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USS Constitution 1812 Era Topics - Small Boats


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As part of my effort to bash a MS Constitution kit and build it to 1812 Era specs, I've been doing a lot of research into different topics related to how she appeared during that era and posting the results of that research by updating a single post in my build log. And, I will continue to do that. However, Captain Steve had the idea that it might be a good idea to start a discussion here in the Nautical History and Research forum. And, I couldn't agree more.


So, what I'd like to do is have an open-forum discussion regarding different topical areas related to how Constitution was equipped. For now, I'd like to restrict it to how she appeared during the War of 1812. At some point, I may extend this to periods of time outside the War of 1812. Basically, what I'll do is present this one topic at a time. When that topical discussion appears to have run its course, I'll move on to another topic.


What I'm looking for is to gain the opinions and insights of others based on information that I may not have available to me or information that I may have possibly overlooked. As anyone who has done historical research of this type knows, there are not always black-and-white evidence that we can point to as fact. So, a lot of what will be discussed here is opinion, conjecture, and possibly conclusions drawn from evidentiary data.


That being said, I'd like to start with probably one of the more controversial topics related to Constitution's appearance during the War of 1812 - small boats.


There has always been and always will be much debate regarding the number and type of small boats carried by Constitution during the War of 1812. It seems that about the only thing modelers and historians can agree upon is that there were seven or eight. Of the boats carried, there were most likely of the following types:

  • Launch
  • Cutter
  • Whaleboat
  • Gig

Based on ship's records and personal journals from between July of 1812 and October of 1813, we know the following to be true:

  • In July of 1812, there were five cutters and one gig aboard
  • On October 17, 1812, a single whaleboat for Constitution was paid for
  • On October 21, 1812 work was paid for which included "whaleboats" (plural)
  • There were eight boats aboard in December of 1812, seven of which were damaged in the battle with HMS Java
  • Of all the references during the Hull command to boat usage, damaged boats, lost boats, repaired boats, and new boats built, there is never any reference to whaleboats. There are only references to cutters and a gig.
  • There is no reference to a launch during either Hull's command or Bainbridge's command
  • There are references to a single whaleboat being built for Constitution during Bainbridge's command (and again the payment for work on "whaleboats")

So, where does that leave us? In my opinion, it leaves us with more questions than answers. So, here are some of the questions we have to ask ourselves:

  1. Did Constitution carry a full compliment of eight boats during Hull's command? (we know of at least 6)
  2. If Constitution carried more than 6 boats during Hull's command, were any of them whaleboats?
  3. Did Constitution carry a launch during Hull's or Bainbridge's command? If so, why is there no mention of it? 
  4. If Constitution did carry a launch, is it possible that it could have been included in the count of cutters?
  5. What was the eighth boat carried during Bainbridge's command? (We know there were eight and that there were 4 cutters, a gig, and almost certainly two whaleboats)

And now for some assumptions. If we assume during Bainbridge's command Constitution did carry a launch, then we might presume that Constitution's compliment of small boats included one launch, 4 cutters, two whaleboats, and a gig (during at least part of his command).


During Hull's command we know there were five cutters and a gig. If we assume there was a launch on board that would give us one launch, five cutters, and a gig (for a total of 7). If Constitution carried a full compliment of 8 small boats, that would leave one unaccounted for. So, we could assume that Constitution only carried 7 small boats at that time or that it carried an 8th boat (which could have been a whaleboat). However, if we assume that Constitution did carry a launch, it would mean that she could have only carried one whaleboat.


During Bainbridge's command (as already mentioned), a single whaleboat was ordered and paid for. And, after that point there is never any mention of the 5th cutter again. So, it begs the question, did the newly ordered whaleboat replace the 5th cutter? Additionally, four days after the single whaleboat is paid for, there is payment for repairs to "whaleboats" (plural). This would mean that there had to be had to be at least one whaleboat aboard when the other whaleboat was paid for (implying that there may have been a whaleboat aboard during Hull's command). This does raise the question as to why a newly purchased whaleboat would need repairs. However, it is apparent that the whaleboats came equipped with steering oars which were replaced with rudders.


