fast, and in a curious coincidence (or if I am less humble a case of great minds thinking alike), the inimitable Edward Branley came out with an excellent piece on USS Wasp yesterday. That just as I was preparing this post on another ship in the United States Navy’s early fleet: USS Constellation. Though it does not appear that Constellation will be among the 10 tall ships featured at the event beginning April 17th, she is certainly among the brightest lights in navy history.
Constellation was named not for any group of stars in the sky but for the 13 stars in the blue canton of the first U.S. flag. She was the first of the navy’s original six frigates to be launched, on March 27, 1794, and the first to be commissioned. She also was the first ship to see action in the first war participated in by the U.S. as a country, and the first to take a prize. A lot of firsts, and that said without hyperbole.
In construction and size, Constellation did not differ vastly from her five sister frigates. She was heavy hulled, made of the white oak that could only be found in North America and that so confounded the United States’ enemies at sea. Fans of the movie Master and Commander will remember the discussions about “Yankee built” Acheron, with Tom Pullings remarking “you have to wonder about her hull.” Such was the case with most of the frigates that came out of the shipyards on America’s Atlantic coast at the time.
Constellation was built in Baltimore, displaced 1,265 tons, was 41 feet at her beam and 164 feet in length. She carried a compliment of 340 men and 36 guns. She was a fast sailer too; the crew of the French ship La Vengeance, whom she defeated in a 5 hour firefight during the Quasi-War, nicknamed her “Yankee Racehorse.”
Thomas Truxtun, a leading light in the new navy, was Constellation’s first commander and he whipped her crew into shape immediately. Truxtun was a veteran of the Continental Navy and he held dear the Royal Navy traditions of honor, conduct, gunnery and – where necessary – discipline. He expected great things of himself, his crew and his ship, and all delivered.
Truxtun and Constellation won the first battle in the United States’ so called Quasi-War with France. The war began in 1798 and was almost exclusively engaged with issues of free trade on the high seas. On February 9, 1799, Constellation defeated and captured the frigate L’Insurgente, said to be the best sailer in the French navy. Coincidently, yesterday’s subject, brilliant naval leader David Porter, was aboard Constellation as a Midshipman at the time.
Constellation continued her successes, serving admirably in both Barbary Wars and the War of 1812. In 1840 she circumnavigated the globe, and became the first U.S. ship to enter ports in China. Here she helped to facilitate the tea trade that would see clipper ships following in her wake for decades to come.
Back home, time was beginning to tell. Constellation was now almost 60 years old and an overhaul was out of the question. She was broken up, but some of her timbers were used to build a sloop of war in 1854. Given the same name, this ship saw action not only in war but in humanitarian efforts as well.
In the 1859, Constellation was put on the West African station where she was tasked with intercepting slave ships, freeing the people therein and breaking up the African slave trade. The History Channel has an excellent documentary available on Constellation’s West African mission. After service as a Union vessel in the Civil War, she was sent to Ireland with humanitarian aid for those stricken by the famine. You can read more about that at the Naval History Blog.
Sloop of war Constellation was eventually used exclusively as a training ship and she is now permanently docked in Baltimore where she is a maritime museum. A subsequent aircraft carrier, port of call San Diego, was also named Constellation.
The true flag ship of the original U.S. Navy thus lives on, not only in memory but in service as well. As President Ronald Reagan told her crew in 1981: “Let friend and foe alike know that America has the muscle to back up its words, and ships like this and men like you are that muscle… you are America’s Flagship.”
Header: USS Constellation by Antoine Roux c 1805