The world’s oldest ship still in commission is the USS Constitution, launched in 1797. Paul Revere forged her copper spikes and bolts, as well as the copper sheathing on the underwater part of the hull.
One of her early captains was Commodore Edward Preble. He fought in the American Revolution (1775 – 1783), and was not afraid of a battle.
One night the Constitution was entering the Mediterranean Sea when she found herself next to another warship. Preble ordered general quarters, and gave the standard hail, ”What ship is that?”
Instead of the proper response, the other vessel simply hailed back, ”What ship is that?”
Preble identified his ship as the USS Constitution, and again repeated his hail. He still did not get a proper response, so Preble hailed again, ”What ship is that?”
For a third time, the ship did not identify itself. Preble called out, “I am now going to hail you for the last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you.”
The other returned , “If you give me a shot, I’ll give you a broadside.”
Preble gave the demand once more and heard this reply:
“This is His Britannic Majesty’s ship Donegal, 84 guns, Sir Richard Strachan, an English commodore. Send your boat on board.”
This was insulting. It meant the American vessel was the inferior.
Preble was out of patience. He bellowed:
“This is United States ship Constitution, 44 guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, and I’ll send no boat on board any ship. Blow your matches, boys!”
The next command would be to fire the guns. Preble was prepared to take on a ship that might massively outgun him.
But then the British sent a boat over to the Constitution. It turns out that the British ship was not the HMS Donegal. It was the 32-gun HMS Maidstone.
Preble was the wrong man to try to bluff.
In the next story, we’ll cover the battle where the USS Constitution earned its nickname: Old Ironsides. Click here to read it.