Monday, November 14, 2011

Ships: Six Frigates

The United States Navy was reestablished by order of Congress in 1794. Since the Continental Navy had been largely a privateer operation, and the ships that she did have had been sold after the Revolutionary War, the fledgling navy had no ships of her own. Secretary of War Henry Knox proposed that six heavy frigates be built. They should be both strong of hull and fast sailors, something not often seen at the time. And they needed to be ready as quickly as possible given naval threats not only from England and France but from Barbary corsairs as well.

Joshua Humphreys was given the task of designing the ships. Although he is generally credited with their building as well, in fact five other ship builders had a hand in overseeing their execution along with Humphreys. As Ian W. Toll notes in his excellent book on the birth of the U.S. Navy Six Frigates, Knox had the foresight to suggest to President Washington that the building of each ship be completed at different dockyards on the Atlantic Coast. This would not only insure quicker build times but also pump money into local economies which were lagging after the war. Washington agreed immediately and construction was approved in April of 1794.

USS Chesapeake was built at Gosport, Virginia by Josiah Fox. Launched in August of 1799, she would achieve notoriety in the Chesapeake/Leopard Affair. HMS Leopard fired upon Chesapeake in 1807, ostensibly because Commodore James Baron refused to comply with a search request. Baron, his guns unready for a fight, struck almost immediately and would be vilified for his action – or inaction – for the rest of his life. Chesapeake, of 36 guns, would go on to be captured by HMS Shannon during the War of 1812. When she was broken up in 1820, some of her timbers were used to build Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, England.

USS Congress was built at Portsmouth, New Hampshire by James Hackett. Also a 36, Congress was launched at the same time as Chesapeake. She served on the Mediterranean Squadron and in the West and East Indies. She became a receiving ship in 1824 and was broken up ten years later.

USS Constellation was built at Baltimore, Maryland by David Stodder. She carried 36 guns and was launched in September of 1797. She famously captured the French man-of-war L’Insurgent during the Quasi-War, making her the first American built ship to win such a victory. She would go on to duty in the West Indies and on the African Station hunting slavers until she was broken up in 1853. Some of her timbers were used to build a second Constellation; she is now in dry dock and functions as a museum.

USS Constitution was built at Boston, Massachusetts by George Claghorn. Old Ironsides, as she became known, was a true 44 launched in October of 1797. Her greatest victories were achieved during the War of 1812 when she captured the British ships Guerriere, Java, Cyane and Levant. She was marked for breaking in 1830 but, saved by popular outcry, she is now the oldest commissioned vessel afloat.

USS President was built at New York, New York by Forman Cheeseman and launched in April of 1800. Of 44 guns, she served on the Mediterranean Squadron and in the War of 1812 when she was captured by HMS Tenedos after suffering severe damage from running aground. Her captain, Stephen Decatur, struck to the British but it was soon revealed that the Battle of New Orleans had been won by General Jackson the same day. The war was over. Though the British paroled Decatur and his men, they kept President as prize. She was broken up in 1817.

USS United States was built at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by Joshua Humphreys. Launched in May of 1797 she also carried 44 guns. She captured HMS Macedonian in the War of 1812 and was commissioned into the Confederate States Navy during the Civil War. She was scuttled in 1862 but raised again after the war. Her repair was never properly finished and she was broken up in 1865.

Header: Battle Between USS United States and HMS Macedonian by Thomas Birch


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! interesting that two of these ships still exist. I knew about Old Ironsides, of course, but not Constellation or the others...

Pauline said...

Pretty intereseting, huh? And all for the low, low price of $688,888. One wonders how much that would translate too in modern coin.