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USS Constellation: The End of an Era

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USS Constellation: The End of an Era

USS Constellation, Naples 1856, by Tommaso De Simone

Photograph Courtesy of the USS Constellation Museum, Baltimore, MD

Overview:

  • Nation: United States
  • Laid Down: June 25, 1853
  • Launched: August 26, 1854
  • Commissioned: July 28, 1855, Captain Charles Bell, commanding
  • Decommissioned: February 4, 1955
  • Fate: Preserved as a museum ship at Baltimore, MD

Specifications:

  • Ship Type: Sloop of War
  • Displacement: 1,400 tons
  • Length: 179 feet
  • Beam: 41 feet
  • Draft: 21 feet
  • Complement: 250-300

Armament:

Commissioning

  • 16 x VIII-inch shell guns
  • 4 x 32-pounder guns
  • 2 x X-inch pivot mounted shell guns

Civil War

  • 16 x VIII-inch shell guns
  • 4 x 32-pounder guns
  • 1 x 30-pounder pivot mounted Parrott Rifle (bow)
  • 1 x 20-pounder pivot mounted Parrott Rifle (stern)

Early Career:

Built in 1854, to replace the frigate Constellation (1797), the 22-gun sloop of war was commissioned on July 28, 1855, with Captain Charles Bell in command. Ordered to join the Mediterranean Squadron, Constellation quickly proved to be a fast ship and earned praise from the Austrian government after rescuing a barque in distress. Returning to American waters in 1858, Constellation patrolled the sea lanes around Cuba before being decommissioned at Boston later that year.

US African Squadron:

In 1859, Constellation sailed as the flagship of the US African Squadron. Charged with stopping the illegal slave trade off the West African coast, Constellation and the seven other ships of the squadron captured fourteen slavers, freeing close to 4,000 slaves. In December 1859, Constellation took the brig Delicia. Though no slaves were on board, the ship was fitted out as a slaver. The following September, the slaver Cora was captured with 705 slaves on board. While the squadron was carrying out its mission, the situation at home was deteriorating as the nation sunk into Civil War.

Civil War:

On May 21, 1861, Constellation took the Charleston-registered slaver Triton. As Confederate forces had opened fired on Fort Sumter the month before, Triton became one of the Union Navy's first captures of the war. Recalled with the rest of the squadron for Civil War duty, Constellation arrived at Portsmouth, NH in late 1861. Refitted, the ship was dispatched to the Mediterranean Sea to protect American commerce. This assignment was largely the result of Constellation's lack of a steam engine and deep draft which made it unsuited for blockading the Southern coast.

Arriving in the Mediterranean, Constellation aided in blockading the Confederate raider Sumter at Gibraltar. For the next two years the ship patrolled the Mediterranean, before receiving orders to sail for the Gulf of Mexico. Arriving off Mobile in late 1864, the ship was inspected by Adm. David G. Farragut. Unable to use a ship of its type, and with the crew's enlistments about to expire, Farragut ordered the ship to sail for Norfolk. Entering port around the New Year, Constellation paid off its crew and was used as a receiving ship for the remainder of the war.

US Naval Academy:

After five years of inactivity, Constellation was converted for use a training ship in 1870. Assigned to the US Naval Academy, the ship served as a floating classroom each summer as midshipmen were embarked for their annual training cruise. Generally sailing along the coast of New England, these cruises provided an opportunity for younger midshipmen to literally learn the ropes, while their older comrades were examined in their seamanship skills. So many future naval leaders received their initial sea training aboard Constellation that the ship received the moniker "The Cradle of Admirals."

Naval Training Station - Newport:

In 1894, Constellation was moved to Naval Training Station, Newport, RI for use as a stationary training ship for enlisted personnel. This move was largely due the Naval Academy's desire to emphasize steam engineering over sail training. While at Newport, all new naval recruits spent time aboard the ship learning practical seamanship, elementary navigation, and sail handling. Constellation spent much of the next thirty years in this role.

World War II and Preservation:

With the outbreak of World War II, Constellation was given new life. Initially serving as the relief flagship of the US Atlantic Fleet, Constellation became the flagship in early 1942. For the first six months of that year, the Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Royal E. Ingersoll, commanded the US Navy's war against the German Kriegsmarine from the ship's eighty-eight year-old decks. In the summer of 1942, the ship reverted to its reserve role when Ingersoll transferred his flag to USS Vixen.

With the end of the war, Constellation was towed to Boston where it was docked next to its older cousin, USS Constitution. In 1955, the sloop was brought to Baltimore as a museum ship under the mistaken belief that it was its predecessor, the 1797 frigate Constellation. Over the next four decades, the 1854 sloop of war was "restored" to look like the older ship. In the early 1990s, a US Navy research team led by Dana Wegner conclusively proved the ship's true identity. Beginning in 1996, Constellation underwent a massive structural restoration which returned the ship to its original appearance. On July 2, 1999, the ship docked at Pier 1 in Baltimore's Inner Harbor and is currently open to the public as a museum. In 2004, as part of the ship's 150th anniversary celebration, Constellation made a triumphant voyage to the US Naval Academy, docking in Annapolis for the first time in over a century.

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