Urban Legend: Old Ironsides

Sifting through myth and finding only the facts creates problems for historians and for someone not trained in history can lead to accepting myth for fact.  An urban legend that surrounds “Old Ironsides” illustrates the problem quite well.  I had another blog before I started this one.  An experimental blog that taught me about posting on the Internet and how people would react to those posts.  One of my posts for that blog was as follows:


Old Ironsides

The U.S.S. Constitution (Old Ironsides) as a combat vessel carried 48,600 gallons of fresh (remember that figure) water for her crew of 475 officers and men. This was sufficient to last six months of sustained operations at sea. She carried no evaporators (fresh water distillers). However, let it be noted that according to her log, “On July 27, 1798, the U.S.S. Constitution sailed from Boston with a full complement of 475 officers and men, 48,600 gallons of fresh water, 7,400 cannon shot, 11,600 pounds of black powder and 79,400 gallons of rum.”

Her mission: “To destroy and harass English shipping.”

Making Jamaica on 6 October, she took on, according to her log, 826 pounds of flour and 68,300 gallons of rum.

She then headed for the Azores, arriving there 12 November. She provisioned with 550 pounds of beef and 64,300 gallons of Portuguese wine. On 18 November, she set sail for England.

In the ensuing days she defeated five British men-of-war and captured and scuttled 12 English merchantmen, salvaging only the rum aboard each. By 26 January, her powder and shot were exhausted. Nevertheless, and though unarmed, she made a night raid up the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. Her landing party captured a whiskey distillery and took aboard 40,000 gallons of single malt Scotch aboard by dawn.

Then she headed home.

The U.S.S. Constitution arrived in Boston on 20 February 1799, seven [7] months after her departure, with NO cannon shot, NO food, NO powder, NO rum, NO wine, NO whiskey, and 38,600 gallons of stagnant water.*

*According to my calculations that is two and a half gallons of alcohol per man per day.


This post got the attention of a few people who then commented.  Here is one of those comments:


True story(ask the Navy):


That comment got a rather spirited reply from Henry Sirotin, who is apparently well-versed in the history of that time period.  Henry made a compelling argument for why he felt this story is nothing more than an urban legend.  He refutes the validity of the claim by breaking down the inconsistencies with the story and placing them within known facts.

I don’t care if Dalton gave this story and the Navy included it in his speech list. It is false on the face of it- we weren’t fighting the British in 1798-1799, we were fighting the French, so this whole scenario would have been a declaration of war on Britain, and the Constitution never made European waters until 1803. And anyone who knows where the Firth of Clyde is would know that such a raid would be more than suicidal- totally constricted waters, for which you would need a pilot, no means of escape if pinned in, and a general location where she would easily be trapped, unarmed, and forced to run the gamut of the entire Irish Sea and RN units at Liverpool, Bristol, and Plymouth if the North Channel to the Atlantic were blocked.

I thanked Henry for his help with this story and was glad to have a great illustration on how to tell myth from truth.


4 Responses to “Urban Legend: Old Ironsides”

  1. 1 Mark Lamb
    July 13, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    The Navy’s version takes place during the war of 1812 which was against the British. So the Navy’s version may be correct. Kind of gives credence to the saw, “Drunk as a sailor.” I’m not about to call the U.S. Navy a liar.

  2. 2 Anish
    December 6, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    Would seem to be about a gallon of Rum per day per man, who was steering the ship?

  3. April 26, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    LOL, this posts reminds me of one the one on those aging eagles I did. I still need to remove that post, now that I’ve been set straight between fact and fiction. ;).

  4. 4 Randy Roberts
    April 27, 2012 at 4:09 am

    I feel like the guy who told the kids Santa doesn’t exist.

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