“Old Ironsides,” flagship of the U.S. Navy, beats
a hasty retreat in the face of secessionist plots.
BY ETHAN S. RAFUSE
Baltimore boiled with defiant secessionist zeal in April 1861. On the 19th, an anti-Union mob attacked a unit of Massachusetts troops passing through the Maryland port city en route to Washington, D.C. Before the month was over, Southern sympathizers had temporarily cut rail and telegraph connections between Baltimore and the Federal capital. Talk of Maryland seceding grew louder, and rumors of plots and conspiracies against Federal authority flew fast and free.
South of Baltimore at Annapolis, Captain George S. Blake watched the growing turmoil carefully. As superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, he was concerned about the school’s growing vulnerability. Even more, however, he worried about potential dangers to a national treasure in his care: the U.S.S. Constitution, better known as “Old Ironsides.”
The Constitution was serving as the academy’s training ship. In 1858, when the number of cadets had exceeded available dormitory space, academy administrators had acquired the sloop Plymouth as a live-aboard “school ship,” but the vessel was too small from the beginning. By 1860, the frigate Constitution had taken her place.
The ship brought more than just extra berths. She was the most famous vessel in the navy. “Old Ironsides” had won her nickname during the War of 1812, when, in a victorious battle against the British H.M.S. Guerriére, the English cannonballs bounced harmlessly off the American ship’s oak hull. When the Constitution came to the academy, one observer remarked that such a vivid reminder of America’s naval glory would “exercise a salutary influence on the minds of the pupils.”
The qualities that made the Constitution so inspirational also made her a tempting prize for Confederate sympathizers. The week after the April 14 fall of Fort Sumter, off Charleston, South Carolina, to Confederates, Blake heard rumors that Maryland secessionists were plotting to make the Constitution “the first ship of war to hoist the flag of the Confederacy.”
Under orders from Navy Secretary Gideon Welles to defend the Constitution “at all hazards,” Blake intensified measures to protect the ship. He sent a small armed schooner to patrol the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay. When, on April 20, a vessel carrying troops commanded by Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler arrived at Annapolis, Blake went aboard to meet the general. “Won’t you save the Constitution?” he asked.
“Yes,” answered Butler, thinking of the Federal governmental document, “that is just what I am here for.”
“Are those your orders?” a relieved Blake replied. “Then the old ship is safe.”
Realizing at last what Blake had meant, Butler informed him that he had no orders regarding the ship. Nevertheless, he assigned a contingent of troops to protect the Constitution and offered to assist if it became necessary to evacuate the ship.
Butler’s troops were sufficient to deter saboteurs. But Blake realized they would soon be needed at Washington. Besides, it was just a short-term solution. To secure the academy and the Constitution against attack would require so large a troop presence that maintaining regular instruction would be impossible. So, on the 20th, Blake ordered the ship, the school’s trophies and memorabilia, and the acting midshipmen (as the cadets were known) to New York City. As if to confirm Blake’s fears, that very day the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, was evacuated.
Overseeing the voyage to New York would be Lieutenant George Washington Rodgers, scion of one of the nation’s foremost naval families; Oliver Hazard Perry and Matthew C. Perry were his uncles, and the commandant of midshipmen was his brother, Christopher. Receiving orders at 6:00 a.m. on the 21st, Rodgers and the Constitution set out under tow by the steamer on which Butler’s troops had arrived, the Maryland.
Just when it seemed the old ship had escaped the clutches of secessionists, she suddenly encountered a trickier foe: Severn River mud, which briefly captured the ship twice. To make matters worse, a false report arrived indicating secessionists were placing obstructions in the outer channel to prevent the Constitution from passing. Rather than try to force the vessel free, Rodgers chose to pipe down the ship and wait for the tide to free her.
The next day brought new frustration. Early in the morning the ship broke free, but a heavy squall quickly drove her back into the mud. At 4:30 p.m., a steamer finally freed the Constitution and towed her to deeper water, where she anchored for the next three days. To lighten the ship’s load for the voyage north, Rodgers sent the ship’s heavy guns aboard another vessel on the 23d.
It was around noon on the 26th when the Constitution reached open water. An uneventful three-day sail brought her to the New York Navy Yard, where she remained until May 8, when she left for her final destination, Fort Adams at Newport, Rhode Island. The rest of the school’s faculty and staff reached Newport on the 9th, and less than a week later classes resumed.
The academy remained in Newport for the rest of the war but, despite efforts by Northern politicians to obtain a permanent relocation, the school and the Constitution returned to Annapolis in 1865. The old ship would remain in service at the academy until 1871, but not so Blake. He stepped down as superintendent in September 1865, replaced by Union war hero Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter. Perhaps Blake was a hero in his own right, however. He could truthfully say he had saved the Constitution.
Ethan S. Rafuse is a doctorial candidate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.