Touring the USS Constellation in Baltimore

While in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor be sure to visit the Historic Ships in Baltimore, which consists of four ships from various eras of US maritime history and a Chesapeake Bay lighthouse.  The most affordable entrance fee to Historic Ships of Baltimore is obtained by presenting a AAA membership card, which reduces the cost for all four vessels to a reasonable level (the tour of the lighthouse is free).

There have been several vessels named Constellation in the US Navy, but only the two earliest iterations are important here:

USS Constellation (1797) – The original Constellation was a 38-gun frigate and the second of the six original frigates (four 44-gun ships and two 36-gun ships) to be commissioned in the United States Navy.  Although the Constellation was the second frigate launched, she was distinguished as the first US Navy vessel to put to sea and the first to engage, defeat and capture an enemy warship – the French frigate L’Insurgente on February 9, 1799, during the undeclared French-US Quasi-War of 1798-1800.  The Constellation – like her sister ship Congress – was designed to be a heavy-weight 36-gun frigate; powerful enough to defeat any other enemy frigate afloat and fast enough to evade bigger ships-of-the-line that could sink her.  After construction was completed, Constellation and Congress were re-rated to the higher 38-gun classification, though that was just approximate – during the War of 1812, Constellation actually carried 48-guns and Congress carried 44-guns. The original USS Constellation was launched on September 7, 1797 and was broken up in 1853.

USS Constellation (1854) – Launched August 26, 1854, this second version of the Constellation — which is currently berthed in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor — is where much of the confusion enters the picture.  When the original 1797 Constellation was broken up for scrap in 1853 at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, some of her timbers were recycled for use in the 1854 Constellation that was currently being built in the very same shipyard as a sloop-of-war, the last sail-only vessel the US Navy ever built.

The major differences between the two ships?

The 1797 Constellation was a true frigate and carried her principal armament – 28 long guns – on a single continuous deck and her much lighter armament – 20 carronades – split in two sections between the bow and the stern of the ship on the deck above the principal armament.  By contrast, the 1854 Constellation had only 20 large guns – all of which were mounted on a single continuous deck; however, the guns she did carry were much more powerful than those of her predecessor.

Additionally, the 1854 Constellation was significantly longer and heavier than the 1797 Constellation, adding to the confusion.  And if that weren’t enough, the 1797 Constellation was not officially removed from the US Naval Registry at the time, though Gosport yard logs and account books record the 1854 Constellation being built.  Things got so convoluted and twisted that even naval historians were convinced that the 1854 version was simply the 1797 version that had been rebuilt.  At one point the FBI was called in and determined documents supporting the “rebuilt” theory were forgeries.

Readers interested in further details are referred to the online PDF version of “Fouled Anchors: The Constellation Question Answered” by Dana M. Wegner of the David Taylor Research Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  This research, published in September 1991, lays to rest all of the controversy and establishes that there were indeed two separate ships of the same name.