Christos S. Bartsocas
Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics
University of Athens
Among the numerous historical sites of Boston, the Greek visitor must definitely visit the frigate USS CONSTITUTION, moored at the Charlestown Naval Base. This frigate significantly supported our country in the Struggle for Independence of 1821, as we will see below (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1 The USS CONSTITUTION today, moored at the historic Charlestown Naval Station (Boston).
It is impressive how the Independence of the United States of America was influenced by ancient Greece and especially by the ancient Greek theories and institutions about Democracy, but also by its culture. The Greek Literature provided an important supply of studies in European universities during the 18th and 19th centuries, while ancient Greek texts and language were taught in the best schools of Europe and the USA. The spirit of modern Hellenism was clearly created and established, as it is evident in the public buildings erected that period. Simultaneously, visitors and travelers were visiting Ottoman-occupied Greece, described their impressions (Pouqueville), wrote poems (Byron, Shelley), painted (Dodwell), but unfortunately also were collecting antiquities, either for trade or for the enrichment of private collections.
The enthusiasm that developed for ancient Greece, Greek culture and its values, included the undivided interest, the sympathy of the Americans, who only in 1776 had gained their independence from the Crown of Great Britain. Enthusiastic speeches about Greece in the American Congress, with a wider appeal mainly to the educated people of Boston, New York and Philadelphia, contributed in the early 19th century to the establishment of philhellenic committees to support the oppressed. Some young philhellenes such as Dr. Samuel G. Howe, George Jarvis, William Washington and others, left the security of their homeland and of course the warmth of their families,
Unfortunately, the official American government could not come to the aid of the struggling Greeks because of the Monroe Doctrine (1823), which forbade the military involvement of Americans in Europe, but also Europeans in America, thus dictating a strict neutrality.
The Monroe Doctrine
US President James Monroe, in his annual address to the US Congress in 1823, included a warning to European powers not to get involved in operations in the Western Hemisphere. The reason for James Monroe’s statement, which was described as the Monroe Doctrine, was the continuing involvement of Britain, mainly in North America, France, North Africa, Spain in Latin America, and Russia in West North America (from Alaska to Oregon). The US Secretary of State persuaded President Monroe to issue this unilateral declaration of US foreign policy. Thus, the Western Hemisphere closed for continued European colonization and the United States would no longer interfere in European affairs.
In contrast to the US government, which maintained a neutral stance, there was clear broad support for the Greeks from the American people. However, the American trade relations with the Ottoman Empire were also remarkable, mainly through Izmir.
US Secretary of State John Quincy Adams feared that participating in the Greek Independence Struggle would damage US trade and pose a threat to his country’s economy.
In order to deal with the protection and safe navigation in the Mediterranean, Monroe sent to Greece in 1822 a fleet of the most powerful US warships to protect American trade. Among the ships was the frigate USS CONSTITUTION.
The frigate CONSTITUTION and its action until 1820
The frigate USS CONSTITUTION, later with the nickname OLD IRONSIDES due to its metal shield, is a wooden three-mast boat, displacing 2,200 tons. It has a length of 93 meters (53m. On the waterline) and a height of 60.67m. and 52.60m. respectively in its sails. Its reef depth is 4.34m. Its speed is 13 knots. The crew consisted of 450 men, including 55 marines and 30 sailors. The equipment consisted of 30×24 pound long guns, 20×32 pound carronades and 2×24 pound bow pursuers. The ship was built in Boston in 1797 and initially participated in the protection of American merchant ships in the Mediterranean, against French ships, as well to eradicate the North African pirates (Barbary Pirates War) (Fig. 2)
Fig. 2 «To USS Constitution». Painting by Nicolo Camillieri (1824).
In the war of 1812 she captured many merchant ships, but also defeated five British warships, HMS GUERRIERE, JAVA, PICTOU, CYANE and LEVANT. As a flagship she continued to participate in the fleets of the Mediterranean and Africa and in 1840 she went around the world. During the American Civil War the CONSTITUTION was used as a training boat at the US Naval Academy. It retired from active service in 1881 and fortunately was not destroyed, but has been designated as a museum ship since 1907.
