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Captain of Ironsides Starts Navy Yard
Isaac_Hull_in_1841HISTORY MATTERS

Here’s a hint. Cannon balls bounced off the sides of his famous ship. After his famed battle with the British aboard Old Ironsides in the War of 1812, Isaac Hull came to Portsmouth, NH to whip the new navy yard into shape and build the biggest vessel in the American fleet.

The most famous ship in the War of 1812 was the unbeatable USS Constitution. We all know that the British were stunned to see their cannonballs bounce off this sturdy American-built frigate, now a floating museum in Boston. The defeat of HMS Gurriere by "Old Ironsides" did not win the war, but it was an important moral victory for a nation with a tiny formal navy. That tiny navy got a lot of backup from over 500 private armed vessels that joined the fray as privateers.

What you may not know is that in 1813, "Old Ironsides" Captain Isaac Hull got a new assignment. He took command of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and built America's largest warship here. He was, at the same time, charged to help defend 300 miles of northern New England coastline from the invading British Navy. When Hull arrived at the new federal yard he discovered a miniscule island facility in Kittery with only a few buildings, not a single guard or defensive cannon and just 18 men.

Hull, like Old Ironsides herself, was unshaken. Despite the crude shipbuilding conditions here, his initial assessment of Portsmouth Harbor vibrated with enthusiasm. He highly approved of the government's chosen site on 58-acre Fernald's Island on the Maine side of the swiftly flowing Piscataqua River. Sheltered, yet close to the sea in a deepwater port, Portsmouth Yard was more convenient, he wrote, "than any Yard belonging to the United States." Plans to build the 74-gun USS Washington got underway even as the British were burning the national capital at Washington, DC.

Trouble, Trouble

Despite a skilled force of local shipbuilders, 30 years had passed without a job of this size and complexity in the region. Hull hired William Badger, now elderly, who had worked on the continental warship America here for John Paul Jones back in 1781. Badger demanded a salary equivalent to Hull's, and the same amount for his son William Jr. Hull grew to dislike the pair, fearing one was too old and the other too inexperienced -- and too inclined to drinking.

Hull learned that the old wooden "ways" used to launch the America were too worn and damaged to use again. Despite a stockpile of timber, there was not enough sturdy live oak to frame the new ship. More live oak was needed from the South, but the British had formed a blockade around Portsmouth Harbor. Hull was forced to beg for supplies from the neighboring commander at Boston Yard, wasting away the summer season on tedious political wrangling.

Suddenly it was fall, and with it came a battle against storms and cold weather. A Connecticut Yankee by birth, Hull knew the tribulations of winter shipbuilding. With work barely underway on the warship, the commander received federal funding to build a gigantic shiphouse so work could continue indoors. By December the completed building was the largest of its kind in the world. During 1813 the commander also added a new smithy, a magazine and a mast and boat shed. Portsmouth Yard was growing.

The better the shipyard, the bigger the target, Hull knew. There was talk that the blockading British planned a raid on Portsmouth and at Portland Harbor, the population center of nearby Maine. This attack, Hull felt, was made more likely by the number of local privateers that irritated enemy supply ships. The city was practically without military protection at this time. A number of small old forts on the river had been abandoned and only a tiny crew manned Fort Constitution at New Castle.

Many locals, angry at the crushing economic impact of President James Madison’s war were, according to Hull, unwilling to even defend themselves. In a daring move, a local patriot smuggled 20 small cannon past British patrols by hiding them under a delivery of timber. Hull placed the guns at the end of the island and beefed up defenses, but with little hope they could stop a covert attack. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the British blockade departed, driven to safe winter harbors in Nova Scotia by the threatening winter seas.

By the summer of 1814 the 74-gun warship, still officially without a name, was taking shape within the huge new Franklin Shiphouse. Hull continued to expand the Yard. After firing the Badger family, he ordered construction of new military barracks. He built a small hospital for as many as 200 marines and seamen aboard the USS Congress and Wasp that were then docked for repair at the shipyard. Congress was the Portsmouth-built sister ship to Hull's own Constitution.

Commander Hull grew tired of ferrying to work from his rented home in Portsmouth to Fernald's Island. After repeated requests, the nearly bankrupt US Navy Secretary grudgingly agreed to allow construction of a $5,000 home for the commander and his wife Ann. As much as she liked the quaint town of 7,000 Portsmouth residents, Mrs. Hull had grown bored with long days alone in a rented boardinghouse.

Will Britain attack?

Threats of a British invasion grew as the blockading fleet returned with the warmer weather. Still Hull's requests for stronger defenses fell on deaf ears at the navy. The commander tightened security on Fernald's Island, posting sentries at night, and ordering them to defend the yard from suspicious characters. When a boatload of what were likely local bootleggers did not respond to a hail, a sentry shot and killed a man who turned out to be from Portsmouth. The sentry was accused of murder and the trial turned ugly when lawyers discovered that Fernald's Island -- although sold to the federal government -- was officially under the jurisdiction of Maine, a state then still under Massachusetts control.

Determined to finally complete his assigned warship during the summer of 1814, Hull was stunned when the navy suspended all building projects. Seacoast citizens grew especially nervous when two British frigates made a dangerously close inspection of the harbor. A brief skirmish occurred when the British chased a small local boat ashore in Rye. Residents opened fire on the British, but there were no casualties.

Hull was greatly relieved when, at last, the nation's largest warship slid gracefully from its massive wooden garage and into the river. Fearing an imminent attack on the nearly completed warship, panicky Portsmouth citizens began sending their valuables down river for safekeeping. Three thousand poorly trained members of the NH militia encamped along the coastline. But the battle never came. Cold weather and the ensuing Treaty of Ghent ended the war the day before Christmas in 1814.

Aftermath of War

Battle or not, Portsmouth was devastated by the war with Britain. Years of embargoes and blockades and the resulting loss trade changed the NH seaport forever. Banks collapsed and Hull was, at first, not able to pay the men who had worked so long and hard on the USS Washington. When the navy did pay, it was often in the form of government vouchers that brought less than half their printed value. As soon as the war ended, the federal government attempted to close down Portsmouth Yard, a tradition that has continued for two centuries.

After Portsmouth, Isaac Hull commanded the Pacific squadron, the Washington Navy Yard, and the Mediterranean squadron. He was promoted to commodore in 1823. His fame today hangs on a 30-minute battle aboard Old Ironsides. Long after Hull left Portsmouth, Ironsides herself lived at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for nearly two decades before moving permanently to Charlestown, MA in 1897. When the often-restored frigate embarked on a world tour in 1931, Portsmouth was her first port of call.

Hull deserves full credit for slapping life into the newborn shipyard. Yet he has been referred to as "a forgotten American hero". The USS Washington that he struggled to build is rarely remembered. The gigantic Franklin Shiphouse burned in 1936. Yet the soon-to-be-210-year old Portsmouth Naval Shipyard lives on as the most highly-rated submarine repair facility in the nation.

Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

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