A moving day for Constellation

Annual turn-around performed so warship will weather evenly

September 14, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

For those aboard the Constellation, yesterday's roundtrip cruise from Pier 1 to Fort McHenry was a chance to experience what life was like when the old warship rode the seas and intercepted slave ships off the coast of West Africa.

But instead of the 20,000 square feet of sail it would have flown, the sloop of war had to depend on the power of the tugboat Mitzie Hughes.

"Our goal is not to take the ship sailing, but if that were to work out, that would be great," said Christopher S. Rowsom, executive director of the Constellation museum. "That would be a wonderful, wonderful sight."

The turn-around voyage is an annual event that allows the ship to weather evenly at its Inner Harbor berth. Yesterday's cruise also helped launch Star-Spangled Banner Weekend, which celebrates the writing of the national anthem.

That the Constellation is capable of making the trip is a testament to the painstaking $9 million renovation and restoration that has taken place in recent years and continues. The main deck and gun deck have been made to look and feel as they did in 1854, when the ship was launched from Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Va. The Constellation was the last all-sail warship built by the Navy.

Projects on the books for the ship's approaching 150th anniversary include renovating the berthing and orlop decks, powder magazines and other areas. Also, lead paint must be removed from the lower decks.

"That area really hasn't had anything done to it," said Rowsom. "It's probably going to cost another $1 million to $1.5 million."

Among those on board was Alice Nagle, whose father, Vice Adm. Royal Ingersoll, used the ship as the relief flagship for Battleship Division Five during the early months of World War II. Yesterday, she donated her father's four-star flag.

"He said one day, `If they ever get that ship in order, I want them to have my flag,'" she said.

The men of Ship's Company, re-enactors drawn by a love of history, served as living historians. Byron Childress of Philadelphia, who was dressed yesterday as a seaman, was among the crew that fired several rounds from the ship's Parrott gun.

Larry Bopp, dressed yesterday as a lieutenant commander, said the concussion from cannon fire was one more peril sailors had to endure. The sight of exhausted men bleeding from the nose and ears was common after a battle. They often used their neckerchiefs as earplugs.

"In the modern Navy, it's just for decoration," said Bopp, a retired teacher from Catonsville. Back then, "they had a purpose."

Also on board yesterday was children's author Walter Dean Myers, who is writing a book about the Constellation. He said the trip gave him a chance to do some hands-on research. He sees the book as a way to give children new insight into America's maritime history.

"It gives me an opportunity to be inclusive," he said. "Here you not only have the slave interdiction, but you also have 25 to 30 African-American sailors."

From 1859 to 1861, the Constellation served as the flagship for the U.S. African Squadron. The squadron captured 14 slave ships and freed 3,932 slaves, who were taken to Monrovia, Liberia.

One slave ship, the Cora, had been built in Baltimore in 1851. It was captured with 705 slaves on board.

"That those 700 people were on one ship is amazing," said Rowsom. "Her duty as flagship of the African Squadron is the most important thing that she did."

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