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The Naval Act of 1794 and the Resurrection of the US Navy - Part 1

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

USS Alliance - The Last Ship of the Revolutionary War Navy
USS Alliance - The Last Ship of the Revolutionary War Navy

On 13 October 1775, a resolution of the Continental Congress set up what is now the United States Navy by authorizing, "a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months.” Today, the United States Navy claims this date as their birthday, however, by August 1785, USS Alliance was the only remaining ship of the Continental Navy and Congress sold her due to a lack of funds to keep the ship or support a navy. The Articles of Confederation said:

“The united states, in congress assembled, shall never engage in a war, nor grant letters of marque and reprisal in time of peace, nor enter into any treaties or alliances, nor coin money, nor regulate the value thereof nor ascertain the sums and expenses necessary for the defence and welfare of the united states, or any of them, nor emit bills, nor borrow money on the credit of the united states, nor appropriate money, nor agree upon the number of vessels of war to be built or purchased, or the number of land or sea forces to be raised, nor appoint a commander in chief of the army or navy, unless nine states assent to the same, nor shall a question on any other point, except for adjourning from day to day, be determined, unless by the votes of a majority of the united states in congress assembled.”

Since this needed the States, many of whom were struggling to rebuild their own economies, to approve funding for building, supporting, and manning any vessels for the US Navy, funding that they would be responsible for providing, the monies were never appropriated. As a result, the USS Alliance was sold and became a ship engaged in the merchant trade. The United States Navy was effectively dissolved!

The adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, empowered the new Congress “to provide and maintain a navy”. However, from 1785 until 1797, the United States’ only armed maritime service was the United States Revenue Marine, the predecessor to the US Coast Guard, which had been formed at the urging of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in 1790.

Piracy had not been a major problem when the American colonies were a part of the British Empire. The Royal Navy protected American vessels since they belonged to subjects of the British Crown. After the American Revolutionary War, however, that protection did not exist. So, soon after the close of the American Revolution, the Dey of Algiers discovered that a new nation with a commerce now existed and he tried to extort an annual tribute like that paid by the powers of Europe. On the 25th of July 1785, Algerian corsairs seized the American schooner Maria near the Straights of Gibraltar. Five days later the Algerians likewise seized the ship Dauphin. Thomas Jefferson, then United States Minister to France, began to urge Congress to create an American naval force to protect the passage of American merchantmen through the Mediterranean.

Congress ignored Jefferson’s suggestions with many in Congress suggesting that the United States should follow the lead of the European nations and “buy” the friendship of Algiers. Another suggestion was that the United States might pay one of the European naval powers (either British or French) to protect our trade in the Mediterranean. About this time, Portugal placed a blockade at the Straits of Gibraltar, confining the attacks of these pirates to the Mediterranean. This relieved the Americans from further seizures of shipping and thus allowed Congress to ignore the situation. In early October 1793, the Portuguese removed the blockade thus bringing the issue back to the forefront. Immediately following the removal of the blockade, an Algerian squadron of three xebecs and one brig passed into the Atlantic and captured ten American merchantmen in a single cruise, enslaving one hundred and five US citizens. This action, plus the Dey’s refusal to negotiate unless the United States paid all tribute that he reckoned as being in arrears, combined with the news that the British had prohibited all neutral trade with the French West Indies, induced Congress to act.

The Naval Act of 1794
The Naval Act of 1794

The Act of 1794

On the 27th of March 1794, a law for the establishment of a United States Navy, passed the House of Representatives and Senate and was signed into law by President Washington. This law, known as the Naval Act of 1794, provided for building six frigates, rating not less than thirty-two guns. The honor of designing these ships fell to Joshua Humphries of Philadelphia who adopted into their construction many valuable suggestions made by experienced commanders who had served in the Revolutionary Navy.

They were laid down as follows: The 44-gun frigate Constitution, 1,576 tons to be built at Boston MA at a cost of $302, 719; the 44-gun frigate President, 1,576 tons, to be built at New York NY at a cost of $220,910; the 44-gun frigate United States, 1,576 tons, to be built at Philadelphia PA at a cost of $299,336; the 36-gun frigate Chesapeake, 1,244 tons, to be built at Norfolk, VA at a cost of $220,678; the 36-gun frigate Congress, 1,268 tons, to be built at Portsmouth NH at a cost of $197,246; and the 36-gun frigate Constellation, 1,265 tons, to be built at Baltimore MD at a cost of $314, 212. Congress ordered that the complements of the 44-gun frigates should be three hundred fifty-nine Officers and men while that of the 36-gun frigates should be three hundred and twelve.

