In the late 18th century, merchant shipping of the early United States was plagued by Barbary pirate raids. After years of trouble, the United States commissioned six frigates to be built for the new navy. The USS Constitution carried 44 guns or more. The ship was a powerful presence being well armed and armored yet was fast enough to outrun the larger ships of the line.
In 1803, Commodore Edward Preble, with the Constitution as his flagship, led a squadron of ships in the Mediterranean Sea against the Barbary States. On September 6, near the Rock of Gibraltar, USS Constitution encountered an unknown ship in the dark. With men at general quarters, Constitution ran along side of the other ship. Preble hailed the ship but only received a hail in return. Identifying himself as the United States frigate Constitution, he received the same question again from the unknown ship. Losing his patience, Preble said: "I am now going to hail you for the last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you." The unknown ship replied, "If you give me a shot, I'll give you a broadside." Once more, Preble demanded an answer, to which he received, "This is His Britannic Majesty's ship Donegal, 84 guns, Sir Richard Strachan, an English commodore," with a command to "Send your boat on board." Preble, his patience now exhausted, exclaimed, "This is United States ship Constitution, 44 guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel." And then to his gun crews: "Blow your matches, boys!" Before the incident escalated further, a boat arrived from the other ship and a British lieutenant relayed his captain's apologies.
The mystery ship was not actually the Donegal but in fact HMS Maidstone, a 32-gun frigate. Preble had come alongside her so quietly that the Maidstone had delayed answering with the proper hail while she readied her guns. This encounter became the start of the strong allegiance between Preble and the officers under his command. (They became known as "Preble's boys".) He had shown that he was willing to defy a presumed ship of the line.
Launched in 1797, the ship is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat. She saw extensive action during the war of 1812. The ship earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” when cannon balls were seen to bounce off her sides during the victorious battle against HMS Guerriere. The USS Constitution never lost a battle.
This print depicts USS Constitution as she appeared during her 1803 Mediterranean patrol. She still retains her original Hercules figurehead and is shown in the company of USS Argus (16 guns) and USS Nautilus (12 guns).