A Famous Vessel Saved By A Poem


"OLD IRONSIDES was a noble old ship, and a noble old ship was she."

Come, I know you have not heard enough about this grand old ship, so let

us go on with her story. And the first thing to tell is how she served

another British ship as she had served the Guerriere.

Four months after Captain Hull's great victory, the Constitution was

in another sea
and had another captain. She had sailed south and was now

off the coast of Brazil. And William Bainbridge had succeeded Isaac Hull

in command.

It was almost the last day of the year. Chilly weather, no doubt, in

Boston from which she had sailed; but mid-summer warmth in those

southern waters. It certainly felt warm enough to the men on deck, who

were "spoiling for a fight," when the lookout aloft announced two sails.

The sailors who had been lounging about the deck sprang up and looked

eagerly across the waves, as the cheerful "Sail-ho!" reached their ears.

Soon they saw that one of the vessels was coming their way as fast as

her sails could carry her. The other had sailed away on the other tack.

The vessel that was coming was the Java, a fine British frigate. As

she drew near she showed signals. That is, she spread out a number of

small flags, each of which had some meaning, and by which British ships

could talk with each other. Captain Bainbridge could not answer these,

for he did not know what they meant. So he showed American signals,

which the captain of the Java could not understand any better.

Then, as they came nearer, they hoisted their national flags, and both

sides saw that they were enemies and that a fight was on hand.

Captain Bainbridge was not like Captain Hull. He did not wait till the

ships were side by side, but began firing when the Java was half a

mile away. That was only wasting powder and balls, but they kept on

firing until they were close at hand, and then the shots began to tell.

A brave old fellow was the captain of the Constitution. A musket ball

struck him in the thigh as he was pacing the deck. He stopped his

pacing, but would not go below. Then a copper bolt went deep into his

leg. But he had it cut out and the leg tied up, and he still kept on

deck. He wanted to see the fight.

Hot and fierce came the cannon balls, hurtling through sails and

rigging, rending through thick timbers, and sending splinters flying

right and left. Men fell dead and blood ran in streams, but still came

the heralds of death.

We must tell the same story of this fight as of the fight with the

Guerriere. The British did not know how to aim their guns and the

Americans did. The British had no sights on their cannon and the

Americans had. That was why, all through the war, the British lost so

heavily and the Americans so little. The British shot went wild and the

American balls flew straight to their mark.

You know what must come from that. After while, off went the Java's

bowsprit, as if it had been chopped off with a great knife. Five minutes

later her foremast was cut in two and came tumbling down. Then the main

topmast crashed down from above. Last of all, her mizzen-mast was cut

short off by the plunging shot, and fell over the side. The well-aimed

American balls had cut through her great spars, as you might cut through

a willow stick, and she was dismantled as the Guerriere had been.

The loud "hurrahs" of the Yankee sailors proved enough to call the dead

to life. At any rate, a wounded man, whom everyone thought dead, opened

his eyes and asked what they were cheering about.

"The enemy has struck," he was told.

The dying tar lifted himself on one arm, and waved the other round his

head, and gave three feeble cheers. With the last one he fell back dead.

But the Java's flag was not down for good. As the Constitution came

up with all masts standing and sails set, the British flag was raised to

the stump of the mizzen-mast. When he saw this, Bainbridge wore his

ship to give her another broadside, and then down came her flag for

good. She had received all the battering she could stand. In fact, the

Constitution had lost only 34 men, killed and wounded, while the Java

had lost 150 men. The Constitution was sound and whole; the Java had

only her mainmast left and was full of yawning rents. Old Ironsides

had a new feather in her cap.

Like the Guerriere, the Java was hurt past help. It was impossible

to take her home; so on the last day of 1812, the torch was put to her

ragged timbers and the flames took hold. Quickly they made their way

through the ruined ship. About three o'clock in the afternoon they

reached her magazine, and with a mighty roar the wreck of the British

ship was torn into fragments. To the bottom went the hull. Only the

broken masts and a few shattered timbers remained afloat.

Such is war: a thing of ruin and desolation. Of that gallant ship, which

two days before had been proudly afloat, only some smoke-stained

fragments were left to tell that she had ever been on the seas, and

death and wounds had come to many of her men.

