How the USS Constitution Was Saved from Target Practice

(U.S. Navy/Kathryn Macdonald)

All good things must come to an end. This includes some of the U.S. Navy's most storied vessels. While some are sold off to foreign navies, others are used as target ships, testing new weapons and tactics.

The first USS Iowa battleship was a target ship for some of the first exercises that pit aircraft against naval targets. The USS Nevada, damaged during the attack on Pearl Harbor, was used as a target ship during Operation Crossroads, testing the use of nuclear weapons on warships.

USS Constitution, now the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy and the only remaining ship to have sunk an enemy vessel in combat, almost met a similar fate, but was saved from the firing squad by some concerned American citizens.

Constitution was first launched in 1797, with President John Adams in attendance. Although intended to be in service for around 15 years, its combat lifespan lasted much, much longer, serving from 1797 to 1881, before turning into a museum ship.

It captured its first prize in the Quasi-War with France in 1798, deployed to North Africa for the First Barbary War and fought in the Second Battle of Tripoli Harbor in 1804. Its most memorable action came in the War of 1812, when it brought down the British Frigate HMS Guerriere in an engagement that earned its nickname, "Old Ironsides."

In 1833, the ship was completely reconstructed and later served as the flagship of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Squadron. It sailed around the world between 1843 and 1845, departing from Mexico shortly before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. It spent the Civil War at the U.S. Naval Academy as a training ship.

Another overhaul came in 1873, in preparation for the United States' centennial celebration. By this time, Constitution was the last of the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy. That reconstruction wasn't enough to keep it afloat for long, and by 1881, the ship was decommissioned. In 1905, then-Secretary of the Navy Charles J. Bonaparte wanted the ship to be used as a target ship.

When Massachusetts businessman and Armenian immigrant Moses Gulesian learned about the plan to use Constitution for target practice, he immediately reached out to Bonaparte via telegram:

"Will give ten thousand dollars for the Constitution, Old Ironsides. Will you sell?"

The press got wind of the offer, publishing the news in the Boston Globe, which then made national headlines. The U.S. government refused his offer, so Gulesian started to rally public support to save the ship. The American public began to protest the use of Constitution as a target ship.

"I felt that the destroying of such a relic would be a blot upon the whole country," Gulesian told the Boston Globe. "The letters I have had from east, west, north and south in regard to the matter lead me to believe that not only New England but the whole country felt the same way."

It was an act of patriotism from an immigrant who arrived in the U.S. penniless and saw himself grow rich in just 22 years. Gulesian upped the offer to $15,000, but the Navy told him only Congress could sell the ship. Within weeks, Bostonians had gathered a 30,000-signature petition to demand the preservation of USS Constitution.

Six weeks after Gulesian made his first offer in 1906, Congress appropriated $100,000 to restore the ship. By 1916, an entire society had grown around its restoration. Private citizens formed the Old Ironsides Association and elected Gulesian its first president.

Huzzah! (U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Michelle Heintzelman)

That wasn't the end of the effort to keep Constitution afloat. By 1924, it had again fallen into disrepair and was in danger of being lost to rot. A large public campaign was launched to completely repair the vessel through private citizens, organizations and the sale of products made from its old planking.

The final cost of rehabilitating the USS Constitution to pristine condition was $946,000, more than $15 million in today's dollars. By 1931, the ship was afloat once more, and although it still requires regular maintenance and refits, it never again needed the kind of repairs seen in the 1920s.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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