The USS Constitution never looked better than on the morning it sailed from Alexandria, Va., fully provisioned, with an inexperienced but enthusiastic crew of 450 men eager for action and adventure.
Then word came later that day, June 18, 1812: A hawkish Congress had declared war on Britain. "The crew manifested its joy and zeal by giving three cheers," a lieutenant on board later wrote.
The 15-year-old frigate had just been overhauled, it's copper, originally provided by Paul Revere, gleaming in the sun, its black-and-white paint and acre of canvas an imposing sight — and it never had better leadership.
Capt. Isaac Hull, 39, short, burly and boyishly handsome, brimming with confidence, was born on the banks of the Housatonic River in Derby and had spent most of his life at sea. His father, a merchant seaman and whaler, had taken his young son all over the world with him.
At 14, Isaac was sent to Boston to live with his Uncle William, also from Derby, a Revolutionary War hero and now a successful lawyer and politician. William Hull, a Yale graduate, envisioned a college education and gentrified life for Isaac, but his nephew insisted on returning to the sea, starting as a cabin boy, eventually commanding a merchant ship. He learned every trick of the trade by his mid-20s.
When the U.S. Navy was established, William Hull arranged for a commission and Isaac Hull boarded the Constitution as a fourth lieutenant in 1798. He sailed and fought in the "Quasi War" with France and against the Barbary pirates, and in 1810 he took over his original ship, which had become disappointingly slow.
Isaac Hull saw to it that wagonloads of barnacles, seaweed and oysters were blasted away, then he brought in lighter cannon, and soon the U.S.S. Constitution moved with as much efficiency as a massive, 44-gun frigate possibly could.
"The crew are as yet unacquainted with a ship of war, as many are recently joined and many have not been on an armed ship before," Hull wrote to his superiors as he set out to open sea. "We are doing all we can to make them acquainted with their duty and in a few days we shall have nothing to fear from any single decked ship."
But while Isaac looked to the imminent war with confidence, his uncle, now 59 and not quite recovered from a stroke, was in deep trouble and knew it.
Sent by President Jefferson to govern the Michigan Territory in 1805, William Hull had worked with little success to make peace with the Native Americans. For the war, the U.S. had planned to plunge into Canada around the Great Lakes, and President Madison pressured William Hull to command an army.
William Hull tried to get several local militias in Ohio to galvanize under him, but with little success. He wasn't even aware war had been declared when he sent a schooner carrying supplies — and his plans — on ahead. The schooner was captured by the enemy, the first of Hull's mistakes.
In six weeks time, Isaac Hull would be feted up and down the East Coast, his legend as one of America's great Naval heroes set to last forever. And his Uncle William would be just as widely scorned as a coward, and facing trial for his life.
A Hero's Welcome
As two of its native sons prepared for critical roles, Connecticut was circumspect.
The War of 1812 was fought to uphold America's honor in the face of several insults from abroad, the ongoing impressment of American sailors on the high seas, and numerous other reasons.
"War! War! Impending," read a Courant headline that month, under which the paper, in its 48th year in business, wrote: "Some of the wildcats in Congress have gone home, unable to [face] the responsibility of unnecessary war, and the countenances of many of those left behind here bore makings of the belief that the places which have known them shall have them no more."
On July 7, a Courant editorial read: "The President did not, could not know the minds of the people. If he had, he would never have ventured to declare war. Such madness could not rage in the breast of any man, for he must know that no nation ever has, or ever will venture to carry on a war where the people are against it."
The New England economy had suffered during the trade embargoes that preceded the war and people now feared, with good reason, that their coastline would come under attack, since Britain's navy was far superior. Connecticut's Roger Griswold was among the governors who refused to make the state militia available to the president.
But in Washington, D.C., the feeling that the U.S. should stand up to Britain's bullying on the high seas had prevailed. Ready or not, the War of 1812 had begun.
Isaac Hull had orders to sail to New York to join a squadron there under John Rodgers. As he passed Egg Harbor, N.J., near present day Atlantic City, he was spotted by an enemy squadron. When the sun came up on the morning of July 16, Hull and his crew saw five warships hot on their tail.