The CONSTITUTION Diary contains interesting information about its activities, naval attitudes towards enemy (French and English), but also friendly ships. Impressive are the adventures of the frigate in the Mediterranean, where it was particularly distinguished. It should be added that the United States had paid a ransom to the North African states to ensure the safety of its merchant ships. But in 1801 Yusuf Karamanli (1766-1838), Pasha of Tripoli (Libya), was dissatisfied with the US, claiming that he had been cheated by receiving a smaller amount than they had given to Algeria and demanded immediate payment of $ 250,000. This forced President Thomas Jefferson to send a fleet of frigates to protect American merchant ships in the Mediterranean, but also to make peace with the nations of Barbary. As flagship the CONSTITUTION fleet commander sailed from Boston on August 14, 1803 with instructions not to allow a new blockade. A typical meeting was with the British HMS MAIDSTONE, with which it avoided a last-minute exchange of fire in Gibraltar on 6 September. With instructions to release two American ships and their crews, Captain Edward Preble, commander of the fleet, entered Tangier and succeeded in returning the seized ships to the Americans. On October 31, the frigate PHILADELPHIA ran aground in the shallows, chasing a ship from Tripoli. The Libyans, however, detached it and towed it, as confiscated, to the port of Tripoli. With an impressive entry of the ship MASTICO in Tripoli on February 16, 1804, as a supposedly commercially renamed INTREPID, and occupied by the Americans, Governor Stephen Decatur set fire to PHILADELPHIA. The fleet (CONSTITUTION, ARGUS, ENTERPRISE, SCOURGE, SYREN), reinforced by 6 smaller boats (missiles, etc.), arrived in Tripoli on August 3, 1804 and began bombing the port, with heavy losses to Libya, without Libya being defeated. Karamanli had to back down in his demands. However, returning to Malta for repairs on August 11, CONSTITUTION arrested two Greek boats transporting wheat to Tripoli. .
A Peace Treaty with Tripoli was signed at the CONSTITUTION on June 3, 1805 and with Tunis on August 14 after its exclusion.
The CONSTITUTION, with two other warships, the ENTERPRISE and the HORNET, remained for patrols in the Mediterranean, monitoring the activities of the French and English fleets during the Napoleonic Wars. An incident between the American warship CHESAPEAKE and the British HMS LEOPARD, resulted in the preparation of the ship for war with the British. Because the CONSTITUTION crew then rebelled and demanded the immediate return of the ship to the United States, Captain Hugh G. Campbell fired cannon at the insurgents, who retreated. The ship finally returned to Boston on October 14, 1807, after four years of operations in the Mediterranean, crossing the Atlantic in 36 days.
Repairs costing about $ 100,000 followed, but without removing the copper shields, which characterized the ship as a “slow traveler”. Finally, after two years of training of the crew and the usual moves, the new captain of the CONSTITUTION Isaac Hull decided to clean the ship, withdrawing “ten wagons of straw and seaweed”! It set sail for France on 5 August 1811 and remained in the winter near the coasts of France and the Netherlands in readiness for hostilities with the British. He returned to Boston on February 18, 1812, bringing back messages from US Ambassador Joel Barlow, whom he had brought to settle in France. The presence of the ship disturbed the British fleet, consisting of five ships, HMS APOLUS, AFRICA, BELVIDERA, GUERRIERE and SHANNON, which chased the CONSTITUTION as far as the shores of Egg Harbor, New Jersey on July 17, 1812. Captain Hull ordered boats to be placed on the sides of the ship to tow it out of bounds, applying small anchors to tow it and splashing the sails to take advantage of any wind gusts. British ships imitated the installation of small anchors by continuing the pursuit. Rifles were exchanged several times during the 57-hour chase. CONSTITUTION, to alleviate, had to empty 8.7 tons of drinking water into the sea! Eventually, the British abandoned the pursuit on July 19, 1812.
The ship made its supplies in Boston from July 27, sailed again on August 2, 1812 for patrols in the British navigation lanes in Saint Lawrence Bay, Canada. There she captured three merchant ships, which he burned.
