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200-year old Portsmouth Yard
began with one Hull of a leader

Isaac Hull Comes to Portsmouth Yard

Isaac Hull In 1813 "Old Ironsides" Captain Isaac Hull got a new assignment. He would take command of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and there build America's largest warship. He was, at the same time, charged to help defend 300 miles of northern New England coastline from the invading British. When Hull arrived at the new federal yard he discovered a fledgling facility with only a few buildings, not a single guard or defensive cannon and just 18 men. Hull didn't blink.

A year before he had already done the impossible. Pursued near New Jersey by five ships from the world's finest navy, Hull gave the British fleet the slip. Then with the American fleet outnumbered 100 ships to one, he pitted the USS CONSTITUTION dead against HMS GURRIERE outside Boston in August 1812. When the smoke cleared, the American ship had won the battle, puncturing the Royal Navy's claim to invincibility. It was largely a morale victory, but just the boost a politically divided young country needed.

Battle of 1812 Still the War of 1812 raged. Before it was over the British would torch the new nation's capital city of Washington. Hull meanwhile, was building USS WASHINGTON, the name eventually assigned to his 74-gun project. Despite the crude shipbuilding conditions at Portsmouth Harbor, Hull's initial assessment vibrated with enthusiasm. He highly approved of the government's chosen site on 58-acre Fernald's Island on the Maine side of the swiftly flowing Piscataqua River. Sheltered, yet close to the sea in a deepwater port, Portsmouth Yard was more convenient, he wrote, "than any Yard belonging to the United States."

But building WASHINGTON quickly became a political land battle rivaling anything Hull had experienced at sea. The only other navy project of this scope ever attempted had been the sloop of war AMERICA in 1782 under the direction of John Paul Jones. Built on nearby Badger's Island, practically within view of Portsmouth Yard, the project had been a year-long struggle for Jones, who also had arrived in the region fresh from the greatest sea victory of his career. Both captains Jones and Hull left town greatly discouraged.

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Trouble, Trouble

Problem followed problem. Plans for the ship of this magnitude were at first unavailable, then in dispute. Despite a skilled force of local shipbuilders, 30 years had passed without a job of this size and complexity. Hull hired William Badger, now elderly, who had worked on the AMERICA. Badger demanded a salary equivalent to Hull's, and the same amount for his son William Jr.. Hull grew to dislike the pair, fearing one was too aged and the other too inexperienced -- and too inclined to drinking.

Hull learned that the old wooden "ways" used to launch the former ship were too old and damaged to use again. Despite a stockpile of timber, there was not enough sturdy live oak to frame the new ship. More live oak was needed from the South, but the British had formed a blockade at Portsmouth Harbor. Hull was forced to beg for supplies from the neighboring commander at Boston Yard, wasting away the summer building season on tedious political wrangling. Suddenly it was fall, and with it, a battle against storms and cold weather. A Connecticut Yankee by birth, Hull knew the tribulations of winter shipbuilding. With work barely underway on the warship, the commander received federal funding to build a gigantic shiphouse so work could continue indoors. By December the completed building was the largest of its kind in the world. During 1813 the commander had also added a new smithy, a magazine and a mast and boat shed.

Isaac Hull The better the shipyard, the bigger the target, Hull knew. There was talk that the blockading British planned a raid on Fernald's Island at Portsmouth, and perhaps at defenseless Portland Harbor, the population center of nearby Maine. This attack, Hull felt, was made more likely by the number of local privateers. Sanctioned by the federal government and run like corporations, privateering ships made a handful of Portsmouth men wealthy by attacking British merchant and supply ships for plunder.

Naturally defended by its narrow inlet, Portsmouth was practically without military protection. A number of small old forts en route had been abandoned and only a tiny crew manned Fort Constitution at New Castle. Many New Hampshire locals, angry at the economic impact of "Madison's War" were, Hull feared, not willing to even defend themselves. In a daring move, a local patriot smuggled 20 small cannon past British patrols by hiding them under a delivery of timber. Hull placed them at the end of the island and beefed up defenses, but with little hope they could stop a covert attack. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the British blockade departed, driven to safe winter harbors in Nova Scotia by the threatening winter seas.

By the summer of 1814 the 74-gun, still officially without a name, was taking shape within the huge new shiphouse. Hull had fired the Badger family and ordered construction of barracks and a small hospital for as many as 200 marines and seamen aboard USS CONGRESS and WASP, now docked for repair at the shipyard. CONGRESS was the Portsmouth-built sister ship to Hull's own CONSTITUTION. More than a hundred local workers ferried to and from the island daily. Although the number of workers has risen as high as 9,000 at its peak, the pattern of work at The Yard first began under Hull's leadership.

Commander Hull, however, planned to make fewer ferry rides to Fernald's Island. After repeated requests, the nearly bankrupt Navy Secretary had grudgingly agreed to allow construction of a $5,000 home for the commander and his wife Ann. As much as she liked the quaint town of 7,000 Portsmouth residents, Mrs. Hull had grown bored with long days alone in a rented boardinghouse. The Hulls became friendly with the toast of Portsmouth society, including the most eminent local citizen Col. Tobias Lear, former secretary to George Washington, and his wife Fannie. They had met not too many years before when the CONSTITUTION was stationed in Algeria where Lear was American consul sent to negotiate with the famous Barbary pirates. The Hull's beautiful new house at Quarters A, still home to the base commander today, was completed just before their departure.

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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 complex when it 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.
USS Washington Launched
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 so-called 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 when the British chased a small local ship ashore in Rye and New Hampshire residents opened fire. In fact, British scouts determined in this survey that, although the nearly complete 74-gun was a wonderfully vulnerable target, the natural harbor defenses and the well placed forts of the Piscataqua made the job too risky. Still the five British blockading ships, including three 74-guns, made for nervous times in Portsmouth.

Hull was greatly relieved when at last, the nation's largest warship slip 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 were sending their valuables uprivier 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.

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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 often brought less than half their printed value. As soon as the war over, the federal government made attempt to close down Portsmouth Yard, a tradition that has continued 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.

Isaac Hull 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 more today as more a pacifist, than 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 Hull's old command post at Portsmouth Shipyard. When the often restored ship embarked on a world tour in 1931, Portsmouth, NH was its first port of call.

The USS CONSTITUTION Museum in Boston honored its commander with a special exhibit years ago entitled: "Isaac Hull, A Forgotten American Hero." The USS WASHINGTON which he struggled so ferociously to build is also largely forgotten. Yet the 200-year old Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, slapped into life by it first true leader, carries on as a profitable repair base for nuclear submarines. And among the gigantic cranes and warehouses on Fernald's Island visitors find noble Quarters A, home of the base commander even today, and a gentle reminder of a New England gentleman.

Primary Source: Linda M. Maloney, The Captain from Connecticut: The Life and Naval Times of Isaac Hull, 1986.

By J. Dennis Robinson
Copyright © 2000
All rights reserved

Image Info: (1) Hull portrait at the top is from the often-reproduced 1809 Gilbert Stuart painting; (2) illustrations of Ironsides vs. Gurriere and Hull sketch are 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

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