The UK and the US navies both have eighteenth century wooden sailing ships still in commission. HMS Victory in dry dock at Portsmouth is the icon of the British fleet, a constant reminder of Trafalgar and the glory days of Nelson. USS Constitution, refurbished and afloat in Boston harbour, is the frigate that the British navy could not sink or capture, affectionately known as “old Ironsides”. She had a distinguished career as one of the USA’s first group of six powerful naval vessels.
The stories of both, paradoxically, are the story of freedom in their own countries. Victory is the most recognised symbol of Britain’s resistance to Napoleon. Britain fought for the small nations and independent peoples of Europe against the French dictator who wished to place all under his rule and continental system. Victory guided by Nelson led one of the two lines of British warships into battle against the more heavily armed and formidable allied fleet of France and Spain off Cape Trafalgar. They achieved the most stunning victory in a battleship encounter from the age of sail. Britain truly ruled the waves. She confirmed her pre-eminence at sea, by showing her ability to defeat two great powers at the same time. The victory meant Napoleon could not invade Britain with the Grand Army and complete his eclipse of independence and self determination in Europe.
The USS Constitution claimed to be a frigate. Her keel length, however, was almost the same as that of Victory. Her beam was narrower. Quoted as a 44 gun ship, compared to Victory’s 104, there are other references to her carrying 55 guns on some missions. Victory was 50% heavier than Constitution,but Constitution had sides as thick as 24 inches at the waterline. More importantly, some of her timbers were in American live oak, which is stronger at resisting cannon fire than English oak. As a result, when in wartime exchanges with British ships, the cannon balls fired against her either bounced off or lodged in the sides of the ship, refusing to penetrate fully.
Constitution successfully fought and captured two British frigates, both less powerful than herself, in separate ship actions. She also defeated two smaller English warships together. She was finally retired with a perfect record of engagements with the enemy. She helped secure the American revolution. She showed that even at the time of Britain’s maritime supremacy that the USA had at least one warship which could evade Britain’s most powerful ships, and defeat any British ship smaller than her. This was news to the British navy, which was used to winning against the odds in actions they willingly undertook. The British did succeed in capturing the smaller Chesapeake in 1813, and the powerful but damaged President in 1815, two of Constitution’s five sister naval vessels of the first US navy.
The new Republic was to demonstrate a great capacity to wage war and fight for freedom. USS Constitution gave the fledgeling republic a sense of power and capability. The sailors and gunners of Constitution showed huge skill and bravery. They posed a challenge to the crews of British warships far greater than the typical French or Spanish vessel. These defenders of freedom practised sailing and gunnery more, and were good at both. President was damaged before the final action by sailing error.
Similarly, the heavily outgunned British fleet at Trafalgar never doubted its ability to win. The British only had 27 battleships with 2318 guns, to the Allies 33 battleships and 2872 guns. The British just believed that their skill at sailing and gunnery would win the day, as it did.