On the 19th of August the British frigate HMS GUERRIERE was seen, which fired on the CONSTITUTION causing light damage. Nevertheless, with skillful handling, Captain Hull brought the CONSTITUTION to a lateral advantage, 23 meters from the GUERRIERE. He then ordered a full double-barreled fire, which destroyed the stern mast of GUERRIERE. The flexibility of the GUERRIERE was limited, while the stern mast was dragged into the sea and finally collided with the CONSTITUTION, entangling the cantilever of its ship with the stern of the latter. Thus, only some of the GUERRIERE cannons were capable of being used. The Hull Bridge ignited and while the captains ordered a raid on the other ship as the two ships were huddled together, the turmoil prevented the battle. When the two ships were separated, the cantilever separation forces sent strong waves to the GUERRIERE dependency. The main mast sank and the ship without masts, cumbersome, with one third of the crew injured or dead, forced the English captain to surrender (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3 The Naval Battle CONSTITUTION-GUERRIERE.
The naval battle of the two frigates left GUERRIERE severely damaged and unworthy of towing, so after the transfer of the British captives to the CONSTITUTION, GUERRIERE was set on fire. It is worth noting that Hull and his crew were welcomed by heroes when they returned to Boston on August 30.
With William Bainbridge as their new Commander-in-Chief, the CONSTITUTION and HORNET prepared for a mission against the British Navy near Brazil, where they approached São Salvaron and spotted HMS BONNE CITOYENNE on 13 December. There were reports that the ship was loaded with items worth $ 1.6 million for England. While HORNET was waiting for BONNE CITOYENNE to leave the neutral port, CONSTITUTION sailed, and on December 29 was involved in a collision with HMS JAVA. JAVA responded with cannon fire to the CONSTITUTION salute, resulting in severe damage to the CONSTITUTION sails. The latter responded with a series of side artillery shells, while a JAVA shot destroyed the CONSTITUTION steering wheel. Captain Bainbridge, then twice wounded, ordered the crew to manually steer. The JAVA cantilever became involved with the CONSTITUTION dependency allowing Bainbridge to continue firing with the side guns. Fortunately for him, the JAVA front sail sank and as an unfortunate wreck and with many injured on the crew, it was delivered. Bainbridge ordered to set it on fire after rescuing the steering wheel, which was repositioned at the CONSTITUTION. After three repeated skirmishes, the British Admiralty ordered the British frigates to no longer collide with the heavier American frigates, with the exception of being allowed mainly when fleets approached for artillery attack.
After major repairs, the CONSTITUTION for the West Indies sailed again on December 31, 1813, to threaten British ships. She captured five commercial ships and the HMS PICTOU, equipped with 14 guns in March 1814. She then tore its main sail outside Bermuda and while sailing on March 27 for new repairs in Boston was unsuccessfully pursued by the British HMS JUNON and TENEDOS to April 3. After landing in Boston protected by coastal guns, she remained there for repairs until December 1814.
Since the British Navy was suffering heavy losses from the Americans, it was decided to send the HMS LEANDER to reinforce and deal with the American frigates. On December 18, the CONSTITUTION sailed again from Boston to Bermuda. She was then unsuccessfully pursued by the British fleet consisting of LEANDER, NEWCASTLE and ACASTA, under Captain George Collier. On December 24, 1814 the CONSTITUTION occupied and staffed with its own crew the commercial LORD NELSON, from which it confiscated rich supplies. In addition at Cape Finisterre on February 16, 1815, CONSTITUTION captured the English merchant ship SUSANNA loaded with animal skins, valued at $ 75,000.
On February 20, the CONSTITUTION chased the light British CYANE and LEVANT, who tried to sidestep it. While LEVANT retreated for repairs, CYANE showed off its colors. This was repeated when LEVANT came back in support of CYANE and finally surrendered. When the CONSTITUTION was repairing its damage, it was found that twelve shells were embedded in the wall of the boat, which fortunately had not pierced it.
Sailing to Guinea and then to Brazil, Captain Stewart was informed that HMS INCONSTANT was transporting gold to England, which he sought to seize as booty. Then came the news of the Ghent Treaty and the end of the war, so the CONSTITUTION sailed victorious in New York on May 15th. Unfortunately, the other two sister ships, the CHESAPEAKE and the PRESIDENT, were seized in 1813 and 1815. The CONSTITUTION moved to Boston, where it remained until January 1816.
