Its wheel had been torn off by cannon fire as the ship squared against a faster frigate from what was then the world’s greatest navy. Its captain had taken a bullet to one thigh and shrapnel to another.
But the vessel gained a nickname during an unlikely victory months earlier that would stick for two centuries: “Old Ironsides” was at war.
On Saturday, the USS Constitution, docked in Charlestown, was the site of a ceremony commemorating the 206th anniversary of its victory over the British HMS Java during the War of 1812.
Because the vessel is manned by active-duty Navy service members, the site remained open while the Constitution’s visitor center and other parts of the Charlestown Navy Yard remained closed during the government shutdown.
Speakers remembered the sacrifice of sailors on both sides of the battle, one of a string of victories for the fledgling American navy. Nearly 70 people were killed during the battle, most of them British.
“What motivates an individual in the midst of the chaos and carnage to perform acts of courage that rally and inspire others?” Gary Foreman, manager at the USS Constitution Museum, asked the crowd of about 100 visitors crowded on the deck of the ship.
Foreman recounted the story of one sailor who had lost fingers on both hands during the battle but stayed with the ship through another battle. The sailor, he said, “was just one of many who would put themselves in harm’s way for the cause.”
During the battle with the Java, Captain William Bainbridge was shot by a British marine about 45 minutes into the three-and-a-half-hour melee, according to the ship’s current commanding officer, Nathaniel Shick.
Ready to redeem himself after a defeat nearly a decade earlier, Bainbridge refused medical treatment and propped himself up against the mizzenmast, where he was hit again a half-hour later.
“Being in command, it’s something you think about during the quiet times at night,” said Shick, the 75th commander of the historic ship.
“Great men fought to create our early American heritage. They fought and bled here on board,” he said.
The battle also represented a coming-of-age moment for the United States as it went up against the superior British during the war, according to Shick.
“The United States had nothing going for it in terms of advantage,” he said. “They were vastly outnumbered.”
But after victories like that against the HMS Java, the United States had become “a force to be reckoned with,” said Shick, who has led the ship for about a year.
The battle was commemorated with a single shot fired from one of the ship’s guns, a resounding sound that sent a jolt through the crowd.
“You could feel it as well as hear it . . . and smell the gunpowder,” said Mark Hiigel, 46, who witnessed the shot from below deck.
The 23-year member of the Coast Guard had brought the American flag from his home at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford to have it flown on the ship and “weave it in with the fabric of history.”
The ceremony also had him thinking of the sacrifice of those sailors before him.
“It’s the most selfless thing to give your life for your country,” he said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity they gave for us today.”
Lucas Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.