There were no boxes of chocolates or roses for the crew of USS Constitution as Valentine’s Day rolled around in 1814. But when the day was over, they were awash with lumber, fish and flour — spoils from an engagement with a British merchantman named Lovely Ann.
On that Feb. 14, USS Constitution’s wooden hull was a figuratively green whippersnapper, a mere 17 years old. President George Washington named the 44-gun frigate that had been ordered through the Naval Act of 1794. The heavy frigate was launched in 1797 and remains the oldest commissioned ship in the world that can still sail under its own power. She is soon to go into dry dock in Boston for a scheduled maintenance and upkeep.
A veteran of both the Quasi War with the French and the First Barbary War, Constitution’s greatest glory came during the War of 1812. It was during the two-and-one-half year conflict she made five cruises and captured, burned or sent in as prizes nine merchantmen and five ships of war, most notably the British warship HMS Guerriere.
Under the command of Capt. Isaac Hull, it was that engagement where Constitution earned her the nickname "Old Ironsides," because Guerriere’s cannon balls glanced off her thick iron-protected hull during the Aug. 19, 1812 battle. Guerriere was scuttled the next day. The victory made Constitution the rock star of her day and thus began more than two centuries of public adoration for the three-masted frigate.
By the time Feb. 14, 1814 rolled around, Capt. Charles Stewart was Constitution’s 10th captain and they were sailing along the northern coast of South America. That morning, Constitution’s crew spotted the British schooner HMS Pictou off the coast of Barbados. The schooner was escorting the armed merchant ship Lovely Ann hauling a cargo of lumber, fish and flour.
After an hour long chase, Constitution passed Pictou on her starboard side and fired. Her deck and main mast were destroyed within minutes. Stewart realized Pictou was sinking and ordered his men to rescue the British sailors. After the Pictou’s men were saved, they captured the Lovely Ann and hours later the crew of the Constitution celebrated with food and wine. The engagement between Constitution and Lovely Ann may have been brief, but well worth celebrating on that Valentine’s Day of 1814.
To learn more about U.S. Navy history, please go to the Naval History and Heritage Command website: www.history.navy.mil/.