The Mediterranean Fleet
In April 1820 the CONSTITUTION moored at Boston Charlestown Naval Base (where it is presently moored) for repairs and improvements. Two more tanks of drinking water were added and the copper cladding and timber on the ship’s reefs were replaced. Paddle wheels operated by the crew were added using manual rollers, which propelled the ship up to 3 knots at rest. However, the above were removed as not suitable for a warship and were stored in the ship’s cargo depots, before departing on May 13, 1821 for a three-year patrol in the Mediterranean. On April 12, 1823, it collided with the British merchant ship BICTON, which sank. He finally sailed back to Boston on May 31, 1824.
It was then considered that the ship had fulfilled its purpose and was to be decommissioned, since the life of a frigate at that time was estimated at 10 to 15 years.
Again, however, the CONSTITUTION sailed for the Mediterranean on October 29, 1824, under the command of Thomas Macdonough, who resigned for health reasons on October 9, 1825, after repairing his damaged warehouses in Port Mahon. Temporary repairs were not completed until March 1827, when the frigate returned to Boston and was put in reserve on July 4, 1828.
The intense military activity of the CONSTITUTION continued until 1848, when it was ordered to the Mediterranean and with the outbreak of the American Civil War eventually participated as a training ship of the Annapolis Naval Academy.
The action of the USS CONSTITUTION in the Aegean (1824-1828)
Occasionally, ignoring American neutrality in the Greek Revolution, the USS CONSTITUTION crew went from a neutral stance to actively participating in the conflict with Turkey.
Visits of American ships were not rare in the Greek islands after 1821. The following letter of G. Koundouriotis from Hydra is also characteristic:
June 20, 1822
Yesterday, three American ships arrived here, a frigate, in a curvature and a shotgun…, they sent an officer… the following were sent, Georgios Gionis, Anagnostis Economou and one of us… (Georgios Kountouriotis).
It was obvious that the naval squadron was hesitant, keeping its distance from the ardent desire to provide humanitarian aid to the struggling Greeks, but also to ensure safe US trade with the Ottoman Empire.
Of course, the USS CONSTITUTION’s primary mission in the Mediterranean was to protect American merchant ships. It should be noted that several of them carried supplies for the suffering Greeks. According to the diary of Marine William Fleming, from his experiences on the USS CONSTITUTION, there were cases where the frigate protected American merchant ships carrying supplies for the Greeks.
The invitation of the philanthropist Samuel Gridley Howe (Fig. 4) to the CONSTITUTION should also be mentioned in a letter to Captain Patterson (Fig. 5) from Nafplio on May 31, 1827 to support the CHANCELLOR, which sailed from New York, with supplies for distribution to the starving Greeks.
Fig. 4 Doctor Samuel Gridley Howe (doctor in KARTERIA).
Fig. 5 The Master of CONSTITUTION, Daniel Patterson.
Patterson immediately went to protect CHANCELLOR and the FORTUNE kettle and to oversee the distribution of supplies. The above are indications of CONSTITUTION’s interest in participating in American humanitarian efforts to help the Greeks.
An incident is also reported in July 1826, while the CONSTITUTION sailed along the coast of Salamis. From the shore some locals signaled and Captain Patterson took them aboard. These unfortunate Greeks asked for some supplies for their starving families. Knowing the US Navy bans on strict neutrality for inactive involvement or support of Greeks and Turks, Patterson found a way to overcome it. He offered to give a quantity of supplies to the Greeks and they in return to give him a Greek statue to transport to the United States! However, it is unknown whether Captain Patterson made the transaction as a charity or out of a desire to acquire an ancient Greek statue.
The sympathy of the American Naval Squadron for the Mediterranean for the Greeks is typical. The US Navy, however, formally wanted to remain on friendly terms with the Ottoman Empire, protecting American trade. At that time, Captain Rodgers met repeatedly with Turkish Fleet Commander Kapudan Pasha, but unsuccessfully sought a peace treaty. The US Navy wanted to maintain trade with the Ottomans and for this reason it wanted the presence of American ships in the Aegean to be obvious.
