USS "Constellation" - The last wooden all-sail warship of the U.S. Navy, commissioned in 1855

28 July 1855, the U.S. Navy commissioned its last wooden all-sail warship, the sloop USS “Constellation” in Norfolk, Virginia.

“ ...the Congress have substituted a new constellation of stars instead of the Union in the Continental Colours.” (Dr Ezra Stiles)

Tomaso de Simone (1805 - 1888): "USS Constellation" (1862)

Named after the “new constellation of stars” on the flag of the United Stars, the 180' sloop was the second ship of its name, succeeding the successful frigate that distinguished itself in the Quasi-War of 1798 with France, capturing one and disabling another French frigate. Even though the term “sloop-of-war” denoted a small cruiser in the days of Nelson’s navy, sloops employed by most Western seafaring nations during the second half of the 19th century were actually larger and far better armed than the frigates sailing two generations before.

In international, far-away waters, remote from the next coal bunkers, sailing ships still had an advantage over the cutting-edge armoured and steam-powered warships of the 1850s, since they could operate independently for a far longer time. Thus, USS “Constellation” accomplished her first missions off the coast of Africa, capturing three slavers and freeing 705 people carried off on board the bark “Cora” and releasing them to Monrovia.

A postcard showing USS "Constellation" in 1908,
she was the oldest commissioned U.S. warship afloat at this time

The capture of last of the three, the brig Triton, coincided with the outbreak of the US Civil War, thus “Constellation” brought in the first Confederate prize the Union Navy made. After a refit at home, she spent most of the war chasing Confederate privateers in the Mediterranean, returning to Mobile in 1864 and finally sailing as a training ship since the 1870s with the nickname “Cradle of Admirals” until she was used for stationary training in Newport at the turn of the century and even was, for a short period during the summer of 1942 the flagship of the US Atlantic Fleet.

USS “Constellation” was finally decommissioned in 1955 and can be admired today as a Museum Ship in Baltimore. For a while, rumours went around that she actually was the rebuilt 1797 frigate, since the latter was broken up at Norfolk Navy Yard when the sloop’s keel was laid there, but during the intensive restoration of “Constellation” during the late 1990s, it could indeed be proven that she was not the same ship. Still, she is one of the oldest preserved ships of the US Navy and surviving sailing ships from the 19th century.

USS “Constellation” docked in Baltimore’s Inner Harbour (photo by Chuck Szmurlo taken Feb. 11, 2007 and found on wikimedia commons)