Share This Article

Constitution (center) engages Levant and Cyane in February 1815. An American officer reported that Cyane had taken on five feet of water and was listing badly when its colors were struck. Levant's hull, he added, was "pretty well drilled and her deck a perfect slaughter house." (Navy Art Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC)

Early in the War of 1812, the fledgling U.S. Navy displayed its mettle against Britain’s vaunted Royal Navy. The British had a far larger fleet than the United States, but U.S. frigates were fast and formidable. The crews of USS Constitution and USS United States, for example, outgunned British warships in the Atlantic. Americans were doubly thrilled when United States’ commander Stephen Decatur sailed the damaged enemy frigate Macedonian back to a U.S. port as a trophy.

But the second year of the war proved more difficult for the United States. There were military setbacks on land and a gathering British presence off the U.S. coast, both of which cast a shadow on American expectations. Stung by early naval defeats, the British Admiralty in 1813 forbade any one-on-one battles with America’s heavy frigates, which tended to have bigger cannons and stronger hulls than their British rivals. Britain had already blockaded much of the Eastern Seaboard, and with its war against French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte winding down, Britain aimed to deploy more ships to completely choke American navy and merchant-ship traffic. What’s more, the six big frigates that functioned as the U.S. Navy’s muscle—all commissioned by the Naval Armament Act of 1794 to thwart the Barbary pirates—were at that moment in no position to trade fire with the Brits. One was “in ordinary” (out of commission), three were blockaded and one, Chesapeake, had been captured on June 1, 1813. That left Constitution, affectionately known as “Old Ironsides,” as the Navy’s sole fighting option, but even it was in dry dock and under threat of being corralled in Boston Harbor.

Against this backdrop, Captain Charles Stewart took command of Constitution on July 18, 1813. Born in 1778, Stewart grew up in Philadelphia, where he was a boyhood friend and classmate of Decatur. Stewart went to sea as a cabin boy when he was 13 and rose quickly in the merchant service. Just before his 20th birthday, the Navy offered him a commission as a lieutenant. Stewart accepted and soon distinguished himself in the Quasi-War with France when, as commander of the schooner Experiment, he captured two French ships and freed several American vessels from the French. Stewart did not always endear himself to his superiors, but his naval skills were unquestioned. Transferred to the Mediterranean, Stewart was given command of the brig Siren and provided cover for Decatur’s daring raid to blow up Philadelphia, the American frigate captured in the Barbary War with Tripoli in 1803. When war with Britain broke out in 1812, Stewart commanded several smaller ships before being given the helm of Constellation—one of America’s big frigates. Problem was, the Royal Navy had penned up Constellation at Norfolk, Va., leaving Stewart with little chance of achieving the glory he sought.

Stewart lobbied for a change of command and got his wish when he was reassigned to Constitution. Constitution had scored two notable victories in 1812, defeating HMS Guerrière in August and HMS Java in December, and after an overhaul the next year was ready for more action. So was Stewart, and a brilliant bit of seamanship by the American captain signaled the arrival of a new military competitor on the high seas—one that would soon take its place among the globe’s superpowers.

Stewart wasn’t thinking of geostrategic matters in late 1813. He was simply relieved to sail Constitution out of Boston Harbor. It was his first cruise of the war, and within a couple of months he and his crew had captured three British merchant ships. In March, near Barbados, Constitution spotted HMS Pictou, a 14-gun British schooner that was escorting other British ships through the Caribbean. Constitution overpowered the smaller ship, destroying Pictou’s main mast and deck in one pass. Stewart had his first victory of the war, though not one worth bragging about. He nearly got a sterner test after spotting the 36-gun Pique, but the latter, following the Admiralty’s orders not to engage, took advantage of a favorable breeze and sailed out of sight.

When his crew discovered a crack in Constitution’s main mast, Stewart decided to return to Boston—and barely made it. On April 3 two British frigates peeled off from a Royal Navy squadron en route to blockade Boston and chased Constitution north of the city. Stewart slipped into Marblehead Harbor ahead of his pursuers. The arrival of Old Ironsides caused a stir in Marblehead. It was a Sunday, and the faithful were attending services when word came of the ship’s arrival. Led by their preachers, parishioners dashed to the shore to help defend their town. There was no threat, however, and a few days later Constitution sailed down to Boston.

