Old Ironsides is the common name for the U.S.S. Constitution, a 44 gun frigate, and the most famous ship in American naval history. She is still in commission, although now essentially a floating museum.
Old Ironsides was a big ship for a frigate, 2,200 tons and with a crew reaching 475—that’s as big as a World War Two destroyer. She was built in the 1790s and was built stoutly, of many kinds of wood, but is best known for being built partly of durable and stout live oak. Paul Revere is said to have made bolts used in the ship, and the copper plating for the hull (the plating was expensive but prevented barnacles and shipworms from damaging the ship).
The live oak went into her framing and hull. White oak was used for her planking. She had treenails made of black locust, her belaying pins made from very hard lignum vitae. Ship builders had a highly sophisticated understanding of the appropriate wood that was best for a specific purpose.
The live oak, Quercus virginiana, features in the story of how the ship got her name. In 1812, the Constitution was in battle with H.M.S. Guerriere, another frigate, and some British cannonballs bounced harmlessly off the tough live oak timbers.
Some sailor, it is unclear whether British or American, shouted “She’s got sides of iron!” and the nickname became famous after her win over the British frigate. It’s not clear exactly what was shouted, but the famous name was a consequence of this naval battle and the victory a consequence of live oak.
Old Ironside’s career included the defeat and capture of two British frigates, two smaller British warships and a number of British merchant ships, all in the War of 1812. She participated in the first Barbary War, and was flagship for the U.S. Navy Mediterranean and Africa squadrons, and was later a training ship.
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