A sailing warship returns to Annapolis


Constellation gave Mids their sea legs

October 23, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

It's been more than a century since the three masts of the 186-foot Constellation loomed over historic Annapolis.

And if all goes as planned, the historic sloop of war built in 1854 as the Navy's last all-sail fighting ship will return to Annapolis on Tuesday, tying up along the Naval Academy's Farragut Seawall after being towed there from its permanent berth in the Inner Harbor.

The Constellation's six-day visit marks the first time the vessel has left local waters since 1955, and in recent years, its perambulations have taken it no farther than the Key Bridge.

The ship will depart Baltimore at 8:30 a.m., not under sail, but in the company of three Van Brothers tugs. At 9:45 a.m. as it stands off Fort McHenry, the vessel will be honored with a fly-over of four Maryland Air National Guard A-10 Warthogs.

"The voyage to Annapolis is expected to take 7 1/2 hours," said Christopher Rowsom, executive director of the USS Constellation Museum.

Commissioned in 1855, the Constellation replaced an earlier vessel of the same name that was laid down in Baltimore in 1797.

This second Constellation departed July 28, 1855, for a three-year assignment with the Mediterranean Squadron. While serving with the African Squadron off the West African coast from 1859 to 1861, the ship stopped westbound slave ships and removed their human cargo.

During the Civil War, the ship performed blockading duties in the Mediterranean and later with the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, where it protected Union merchant vessels from attacks by Confederate raiders.

Displaced by the rise of steam-powered naval vessels that marked the end of the era of wooden ships and canvas sails, it became a Naval Academy training vessel. It was on the decks and in the rigging of the Constellation, on long summer cruises between 1871 and 1893, that first- and third-year midshipmen learned the ways of the sea and ships.

Commodore John L. Worden, who had commanded the USS Monitor at Hampton Roads, Va., during the Civil War before becoming academy superintendent, believed in vigorous instruction and daily drills.

"True to Worden's emphasis upon `hands on' instruction, the highlight of each midshipman's year was the summer cruise where classroom lessons were augmented with real nautical experience," wrote authors Stephen R. Bockmiller and Lawrence J. Bopp in their USS Constellation, An Illustrated History, published in 2000.

"As the ship would slowly cruise down the smooth course of the Severn River, it gave the false illusion to the plebes aboard that life at sea was not the hardship they had been told, as they believed themselves to be gaining their `sea legs' quite easily.

"This erroneous belief was drastically ended when each cruise captain would have the ship heave to where the bay met the ocean to allow the ship to roll violently with the combination of the sea and the wind. Soon the rails were lined with young seasick boys and the harsh reality of life at sea was vividly ingrained upon all on board."

On Feb. 13, 1893, the Constellation arrived off Fortress Monroe, Va., after completing a voyage from Gibraltar, where it had been dispatched to collect a cargo of French and Italian art to be displayed at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The Constellation departed on its final training cruise from Annapolis on June 6, 1893, and, while en route to Gibraltar, reported to a passing vessel that a member of the crew had been killed by the capstan bar while weighing the ship's anchor. The ship came home Aug. 29, 1893.

"Coming up the bay the practice vessel gave the cadets of the first, third and fourth classes, who are aboard, a chance to show what they have been taught at the academy during their probation there. They went through the evolutions of making and furling sail and other nautical exercises like old tars, which delighted a number of people who were sailing about in small boats," reported The Sun.

"The staunch old frigate, which has withstood many successful cruises, was greatly admired as she sailed up, carrying a liberal display of which canvas, showing that her sails were kept during the cruise in true sailor-like trim."

The Constellation was decommissioned Sept. 2, 1893, and sent to Norfolk, Va., for repairs. Converted to a stationary training ship, it was towed to Newport, R.I., Naval Training Station, where it remained for 50 years.

Its former training ship duties at the academy were replaced by the USS Monongahela, a Civil War-era steam sloop of war, and the USS Bancroft, a cruiser.

"It was a routine matter for the Navy, so she left Annapolis without any pomp or circumstance, or at least none that I'm aware of," said Kennedy R. Hickman, the ship's curator.

The Constellation, which arrived in 1946 at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, spent nearly a decade there deteriorating before coming to Baltimore in 1955 for preservation.

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