George Sirian and the USS CONSTITUTION (July 22, 1824)
Turkish fleet arrives in Psara. Turkish soldiers land on the island and immediately begin their bloody work, executing the entire Greek population. An unfortunate Psarian mother just manages to board her six-year-old son in a dinghy hoping to be rescued from a friendly ship. She was executed on the spot by the Turks in front of her unfortunate son George.
He was rescued by the crew of the USS CONSTITUTION, in whose diary he was recorded as George Sirian (1818-1891). Because the ship’s neutrality did not allow the hosting of Greek refugees, USS CONSTITUTION’s Captain Daniel Patterson bypassed the dilemma and enlisted George as a crew member of the US Navy on the ship from May 1827. George from the rank of “sailor-boy” was promoted to full-time sailor until the ship arrived in Boston Harbor on July 4, 1828. However, he was lucky as Lieutenant Robert Randolph took care of the young refugee and then supported his education (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6 The young George Sirian (George Sirian).
George was trained in the practice of artillery and pyrotechnics by the US Navy by gunner George Marshall and on April 20, 1827 he was anointed “gunner”. Three years later he married Eleanor the daughter of his trainer. His descendants live and have been honored for their Greek ancestor.
During his naval career, George Sirian participated in 37 service tours on 20 ships and 7 land stations. His service as an artillery instructor at the Naval Academy during the USS CONSTITUTION World Tour during the American Civil War, as well as in Japan and Hong Kong. George Sirian served in the US Navy until 1880, for 53 consecutive years, the year he retired (Figs. 7-8).
Fig. 7 The Commander of the US Navy, George Sirian (Sarigiannis).
Fig. 8 George Sirian Roadmap for service on CONSTITUTION.
He died in Portsmouth, Virginia on December 21, 1891. In his honor and in his memory the US Navy established “The George Sirian Meritorious Award”, which is awarded annually at the USS CONSTITUTION to distinguished originators from across the fleet.
Sirian was noted for his bravery in the battles in which he participated. In his obituary in the Alexandria Gazette on December 22, 1891, he was likened to a fierce warrior with his ancient ancestors, the Marathon Warriors and the heroes of Thermopylae and Plataeae.
On July 4, 1826, Americans celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of United States Independence. The sailors of CONSTITUTION, which sailed between Tenedos and the coasts of Asia Minor, are also ready to celebrate. Captain Daniel Patterson sent a dinghy with some sailors to pick up supplies for the ship. Around 11:20 a.m. the crew realized that a Turkish fleet was approaching, consisting of frigates and schooners. The fleet was returning from the Dardanelles, where a naval battle had been fought with the Greeks and was heading towards the American Squadron. An alarm on the CONSTITUTION announced that the escort ship USS NORTH CAROLINA had ordered the crew to take up the battle positions. The drums sounded the alarm at the CONSTITUTION and the crew was preparing for a naval battle.
Captain Rodgers on NORTH CAROLINA ordered a July 4 salute with 21 artillery shells. The Turks considered the greeting to be in their honor and reciprocated the courtesy. The compliments continued for the next three days and on July 7 the schooner USS PORPOISE welcomed Kapudan Pasha and hoisted the Turkish flag on the bow mast.
Throughout July 1826, the American Squadron and the Turkish Fleet exchanged frequent visits and formalities. Captain Rodgers had frequent meetings with Kapudan Pasha, hoping to sign a trade agreement with the Ottomans. A detailed description of Rodgers’s meeting with Kapudan Pasha on July 14, 1826 is given by Fleming.
The USS CONSTITUTION received a visit from Konstantinos Kanaris on May 11, 1827. As Fleming describes: “Admiral Kanaris visited our ship accompanied by other Greek officials. He is a man of about 35 years old, short, stocky, with dark piercing eyes, and he is very gentle, modest character. He is one of the bravest men that the Greeks have and his brave achievements made his name popular with his compatriots “.
With the same admiration, Fleming describes Theodoros Kolokotronis, who visited the ship on June 1, 1827, as follows: “While we were at a standstill, the Greek General Kolokotronis visited us. He is about 50 years old, tall, with impressive features, and decisive style. He is at the same time a very majestic-looking man and a great warrior. The Greek soldiers look forward to him as the main supporter in the fight for freedom. His whole appearance, his bravery, is seldom not victorious in the action in which he leads them “.
