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Rev. Joey N. Welsh: A national icon...a call of concern

This Another Angle, "A national icon, some lines of verse, and a call to concern," was first published 10 September 2006.
To see other articles by this author, enter "Rev. Joey N. Welsh," or "Another Angle," in the searchbox. The next earlier essay posted on is That was her story, and she stuck by it

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

A national icon, some lines of verse, and a call to concern

This week (2006), when our nation observes the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, marks a time filled with memories of our great national trauma. Images from 2001 of the twin towers, the Pentagon, and the crash site near Somerset, PA flood the news again. Newer images of the memorials being established at those spots likely will be icons for future generations. Perhaps someday there will be works of literature associated with September 11 that also will become a part of the nation's consciousness.

During this week it is good to recall another national icon, one dating from the early decades our country's existence, and some words that became associated with it more than 175 years ago. The USS Constitution, popularly known as "Old Ironsides," is the oldest commissioned ship still afloat in any nation's navy. HMS Victory, a British naval vessel, is older but in permanent dry-dock. An American icon, Old Ironsides has her home port in Boston, where she was built (beginning in 1795) and launched in 1797.

Ship authorized in 1794, was built to last

A three-masted frigate, the USS Constitution was one of the ships authorized by the Naval Act of 1794. Built of lumber cut from live oak trees on St. Simons Island in Georgia, the ship was built to last, and she has lasted, indeed. Built of thick timbers put together in an innovative design that used a skeleton of cross-braced beams, the ship used the wood of about 2000 large trees. The copper spikes and bolts holding the planking in place were forged by Paul Revere.

The ship engaged in much combat during her first 20 years: in the Atlantic against the French, along the north African coast against the Barbary pirates operating out of Tripoli, and against the British in the War of 1812. In several sea battles against the British the Constitution seemed to repel direct enemy hits. The ability to cause enemy shot to bounce off her sturdy hull gained the ship the nickname Old Ironsides.

Ship scheduled to be scrapped, inspires protest poem

In 1830 Old Ironsides was examined and declared by the U. S. Navy to be unfit for sea duty; the ship was scheduled to be scrapped, and that news was published on September 14. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), a young man who reacted to this news by putting pen to paper, produced a protest poem that was published two days later and became immensely popular. The poem, "Old Ironsides," first was printed in a Boston newspaper on September 16, 1830, 176 years ago this week. Its words fed a national reaction that led the Secretary of the Navy to order the ship to be reconditioned.

In the years that followed Holmes became respected as a pioneering physician, medical professor (he coined the word anesthesia), essayist, poet, and father of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Civil War hero who was to serve thirty years as a Supreme Court associate justice.

Old Ironsides went on to be reconditioned. She embarked on a 30-month trip around the world in 1844 and saw service during the Civil War. After the advent of metal-hull vessels, the Constitution was retired from duty but saved from the scrap heap in 1905 and refurbished in 1925. She went on a tour of 90 U. S. port cities in 1930 (under tow, not by her own sail power).

Ship sails on her own again for 200th birthday

After several decades docked in Boston, the ship was extensively conserved and repaired in the 1990's, and she sailed on her own for her 200th birthday in 1997, delivering a 21-gun salute as part of the festivities. The USS Constitution remains a national symbol, one of Boston's leading tourist destinations. She also stands as a reminder of a time when some eloquent words of verse could capture the nation's imagination and rouse the public to take positive action. In our own time most words that are intended to arouse public reaction are used in a manner that is exploitive and rooted in fear, hate, or selfishness. We encounter very little in modern public discourse that even comes close to articulate eloquence. That is our loss.

Here are the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a poem written quickly that has endured, a model call to concern that was published 48 hours after the news that Old Ironsides was to be scrapped:

Old Ironsides
Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar; --
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor's tread,
Or know the conquered knee; -
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

This story was posted on 2011-09-11 10:36:24
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