This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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In September 1830 a small item appeared in newspapers across the United States. It stated that the warship U.S.S. Constitution was to be broken up and the salvaged materials used in constructing other ships of the line. The announcement did not go over well with famed poet Oliver Wendell Holmes and he fired back with a poem entitled “Old Ironsides,” as the ship was familiarly known.
This poem, which began “Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!,” was met with great public interest and reprinted by many papers around the country. The resulting uproar forced the Navy Department to decide that the vessel would be re-outfitted for a continued presence on the high seas. At the present time, and after a lifetime of service to the nation, the U.S.S. Constitution resides in Boston Harbor for all to see and visit.
The U.S.S. Constitution was built in 1797 at a Boston shipyard and was of the heavy frigate class of warships, carrying 44 powerful guns. She was the first major ship built under the new United States and was meant, among her other duties, to protect American shipping from the Barbary pirates operating from the northwestern coast of Africa.
Under a succession of competent commanders the Constitution also served with distinction against enemy warships, starting during the Undeclared War with France in 1799-1800. With the beginning of the War of 1812, Isaac Hull commanded the Constitution and soon defeated the Guerriere, a heavily-armed English ship of the line.
It is perhaps ironic that the War of 1812 began over a dispute concerning private American vessels. A rising and well-paid American merchant marine attracted foreign sailors, especially English, much to the annoyance of the London authorities who needed every man available for the ships opposing the French fleet during the Napoleonic Wars. British warships began stopping American merchantmen and arresting anyone thought to be a deserter from the Royal Navy.
The seizure of seamen was called “impressment” and was soon the subject of heated debate on the floors on Congress. The British had even been so bold as to seize seamen by force from a United States warship, the Chesapeake. In the spring of 1812 the government of King George III reluctantly rescinded the Orders in Council, the act by which these impressments had been carried out. News was sent to America, but it came too late. In June 1812 Congress had voted for a declaration of war.
In the fall of 1812 Hull voluntarily surrendered his command of the Constitution to William Bainbridge, a skilled officer who had been in the American Navy from before 1800. Bainbridge was determined to carry the war to the enemy and soon set sail for the South Atlantic in order to harass British merchantmen and warships.
Bainbridge was born at Princeton, N.J., on May 7, 1774, going to sea in a merchant vessel as an ordinary seaman at the age of 15 and becoming a captain at 19. In the late 1790s, when war with France seemed imminent, he enlisted in the infant United States Navy.
The new commander had actually been on a captured U.S. ship early in the Undeclared War with France. In 1799 the U.S.S. Retaliation was taken by a French warship of superior firepower. Bainbridge was interrogated by the French commander about the guns aboard a sister U.S. ship in the area; he tricked the enemy captain into believing that the Americans had more firepower than was actually the case and the French broke off the pursuit.
Bainbridge had also served in the attack on the Bey of Algiers in 1802 – one of the Barbary Pirate states – but was captured and spent 19 months in a foul prison until liberated in 1804. His release was due to the naval victory gained by Edward Preble at Tripoli.
Upon assuming command of the Constitution in October 1812, Bainbridge ordered his flagship and two other ships (the Essex of 32 guns and the Hornet with 18) to head towards the South Atlantic. The flotilla arrived at San Salvador, Brazil, in mid December after an uneventful voyage. An English sloop-of-war, the Bonne Citoyenne, was then in harbor at San Salvador but declined to sail into the open sea due to the superior American firepower and the near certainty of capture or destruction.
Off the coast of Brazil the American ships split up. Thirty miles from the port of Bahia, the Constitution found her prey in the form of the English warship Java commanded by Capt. Henry Lambert, well known for his skill in battle and commanding one of the best ships in the British fleet. The date was Dec. 29, 1812, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The battle was soon joined.
The Java had onboard, in addition to distinguished passengers being taken to the Far East, roughly 500 sailors and marines. It had 49 guns and in both categories – firepower and men – considerably outweighed the Constitution.
At 2:30 p.m. a shot from the Java struck the Constitution’s wheel with such force that a copper bolt was driven into Bainbridge’s side. Despite searing pain, the American commander ordered himself tied to the remains of the wheel so that he might direct the battle more clearly. For the next hour the cannonades were furious; at 3 p.m. British marines were ordered by Capt. Lambert to board the American ship but withering fire from the Constitution caused severe damage to the Java, forcing Lambert to abort the boarding.
Capt. Lambert ceased firing at 4 o’clock and fell back to repair some of the damage. Bainbridge mistakenly thought the enemy had surrendered but the struggle resumed soon afterwards and the Americans soon forced the other ship to strike her colors. (The fighting was at such close quarters that the commanders were able to communicate by shouting.)
Bainbridge sent his remaining two small boats (six had been destroyed in the fighting) to carry the British sailors and passengers over to the Constitution. The British had 57 killed and the Americans 9, but several of the wounded on both sides, including Capt. Lambert, died within a few hours. After the personal effects of the enemy sailors and officers were removed, the ship was burned on Jan. 1, 1813.