An interesting book, based on the Ship Diary, was published in 1997 by former USS CONSTITUTION Commander Tyrone Martin, entitled “A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of Old Ironsides.” There Martin states: “On June 1, 1827, Captain (Daniel T. Patterson) had to disembark (in Nafplion) in order to settle a problem he had with the management of some supplies, which had arrived on the American ship CHANTICLEAR, and as was obvious they would get into the wrong hands. In cooperation with the authorities, things were quickly settled. The Greek General Kolokotronis arrived for an official visit on the ship during the day “.
Both Greek leaders and heroes, “Admiral” Konstantinos Kanaris and “General” Theodoros Kolokotronis, are presented as brave men of the Greek Revolution. Both are described by Fleming, with the same admiration with which the Americans referred to George Washington and his participation in the American Independence Struggle. Although Fleming does not seem to express direct bias towards the Greeks, the favorable descriptions of the Greeks in relation to the objective descriptions of Kapudan Pasha expose a blatant bias in favor of the Greek officers.
USS CONSTITUTION’s petty- officer Edward Clearwater mentions a battle between Greeks and Turks on May 14, 1827. In his description, Clearwater repeatedly refers to the “poor Greeks.” For example, describing American merchant ships that arrived with supplies for the Greeks on May 18, 1827, he states: “The FORLINE kettle with Governor Harris arrived from Philadelphia after a 56-day voyage with supplies for the poor Greeks.” On May 24, 1827, Clearwater describes: “At 5 p.m. The American ship CHANCELLOR arrived with supplies from New York for the poor Greeks “.
As Americans Abroad, USS CONSTITUTION sailors reflected American opinion and their desire to support the Greek Struggle for Freedom. Due to American neutrality, neither Marine William Fleming nor probation officer Edward Clearwater immediately expressed support for either the Greeks or the Turks. Their observations, however, are the result of direct observation.
The Protestant scholar and priest of the USS CONSTITUTION George Jones described in detail his visit to Milos and the Liturgy of Good Friday. He was impressed by the abundance of Orthodox Churches, many of which were simple and small, while other large churches were decorated with frescoes, domes and offerings. Surprised, he mentions the Orthodox priests and their vestments, the churches without pews and the women on the left, while the men on the right side of the church. He even stressed the important differences between the Orthodox and the Protestant Church.
As a tutor on the ship, George Jones, had repeated opportunities to visit various areas that the CONSTITUTION visited. It should be noted that he also wrote particularly flattering comments about the Turks he met.
US diplomacy clearly relied on the Navy as a means of conducting its policy calmly and informally. It is obvious that with the Mediterranean mission of the USS CONSTITUTION from 1824 to 1828, the frigate contributed to the Greek Struggle for Independence. It is noted that the United States did not strictly adhere to neutrality. On the one hand, they facilitated the efforts of the American Philhellenic Committees to provide humanitarian aid to the unfortunate Greeks, on the other hand, they did not negotiate treaties with the Ottoman Empire without result.
And while many American politicians and ordinary people agreed with the philhellenic statements of celebrities, such as President Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Harvard University President Edward Everett, and Daniel Webster’s famous speech to Congress, that it was a moral obligation of America to support Greece, it is obvious that officially the American Government has never supported us. Fortunately, the USS CONSTITUTION was discreetly on our side in the Struggle for Independence. The Americans even consider the USS CONSTITUTION a National Monument and honored it with a stamp in 1947 (Fig. 9).
Fig. 9 USS Commemorative Stamp with USS CONSTITUTION (1947).
Brodine CE, Crawford MJ, Hughes CF: Ironsides! The Ship, the Men and the Wars of the USS Constitution, Fireship Press, 2007.
Fitz-Enz DG: Ironsides: Eagle of the Sea. The Story of the USS Constitution, Lanham Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004.
“Log Lines”, Research and Collections at the USS Constitution Museum.
Martin TG: A Most Fortunate Ship, Guilford: Globe Pequot Press, 1980.
Martin TG: A Most Fortunate Ship. A Narrative History of “Old Ironsides”, Naval Institute Press, 1997.
Toll IW: Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy, WW Norton, New York, 2006.