After her fight with the Java the Constitution had a long, weary

rest. You will remember the Bon Homme Richard, a rotten old hulk not

fit for fighting, though she made a very good show when the time for

fighting came. The Constitution was much like her; so rotten in her

timbers that she had to be brought home and rebuilt.

Then she went a-sailing again, under Captain Charles Stewart, as good an

officer as Hull and Bainbridge; but it was more than two years after her

last battle before she had another chance to show what sort of a fighter

she was.

It is a curious fact that some of the hardest fights of this war with

England took place after the war was at an end. The treaty of peace was

signed on Christmas eve, 1814, but the great battle at New Orleans was

fought two weeks afterward. There were no ocean cable then to send word

to the armies that all their killing was no longer needed, since there

was nothing to fight about.

It was worse still for the ships at sea. Nobody then had ever dreamed of

a telegraph without wires to send word out over the waste of waters, or

even of a telegraph with wires. Thus it was that the last battle of the

old Constitution was fought nearly two months after the war was over.

The good old ship was then on the other side of the ocean, and was

sailing along near the island of Madeira, which lies off the coast of

Africa. For a year she had done nothing except to take a few small

prizes, and her stalwart crew were tired of that sort of work. They

wanted a real, big fight, with plenty of glory.

One evening Captain Stewart heard some of the officers talking about

their bad luck, and wishing they could only meet with a fellow of their

own size. They were tired of fishing for minnows when there were whales

to be caught.

"I can tell you this, gentlemen," said the captain, "you will soon get

what you want. Before the sun rises and sets again you will have a good

old-fashioned fight, and it will not be with a single ship, either."

I do not know what the officers said after the captain turned away. Very

likely some of them wondered how he came to be a prophet and could tell

what was going to take place. I doubt very much whether they believed

what he had said.

At any rate, about one o'clock the next day, February 20, 1815, when the

ship was gliding along before a light breeze, a sail was seen far away

in front. An hour later a second sail was made out, close by the first.

And when the Constitution got nearer it was seen that they were both

ships-of-war. It began to look as if Captain Stewart was a good prophet,

after all.

It turned out that the first of these was the small British frigate

Cyane. The second was the sloop-of-war Levant. Neither was a match

by itself for the Constitution, but both together they thought

themselves a very good match.

It was five o'clock before the Yankee ship came up within gunshot. The

two British ships had closed together so as to help one another, and now

they all stripped off their extra sails, as a man takes off his coat and

vest for a fight.

Six o'clock passed before the battle began. Then for fifteen minutes the

three ships hurled their iron balls as fast as the men could load and

fire. By that time the smoke was so thick that they had to stop firing

to find out where the two fighting ships were. The Constitution now

found herself opposite the Levant and poured a broadside into her

hull. Then she sailed backward--a queer thing to do, but Captain Stewart

knew how to move his ship stern foremost--and poured her iron hail into

the Cyane. Next she pushed ahead again and pounded the Levant till

that lively little craft turned and ran. It had enough of the

Constitution's iron dumplings to last a while.

This was great sailing and great firing, but Captain Stewart was one of

those seamen who know how to handle a ship, and his men knew how to

handle their guns. There were never better seamen than those of the Old


The Levant was now out of the way, and there was only the Cyane to

attend to. Captain Stewart attended to her so well that, just forty

minutes after the fight began, her flag came down.

Where, now, was the Levant? She had run out of the fight; but she had

a brave captain who did not like to desert his friend, so he turned back

and came gallantly up again.

It was a noble act, but a foolish one. This the British captain found

out when he came once more under the American guns. They were much too

hot for him, and once more he tried to run away. He did not succeed this

time. Captain Stewart was too much in love with him to let him go, and

sent such warm love-letters after him that his flag came gliding down,

as his comrade's had done.

Captain Stewart had shown himself a true prophet. He had met, fought

with, and won two ships of the enemy. No doubt after that his officers

were sure they had a prophet for a captain.

That evening, when the two British captains were in the cabin of the

Constitution, a midshipman came down and asked Captain Stewart if the

men could not have their grog.

"Why, didn't they have it?" asked the captain. "It was time for it

before the battle began."

"It was mixed for them, sir," said the midshipman, "but our old men said

they didn't want any 'Dutch courage,' so they emptied the grog-tub into

the lee scuppers."

