Wednesday, July 6, 2011
I recently took a trip to Baltimore, Maryland and Washington D.C. and while there I went to see the USS Constellation, the last ship to fight in the Civil War still afloat. This is the second ship of the US Navy to bear the name Constellation. The first was a frigate built in 1797 and carried 38 guns and was only the second ship to be commissioned in the United States Navy. It was the first US Navy vessel to put to sea and the first US Navy vessel to engage, defeat, and capture an enemy vessel. The ship that I saw was a type known as a sloop of war and was built in 1854 in Gosport Naval Yard, Virginia.
Length: 176 feet (between perpendiculars)
Beam: 40 feet, 6 inches (molded beam)
Draft: 21 feet
Displacement: 1,400 tons
Complement: 20 officers, 220 sailors, 45 marines
The Constellation served in the Mediterranean Squadron from 1855-1858 and was mostly used for diplomatic duties. In 1859 she was transferred to the USN African Squadron became its flagship. In two and a half years, she interdicted three slave ships, including the Cora, which was carrying a cargo if 705 slaves that were set free in Monrovia, Liberia.
Constellation spent most of the Civil War cruising the Mediterranean to deter Confederate commerce raiders, cruisers and blockade runners. In 1864 she was assigned to Admiral Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron.
After the war, Constellation was tasked with bringing famine relief to Ireland. It then became the training ship for midshipmen from the US Naval Academy, serving as the ship for their summer training cruises. She has even been called the "Cradle of Admirals" because so many future high ranking officers served aboard her in their youth. She then became a stationary training ship for the Naval Training Center from 1894 to 1933. The Constellation was used as a relief flagship for the US Atlantic Fleet during WWII.
In its heyday around 1855, the Constellation was armed with sixteen 8 inch "Shell guns" and four 32 pounder, solid shot firing "Long Guns". A secondary battery of two 10 inch pivot guns mounted fore and aft on the spar deck. It carried five cutters and one launch with a 12 pounder howitzer. It would have also carried a large assortment of small arms, including Model 1840 and later 1860 cutlasses, boarding pikes, hatchets, and various muzzle loading pistols and long arms. These would be kept in the armory and issued out when close action was expected.
In 1862 the ship's armament was upgraded with one 30-pounder Parrott rifle at the bow and one 20-pounder Parrott rifle at the stern; also two additional 12-pounder boat howitzers were added.
One very nice thing about the Constellation is that you get to pretty much see the entire ship. Many old ship will let tourists walk on the deck and maybe in the gun deck, but the Constellation was almost completely open. Below the gun deck is the area that most of the crew would have spent their time. It was cramped and had very low ceilings, no more than 6 feet high. One could see that sharing the berthing area with 250 or so unwashed sailors off the coast of West Africa would have been pretty awful. On the other hand, the hammocks did look pretty comfy and were wider than the jungle hammock that I sleep in when I go camping. However they were hung a lot higher up. That might not sound bad, but it is said that the petty officers would cut the cords of anyone not getting up fast enough to suit them. Which would be a pretty crappy way to start your day of backbreaking labor and risking your life. I was able to go in most of the cabins, see period surgical instruments and read the large amount of placards and so forth of historical information. I was even able to go down into the hold and bilge areas (pics did not come out) which was even more cramped.
USS Constellation is the last Civil War era naval vessel still afloat and the last all sail warship built by the U.S. Navy. In 1963, the ship was preserved as a National Historical Monument the Inner Harbor of Baltimore. In 1999 a nine million dollar restoration project was completed and returned the ship's exterior to its Civil War era appearance.