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Men of Iron: USS Constitution’s War of 1812 Crew

By Matthew Brenkle, Lauren McCormack and Sarah Watkins

Charlestown, Massachusetts: USS Constitution Museum, 2012

8-1/2” x 11”, softcover, 68 pages

Illustrations, tables, notes. $10.00

ISBN: 9780615672069 

             USS Constitution defeated the British warships Guerriere, Java, Pictou, Cyane and Levant during the War of 1812, which cemented its place in American history. In addition to its pivotal role in the war, Constitution is the oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat, and, as such, has inspired much literature. Most of these written works focus on the anatomy of Constitution, the role that the ship played in the War of 1812, and the recent efforts in its preservation. Men of Iron: USS Constitution’s War of 1812 Crew, however, focuses exclusively on the men who ran the ship and their experiences during the war. Matthew Brenckle, Lauren McCormack, and Sarah Watkins, who are part of the faculty and staff of the USS Constitution Museum, combine their historical knowledge to explore this often overlooked topic in a reader-friendly style. This non-fiction paperback consists of sixty-eight pages divided into five chapters, featuring topics such as recruitment, daily life, training and discipline, performance in battle, and the aftermath of the war for Constitution’s crew.

            After a brief prologue on Constitution’s role in the war, the authors begin the book by describing the recruitment process. Constitution did not have problems recruiting sailors during the War of 1812. The best seamen, who often included colored men and older veterans, were eager to sign on because Constitution was a “lucky ship” with a reputation for being well-organized. After being recruited, the crew lived on board the three-masted 44-gun frigate while preparing for battle. Sharing the cramped quarters with 450 men was a challenge because of the strict cleaning routine, training, and repetitive meals. Most of their time was spent training, which involved “quartering” the men and drilling them. If men fell out of line, punishment included “starting” incompetent individuals, withholding daily grog allowances, or flogging culprits with a cat-o’-nine-tails. When Constitution engaged in its first battle, it earned its nickname, “Old Ironsides,” after two heavy shots from Guerriere struck Constitution’s wooden hull and bounced off without inflicting any damage. “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!” became the ship’s claim to fame after this encounter.  

           Following the victory against Guerriere, Constitution won several other battles against the British, and the crew returned home to lavish celebrations in their honor. The book concludes with a dedication to the men who were behind Constitution’s success and a list of each individual on board.

            Although this publication does not contain new research or provide previously unknown information on nineteenth-century ships’ crews, it does present the data in a fresh and enjoyable way. Of great value are the fifty-six color images of photographs, paintings, documents, and artifacts which truly bring the crew of Constitution to life. Additionally, the facts presented in Men of Iron are supported by historical documents, genealogical and demographic data, official letters and correspondences, and memoirs and journals, making it an academically sound publication. The authors’ joint efforts have yielded a wealth of detail on this fascinating topic, which will be a delight to both academics and anyone interested in one of the most famous vessels in American history. 

Grace Tsai

Texas A&M University