Friday, April 22, 2011

"Old Ironsides" during the Civil War

USS Constitution
berthed at Charlestown, Mass.
“Old Ironsides” was built in Boston in 1797, one of the first six frigates constructed for the new American Navy. The USS Constitution earned her fame during the War of 1812 in the battle against the British ship Guerriere. The enemy said the cannonballs were bouncing off the sides of the Constitution, thus she earned the name “Old Ironsides”. An article in a Boston newspaper on 14 September 1830 stated that the Navy was going to scrap the Constitution. Two days later a 21 year old Oliver Wendall Holmes published a sentimental poem to "Old Ironsides" in the same newspaper, and school children began sending in pennies for her repair.

During the Civil War, the Constitution was already considered old fashioned, and she was used as a training ship for cadets. She was berthed at Annapolis, the Naval Academy. At the outbreak of war, the Constitution was ordered to relocate in New York City Harbor, and several companies of Massachusetts volunteers were stationed on board. She spent most of the war near Newport, Rhode Island. Her sister ship United States was captured at Norfolk, Virginia, and this left “ Old Ironsides” the only remaining ship of the six original frigates in the US Navy.

How did I know about “Old Ironsides” rescue during the Civil War? I found out through researching my Great Great Grandfather’s Civil War service. He served twice in the war, and I knew his regiments through his obituaries and pension papers. In reading the regimental histories I found out that he was part of one of the regiments of Massachusetts Volunteers who rescued the Constitution and towed her north for protection. Great Great Grandfather Abijah Franklin Hitchings was from Salem, Massachusetts, originally a sail maker. Many of the men in his regiment were fishermen, ship builders, or held other maritime occupations. It is no doubt this is why they were the perfect choice for this particular mission.

Great Great Grandfather Hitchings was part of Company “I” of the 8th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the Salem Zouaves with the fancy red uniforms. After his 90 days serving outside of Baltimore, he re-enlisted in Company “H” of the 19th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, where he was wounded at Fredericksburg . At his funeral in 1910, four members of the Salem Zouaves served as pallbearers.

Here is an excerpt from the book The United States Naval Academy, by Park Benjamin, Knickerbocker Press, New York, 1900, page 231.

" Just as day was breaking, Captain Haggerty came back with my brother and Commodore Blake. I invited the commodore to the quarter-deck where we could be alone. and told him who I was, and why I was there, and asked what he desired.
The old man burst into tears, and shed them like rain for a moment, and then broke out:- "Thank God! Thank God! Won't you save the Constitution?"
I did not know that he referred to the ship Constitution, and I answered:- "Yes, that is what I am here for."
"Are those your orders? Then the old ship is safe."
"I have no orders," said I; "I am carrying on the war now on my own hook;" I cut loose from my orders when I left Philadelphia. What do you want me to do to save the Constitution?"
'I want some sailor men,' he answered; 'for I have no sailors' I want to get her out, and get her afloat. 
"Oh, well," said I, "I have plenty of sailor men from the town of Marblehead, where their fathers built the Constitution."

Another excerpt from Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major General Benjamin F. Butler, by Benjamin Franklin Butler, A. M. Thayer & Co. Publishers, Boston, Massachusetts, 1892, page 195.

"Immediately after breakfast, I detailed a company, the Salem Zouaves, Captain Deveraux, the best drilled company I had, as guard on board the Constitution. I also detailed a company of Marbleheaders, who were fishermen, to help work the ship under the command of Lieutenant (afterwards Admiral) Rogers. He worked with a will, and I shall never forget my delight at his efficiency. He transferred all the upper deck guns and their carriages on board the Maryland, thus lighting the Ship. We got up her anchors, which were several feet deep in the mud, and after very strenuous efforts on the part of all of us, the Constitution, attached to the Maryland, was worked around and down the bay into deep water." "

Re-enactors playing Salem Zouaves
in their distinctive red uniforms
The Constitution retired from active service in 1881, and was berthed for fifteen years in the harbor at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 1897, her 100th birthday, she was towed to Boston. She is still a commissioned US naval war ship. For many years she continued as a training ship. She is serving a new role in educational outreach at the Charlestown Navy Yard. All the crew is active duty US Naval personnel wearing 1812 uniforms.

A. F. Franklin's photo
if it were color you would
see his red Zouave uniform

On 10 April 2011, a group of men re-enacted the Salem Zouaves rescuing the Constitution at the Charlestown Navy yard as part of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. You can read about it at their Facebook page “Salem Zouaves” with photos and videos, or you can follow their blog at

For more information:

Captain George S. Blake Saved the USS Constitution

History of the Salem Light Infantry: 1805 – 1890″ by George Mantum Whipple. It is available online at Google Books

“Salem Zouaves” by Capt. J. P. Reynolds, is a journal of the Salem Zouaves held at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan. You can read a transcript of this journal at the web page


Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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