And there the big ship stayed for more than eight months after the Royal Navy deployed outside Boston Harbor. The British hoped that antiwar sentiment, which was rife in New England, would create a separatist movement in the city, but it never materialized. Some local politicians, alarmed by the burning of Washington in August 1814, argued that Constitution should be kept in port and positioned to defend the city. But Stewart aimed to make a run for it, even as the British ships, lurking on the outskirts of the harbor, monitored the readiness of Constitution, no doubt aided by reports from sympathizers.

A rotation of British ships to Halifax for repairs gave Stewart his chance, and on Sunday, December 18, 1814, Constitution left Boston Harbor unchallenged. There were rumors that it was to join other American frigates to attack shipping off the British coast, but Constitution headed south to Bermuda and then sailed east. Stewart’s objective was to disrupt British merchant convoys—and to fight if he got the chance. But as he approached Spain, Stewart learned that a treaty ending hostilities had been signed. A German ship bound for Portugal, he noted in his log on February 8, 1815, carried the news that “peace had been signed at Ghent between the British and American Commissioners.”

Although the treaty had been signed on December 24, 1814, it would not take effect until the U.S. Senate ratified it. So Stewart continued his hunt for British ships—and on February 16, near the Rock of Lisbon, Constitution sighted two sails. One was a neutral Portuguese merchant, the other British, the 74-gun Elizabeth, which Stewart took pains to avoid. Later that day Constitution captured the British merchant Susanna, bound for Liverpool with a cargo worth $75,000. Stewart himself spent the next several days in a fruitless search for merchant convoys while avoiding his well-armed foes, and then came the fighting chance he’d pined for.


Dawn broke to a cloudy sky on February 20, 1815, and found Constitution about 180 miles from Madeira, sailing before a light northeasterly wind. At about 1 p.m. a lookout spotted a sail two points off the larboard bow that changed course and headed in Constitution’s direction. Forty-five minutes later the lookout sighted another sail. The two ships, HMS Cyane and Levant, were the rear guard of a convoy en route from Gibraltar to the West Indies. Each ship was smaller than Constitution, with its 52 guns, but combined they carried more firepower. The Cyane, a light frigate rated for 24 guns, was armed with 35, while the 18-gun corvette Levant actually carried 21 cannons.

Although Stewart did not know the identity of either ship, he was certain that the two were Royal Navy craft and ordered all sails set to intercept the first ship before it could join forces with the second. Two hours into the chase, the highest section of Constitution’s main mast gave way with a sickening crack. Sailors scrambled to replace it and keep the ship on course with its target.

At 5 p.m. Stewart opened fire with a forward-mounted cannon, but the British ships were out of range. A half hour later, with the range narrowing, Stewart ordered the decks cleared for action. Muskets and pikes were placed within reach for sailors to use should the opportunity arise to board the enemy ships. Sand was thrown across the decks to absorb blood. Gun crews loaded and primed their cannons. The two British ships, now within hailing distance of each other, made similar preparations.

With all three ships sailing on a starboard tack, the British attempted to gain the advantage by positioning themselves upwind of Constitution, but they failed. As Constitution came up from the stern on the windward side, the British ships fell in line separated by a hundred yards, with the smaller Levant in the lead. At 6 p.m., just as the sun was setting, Constitution raised its colors and the Brits responded immediately. Constitution surged alongside at 600 yards, and all three ships commenced firing. British fire slackened quickly and Stewart ordered his gunners to hold their fire to allow the smoke to clear and see what damage they had inflicted.

Constitution had caught up to Levant, but Cyane was coming up behind the American ship, intent on raking the American frigate. It was a devastating naval tactic: firing a broadside down the length of an enemy ship that was not in position to return fire. Stewart then tried an unusual maneuver. According to his own battle report, he backed Constitution, allowing the wind to catch the front of the main and mizzenmast topsails, bringing the ship to a halt before slowly swinging it around to face Cyane. The two ships traded fire until once again the British ship’s fire slackened. Constitution then turned to Levant, raking its stern twice and forcing it to fall back for repairs. Cyane managed one last broadside before signaling its surrender with a single cannon shot away from Constitution. At 6:45 Cyane struck its colors.

