Remembering “Old Ironsides” on Memorial Day Weekend

As we are beginning the Memorial Day weekend, we wanted to share with everyone the history behind Oliver Wendell Homes, Sr.’s famous poem “Old Ironsides,” which was written on September 16, 1830:

Aye 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!

Oh, 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!

The USS Constitution earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812. This frigate with 44 guns defeated the British ship, HMS Guerriere, which interestingly was commissioned by the French, but later stolen by the British.  In any event, the Constitution was one of the original six frigates in the United States Navy. This ship was commissioned by the Naval Act of 1974.  After the Revolutionary War, the United States was heavily in debt and had actually disbanded the Continental Navy. Our first president George Washington gave the ship the name the Constitution for obvious reasons.

Turing now to the poem and author, Oliver Wendell Holmes chose for a moment to abandon his studies of law. He began to pursue poetry. During this time, he came across an article in the Boston Daily Advertise about plans to scrap this ship in September 1830. Holmes’ poem was published the following day and garnered attention throughout many cities, like New York and Washington.  As a result of his poem, the plans to scrap “Old Ironsides” were scrapped by the Navy, and now, it’s the oldest commissioned ship still floating in the world!