Be it frigate or corvette, Constellation is historic

September 17, 1991|By Sandy Banisky

So maybe the Constellation, floating regally in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, isn't the 1797 frigate its defenders believe it to be. Maybe it's an 1854 sloop-of-war, a corvette, built as the old Constellation was being dismantled and christened with the same name. So what?

"It's still a great thing to have," said Dana Wegner, the naval historian who last week delivered a research paper positing that the ship was not really the oldest U.S. warship continuously afloat. "It's wonderful."

In fact, it might be an even more interesting ship than the Constellation's fans know, Mr. Wegner said.

If it's the 1797 frigate, he explained, it's a sister to the USF Constitution, berthed in Boston, and therefore not unique.

If, however, "it indeed is an 1854 ship, it represents the last warship that the Navy ever built that had only sails on it -- which means it's the fanciest version of its kind," Mr.Wegner said. "The next ships built had steam engines. It's quite rare."

But the head of the Constellation Foundation, Herbert Witz, was not ready yesterday to accept any civilian naval historian's view of the frigate's history.

"The United States Navy has steadfastly maintained this is the one and only Constellation," said Mr. Witz, who over the years has weathered other attacks on the ship's claims to historic significance.

"Our position is simply what the Navy says it is. And there are people of great repute who have always maintained this. We lay people, who are only volunteers, who are we to disagree with the experts in the Navy?"

And Mr. Witz, who has worked on the Constellation restoration almost from the time it was brought back to Baltimore in the mid-1950s, added, "Frankly, I am surprised, we are all surprised, that this man, who is a civilian employee of the Navy Department, was allowed to publish this thing."

The Navy is not taking sides. Reading from an official statement, Lt. Mark Walker, a Navy spokesman, said that the conclusions Mr. Wegner reached in his research reflect his personal views, not those of the Navy or any other government agency.

Lieutenant Walker added, "Whether one concludes that the USF Constellation, presently berthed and on public display in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, was built between 1796 and 1797 or 1853 and 1855, the ship is clearly an important part of our American maritime heritage that deserves to be preserved and displayed for the benefit of the American people."

Mr. Wegner, who delivered his findings Thursday at the 10th Naval History Symposium at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, called the Baltimore ship "the second Constellation. It would be up to other Navy scholars whether they would want to consider this the same ship or not."

The first Constellation, he said, was designed in 1795, built in Baltimore and launched in 1797. It was a frigate, with two gun decks -- slower, heavier and shorter than the ship in the Inner Harbor, he said.

Documents, including some available in the National Archives, led him to conclude that in 1853, the frigate was brought to the Norfolk Navy Yards and dismantled, its timbers auctioned off. About 600 feet away, a new ship was being built, a corvette, with a single gun deck.

"The ship was built simultaneously with the destruction of the old, and employed the old name," Mr. Wegner, a curator at the Navy's David Taylor Research Center in Annapolis, said in his speech.

Before 1909, Navy records show the Constellation to have been built in Norfolk in 1854. "In 1909, the official records, for reasons unknown, began to show her as built in Baltimore in 1797," Mr. Wegner noted. "Within a few years, the Navy became misled and honestly believed the 1797 origin."

He added that "our computer study shows there's no shape of the old ship that's contained in the new ship."

Mr. Witz, however, said the original ship was merely "converted from a frigate to a corvette" in 1854. "They changed the configuration of the guns. We don't care whether it's called a frigate or a corvette."

But Mr. Wegner maintains this is no converted vessel; this is a different one.

Even in 1955, when the Navy turned the ship over to a Baltimore museum foundation, some officials raised concerns that it was not the same ship, Mr. Wegner said. But no one could prove conclusively that the old ship had been torn apart.

Fans of the Constellation found some documentation supporting its 1797 origins, Mr. Wegner added, and "rather hastily said, 'This is the old ship.' And the Navy said, 'If that's OK with you, that's OK with us.' " That defense, he said, may indeed have saved the old vessel.

And so the ship was restored -- with federal, state, city and private funds -- and berthed in the Inner Harbor, where it presides today. About 220,000 visitors paid to tour it last year, city officials said, and Baltimore's promotional literature features as a sight not to be missed.

City officials do not sound concerned about the controversy.

"I wouldn't think it would make a difference," said William Gilmore, Baltimore's acting director of promotion. "Old is old. It's still a beautiful ship and historically significant."

"They could have fooled me," said David Gillece, head of Center City-Inner Harbor Development Corp., the agency that oversees harbor projects. "It's a great piece of history and a great attraction in the Inner Harbor."

Mr. Wegner said he's taken his findings as far as he cares to. "Our job has ended now. We don't intend to pursue it any further."

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