The USS Constitution, a wooden warship built in 1797, the oldest ship of its kind still in use today anywhere in the world, had three distinguished visitors during the Greek War of Independence in 1827 — General Theodoros Kolokotronis, Admiral Canaris and the philhellene warrior Lord Byron.
The Greek heroes of the War of Independence each paid official visits to the warship as it lay at anchor off Livorno, Italy during the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire.
The USS Constitution, America’s greatest maritime treasure and a living repository of its history, is the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat. Constructed of southern live oak, she has double-walled planking that proved nearly impervious to cannonballs.
Named by George Washington — and launched the same year his Presidential term ended — she fought in the War of 1812 against the British, taking part in a battle with the British vessel “Guerriere.”
This fight earned her the nickname “Old Ironsides” after the British sailors, seeing their cannonballs literally bouncing off her oak planking, shouted “It’s as if her sides are made of iron!”
Kolokotronis paid official visit during the War of Independence
Her place in American and maritime history has repeatedly saved her from being scrapped, and she still sails today as a commissioned vessel in the United States Navy.
On the first of June in 1827, the great Greek war hero General Theodoros Kolokotronis paid an official visit to the frigate.
As described in a document called “Journal of a cruise in the US Frigate Constitution in the years 1824, 25 and 26, 27 and 28,” written by William Fleming, a Marine who served on the ship, the Greek heroes were feted aboard the Constitution with all the appropriate honors due them.
Having already led many successful campaigns against the Turks, Fleming realized that Kolokotronis was the backbone for the Greeks in their war of independence. Fleming elaborated on General Kolokotronis’ visit aboard the Constitution by saying:
“A majestic-looking man and a great warrior”
“While laying here, we were visited by the celebrated Greek General Kolokotronis. He’s almost 50 years of age, of great stature, with large features and of a determined look. He is altogether a very majestic-looking man and a great warrior.
“The Greek soldiers look upon him as the main support in their struggle for liberty. His very appearance animates them and seldom he leads them into action without being victorious.”
The USS Constitution Museum notes that in his descriptions of both Admiral Canaris and General Kolokotronis, it was clear that Fleming realized at the time that they were the most prominent heroes of the Greek revolution.
Greek war heroes seen as equals to George Washington during War of Independence
Indeed, Admiral Canaris and General Kolokotronis were described in the same revered way that Americans described George Washington’s participation in the American Revolution.
Although Fleming never directly states his partiality to the Greeks, his favorable description of the Greeks in comparison with his matter-of-fact description of the Capedan Pascha exposes a blatant bias in favor of the Greek officers.
Greek Admiral Constantine Canaris also paid an official visit to the American warship, on May 11, 1827.
Canaris had won widespread fame after inflicting significant damage on the Turkish fleet in retaliation for the Turkish massacre of the Greek island of Chios. Fleming praised Canaris in his description of the Admiral’s visit, writing:
“Admiral Canaris, accompanied by some other Greek officers, visited our ship. He’s a man of about 35 years of age, of small stature, but well made, with dark penetrating eyes, and of a very mild, modest deportment.
“He is one of the bravest men that the Greeks possess, and his gallant exploits have endeared his name to his countrymen.”
On the afternoon of Tuesday May 21, 1822, it was the great English poet, Romantic hero and philhellene Lord Byron’s turn to pay an official visit to the American forces aboard the Constitution.
Lord Byron actually visited two ships of the U.S. Navy’s Mediterranean Squadron anchored in Leghorn Roads, (Livorno) Italy: the 44-gun frigate USS Constitution and the 20-gun sloop the USS Ontario.
First boarding the flagship Constitution, Byron was no doubt met with enthusiasm by the individual Navy men and the visit was noted in the day’s log.
USS Constitution is a piece of living history
The USS Constitution, a living piece of history which can transport us directly back to the glorious days of the Greek Revolution, may be visited by the public at its berth in Boston Harbor.
So the descendants of Greeks who fought in the War of Independence may walk the same decks where Kolokotronis, Canaris and Byron strode and touch the wooden lintels of the doors they once passed through on their visits to the vessel.
Public events on the USS Constitution, including onboard tours, are a usual feature throughout the year, and it will reopen on April 8, 2021. Keep up on what’s going on with this maritime treasure by visiting its Facebook page, here.