Monday, August 20, 2012

Old Ironsides after 200 years

USS Constitution in action against HMS Guerriere

One perk of a Massachusetts childhood is that it's a fertile ground for growing an interest in history. Possibly only Virginia has more history per square mile than the Bay State, but no place else in North America even comes close.

Every town has its colonial era houses and local museums. There's Plymouth Rock and Plimouth Plantation . Boston has the Freedom Trail and Stockbridge has Rockwell. You can gaze upon Thoreau's hut near Walden Pond.

And for those with a particular interest in military and naval history there's a nice collection of historic ships a short drive away, although little in the way of interesting battlefields to visit -- Virginia takes that prize hands down. Massachusetts hasn't been actually fought over for more than 200 years and the spots that did see fighting were long overtaken with development that trasnformed them all out of recognition.

Over at Battleship Cove there's the fantastic collection of World War II and Cold War era warships with the Battleship Massachusetts as its flagship. And that's not all. There's the cruiser USS Salem in Quincy and the destroyer USS Cassin Young in Boston, too.

But despite such distinguished company, Massachusetts also boasts the grandest old dame of them all, the USS Constitution in Boston.

For my 12th birthday, my dad took me on a rare day trip to Boston with my younger brother. Being a very rare thing to do -- in fact, the only time -- I think he felt the need to fill the day and we went to the Museum of Science AND the USS Constitution. While the great Museum of Science was far smaller in 1967 than it is today, it was still enough for a day trip all by itself even then and so we didn't have a lot of time to spend on the Constitution. While I love science and even loved it then, I'm far more of a history buff and so walking the decks of Old Ironsides was truly the highlight of the day for me.

Naturally we had to bring back something from the Gift Shop. Money was always tight growing up and so we had to settle for some small things. One item was a small model cannon of bronze and iron, which I had for many years, although somewhere along the line it was lost during a move. But the other thing I got that day was a small book called "Battles of the USS Constitution" that I still have. It's a slim, hardcover book and naturally doesn't have much detail, but it does serve as a reminder of an important day of my childhood.

I've been back to Old Ironsides since, of course, but not as often as I should and I'm overdue for another visit to the ship. The USS Constitution represents more than just an interesting historical artifact, but the embodiment of a naval tradition. Interestingly, the other two great navies of the modern era -- Britain and Japan -- also have preserved as memorials extremely evocative ships. For Britain it's the HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar and for Japan, Tojo's Tsuhima flagship Mikasa. For both those navies the preserved ship is the admiral's flagship at an important victory in a fleet action. Perhaps the equivalent for the US would have been preserving the USS Enterprise from Midway, although not really.

The War of 1812 was a decidedly ill-fought affair from the American perspective, very unwise and, in the end, completely fruitless as far as achieving its stated aims. But for the US Navy it was a glorious episode and, even more important, it was a glorious episode for very good reasons. Here and there it's noted that the fights won by the USS Constitution and the USS United States were not "fair" fights. Both ships over-matched their British opponents significantly. Yet this was by design, and therefore still reflects credit on US naval policy. But even more critically, the American ships over-matched the British ships in crew and captain quality as well., and this reflected credit on the Navy as an institution and its early leaders.

That this was an ephemeral edge and one not to be taken for granted is illustrated by the fact that the Royal Navy had been winning against those kinds of odds for a generation before facing the US ships. And an American ship that did not have that kind of an edge should still go down to ignominious defeat, as the Chesapeake vs. Shannon engagement showed.

To its credit the Navy understood the roots of victory and its success in the War of 1812 vindicated an approach to professionalism that's sustained it through the following two centuries. Institutional excellence is very hard to maintain. The tradition of excellence and victory inaugurated by the USS Constitution and the rest of the War of 1812 Navy has paid dividends since.

So kit was nice to see the ship under way again. I haven't been able to witness either of her recent sailing days, but maybe I'll catch the next one. But I'll be happy just to walk her decks again.

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