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The First Step

By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)

The winds of revolution were sweeping over broad areas of Europe in the late 1840s, potentially endangering American commercial interests in their path. It was for this reason that Constitution was recommissioned after about two years in ordinary. Ordered to the Mediterranean, she would provide both defense and haven for her citizens, and serve as a reminder to all warring parties that the United States would not tolerate their unwilling involvement.

The ship’s transit to the Mediteranean in December 1848 was made in the good time of twenty three days, but instead of breaking the voyage at Gibraltar, Captain John Gwinn headed her directly for his first port of call, Tripoli. From there, the ship next headed to Alexandria, Egypt. At that place, Gwinn learned that Commodore William Bolton had died nearly a month earlier, and he now was acting squadron commander.

On 27 March, he headed his ship westnorthwestward to round Italy’s “toe,” transit the Strait of Messina, and set course for Tuscany to see for himself the military and political situation as Austrians and Italians struggled for control. After calls in the embattled north of Italy at Spezzia, Leghorn, and Spezzia again, Constitution sailed south to Naples, arriving late on 7 June. Here, in the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, was more political turmoil, for King Ferdinand II was contending not only with unrest in Sicily itself, but attempting to support Pope Pius IX in his confrontation with the Austrians invading the Papal States from the north. The big frigate spent the rest of June and all of July there, a potent reminder to all parties that American neutrals would be protected.

On 25 July, Commodore Charles W. Morgan arrived in the sidewheel steam frigate Mississippi, 10 guns, to assume command of the squadron. Anxious to go on to Tunis with the least possible delay, and therefore wishing to avoid the required quarantine, Morgan was briefed by Gwinn as the former sat in his barge alongside the frigate, anchored in the harbor. When told of a proposal Gwinn had received from our charge d’affaires in Naples and Rome that Constitution proceed to Gaeta and there be visited by Pope Pius and King Ferdinand, Morgan adamantly opposed it verbally and later in writing on the grounds that both were then contesting their thrones against revolutionaries in a conflict in which the United States had avoided taking sides. Instead, the Commodore ordered Captain Gwinn to proceed “with a little delay as possible” to Messina, then to Sardinia and northern Italy to safeguard American interests in those places. Morgan sailed for Tunis later that afternoon.

On 30 July, Charge John Rowan paid a call at King Frederick’s palace to congratulate the monarch and his queen on the birth of a princess. Accompanying him as interpreter was Surgeon Charles Guillou of Constitution, then still in harbor. (Guillou, Philadelphia-born in 1813 of displaced French parents, was adept in several languages.) When Ferdinand expressed an interest in visiting the frigate, Rowan immediately issued an invitation. (Whether Rowan was aware of Morgan’s order to Gwinn and chose to ignore it isn’t known. In the flow of the conversation of the moment, he may not have been able to avoid acceding to the monarch’s desire.) After paying their respects to the King, the Americans called upon the Queen, whom they found talking to Pope Pius IX, her spiritual advisor. The next day, Rowan took Guillou with him to Rome to call upon the Pope in the Vatican, where he extended a second invitation.

Gwinn got Constitution underway on the afternoon of the 31st with Charge d’Affaires Rowan aboard, and proceeded to Gaeta, arriving early on the morning of 1 August. Near noon that day, the King and the Pope were rowed through the harbor in an ornate galley, passed Spanish, French, and British warships with their yards manned, and were received on board “Old Ironsides” with yards manned and a 21 gun salute for each. The occasion was the first time a pope set foot on American territory. (A commissioned ship in the United States Navy has the same legal status as a piece of American soil, in the same way any of our embassies around the world do.)

The King and Pope visited every part of the ship. At the request of the Catholics in the crew, they were lined up on the gun deck and received the papal benediction as the Pontiff walked among them escorted by the linguistically talented Surgeon Guillou. That done, the guests were led to the captain’s cabin for refreshment. When the dignitaries departed, after nearly three hours aboard, yards again were manned and two 21 gun salutes fired. Constitution got underway late that afternoon and returned briefly to Naples to drop off Mr. Rowan (and fire a 21 gun salute in honor of the “accouchement of the Queen of Naples”) before proceeding southwest to Messina, in accordance with Commodore Morgan’s orders.

The Pope subsequently sent 150 rosaries for the eighty Catholics in Constitution’s crew, together with a silver medal bearing his image and coat of arms to Captain Gwinn. Commodore Morgan, when he learned of what had transpired, was outraged by what he viewed as an outright violation of America’s neutrality and flagrant disobedience of orders on Gwinn’s part. As a mark of his disapprobation, he recommended to Secretary of the Navy William B. Preston that the offending frigate and her Captain be ordered “to the Brazil Station, or some other station” and another unit sent to the Mediterranean. As it turned out, Nature intervened: Captain Gwinn died at Messina on 4 September 1849, possibly of a slow cerebral hemorrhage. Pope Pius IX lived to become the longest serving pope in history, and is remembered as the promulgator of the dogma of papal infallibility.

(Note: In May 1837, Pope Gregory XVI had turned down an invitation by Commodore Jesse Duncan Elliott to visit Constitution. He, too, sent the American naval officer a medal bearing his likeness.)

Commander Martin was the 1997 Naval History Author of the Year and is the author of the prize- and award-winning history of Constitution, A Most Fortunate Ship, several other books, and numerous articles. He commanded Constitution from 1974 to 1978.