On the 5th of June 1794, the following men were selected to be Captains in the new navy; John Barry, Samuel Nicholson, Silas Talbot, Joshua Barney, Richard Dale, and Thomas Truxton. Their Captains were to select the Lieutenants and other officers. An Act of Congress passed on March 27, 1794, fixed the pay for the navy as follows:

Captain $75/month and 6 rations a day (25¢ allowed for each ration)

Lieutenant $40/month and 3 rations a day.

Lieutenant of Marines $26/month and 2 rations a day.

Chaplain $40/month and 2 rations a day.

Sailing Master $40/month and 2 rations a day.

Surgeon $50/month and 2 rations a day.

Surgeon’s Mate $30/month and 2 rations a day.

Purser $40/month and 2 rations a day.

Boatswain, Gunner, Sailmaker, and Carpenter $14/month and 2 rations a day.

The President was to set the pay of midshipmen, petty officers, able seamen, ordinary seamen, and marines, and they were to receive 1 ration per day.

The temporary Marine Corps, organized during the Revolutionary War, had become extinct, just as the Navy did following the Revolution. However, a law passed by Congress on July 11, 1798, set up a permanent Marine Corps with a complement of eight hundred and eighty-one officers, noncommissioned officers, privates, and musicians, all under the command of a major.

Because of the difficulty of gathering supplies, particularly the live oak which had to be harvested and transported from southern forests, progress on building the frigates moved slowly. When news of a negotiated peace between Algeria and the United States came in early 1796, work was still underway to frame out the frigates. The act authorizing the frigates called for a halt in construction in case of a peace with Algiers however, President Washington lobbied Congress to extend authorization to complete the six frigates. Congress approved the completion of only 3 of the frigates, the rest to remain in their partially constructed state. Although President Washington continued to lobby for gradual completion of the remaining frigates, his pleas were largely ignored until July 1797 when the French government’s disregard for American rights to trade with France’s enemies led the Congress to authorize the President to man and employ the existing 3 frigates. Within a few days of Congress authorizing US Naval vessels to capture armed French vessels anywhere on the high seas in July of 1798, Congress appropriated the funds to build and equip the remaining 3 frigates originally authorized under the Naval Act of 1794.

The Six Frigates

What follows is a brief history of the construction and operations of the first 3 frigates built under the Naval Act, listed in the order in which they launched. In our next post we will discuss the remaining frigates (President, Congress, and Chesapeake).

USS United States

Originally referred to as Frigate A, and later named the United States, was laid down in 1795 at Joshua Humphreys' shipyard in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Humphreys was assigned as her constructor and John Barry, the first commissioned Captain of the newly established U.S. Navy assigned as her commanding officer. Construction slowly continued until, on 10 May 1797, she became the first American warship launched under the Naval Act of 1794, and the first ship of the new United States Navy. She fitted out at Philadelphia during the spring of 1798 and, on 3 July, was ordered to put to sea. Relations with the French government had deteriorated, starting the Quasi-War.

Unlike modern naval vessels, ships of this era had no permanent battery of guns. Guns were portable and often exchanged between ships as called for by the situation. Each commanding officer changed his vessel's armaments to his liking, taking into consideration factors such as the overall tonnage of cargo, complement of personnel aboard, and routes she would sail and the missions with which she was tasked. Consequently, a vessel's armament would change often during its career and records of the changes were seldom kept. United States' nominal rating was that of a 44-gun ship. However, she usually carried over 50 guns. United States original armament consisted of a battery of 55 guns: thirty-two 24-pounder cannon; twenty-two 42-pounder carronades; and one 18-pounder long gun.

The United States sailed to Boston, and then onwards to the West Indies. On her first cruise she captured two French privateers, which she brought into New Castle (DE). Her Captain, John Barry, received orders to take command of the American Squadron in the West Indies and by early 1799, in addition to the United States, the squadron consisted of the Frigate Constitution, George Washington, Merrimack, Portsmouth, Herald, and the revenue cutters Pickering, Eagle, Scammel, and Diligence. Before the Quasi-War with France was over, United States captured and claimed as prizes several French privateers. Prior to US Naval involvement in the Quasi war, the French captured ~ 2000 merchant ships and roamed at will in the western Atlantic & Caribbean. After US Naval involvement the French captured one U.S. merchant ship and had at least 80 armed vessels captured or destroyed.

