Constellation confrontation on deck Experts to do battle over ship's history

April 28, 1993|By Patrick McGuire | Patrick McGuire,Staff Writer

They're at it again, those earnest, clear-as-molasses historical spin doctors, reviving their long playing is-she-the-oldest or is-she-just-sort-of-old controversy over the Inner Harbor's jewel, the Constellation.

Armed with yards of eye-glazing academic research and eeny weeny footnotes about scantlings and futtocks and other bits of sailing arcana, the two reigning heavyweights on either side of the issue will beat to quarters at a unique seminar today at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, hoping to blow each other out of the water.

While a face-to-face confrontation between these rivals has never been staged before, the basic questions to be raised by Dana Wegner, curator of ship models at the Navy's David Taylor Research Center in Bethesda, and William M. P. Dunne, history professor at Long Island University, have not changed in the nearly 50 years this debate has dragged on.

Is the Constellation, sitting now in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the very same ship-of-war built here and launched in 1797? Is it really, as has been claimed since her arrival here in 1955, the oldest U.S. ship still afloat -- even older than "Old Ironsides," the renowned Constitution berthed in Boston?

Or is the handsome, tourist-drawing centerpiece of Harborplace a misdiagnosed artifact, no frigate at all but a completely unrelated Norfolk-built sloop dating only to the dull, pre-Civil War days of 1853?

Not exactly the kind of burning question that decides the fate of mankind. Yet, in the arcane, hidebound arena of academic historians, this remains a hairpulling, eyegouging fistfight.

And some critics are beginning to tire of it, fearing it could damage restoration efforts of Baltimore's Constellation, no matter what her lineage. In fact, one of them is retired Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III, who organized Wednesday's seminar behalf of the U.S. Naval Institute.

"Whatever the position of these two historians, I don't care," he says bluntly. "The argument is worthless. . . . The whole thing is counterproductive and if I could get by with not having the two best protagonists on this issue on the panel, I would."

But he can't and he knows it. The seminar is aimed at enlisting support to restore the ship, which needs a reported $10 million in repairs. The trouble is, she now has only a $750,000 annual budget, funded almost exclusively by the 220,000 visitors to her each year, 90 percent of whom are tourists.

With few corporate benefactors, and little local interest, the Constellation is seeking new, generous friends. And, begrudges Admiral Metcalf -- who is not officially connected to the Constellation but simply a man who says he has always loved old ships -- there's nothing like a good controversy to whip up interest.

Mr. Wegner is the man most responsible for resurrecting the controversy, which flared from the mid-1940s until the mid-1970s when the last of an old breed of Constellation critics and defenders died.

In 1991 Mr. Wegner, under the seal of the United States Navy, published the academic treatise "Fouled Anchors: The Constellation Question Answered." It asserted that the aging frigate Constellation was completely dismantled in 1853 in a Norfolk shipyard and that a new sloop, also named Constellation, was built from scratch several hundred yards away. Frigates were larger than sloops, carried more guns and served a larger military purpose.

That new ship, he contends, is the one now docked in Baltimore.

Key to his report was a long mislaid scale model -- actually a lengthwise "half model" -- of the Constellation, of the type used by shipbuilders in the mid-19th century as a guide to constructing a full-sized sailing ship.

Using computers, Mr. Wegner believes he proved the half-model identically matches the shape of the ship shown in the builder's plans of the rebuilt 1853 Constellation, as well as the ship now at Harborplace.

Other computer studies in his report showed that the ship entering drydock in 1853 matched the plans of the original 1797 Constellation, but that the ship emerging from Norfolk bore no resemblance.

His coup de grace was an extensive debunking of the reams of documents used by other historians for decades to prove Baltimore's ship dated to 1797. Both the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms certified that several documents were forgeries. Mr. Wegner reported that other documents cited by

historians, simply did not exist.

The U.S. Navy, which underwrote his study, has never backed off its long held position that the Baltimore ship is the original, even though it largely bases its position on those documents which, even Mr. Wegner's sharpest critics now believe, are indeed bogus.

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