The Englishmen stared when they heard this. It is very likely their men

had not fought without a double dose of grog.

We have not finished our story yet. Like a lady's letter, it has a

postscript. On March 10, the three ships were in a harbor of the Cape de

Verde Islands, and Captain Stewart was sending his prisoners ashore,

when three large British men-of-war were seen sailing into the harbor.

Stewart was nearly caught in a trap. Any one of these large frigates was

more than a match for the Constitution, and here were three in a

bunch. But, by good luck, there was a heavy fog that hid everything but

the highest sails; so there was a chance of escape.

Captain Stewart was not the man to be trapped while a chance was left.

He was what we call a "wide-awake." There was a small chance left. He

cut his cable, made a signal to the prize vessels to do the same, and in

ten minutes after the first British vessel had been seen, the American

ship and its prizes were gliding swiftly away.

On came the British ships against a stiff breeze, up the west side of

the bay. Out slipped the Yankee ships along the east side. Captain

Stewart set no sails higher than his top sails, and these were hidden

by the fog, so the British lookouts saw nothing. They did not dream of

the fine birds that were flying away.

Only when Stewart got his ship past the outer point of the harbor did he

spread his upper sails to the breeze, and the British lookouts saw with

surprise a cloud of canvas suddenly bursting out upon the air.

Now began a close chase. The Constitution and her prizes had only

about a mile the start. As quick as the British ships could turn they

were on their track. But those were not the days of the great guns that

can send huge balls six or seven miles through the air. A mile then was

a long shot for the largest guns, and the Yankee cruisers had made a

fair start.

But before they had gone far Captain Stewart saw that the Cyane was in

danger of being taken, and signaled for her to tack and take another

course. She did so and sailed safely away. For three hours the three big

frigates hotly chased the Constitution and Levant, but let the

Cyane go.

Captain Stewart now saw that the Levant was in the same danger, and he

sent her a signal to tack as the Cyane had done. The Levant tacked

and sailed out of the line of the chase.

What was the surprise of the Yankee captain and his men when they saw

all three of the big British ships turn on their heels and set sail

after the little sloop-of-war, letting the Constitution sail away. It

was like three great dogs turning to chase a rabbit and letting a deer

run free.

The three huge monsters chased the little Levant back into the island

port, and there for fifteen minutes they fired broadsides at her. The

prisoners whom Captain Stewart had landed did the same from a battery on

shore. And yet not a shot struck her hull; they were all wasted in the


At length Lieutenant Bullard, who was master of the prize, hauled down

his flag. He thought he had seen enough fun, and they might hurt

somebody afterwhile if they kept on firing. But what was the chagrin of

the British captains to find that all they had done was to take back one

of their own vessels, while the American frigate had gone free.

The Constitution and the Cyane got safely to the American shores,

where their officers learned that the war had ceased more than three

months before. But the country was proud of their good service, and

Congress gave medals of honor to Stewart and his officers.

That was the last warlike service of the gallant Old Ironsides, the

most famous ship of the American Navy. Years passed by and her timbers

rotted away, as they had done once before. Some of the wise heads in the

Navy Department, men without a grain of sentiment, decided that she was

no longer of any use and should be broken up for old timber.

But if they had no love for the good old ship, there were those who had;

and a poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes, came to the rescue. This is the poem

by which he saved the ship:


Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!

Long has it waved on high,

And many an eye has danced to see

That banner in the sky;

Beneath it rung the battle shout,

And burst the cannon's roar;

The meteor of the ocean air

Shall sweep the clouds no more!

Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,

Where knelt the vanquished foe,

When winds were hurrying o'er the flood

And waves were white below,

No more shall feel the victor's tread

Or know the conquered knee;

The harpies of the shore shall pluck

The eagle of the sea!

O! better that her shattered hulk

Should sink beneath the wave;

Her thunders shook the mighty deep,

And there should be her grave;

Nail to the mast her holy flag,

Set every threadbare sail,

And give her to the god of storms,

The lightning and the gale.

There was no talk of destroying the Old Ironsides after that. The man

that did it would have won eternal disgrace. She still floats, and no

doubt she will float, as long as two of her glorious old timbers hang