A couple years back, before the Covid panic, I had the opportunity to go down to Boston and sail aboard USS Constitution, the historic three-mast wooden-hulled heavy frigate, one of the first of six vessels commissioned to be built for the United States Navy. Constructed and launched in 1797, the Constitution is the world’s oldest ship still afloat.

The author aboard USS Constitution for sailing day 2017 (Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom)

It was a great experience as we boarded the vessel at Charlestown Navy Yard and then were towed into Boston Harbor. We fired ship’s guns in salute upon reaching Castle Island out near Governor’s Channel, before turning and heading back to the Navy yard.

Firing cannon salute at Castle Island on the USS Constitution sail (Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom)

I was looking at some of my photos from that trip and it got me thinking about Maine and the Constitution. Then I heard from a reader, who mentioned some Montville, Maine connections. The more I looked, the more I discovered.

USS Constitution off Sequin Island, Bath, Maine July 14, 1931 (Public Domain)

According to the Office of the Naval Historian, the original main mast for Constitution was cut from a tree in Montville by a local named Thomas Cooper, with the help of another fellow from Unity.

Due to its huge size and lack of roads in the area, the mast was likely hauled over to Bartlett Stream and “twitched” or muscled down-stream to Searsmont. More on the Maine mast trade later! This original mast looks like it was replaced about the 1850s or so. In June 1867, William Bryant died in Maine. He was Constitution’s last known plank owner: those present at its original commissioning 70 years earlier.

Then there is the Mainer, Edward Preble, one of many sons of famous general Jedidiah Preble of Portland. In 1779, Edward Preble was an ensign on Protector, when he spotted a sea monster in Penobscot Bay. He was ordered to take a longboat and investigate, so Preble approached the beast. Its long serpentine head rose about 10 feet out of the water. Preble fired a shot at it but missed, at which the creature slipped beneath the surface. More on the Penobscot Bay sea monster later!

Capt. Edward Preble was given command of USS Constitution on May 13, 1803, which he commissioned as his flagship. Preble formed a new squadron for a third blockade attempt of the Barbary States in north Africa. In preparation, he ordered the hull’s copper sheathing replaced. Famous Bostonian Paul Revere supplied the replacement sheets needed for the job.

Constitution departed Boston August 14 and on Sept. 6 encountered in the darkness an unknown ship somewhere off Gibraltar. The frigate went to general quarters as it ran alongside the other vessel. Preble hailed them, but only received a hail in return. He identified his ship as USS Constitution then replied: “I am now going to hail you for the last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you.”

The dark vessel replied, “If you give me a shot, I’ll give you a broadside.” Preble demanded that they identify themselves and the stranger finally replied, “This is His Britannic Majesty’s ship Donegal, 84 guns, Sir Richard Strachan, an English commodore.” They then commanded Preble to send his boat over.

Preble was now out of patience. “This is United States Ship Constitution, 44 guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel.” To his gun crews, Preble roared “Blow your matches, boys!”

The tense stand-off de-escalated when a boat arrived from the other ship relaying their captain’s apologies. It turned out the vessel was not Donegal but instead HMS Maidstone, a 32-gun frigate, who had tried to bluff and buy time to ready its guns. Preble’s willingness to take on a vessel twice his size began the strong bond of allegiance between his officers and him, who were proud to become known as “Preble’s boys.”

Constitution arrived at Gibraltar Sept. 12, where Preble waited for the rest of his squadron. He soon arranged a treaty with Sultan Slimane of Morocco, who had taken American ships hostage. This was to ensure the return of two of his own vessels the Americans had captured. Preble and Constitution defused the situation and avoided further conflict.

Daguerreotype of Commodore Charles Morris (Public Domain)

Another Pine Tree State connection is with Charles Morris, who was born in Woodstock, on July 26, 1784. In July 1799, he was appointed midshipman in the U.S. Navy and served in the Quasi-War with France, the First and Second Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812. In 1812, Morris was appointed 1st Lt. of USS Constitution under command of Isaac Hull and was severely wounded during its battle with HMS Guerriere.

