Today in 1798, 25-year-old Isaac Hull, who was destined to become one of the United States’ most famous heroes of the War of 1812, began his distinguished career in the Navy after accepting a commission as a 4th Lieutenant aboard the U.S. Frigate Constitution.
Born in 1773 in Derby, Connecticut, young Isaac was raised by his uncle William Hull, a hero of the Revolutionary War, after his father, who also fought in the war, died from health complications stemming from his imprisonment aboard one of the British Army’s notoriously hellish prison ships. At age 14, Isaac left behind the chance to attend Yale College in favor of becoming a cabin boy on a merchant vessel, and within five years found himself in command of his own ship, participating in the lucrative West Indies trade.
In 1798, on his twenty-fifth birthday, Hull accepted a commission as a 4th Lieutenant in the newly re-organized United States Navy, accepting a post on the brand-new frigate Constitution. After steadily rising in the ranks over the next several years while seeing service in the Barbary Wars and Quasi-War with France, Hull was given command of the USS Constitution. Not long after war was officially declared between the United States and Great Britain in 1812, Hull gained national fame after engaging a British frigate, the HMS Guerriere, in a fierce naval battle on the open seas. In a bold move, Hull commanded the Constitution’s gunners to hold their fire — in spite of relentless cannonading from the British — until the American frigate had maneuvered herself directly alongside the Guerriere. On Hull’s signal, the Constitution opened fire at point-blank range, demolishing the British warship and forcing the surrender of its entire crew. Amazingly, the Constitution took minimal damage from the battle, earning her the nickname “Old Ironsides.”
Captain Isaac Hull was welcomed back to American shores as a hero, and even his home state of Connecticut, which was otherwise home to some of the most ardent anti-war sentiments in the entire country — couldn’t resist joining in the celebration of its famous native son. Newspapers boasted of Hull’s bravery, and etchings and mezzotints depicting the famous sea battle could be found on virtually every city street corner. Hull’s career continued its prestigious arc as he soon found himself in charge of the Portsmouth, Charleston, and then Washington Naval Yards, in addition to intermittently commanding various Navy ships. Finally, in 1841, he was forced to retire from the Navy due to ill health, bowing out of the service after an incredibly distinguished career at the age of 68. One of Connecticut’s most famous Navy heroes first reported for duty, today in Connecticut history.
Carolyn Ivanoff, “Fame and Infamy for the Hulls of Derby,” connecticuthistory.org
“Isaac Hull,” U.S Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command