A surviving senior officer of the Java, 1st Lieutenant Chads, later wrote to the British Admiralty “expressing my grateful acknowledgement thus publicly for the generous treatment Capt. Lambert and his officers have experienced from our gallant enemy Commodore Bainbridge...” It was a remarkable tribute in wartime.
As might have been expected the English government and newspapers did not react kindly to the unexpected loss of the well-armed Java. One leading London paper was apprehensive that England might be stripped of her maritime superiority “by a piece of striped bunting flying at the masthead of a few fir-built frigates manned by a handful of outlaws.” Later British comments were generally more complimentary, however, about the quality of American vessels and sailors.
Many of the British shells bounced harmlessly off the well-constructed sides of the American ship (though some of course did severe damage to the upper parts), causing the sailors to call her “Old Ironsides,” a name that has remained to this very day. When news of the victory reached Washington, Congress wasted little time in voting, on March 3, 1813, a gold medal to the gallant captain plus a cash award of $50,000 to be apportioned among the crew.
Because several medals for naval victories were awarded by Congress, the Navy Department appointed Philadelphia resident George Harrison as its agent in seeing that the dies were engraved and the medals struck. The agent then corresponded with each recipient as to the battle scene details and the Latin inscription to accompany the designs.
John Reich was then the assistant engraver at the Mint and Harrison asked him to prepare the necessary naval dies. Reich agreed to do so but not long after finishing the first pair of dies, those for Isaac Hull, his eyesight failed so badly that he was even forced to give up his Mint position.
Harrison then turned to Moritz Furst, a private engraver who had immigrated from Europe some years earlier. Furst’s first commission, commenced in early 1817, was the Bainbridge medal. He used a drawing prepared by skilled artist Thomas Sully for the reverse scene but Capt. Bainbridge supplied his own reverse motto in Latin, “Pugnando.” The latter word is usually translated as “in-fighting” but Bainbridge himself translated it as “by hard knocks,” certainly a more colorful rendition.
There was also a dispute over the reverse battle scene. Bainbridge did not particularly like what Sully had prepared and asked for one depicting the moment of defeat for HMS Java. For whatever reason, the Sully depiction stayed in place despite Bainbridge’s objections. As a result we see the burned-out hulk of the enemy ship as it appeared just before being scuttled.
The obverse legend translates as “William Bainbridge, Praised by His Country and the Defeated Foe” while the reverse lower inscription reads (in English) “Between the American Warship Constitution and the English Warship Java, December 29, 1812.”
The dies were completed by Furst in the latter part of 1817 but were not hardened for some months and the actual gold medal not struck until early in 1819; the presentation was made at a special ceremony in Philadelphia where Bainbridge was then stationed. (The naval medals were struck under the direct supervision of Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt, who was also responsible for hardening the dies.) Fifty specimens in silver and 150 in copper were struck at the same time for distribution to those officers and men aboard the U.S.S. Constitution.
Original medals from the 1819 strikings in silver and copper are quite rare, though they are occasionally seen in sales of important medal collections. Most collectors have to be content with the restrikes made after 1860 for sale to the public. From 1861 to 1903 pure copper was used for the restrikes but in that year bronze was first employed. The Bainbridge medal is no longer struck by the Mint for sale, however, and is available only on the secondary market.
The original dies by Furst did not fare all that well and the reverse had to be “recut” prior to 1841. It is not quite clear what this means but perhaps indicates that Chief Engraver William Kneass strengthened some of the details in the late 1820s or early 1830s. By the 1880s the dies were in a relatively poor condition and it is known that a new set of dies was executed prior to 1887.
As a general rule collectors prefer the restrike medals made in the 19th century because of the fine mahogany proof surface usually seen on these pieces. The bronze medals made in the 20th century, on the other hand, have a sand-blasted finish and many times are found with blemishes.
The gold medal was not the only reward received by the intrepid captain. Both the City of New York and that of Albany presented ornate gold snuff-boxes. The citizens of Philadelphia held a public fund-raiser and presented Bainbridge with a magnificent set of silver dining utensils, including a massive urn 18 inches in height. It would be interesting to know the present location of the urn; perhaps it is still in the family?
After the War of 1812 ended at the beginning of 1815, Bainbridge served in the Mediterranean squadron, helping to attack nests of North African pirates as the situation demanded. Because the American and Europeans cooperated closely in these sustained attacks on the Barbary ports, it was not long before this age-old menace to shipping was almost completely suppressed.
In 1821 Bainbridge returned to the naval facilities at Philadelphia although several bouts of ill-health, in part resulting from the severe wound suffered in December 1812, rendered him increasingly unable to perform his duties. He died July 27, 1833, and is buried beside his wife Susan in the old Christchurch burial grounds in Philadelphia.