Did Stewart actually move Old Ironsides backward? According to Matthew Brenckle, historian with the USS Constitution Museum in Boston, Stewart seemed to think so. “On the other hand, the Cyane was moving forward at the same time, trying to close on Constitution. . . . It is possible that the backward movement was simply an optical illusion produced by one ship stopping in its tracks and the other moving forward. Such maneuvering was nothing radical—this sort of ship handling was performed all the time in narrow or congested seaways to avoid obstructions or other ships. . . . That Stewart and his crew had the discipline and peace of mind to pull this off in the midst of a heavy cannonading is pretty remarkable.”

At 8:40, as an American prize crew took control of Cyane, Levant remarkably returned to the fight. Broadsides were exchanged, and Constitution raked Levant. Levant’s captain, recognizing the futility of fighting a much larger adversary, tried to escape but finally struck his ship’s colors about 10 p.m.

The British captains were bad-tempered in defeat and argued about who was to blame. Stewart silenced them: “Gentlemen, there is no use getting warm about it; it would have been the same whatever you might have done. If you doubt that, I will put you all on board and you can try it over.” The British sailors were equally chagrined, first breaking into the liquor lockers on the captured vessels and then complaining repeatedly that Americans had stolen their personal belongings, prompting several searches of Old Ironsides, which turned up nothing. Assheton Humphreys, Constitution’s chaplain, summed up the situation succinctly. “Suffice it to say, that the sun of Britain’s naval glory has set.”

Stewart took his prize ships to Porto Praya in the Canary Islands for repairs and provisions, but their stay was cut short by the appearance of HMS Leander, Newcastle and Acasta—coincidentally, three of the ships that had blockaded Boston Harbor. Within minutes, Constitution and its two prize ships cut their anchor cables and headed out to sea with the Brits in pursuit. Stewart ordered his captured ships to split up. Cyane escaped, reaching New York on April 10. Levant returned to Porto Praya, where it was attacked by the British and forced to surrender, even though the port was officially neutral. Returning to Boston by way of the Brazilian coast and then Puerto Rico, Stewart learned that the U.S. Senate had ratified the Treaty of Ghent on February 16. A clause in the treaty allowed an additional 30 days to notify ships at sea that the war was over, which meant that technically, the capture of Cyane and Levant could be counted as legitimate wartime victories.

Was it a balanced fight? It depends on one’s perspective. The smaller British ships had the potential to outmaneuver their larger foe but weren’t able to do so. The Brits were principally armed with carronades, small cannons capable of throwing a 32-pound ball a short distance. Constitution, on the other hand, was armed with long cannons capable of throwing a 24-pound ball a much greater distance. According to Dr. David Wink­ler with the Naval Historical Foundation, “While the two British ships with their carronades could mount a greater throw weight versus the Constitution, the commander of the Constitution had greater range with his long guns and used that to his advantage.”

Captain Stewart’s victory made him a national hero, and he, in turn, heaped praise on his all-volunteer crew in a letter to the secretary of the Navy. “Considering the advantages derived by the enemy, from a divided and more active force, as also their superiority in weight and number of guns, I deem the speed and decisive result of this action the strongest assurance which can be given to the government, that all under my command did their duty, and gallantly supported the reputation of American seamen.”

The significance of the battle was more psychological than strategic. “Technically, it did not affect the overall state of British-American relations since the Treaty of Ghent had been signed,” according to Winkler. The treaty reaffirmed the status quo between the two countries—and for that reason many consider the war to have been a draw. But Constitution’s victory at sea, when combined with Andrew Jackson’s post-treaty success at New Orleans, equaled victory in the minds of Americans. “Confidence in the Federal government and the armed forces was restored,” said Winkler.

Charles Stewart continued his naval career after the war, rising to the rank of rear admiral. When the Civil War broke out, Stewart volunteered for active duty at age 83, but President Lincoln regretfully denied his request. Stewart resigned his commission in 1862 and died seven years later. He had been the oldest surviving captain from the War of 1812.

Constitution remained with the U.S. Navy until 1830, when Congress deemed it unfit to sail and planned to scrap it. Public sentiment inflamed by an Oliver Wendell Holmes poem—“Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!”—forced Congress to reconsider, and Old Ironsides was returned to active duty, serving a variety of assignments. In 1931 the great ship began a cruise that took it to 90 American seaports on both coasts. Constitution docked in Boston in 1934, and it has remained there ever since—the oldest commissioned Navy ship in the world.

Tom and Gena Metcalf are Marietta, Georgia-based freelance writers with an interest in maritime history. They have produced an interactive CD with original source material about the War of 1812, and have a website—