Morris went on to command the frigate USS Adams and later in the war had to burn that vessel in the Penobscot River to avoid it falling into the hands of the invading British. This was after the rout of American forces at what is known as the Battle of Hampden. More on all that later!

Then there is the gravestone in Halldale Cemetery, off Route 220 in Montville. That stone marks the final resting place of William Stevenson. Born in Liverpool, England, on March 12, 1795, he shipped aboard an English vessel as cabin boy at the age of 12.

When he was 16, Stevenson was pressed into service aboard the 38-ton British frigate Guerriere, where he became the captain’s boy. Stevenson earned the notice of the captain when one day he climbed to the masthead of the ship and secured a bird which had perched there. During this time, HMS Guerriere served in the West Indies and captured a number of privateers.

On Aug. 19, 1812, about 400 miles southeast of Halifax off the Maine coast, USS Constitution sighted a frigate with the words “Not The Little Belt” painted on its foretopsail. It was Guerriere. Upon entering adequate range, Guerriere opened fire, but did little damage.

USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere oil painting on canvas by Anton Otto Fischer; c1960 (Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command)

Both ships exchanged cannon fire, while American Capt. Isaac Hull maneuvered Constitution within 25 yards of the enemy, at which time he ordered a full double-loaded broadside of grape and round shot. The blast took out Guerriere‘s mizzenmast, which went overboard but still clung to the ship seriously affecting its maneuverability. The two vessels then collided; Guerriere’s bowsprit got entangled in Constitution‘s mizzen rigging.

The only effective fire remaining for the British were bow guns, which set Capt. Hull’s rear cabin alight. A fire crew quickly extinguished the flames. Boarding parties were formed while the two ships were locked together, but neither made a move due to heavy seas.

The locked ships spun around, rotating together in a counterclockwise movement, all the while Constitution firing its broadside cannon. The two ships finally wrenched apart, the force of which seriously rocked and strained Guerriere‘s rigging. Its foremast collapsed, which in turn brought down the mainmast. Now dismasted and unmanageable and one third of its crew wounded or killed, the British struck their colors and surrendered.

Constitution had surprised the enemy with very heavy broadsides. Many of the British shots had seemed to bounce off the American hull, which earned the nickname Old Ironsides. The battle left the British vessel so badly damaged, it was not worth saving. Hull ordered it burned the following morning after transferring the British prisoners to Constitution, including William Stevenson. All arrived back in Boston Aug. 30, where Hull and crew were hailed as heroes, including the seriously wounded American officer Charles Morris. The teenager Stevenson was released upon getting back to port.

During the engagement, Stevenson had picked up a shot which had come from Constitution, that he found on Guerriere cabin floor. He took it and preserved the memento, using it for many years in his home as a door stop. In 1814, he married Eliza T. Banton of Roxbury, Mass. and traveled for several years throughout the southern states as a portrait artist.

In 1820 he came to Maine and bought land on the east side of what is now Stevenson Hill in Montville. It is said he built a log house and started clearing the land, afterward adding more to his original purchase. Today the hill has reverted back to woods and is difficult to discern from the road.

Stevenson Hill in Montville, reverted back to woods (Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom)

He became known as Col. Stevenson, a title acquired in the old militia days, but it is not clear whether he participated in a Sept. 1842 ruckus, when mustering soldiers had had enough of two companies of young local men dressed as Indians brandishing pitchforks and clubs. To the growing fury of the soldiers, the young men mimicked and lampooned their movements as they paraded in order. This humiliation lasted until the General Sgt. had had enough and ordered his troops to disperse the locals. Some intense fighting followed; the incident has since become known as the Battle of Brooks.

Gravestone marker for William Stevenson (Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom)

Stevenson raised a family of 11 children, many of them buried near him at the small cemetery off Route 220. He was known as a man of great vigor and agility and to his last years was said to retain his firm soldierly step. William Stevenson died suddenly on June 24, 1871. I am sure there are other connections between Maine and USS Constitution. If you know of some, please share!

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport.  He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.

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