MARBLEHEAD — The fabled USS Constitution won’t be returning to Marblehead in April, but this town is planning to remember one of the biggest events in its history anyway.
With two larger, British frigates in angry hot pursuit, Constitution slipped into the safety of Marblehead Harbor and beneath the protective guns of Fort Sewall on April 3, 1814. Thus, on April 3, 2014, the town will celebrate the 200th anniversary of its part in saving the vessel that became a national treasure. Details are still in the planning stages.
Historian Matt Brenckle of the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown was set to confer with the Historical Society on its part in the observations earlier this year. Unfortunately, hopes that the vessel might return to Marblehead to mark the occasion have been dashed. Given the ship’s value as a tourist attraction and a national icon, officials have been loath to risk putting her to sea following its historic sail in 1997.
The town’s official involvement will include the Historical Commission, according to Selectman Harry Christensen. “And I would be surprised if the Board of Selectmen wasn’t involved,” he said. The importance of the 1814 incident is magnified, Christensen said, by the town’s claim as the birthplace of the American Navy.
“It was a very important event,” said Wayne Butler of the Historical Commission. “Of course, many of the men on the Constitution were from Marblehead.”
It was the shared history of Marblehead and the Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned warship, that led to the ship’s visit in July 1997, the bicentennial year of her launch. That event was covered by the national television networks and drew people including Sen. Ted Kennedy who was aboard for the ship’s first sail in more than 100 years. Towed out to sea, surrounded by modern U.S. Navy vessels, Constitution was freed of the tow line and her sails allowed to briefly fill.
“To watch Constitution come round the opening of the harbor, you couldn’t help but think it did the same thing when it was chased by the two British warships 200 years ago,” Christensen said.
By 1814, Constitution was already something of a legend, having defeated two British Navy frigates, the Java and Guerriere, in 1812. It shocked the world that the upstart American Navy could deliver such a punch. And the warships Tenedos and Junon must have been hungry for vengeance when they spotted their American nemesis off the coast of Cape Ann.
What followed was a classic sea chase, with Constitution fleeing toward Boston and hurriedly tossing overboard everything it could to lighten the load. But the U.S. frigate was traveling under a handicap, a cracked mainmast that might have splintered at any moment. Meanwhile, on land, North Shore residents began collecting on the shore in large numbers, desperate to see their countrymen escape.
As Capt. Charles Stewart neared Marblehead’s tricky harbor entrance, he saw his chance. Calling forward the Marbleheaders in his crew, he asked if one felt sure enough to pilot the ship into the harbor. Samuel Green stepped forward. Thus, he sailed into the harbor while the regulars at Fort Sewall rolled out their cannon.
“I would have liked to have seen the look on the face of the British captains when they saw the cannon,” Christensen said. The threat of shore batteries was enough to keep the British Navy at a safe distance.
Alan Burke can be reached at email@example.com.