Constellation to visit Naval Academy, where it trained midshipmen long ago

October 13, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

One of the Inner Harbor's best-known tenants, the sloop of war Constellation, will visit an old home this month when it returns to the U.S. Naval Academy for the first time in more than 110 years.

The Constellation served as a training vessel at the academy from 1871 to 1893 but has not been there since. The ship will be towed by tugboat from Baltimore to Annapolis on Oct. 26 and be moored along the academy's Farragut Seawall for six days as part of the ship's 150th anniversary celebration.

The Constellation, a 186-foot wooden vessel with 23 guns, has not traveled any farther than the Key Bridge since it was docked permanently in Baltimore in 1955.

"This is the big one," said Christopher Rowsom, executive director of the USS Constellation Museum. "She hasn't traveled this far on her own keel since the '40s."

The voyage will offer a rare opportunity to watch and photograph one of the nation's oldest seaworthy ships of war in open water.

Rowsom said he hopes the trip, which will include five days of public tours in Annapolis, will remind people of the ship's history.

"Even though for her first few years she was an active combat ship, for almost all of her career she has been involved as a training ship, as an educator," Rowsom said.

Rod Gibbons, the academy's public affairs officer, said alumni and students alike are looking forward to the historic visit from "a great ship that taught a generation of midshipmen about practical seamanship."

The Navy built the sloop of war Constellation in 1854 as a replacement for the frigate Constellation, built in Baltimore in 1797. The sloop of war was the last all-sail fighting ship built by the Navy.

From 1859 to 1861, the Constellation led the Navy's African Squadron, which intercepted slave ships leaving the West African coast. The ship subsequently was used for diplomatic and training missions, including its stint at the academy.

During its 23-year residence at the academy, the ship was the chief training vessel for first- and third-year midshipmen. They took the Constellation down the Chesapeake and out to sea for three-month voyages to New England ports such as New London, Conn., and Newport, R.I.

Rowsom said letters from those midshipmen show the difficulty of coordinating operations on the sloop of war and of sailing the open seas for the first time.

"They're all about, `Here I am, out to sea, I'm seasick, and I don't know if I can make it in this Navy,'" Rowsom said.

In one of many letters collected by the Constellation museum, midshipman Edward H. Campbell wrote in 1890, "For pure, unadulterated, indefinable misery I will heartily recommend seasickness. I haven't fully recovered yet, and I expect that I will get sick again as soon as this calm is over."

Other letters describe the ship captain's "fiendish" penchant for rousing midshipmen at 2 a.m. and giving extra privileges to the first crew that could get a cannon shot off in the dark.

William A. Moffett, later a rear admiral known as the father of naval aviation, wrote in 1889 of how the ship ran aground while trying to exit the bay near Norfolk, Va. In addition to describing all-out efforts to take down the ship's rigging, Moffett spoke of the ship's flustered captain - and asked for money from home so he could participate in on-board recreation.

"Just like today's college kids," Rowsom said.

Midshipmen also wrote home with tales of wonder. In 1873, Alexander R. Mitchell wrote that during "my watch some nights since I saw a tremendous meteor. I never saw anything so brilliant. I did not know at first what to make of it. ... We see a great number of all sorts of marine animals, Dolphins, Porpoises, Black fish, the latter are considered a species of whale, there are also great numbers of sea gulls flying about the Ship."

The ship eventually became known as the "cradle of admirals" because nearly all high-ranking naval officers at the turn of the 20th century had trained on its decks.

The Constellation made its last major voyage in 1999, when it returned to its downtown pier after 2 1/2 years of repair and restoration at a Locust Point dry-dock. The $7.3 million restoration, paid for by private and public funds, reversed a physical decline caused by decades of rot and neglect. The ship still has about half of its original wood.

Rowsom said the vessel might not have been able to make the voyage to Annapolis before its restoration. Even now, the Constellation's rigging and ballast are not in shape to actually set sail, and he said the ship would not be taken out in bad weather or choppy seas.

But Rowsom said the ship will make the eight-hour trip without any last-minute repairs or enhancements.

"She's in good shape to make it down the bay and back without any trouble at all," he said.

The Constellation is scheduled to leave Baltimore the morning of Oct. 26, pass under the Bay Bridge about 2:30 p.m. and dock at the U.S. Naval Academy, where it will be greeted with a ceremony around 4 p.m. Free tours will be available from Oct. 27 to Oct. 31. The $50,000 cost of the voyage and Annapolis docking is being paid for by Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems.

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