Most Fortunate Ship: A Definitive History of "Old Ironsides" (1997).
He has also written Undefeated: Old Ironsides in the War of 1812 (1996). During the bicentennial celebration of 1976, Martin had the honor of giving a private tour of the Constitution to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip during a state visit in July of that year. Under Martin's command, the ship received its first Meritorious Unit Commendation.
Another Connecticut native who commanded the Constitution in the 20th century is Captain Albert C. Messier. A native of Bristol, CT, Messier was born in Hartford on Aug. 11, 1917, and died on Sept. 14, 1981, almost exactly 31 years ago. Messier commanded the ship from 1952 until 1954. He was the fourth Connecticut native to do so.
Yet another important Connecticut connection to the Constitution centers around Glastonbury native Gideon Welles. Welles, whose family goes back to the earliest days of Connecticut, was Lincoln's Secretary of War during the Civil War. In fact, Lincoln referred to him as "my Neptune." Welles was responsible for effectively blockading southern ports during the war and also increased the size of the U.S. Navy substantially. He is also credited with saving the Constitution from southern saboteurs at the beginning of the war.
Since the ship was used by midshipmen at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, for training purposes at that time, its geographical proximity to the South made it a likely target for sabotage. Welles ordered the Constitution to be protected "at all hazards" from potential sabotage and had it sent to Newport, RI, for the duration of the war. The faculty and students of the Naval Academy relocated there as well during the war and trained on the Constitution. Welles's actions probably saved the ship — and perhaps the Naval Academy — from sabotage.
Finally, it is interesting to note that New London houses a piece of the original Constitution. The front door on the Custom House Maritime Museum on 154 Bank St. in New London is made of original ship's planks taken from "Old Ironsides" during one of its many renovations. When one considers that the iron used in making its 44 cannon came from Connecticut, that five of its commanders were Connecticut natives — including the most famous, Isaac Hull, of Derby — and that Gideon Welles, its savior during the Civil War, was a Glastonbury native, it is only appropriate that a piece of the USS Constitution be located in our fair state.