The USS Constitution: Old Ironsides: A Most fortunate ship by Tyrone G. Martin

“A Most Fortunate Ship”, published in 1980, is often called the definitive account of the history of the USS Constitution. These memoirs of “Old Ironsides”, compiled by one of her chief commanding officers, T. G. Martin, paint a vivid picture of life in the US Navy during the 19th century, and of the naval enterprises and exploits during the war of 1812. Martin was himself the 49th commander of the shipo between 1974 and 1978.

Martin describes the history of the USS Constitution, which was constructed and launched in 1797 at the Edmond Hartt Shipyard in Boston.

He details the construction of the ship, which received the nickname, “Old Ironsides”. Cannonballs could not penetrate the oak sides, earning the ship its name. With a displacement of 2000 tons, the ship carried a crew of more than 450, and his account of the ship’s enterprises introduces many of the details of what their daily lives must have been.

For example, Martin describes the organization of the crew (p.

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), how the crew was fed (p. ) and disciplined (p. ), plus other elements of their daily routines. Life was treacherous enough in the 19th century, thanks to the limits of medical and scientific knowledge, and generally poor nutrition of the working classes. Aboard a ship, which could be out at see for several months at a time, diet, sanitation, and general health were all major concerns and required considerable attention, particularly for the purposes of maintaining discipline and order aboard a naval vessel such as the Constitution, which was an important weapon during the War of 1812.

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Perhaps one of the most fascinating details of Martin’s accounts, however, is evidence of the hardships experienced by the ship itself, which, after all, saw major combat several times. To earn the name, “Old Ironsides”, the ship certainly was subjected to several attacks from enemy cannons. Considering the entire vessel was constructed from wood, it is somewhat astounding – perhaps at least to the modern reader – that no serious damage was done on impact.

During the 19th century, wooden planks called strakes were used to create ships. The strakes were fastened to other timbers called frames. Caulking was the technique used to fill gaps between the stalks that created the possibility of letting water into the ship. Martin discusses the history of the USS Constitution by describing its construction along these lines.

In fact, he explains that it was necessary for the sides and the deck of the Constitution to be caulked before the ship went to sea. Ships in the 19th century were never entirely waterproof and the process of caulking had to be repeated regularly to prevent new leaks. Caulking of the Constitution was started on July 7th, his never produces a totally waterproof ship, but it does make the entry of water manageable. Before Constitution could go to sea it was necessary to caulk not only her sides but her decks as well.

These and other details Martin provides about early American naval history are both entertaining and informative. His knowledge of the ship and his enthusiasm for his work aboard resonate throughout his narrative voice. For example, we learn that the Constitution was one of the first frigates ever built by the US Navy. Six such ships were built originally in the Edmond Hartt shipyard and they were designed to carry an astounding 44 guns.

In his narrative, Martin describes the ship’s various campaigns on behalf of the US Navy. The first of these was the undeclared war with France. The Constitution was involved in this conflict between 1798 and 1800. She was then the flagship for a Mediterranean squadron during the Tripolitan War, from 1801 to 05. Most famous of all, the Constitution was then involved in the War of 1812. During this conflict, the ship became particularly famous as it was a key factor in the victories at several battles. The Constitution won, for example, elaborated battles with two British frigates, the Guerriere and the Java.

The Constitution fought the Guerriere at a spot about 750 miles east of Boston on August 19th, 1812. She fought against the Java somewhere off the coast of Brazil on December 29th, 1812. The Constitution made its last combat tour in 1814-15.

The vessel had spent long periods of time in port even while it was in service for the navy. Often, there were repairs that had to be done but sometimes there were blockades that affected the ship’s ability to get to see. Regardless, the Constitution captured eight more ships under the command of one of her most famous captains, Charles Stwart. When she returned to port after the end of the war of 1812, it was back to the repair yard for almost six years. After serving with the Mediterranean squadron several years later, the Constitution returned to port in Boston in 1828.

After the Meditterranean campaign and a return to Boston, Martin introduces us to what must be the most compelling reason for calling the ship, “most fortunate”. Having survived many grueling confrontations and head-to-head battles at see, the Constitution was found to be unfit for service in 1830 and seruptitiously recommended for the scrap heap. What prevented this from happening: public outcry. The Constitution was recongized, even as early as the 1830s, as one of the greatest warships in US Navel history. It was also in 1830 that Oliver Wendell Holmes published a poem in praise of the ship, “Old Ironsides”, forever establishing the sainted vessel in the American consciousness.

The United States Congress agreed to the necessary reconstructions of the vessel and passed the appropriate legislation. Before long, the ship was back in commission and off to tur the world again. Martin describes the ship’s second run as a flagship in the Mediterraean during 1835, subsequent to serving the same function in the South Pacific. passed an appropriation for reconstruction and in 1835. Triumphant, Martin goes on to describe the ship’s next great adventure: a 30-month voyage around the world beginning in March 1844.

Martin’s exploration of the ship’s history during the American Civil War and during the 1850s, patrolling the African coast for slaves, provides a deep-probing look at the political and social realities of the period. The Constitution played an improtant role in both operation of the slave trade and the American Civil War. During the war, the Constitution was used as a training shipo for midshipmen, and since blockades would prove quite crucial to the succes of the north, the role of the Constitution should be given recognition.

As early as 1838, however, wooden ships were on the brink of becoming obsolete as navy vessels. At that time, steam ships had begun to make regular transatlantic crossings. Martin also describes how at lesat one of the key naval battles of the civil war, the Battle of Hampton Roads, showed the fatal weaknesses of wooden-hulled warships agains ships constructed from or clad in iron.

After several more decades of service – never on the front lines but always in a significant role behind them - the ship was saved once more from the scrap heap by public demand for its preservation. It survived the 20th century as a monument standing as testament to the naval might of the United States, and finally, under the command of Martin himself, the ship became a truly celebrated attraction in Boston’s harbor.

Overall, Tyrone Martin writes a sterling account of this revered warship, USS Constitution. There can be no doubt that he provides a fairly complete history of the vessel’s service and the language style, although serving as an historical account, is easily conversational and filled with anecdotes that make the details – and there are many – accessible to all readers. The narrative covers virtually every aspect of the ship, fro its design and construction, through to its more recent endeavors, even some that took place after Martin’s commission as commander had expired.

Perhaps the most enjoyable elements of the book are those most human elements. Indeed, Martin goes to great lengths to present insightful portraits of some of the major personalities whose lives crossed with the USS Constitution throughout her long history. Among the most noted figures: Talbot, Hull, Bainbridge, Elliot.

Notable too is the way in which Martin truly captures a sense in his righting of the delicate nature of large sailing vessels contrasted to their immense durability. The Constitution, after all, suffered considerable damaged and needed very extensive repairs throughout its career. That said, the ship survived numerous storms, groundings, enemy fire, and even a hurricane.

Although the ship’s log is the principle source of information for the first section of the book, the ship’s very earliest history, Martin quickly moves on to establish is own voice as narrator and thus engages his audience with skill. His intimate knowledge of the ship and its history is overall presented in an entertaining and engaging form, on that transcends the classic historical account by making the pertinent history accessible to just about anyone. This book is well worth reading, regardless of whether you are a sailing enthusiast or a general reader.


Martin, T.G. (1997). A Most Fortunate Ship, A Narrative History of “Old Ironsides”. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.

Updated: Feb 23, 2021
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The USS Constitution: Old Ironsides: A Most fortunate ship by Tyrone G. Martin. (2017, Mar 18). Retrieved from

The USS Constitution: Old Ironsides: A Most fortunate ship by Tyrone G. Martin essay
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