Set sail with Commander Shick

Marissa Gugala- 1851 Staff

Professor Paul DeBole hosted speaker Nathanial Shick on Tuesday, April 9 in Stoller.  Shick is the commander of the U.S.S. Constitution and has been in the United States Navy for 19 years.  The U.S.S. Constitution is, as Commander Shick described her, “…a U.S. native.”  She gained her prestige and fame over the course of many naval battles, specifically the battle of 1812.

At the time of the American Revolution, on the federal level, the country did not have the shipbuilding capacity it needed.  The U.S. relied on its maritime cities such as Salem, Gloucester, Boston, and others to provide subscription frigates.  Money was raised and then the frigates were turned over to the continental congress to manage the campaign.

According to Shick, at the time the Articles of Confederation were signed, the U.S. had the second largest merchant fleet.  “Our livelihood was dependent upon the maritime trade at the time,” he said.  After the U.S. Constitution was signed, President Washington petitioned Congress in 1794 for initial funds for six frigates.  “Three which are 44-guns…and three were 36-guns.  The Constitution was one of the 44-gun ships of the time,” said Shick.

The first three frigates, including the U.S.S. Constitution, were launched in 1797.  The U.S.S. Constitution was built in what used to be Edmond Heart Shipyard.  The design of the boat was created by a Navy architect, Joshua Humphries.  Commander Shick explained that at this time, the U.S. could not out-build the British who “…were operating with a fleet of about 800.”

“The few ships that we do build need to be of such superior design, faster, and can…shed more firepower in single-combat than their enemy,” Said Shick.  The design for the U.S.S. Constitution incorporated the keel which is the spine or backbone of the boat and framing that came up vertically from the backbone.

The Constitution also included three support frames going forward and three going towards the back of the ship.  This helped to distribute the weight of the gun-banks evenly.  These frigates were longer than the French and British ships.  This also distributed weight better.  “She [The Constitution] was faster.  She was more structurally sound…Pound for pound, she outmatches any of her opponents,” Shick said.

Most of the warships at this time were made of white oak.   Instead, the U.S. used live oak.  Shick said, “We would have one horizontal plank of white.  A vertical plank of live oak and another vertical plank of white oak again.”  Shick told attendees that live oak was grown in swampy areas and tends to be very dense.  This made it possible for the ships to take a lot of damage without the cannonballs penetrating its hull.

The first war The Constitution was used in was the quasi-war against France.  There was roughly a two-year period where the U.S. was attacking French privateers in the West Indies.  The Constitution was used to “…secure several privateers and take prizes.”  If any ship was captured, the captain and the crew got a percentage of the “prize money.”

The treaty the U.S. had with the country of Algiers fell apart in 1803.  William Bainbridge at the time was the captain of the U.S.S. Philadelphia.  He would later go on to become the captain of the U.S.S. Constitution.  The U.S. sent a squadron after some of their sailors were captured by Tripoli.  The flagship of the squadron was the U.S.S. Constitution, captained by Edward Preble.  He was a commander from 1803 to 1805.

“The water, the harbor of Tripoli is infamous for a series reefs and shoals.  It is only possible for a very shallow-draft vessel to actually get in close enough to fire on the fortifications guarding the harbor.  The Constitution was not one of those,” said Shick.  This limited the offensive actions that the U.S. could take to get their sailors back.

“Free trade and sailor’s rights are what really became the war cry of the War of 1812 and that is where the Constitution won her fame,” said Shick.  At the time, the U.S. had a standing army of about 5000 soldiers and 18 vessels in the Navy.  Great Britain however, had 75,000 soldiers and allegedly over 800 warships at sea.  During the first year of the War of 1812, the U.S. did not fare well during land battles.  What kept morale up were the wins at sea.

Shick told the attendees the story of how this U.S.S. Constitution’s nickname, Old Ironsides came to be.  Captain Isaac Hall’s carpenter stuck his head out of a gun-port window to check the ship’s hull for damage.  Because of the materials used to create the ship, the British cannonballs kept bouncing off the side.  Commander Shick said, “…he looked down and said, ‘Huzzah! It’s as if her sides are made of iron.’”

Commander Shick’s father and grandfather both served in the U.S. military.  “I come by it naturally,” he said about being in the military.  By trade, he is a surface warfare officer.  He explained that this meant, “…destroyers, cruisers, any of the amphibious squadrons, any of the ship driving aspect of the Navy.”  His specialty is weapons and combat systems.

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