So, why is there never any mention of a launch during either Hull's command or Bainbridge's command? It is possible that since the larger small boats were stored in a nested fashion on top of the main hatch, the larger boats which would be stored on bottom would be the least frequently used (since they're harder to get to and you'd have to remove a perfectly good albeit slightly smaller boat to get to it). And, since the largest of all the small boats would be the launch, it is reasonable to conclude that it would rarely get used. Additionally, since the boats on the bottom of the nested boats would be offered some level of protection by the boat above,  they would be less likely to be damaged during a battle. Altogether, this might explain why there's never any mention of a launch being used, repaired, or replaced during either Hull's or Bainbridge's command.


So, there you have it. These are my own observations based on what few facts I've been able to gather. As you can see, there are no definitive answers here - only observations and possible conclusions. Now, I'd ask those of you who are more skilled in conducting research to comment on these observations, offer additional information that you may have (even if it refutes information I've offered here), and offer other possible conclusions.


Thanks for taking the time to read and thanks in advance for your help.



"Anatomy of the Ship - The 44-Gun Frigate USS Constitution" by Karl Heinz Marquardt

"USS Constitution Small Boats" - Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston (Updated April 2012)

USS Constitution Captain's Logbook



(Never Stop Trying to Learn)  

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Hi Clark,


There's been a lot of discussion on the Constitution over the years here.   I did a quick search and these might help answer your questions:





There's also several builders who are and have a lot of research on her.  You might go the log section and do a search for builds.

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Thanks Mark. I've searched through as many posts on MSW and MSB as I could find. And I did see the posts to which you provided links. Again, thanks for taking the time to do that.


Seems like most of the posts I've run across primarily make reference to boats that she carried when she was first launched or carried during her early deployments (i.e. the pinnace and jolly-boat are examples). And, many of those assume that she carried the same small boats throughout her career. However, during the War of 1812, there is no mention of a pinnace, a jolly-boat, or a punt.


Even the information on some of those boats is questionable. For example, many references are made to the pinnace being 36 feet. However, some historians say that even with an expanded opening in the waist area, the maximum length boat that could have been carried there was 34 feet. Can't remember where I read that now.  

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  • 3 weeks later...

Hello Fletch...


Your overview of the ships' boats for Constitution during the War of 1812 is terrific.The only thing we are certain about in this area is that we cannot be certain...!


It does not seem likely to me that any whaleboats were in place during Hull's war cruise.  The receipts seem to indicate purchases for these to replace cutters lost in the Guerriere battle and/or modifications to these new whaleboats for fitting rudders (instead of relying on the steering oar typical of this type of boat).




I'm not sure the absence of any mention of certain boat types in the ships logs is too meaningful... I don't think we can read too much into that.  Certainly a specific mention of any boat types is useful, but otherwise it would be uncommon for any log to make mention of a boat unless it was lost or damaged.  In fact, I don't think the Constitution log even mentions any of the lost boats after the Guerriere battle... We only know because of Midshipmen Baury's journal and the receipts for the replacement whaleboats.



Here is the boat listing for the President circa 1806 (Chapell Appendix pg. 504):


1 Launch, sloop rigged

1st Cutter, lug rigged, 2 masts

2nd Cutter, settee rigged, 2 masts

3rd Cutter, sliding gunter rigged, 2 masts

4th Cutter, sprit sails, 2 masts

Jolly Boat, lateen rig

2nd Gig, lateen rig


I'll probably rig my Connie along these lines - perhaps throw in a punt just because I can.  I would think, however, that 7 boats was a very likely layout during Hull's regime.


I'm enjoying your research overviews and appreciate the approach you are taking to document your reasoning along the way.




Edited by Force9
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