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How Issac Hull Built Washington



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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