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How Issac Hull Built Washington

Isaac Hull


Isaac Hull’s job was to build the largest warship in the American navy. He had no wood, no place to build in winter and little money. There was a war on and a British blockade. The Portsmouth Shipyard had almost no buildings and only a dozen workers. Times were even tougher at PNSY then, than now.




In 1813 "Old Ironsides" Captain Isaac Hull got a new assignment. He took command of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and build America's largest warship. 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 facility with only a few buildings, not a single guard or defensive cannon and just 18 men.

Isaac HullHull was unshaken. He had done the impossible before. A year before, pursued near New Jersey by five ships from the world's finest navy, Hull gave the British fleet the slip. Then with the American fleet outnumbered 100 ships to one, he pitted the USS CONSTITUTION dead against HMS GURRIERE outside Boston in August 1812. When the smoke cleared, the American ship had won the battle, puncturing the Royal Navy's claim to invincibility. It was largely a morale victory, but just the boost a politically divided young country needed. His surviving ship became known as "Old Ironsides".

Still the War of 1812 raged on. Before it was over the British would torch the new nation's capital city of Washington. Even as Washington burned, Hull was building the USS WASHINGTON, the name eventually assigned to his 74-gun project. Despite the crude shipbuilding conditions there, Hull's 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."

But building WASHINGTON quickly became a political land battle rivaling anything Hull had experienced at sea. The only other navy project of this scope ever attempted had been the sloop of war AMERICA in 1782 under the direction of John Paul Jones. Built on nearby Badger's Island, practically within view of Portsmouth Yard, that project became a year-long struggle. Jones too had arrived in the region fresh from the greatest sea victory of his career. Both Jones and Hull left the Piscataqua disappointed and discouraged.



Trouble, Trouble

Problem followed problem. Plans for a ship of this magnitude were at first unavailable, then in dispute. Despite a skilled force of local shipbuilders, 30 years had passed without a job of this size and complexity. Hull hired William Badger, now elderly, who had worked on the AMERICA 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 former ship 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 building 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 Fernald's Island at Portsmouth, and perhaps at defenseless Portland Harbor, the population center of nearby Maine. This attack, Hull felt, was made more likely by the number of local privateers. Sanctioned by the federal government and run like small companies, privateering ships made a handful of Portsmouth men wealthy by attacking British merchant and supply ships for plunder.

Naturally defended by its narrow inlet, Portsmouth was practically without military protection at this time. A number of small old forts en route had been abandoned and only a tiny crew manned Fort Constitution at New Castle. Many New Hampshire locals, angry at the economic impact of "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.

Older Isaac HullBy 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, now docked for repair at the shipyard. CONGRESS was the Portsmouth-built sister ship to Hull's own CONSTITUTION. More than a hundred local workers ferried to and from the island daily. Although the number of shipyard workers has risen as high as 9,000 at its peak, the pattern of steady work at The Yard first began under Hull's leadership.

Commander Hull grew tired of ferrying to work from Portsmouth to Fernald's Island. After repeated requests, the nearly bankrupt 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. The Hulls became friendly with the toast of Portsmouth society, including the most eminent local citizen Col. Tobias Lear, former secretary to George Washington, and his wife Fannie. The couples had met earlier when the CONSTITUTION was stationed in Algeria and Lear was American consul there during his negotiations with the Barbary pirates. The Hull's beautiful new house at Quarters A is still home to the base commander today. It was finished only shortly before the Hulls moved away from Portsmouth.




Will Britain Invade?

Threats of a British invasion of Portsmouth 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 to focus on what became the final months of the War of 1812. Seacoast citizens grew especially nervous when two British frigates made a dangerously close inspection of the harbor. Largely forgotten today, there was actually a skirmish here when the British chased a small local ship ashore in Rye and New Hampshire residents opened fire. Retreating British scouts concluded that the 74-gun ship was a highly vulnerable target. But in the end they decided that an attack was too risky due to the natural harbor defenses and the well-placed forts of the Piscataqua. Still the five British blockading ships, including three 74-guns, kept Portsmouth residents very nervous.

USS Washington Launched / Historic New England

Hull was greatly relieved when, at last, the nation's largest warship slid gracefully from its massive wooden garage and into the sea. There, at least, the newly named USS WASHINGTON could defend itself against British attack using the cannons borrowed from the USS CONGRESS. So great was the threat of attack that Portsmouth citizens began sending their valuables down river for safekeeping. Portsmouth was in a state of near panic by fall after learning of British attacks along the Penobscott River in Maine. Soon 3,000 poorly trained and often unarmed members of the NH militia were encamped along the coastline. A significant fleet of British ships joined the choking blockade -- but the battle never came. Cold weather and the ensuing treaty ended the threat.

Aftermath of War

Battle or not, Portsmouth was devastated by the war with Britain. Years of the blockade and loss of its biggest trade customer 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 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. The Yard, through a series of major wars, actually became a boost to the local economy, and a boost well needed. Despite attempts to revive it, the glory days of the Piscataqua as a world-renowned trade port were over, a casualty of the war. Over the next century business dried up and the great wharves rotted and collpased.

Born at the peak of the American Revolution, Hull's childhood dreams of being in the Navy never left him. Commander of his first ship at 19, Hull was Promoted to commodore in 1823. After Portsmouth he commanded the Pacific squadron, the Washington Navy Yard, and the Mediterranean squadron. Still he is remembered today more as a peacemaker than as a fighter. Like John Paul Jones, he was deeply concerned about his crew and continually battled for their benefits and pay through almost insurmountable seas of bureaucratic red tape.

Hull's fame today hangs on a 30-minute battle and 24-line poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Thanks to Holmes, "Old Ironsides" has been preserved to this day as one of the nation's most beloved historic landmarks. Twice during its long life, the USS CONSTITUTION was rebuilt and repaired at the Portsmouth Shipyard. In all, Old Ironsides was berthed here nearly two decades before returning to Boston in 1877. When the often restored ship embarked on a world tour in 1931, Portsmouth was its 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 which he struggled so ferociously to build is also largely forgotten. The gigantic Franklin Shiphouse burned in 1936. Yet the 205-year old Portsmouth Naval Shipyard lives on as the most highly-rated submarine repair facility in the nation.

Copyright © 2005 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the award-winning web site with thousands of web pages of local history.

Primary Source: Linda M. Maloney, The Captain from Connecticut: The Life and Naval Times of Isaac Hull, 1986.

Hull in Naval Meeting

Image Info: (1) Hull portrait at the top is from the often-reproduced 1809 Gilbert Stuart painting; (2) Hull sketch from a 1908 boy's book "Old Ironsides: Captain Isaac Hull Commanding; (3) image of USS Washington launched is from the cover of Richard Whinslow's history of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard "Do Your Job" Courtesy of Portsmouth Marine Society from the Blunt painting in the collection of the SPNEA; (4) an older Hull in 1841 from from a reproduction of a sketch at the Smithsonian Institute (5) Same as #2


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