U.S. Stamp for War of 1812 Centennial Depicts USS Constitution

In honor of the centennial of the War of 1812, the United States Postal Service (USPS) issued a stamp depicting the frigate USS Constitution, popularly known as Old Ironsides. The stamp is the first in a series to commemorate the centennial of the war. It is denominated "Forever," indicating that it can always be used to pay the first class rate for mail up to one ounce. The first day of issue was August 18, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Greg Breeding designed the stamp based on a painting by Michele Felice Cornč, an Italian painter who came to Salem Massachusetts in 1800 when he was 48 years old. He moved to Boston in 1807 and is best known for his paintings of ships and battles of the War of 1812.

The USS Constitution, built in Boston and launched October 21, 1797, is world's oldest commissioned warship still afloat. One of six ships designed by naval architect Joshua Humphries, it cost $302,700, a princely sum in those days, and used 2,000 trees. Paul Revere made the copper fixtures used to hold the cannons in place.

Although she was used to fight the Barbary pirates in the Barbary Wars of 1801-1805, the USS Constitution’s real fame came in the War of 1812. Rallying to the cry of “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights,” The United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Britain had been interfering with American trade with Europe, stopping merchant ships, kidnapping American sailors, and impressing them into the Royal Navy. There was also widespread belief among frontier settlers that Britain was arming Native Americans and encouraging them to attack the settlers.

Shortly after the start of the war, on August 19, 1812 off the coast of Nova Scotia, The USS Constitution battled the HMS Guerriere. During the 35 minute battle the Constitution’s 24 lb. shots brought down the Guerriere’s masts and so damaged the ship that there was nothing to do but take the wounded off and set her ablaze. In contrast, the 18 lb. cannon shots the Guerriere fired on the Constitution bounced off her sides. A sailor seeing this marvel cried, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron.” And so, her nickname Old Ironsides was born.


Painting of the battle between HMS Guerriere and the USS Constitution by Michele Felice Cornč, the same artist whose painting of the Constitution adorns the stamp.

Winning the War of 1812 bolstered the national pride of the young nation. The Star Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key in joyful response to the success at the battle of Fort McHenry, and Old Ironsides became a symbol of Naval strength. So when the United States Navy considered scrapping the USS Constitution because she was no longer sea worthy, the idea was met with great objection.

In response to the news, Oliver Wendell Homes wrote the poem Old Ironsides which was published in the Advertiser on September 16, 1830. (You can read Old Ironsides at the Poetry Foundation website.) The poem so touched the hearts of the American people that the ship was saved. Today it is located in Charlestown Navy Yard, Charlestown, MA. Visitors can tour the ship with active duty Navy Sailors as guides. They can also visit the USS Constitution museum, which is also located in the Charlestown Navy Yard.




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