A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

The Quarterdeck

Anchor Icon

Constitution’s control center was the quarterdeck, the part of the spar deck behind the main mast. Here officers guided the ship’s course and gave orders to trim the sails or launch an attack! For young midshipmen, the quarterdeck was a classroom, where they learned the skills and customs of command. To mere sailors it was a special place of ceremony and honor. They were respectful and polite when they came here to haul a line, or fire guns in battle.


Communication aboard Constitution

In this scene, a boy delivers a message to the officers gathered on the quarterdeck. Many means of communication were necessary on a ship as large as Constitution. A Boatswain’s pipe signaled a change in watch for the sailors with a special call: a pipe to dinner, or to begin a chore like holystoning; a speaking trumpet carried over longer distances and called orders to the men aloft; boys ran messages to and from the officers; the beat of marine’s drum was heard far and wide and sent men scurrying to their battle stations. Discover these artifacts with your students and compare the elements of noise (load, shrill, or private) with the intent behind the message. Who was the message communicated to, and why? Have students compare the different modes of communication on Constitution to those in your school like classroom speakers, letters, megaphone, fire alarm, or the loudspeaker.

Object: Boatswain’s Pipe

Object: Speaking Trumpet

Object: Marine’s Drum (replica)


All Animals Aboard!

Animals were living aboard Constitution for food and as pets. Hens laid eggs, goats and cows provided necessary nutrients such as protein and calcium for the sailors. With your students, view the “Quarterdeck” scene and the caged hens on the deck. Explain that Constitution was out to sea for months at a time, and had up to 480 sailors living aboard. What might the sailors eat, if Constitution carried these animals: chickens, goats, pigs and cows? Do these animals cover all the proper USDA recommended food groups? Is there anything missing?


Political Posteriors

In the interactive scene in Explore Old Ironsides, students can read a sailor’s quote that pokes fun at the King of England. View these Primary Source Cartoons with students. What is the purpose behind a political cartoon? What is the purpose of these particular cartoons during the War of 1812? Are there any political cartoons that are published today? Scour local or national newspapers with your students for something similar, and learn about current events through the vehicle of political cartoons.

Primary Source: Columbia teaching John Bull his new lesson

Primary Source: A boxing match, or another bloody nose for John Bull


Build a Simple Sextant

A Midshipmen’s education on board Constitution included navigation; how to determine the ship’s location at sea. How do you determine your location if there is no land in sight? Each day at noon, Midshipmen measured the sun’s position above the horizon using a sextant. Then the ship’s position was calculated using the measurement taken with the sextant and mathematical equations. View a real sextant and then make your own with this NASA Lesson Plan.  Then, learn “How to be a Great Navigator” with a lesson plan from the Institute of Navigation. Information about navigation is also available in the “Captain’s Cabin” annotated scene.

Lesson Plan: Build a Simple Sextant

Lesson Plan: How to be a Great Navigator

Object: Sextant made by Gedney King


Communication at Sea

In 1812, signal flags were used to communicate at sea over long distances. Today, each letter of the alphabet is assigned to a flag. Have your students make and then communicate in code with their own signal flags, available in a K-4 activity in “Speaking in Colors”­ and a grade 5-8 activity with “Color Coded Communication”, both lessons from All Hands on Deck.