A controversy over whether today's Constellation is one of the U.S. Navy's first sail frigates or its last sail corvette stemmed from the Navy's inexplicable 1909 classification of her as a frigate of 1797. Even though experts have proved she's not that old, after restoration and renovation the ship returning to Baltimore's Inner Harbor is a treasure by any measure.
By 1852, the 38-gun sail frigate Constellation , launched in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1797, lay old and rotting in the Gosport (Norfolk, Virginia) Navy Yard. She had been laid up there since 1845, after nearly 50 years' outstanding service in peace and war. As part of its shipbuilding plan for 1853, the U.S. Navy had decided to construct a new sail sloop-of-war (or corvette—to use the French designation adopted by the world's navies) rated at 22 guns and to perpetuate the name Constellation in her. 1 The Navy's history with its steamers had been mixed. A few were excellent ships with reliable machinery; other ships were very poor, and most were considered just adequate. 2
William A. Graham, Secretary of the Navy from August 1850 to June 1852, did not believe the Navy needed a large number of new ships. By summer 1852, of four steamers authorized in 1847, three were finished and one nearly was completed; two more new ships also were completing. Graham was not a steam enthusiast and he felt sailing warships still were viable. He recommended in 1851 that the Navy build one steamer and one sailing ship yearly and by doing so keep abreast of developments in shipbuilding. 3 Graham's successor was John P. Kennedy, who served until the end of President Millard Fillmore's term in March 1853. He advocated some steamers, but nothing was done. Instead, it seems, Graham's plan was implemented because in 1853 and 1854 work began on a new sail corvette ( Constellation ) and a new steam frigate ( Franklin ). When James C. Dobbin became Secretary of the Navy in March 1853 under newly elected President Franklin Pierce, he let the Constellation 's building proceed while he prepared his proposal to Congress requesting large steam frigates. 4
For bureaucratic reasons, the Navy considered the Constellation and the Franklin to be "rebuilds" of their older predecessors so that money allocated already for ship-repair purposes could be used rather than having additional new-construction funds appropriated. Ship timber already in storage was also available for use. In reality, what "rebuilding" meant was that the old ship was broken up for scrap and a new one built to a new design, using both new and prestored materials. Accordingly, the old frigate Constellation was scrapped in early 1853. The keel of the new corvette of the same name was laid at the Gosport Navy Yard on 25 June 1853, and she was launched on 26 August 1854. After fitting out, she was commissioned for service on 28 July 1855. 5