Old Ironsides

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

“Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!”

old ironsides

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon’s roar; —
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
Or know the conquered knee; —
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!


More poems by Oliver Wendell Holmes:


LLS has taken the liberty
of including three poems by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes in our Poems for
Patriots section, in part because Holmes is frequently confused with
his jurist son and namesake Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. But more importantly,
Holmes Sr. has composed many poems that are included among the most
celebrated literature of the ninteenth century.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes was the eldest son of Abiel
and Mary Wendell Holmes. He was born on August 29, 1809 in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. After a short time spent exploring legal studies, Holmes
decided on a career in medicine and received his medical degree from
Harvard Medical School in 1836. He soon established himself as a general
practitioner in Boston, Massachusetts.

Holmes received an appointement
as professor of anatomy at Dartmouth College in 1838. He later became
a professor of anatomy and physiology and Dean at Harvard Medical School.
Holmes had a love for literature and he wrote poetry, novels, essays
and medical lectures. His first popular poem was Old Ironsides,
which he wrote in 1830 as a patriotic protest against the decision of
the Secretary of Navy to destroy the fighting ship The USS Constitution
(popularly known as Old Ironsides).

In 1839, Holmes married Amelia Lee Jackson, the daugther
of a Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice. The couple had three children,
one of whom became as famous as his father. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
was an Associate United States Supreme Court Justice for thirty years
and became well known for his legal writings and lectures.

Holmes was known as the leader of the Boston Brahmins,
a group of upper-class poets, which included other famous writers such
as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russel Lowell. At eighty-six,
Holmes had outlived many of his compatriots, and his death came suddenly
in 1894.


About Old Ironsides

Old Ironsides is the popular name for the naval ship the
USS Constitution. The construction of the ship was authorized by President
George Washington in 1794. The Third Congress had previously requested
that some action be taken to protect American merchant ships, which
were being attacked with increasing frequency by North African and British
ships. The steps taken by Congress and the President essentially resulted
in the creation of the US Navy. Six ships were designed by naval architect
Joshua Humpries and one of the ships, the Constitution, was to be built
in Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in Boston, Masschusetts.

The construction of the Constitution cost 302,700 dollars
and 2,000 trees. The construction team included Capt. Samuel Nicholson,
Col. George Claghorne and Gen. Henry Jackson. The cannons on the ship
were fastened with copper fixtures crafted by a blacksmith named Paul
Revere, who is better known for his famous midnight
ride
. The ship was launched on October 21, 1797 and it has remaind
a part of the US Navy since, making it the oldest commissioned warship, still afloat,
in the world.

The Constitution was involved in many battles, inlcuding
several in the War of 1812 and used for training in the Civil War. On August 19th, 1812,
the Constitution was engaged in a battle with the British ship HMS Guerriere.
It is reported that sometime during the battle, a someone witnessed
a British shot that bounced off the side of the Constitution and exclaimed
"Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!" The Americans emerged
from the battle victorious, and since then the ship has been popularly
referred to as Old Ironsides.

In 1828, the Constitution was laid up at Boston for
two years. The Navy Yard commanders were surveying all the ships in
the yard in order to determine the price to bring the ships into active
commission. Reports began to circulate that the Navy was considering
scrapping the Constitution. There was a public outcry when many heard
that the ship which bore the same name as the document that stood for
American freedom might be destroyed. Oliver Wendell Holmes also heard
of the fate that might befall the ship, and he quickly came to the rescue.
He wrote a poem that struck a chord with the patriotic masses of a young
America. Old Ironsides was published
the next day, and it became wildly popular. The Secretary of the Navy
soon ordered the ship to be restored and returned to active duty.

About the Photo

Constitution pier side in Houston, Texas on Feb. 27, 1932.
Photo courtesy of the US Navy Photo Archives.