, Salem, MA

April 1, 2014

A rescue to remember

Talks, gun salute to mark Marblehead's saving of Constitution

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

---- — MARBLEHEAD — Concord has its bridge, Plymouth has its rock, and Marblehead has its harbor, site of one of the most thrilling events in American history. If you don’t know about it, the next few days offers a chance to find out.

On Thursday, April 3, the town will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the day in 1814 when the USS Constitution, chased by two hostile British frigates and cheered on by thousands of supporters on shore, ended what might have been a deadly chase by sailing into the sanctuary of Marblehead Harbor, safe beneath the guns of Fort Sewall.

Marking the occasion, the Marblehead Historical Society and Museum will present a free, illustrated talk by historian Matthew Brenckle of the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown at 7:30 p.m. at the Old Town House. On Sunday, April 6, the Fort Sewall Oversight Committee will also remember the moment at noon as members fire a weapon, either a blunderbuss or cannon, at the vicinity of the plaque recalling all three visits of the Constitution to Marblehead, according to Larry Sands,

Later on Sunday, from 3 to 6 p.m., Marblehead historian Judy Anderson will speak at the Marblehead Arts Association’s King Hooper Mansion about Supreme Court Justice Samuel Sewall — the fort carries his name — who owned the Hooper mansion up until 1814. Anderson will discuss the architecture and the mode of life for Marbleheaders of Sewall’s era. Call 781-631-2608 to sign up for this lecture, which costs $10 for nonmembers of the Arts Assocation.

The rescue of Constitution might sound like a simple story: The two British warships Tenedos and Junon spotted the vessel off Cape Ann and gave chase.

“They thought it was the USS Congress,” said Brenckle, who has researched the writings of the Tenedos’ surgeon. He believes Constitution’s captain, Charles Stewart, would have turned and fought off one British frigate, but not two. Moreover, if the British had known what they were chasing, the ship that bested two British frigates in earlier combat, they would have been still more eager to catch their prey.

To escape, a desperate Stewart tossed overboard anything nonessential that might slow his ship, including the grog. It wasn’t enough. Though his destination was Boston, Stewart decided his only hope was to find some way to slip into Marblehead’s tricky harbor.

The War of 1812 was not popular in New England. It was disparaged as Mr. (President James) Madison’s war, and there was even talk of breaking away from the union. The British blockade crippled the economies of seaport towns like Salem and Marblehead.

“The merchants had pretty much stagnated,” Brenckle said.

Opposition to the war was such that when U.S. Navy hero Stephen Decatur attempted to sneak his ship past the British blockade of New London, Conn., someone on shore sent signals to warn the enemy.

Yet, there was also anger at the British who had been harassing U.S. shipping and seizing sailors on American ships to force them into the British navy. Thus, there were up to 50 Marbleheaders among the Constitution’s crew. Their presence proved a godsend as Stewart recruited ’Header Samuel Green to help pilot his ship into the harbor.

Onshore crowds cheered in wild approval. The British, leery of harbor obstacles and the guns of Fort Sewall, drew off.

Though a member of the Revolutionary War re-enactors Glover’s Regiment, Larry Sands won’t be in his Continental Army uniform on Sunday. Rather, another Glover’s Regiment veteran, Bob Erbetta, will appear dressed as a Constitution sailor to fire the weapon recalling the fort’s role in saving an American icon.

In addition to its rescue in 1814, Constitution made return visits as a gesture of gratitude to the town in 1931 and 1997.

Alan Burke can be reached at