As the old sloop of war Constellation floats placidly in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a new book has begun to stir the waters of an old debate that once nearly sank the ship.
Fells Point naval historian Geoffrey M. Footner has written a 345-page book that seeks to reassert the historic ship's legal and physical ties to the old frigate Constellation, which was built in Baltimore in 1797.
Relying on government records and shipyard logs, Footner challenges the prevailing view - held by many naval historians and by Living Classrooms Foundation, the nonprofit organization that now maintains the vessel - that the frigate was scrapped in 1853 and replaced the next year by a sloop of war, built new from the keel up in Portsmouth, Va.
Instead, he says, historical documents demonstrate that the ship's construction in Virginia was carried out as a routine "rebuild" of the old frigate, much like earlier rebuilds in 1812, 1829 and 1839.
"Is this the same ship as 1797?" he asks. "I say yes. And I have proved that it is in this book."
Such rebuilding was common in the wooden Navy, Footner says, and the Navy always regarded them as the same ships.
Footner, 79, is a former U.S. naval officer, businessman and longtime Fells Point resident. He is the author of Tidewater Triumph, a well-regarded book about Chesapeake Bay sailing craft.
His new book, USS Constellation: From Frigate to Sloop of War, was published this month by the Naval Institute Press.
The book has been awaited with a mixture of hope and dread by those interested in the ship - hope that Footner might really have uncovered something new, and dread that he might revive the old controversy that nearly scuttled one of the city's major tourist attractions a decade ago. The Constellation draws nearly 100,000 visitors annually.
Older than `Ironsides'?
Legal and physical descent from the frigate would make the Constellation the oldest U.S. naval vessel afloat - older by six weeks than the USS Constitution, the storied "Old Ironsides" in Boston.
Yet the Constellation Foundation, the nonprofit group then responsible for the ship, supposedly settled the question in 1994, when it sided with those who argue that the current vessel dates back no further than 1854.
Besides quieting a half-century of wrangling among historians, the foundation's declaration reassured potential donors, enabling the group to raise most of the $9 million needed to restore the Constellation to its 1854 sloop appearance.
Footner praises the restoration, and concedes that "they had to have peace to get it done." But the rescue came at the expense of "historical truth," he argues, and he contends that the ship's future is endangered by what he calls "a conspiracy of convenience."
Without claim to the frigate's Baltimore roots, Footner says, the money won't be there years from now when the Constellation needs another multimillion-dollar repair.
"It destroys the links between the original frigate and the sloop of war by a smoke screen," he said. "We need that actual history for the future of this vessel."
Historians at sea
Others, though, say it is Footner who has clouded the issue.
"This new book has turned back the clock and introduced all the old stuff again, and it's muddied the waters," said Dana Wegner, curator of ship models at the Navy's Surface Warfare Center in Bethesda.
Wegner argued in a widely accepted 1991 report that a detailed examination of the Constellation's lines proved that the ship was built new as a sloop of war after the old frigate had been scrapped.
Controversy and confusion have shadowed the Constellation for at least half a century.
The Navy knew throughout the late 19th century that the ship then afloat was a sloop of war, built in 1854. It was one of the last all-sail warships built for the U.S. Navy, as subsequent vessels were powered at least partially by steam engines.
In connection with the centennial of the War of 1812, however, then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the ship restored to look more like the famed frigate Constellation, which saw action in that war. (It also fought the French in an undeclared war in 1798 and 1799, and the Barbary States in North Africa a few years later.)
The Navy soon began referring to the Constellation as a frigate. In 1955, when the decrepit vessel was towed to Baltimore and entrusted to the nonprofit Star-Spangled Banner Flag House Association, the Navy told the group to restore it as the frigate. But efforts to alter the ship's appearance weakened its structure, and the controversy over its identity confused the public and discouraged donors, both public and private.
Naval historian Howard I. Chapelle had demonstrated in the 1940s that the vessel's lines and dimensions didn't match those of the 1797 frigate. Dana Wegner's report in 1991 reinforced that conclusion.