Captain John Barry
Captain John Barry

The United States remained in the Washington Navy Yard from 1801 until 1809 when she received orders to ready for active service and on June 10, under the command of Stephen Decatur, she sailed for Norfolk (VA) for refitting. The United States of America declared war on Britain on 18 June 1812 and three days later the United States, redirected to New York, sailed as part of a squadron under Commodore John Rodgers in President. After an uneventful patrol they returned to Boston and, after some refitting, United States, now under Stephen Decatur’s command, parted from the squadron on her own patrol. Three days later, after capturing Mandarin, the United States, five hundred miles south of the Azores, ran into HMS Macedonian.

United States vs Macedonian

Back when the United States was refitting in Norfolk, VA the Captain of the Macedonian, John Carden, had wagered Decatur a new beaver hat that his vessel would take United States if the two should ever meet in battle. Recognizing each other, the two ships, quickly cleared for action, began maneuvering for position. The battle developed according to Decatur’s plan with the United States beginning the action by firing an inaccurate broadside at Macedonian. The British vessel answered at once with a broadside which brought down a small spar on the United States. Decatur’s next broadside destroyed Macedonian’s mizzen top mast, letting her driver gaff fall and so giving the maneuvering advantage to the American frigate. Decatur took up a position off Carden’s quarter and began to riddle her with shot. By noon, Macedonian was a dismasted hulk and forced to surrender. She had suffered 104 casualties as opposed to 12 on the American ship, which came out of the battle relatively unscathed. After spending over two weeks repairing the prize, the United States brought Macedonian into New York harbor amid jubilation over the victory. Captain Decatur and his crew received praise from both Congress and President James Madison.

One other noteworthy event in the operational history of the United States is documentation that, on the following mission, there were two women among the crew of the United States. Commodore Decatur encouraged Seaman Marshall and veteran British seaman William Goodman (enlisting as John Allen to protect himself from British retaliation) to bring their wives, Mary Marshall and Mary (Humphries) Allen, on the voyage to act as nurses to care for the wounded if the ship engaged the enemy. They are believed to be the first women to serve aboard a United States warship in an official capacity. On June 1, 1814, a powerful British squadron which included ships of the line, forced the United States into New London (CT) and kept her blockaded there until the end of the war.

In 1815, the United States received orders to join a squadron under William Bainbridge in the Second Barbary War. Unfortunately, due to her time spent bottled up in New London (CT) during the War of 1812, the United States needed significant refitting in Boston and was not ready when the Squadron left. By the time she completed her refit and arrived at Gibraltar several months later her Captain, John Shaw, learned that Commodore Decatur had secured a peace treaty with Algiers. The United States remained in the Mediterranean Squadron, along with Constellation, until 1819. The frigate was decommissioned on June 9, 1819 and laid up in ordinary in Norfolk (VA).

USS Constellation
USS Constellation

USS Constellation

Constellation was nominally rated as a 38-gun wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate. She was built under the direction of Colonel David Stodder at The Joseph and Samuel Sterett shipyard on Harris Creek in Baltimore's Fell's Point maritime community, according to a design by Joshua Humphreys. Harris Creek, later filled in to gain more land for residential/industrial development and diverted underground to a subterranean storm drain and culvert in the early 19th century, flowed into the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River. It was situated east of Fell's Point and south of where modern-day Patterson Park, (near Highlandtown), and the community of Canton are located.

The name Constellation was among ten names given to President George Washington by Secretary of War Timothy Pickering in March 1795 for the frigates that were to be constructed under the Naval Act of 1794. She was launched on 7 September 1797, just as the United States of America entered the Quasi-War with the revolutionary French Republic. Originally specified as 36-gun frigates, the Navy re-rated Constellation and its sister-ship Congress to 38's because of their large dimensions, being 164 ft in length and 41 ft in width. The "ratings" by number of guns were meant only as an approximation, as Constellation could and often did carry up to 48 guns.

Captain Thomas Truxton
Captain Thomas Truxton

During the Quasi war with France, Constellation convoyed American merchantmen from June through August 1798 before sailing, under the command of Captain Thomas Truxton, for the West Indies in December 1798, to protect the United States' commerce in the Caribbean. On 9 February 1799, Constellation fought and captured the 36-gun frigate L'Insurgente, one of the fastest ships in the French Navy. The battle started about midday, 18 miles NE of the island of Nevis, when Constellation spotted L'Insurgente, which deployed studding sails and tried to run. L'Insurgente which had captured the schooner Retaliation in November 1798 and three weeks earlier had been chased by Constitution and escaped. L’Insurgente's job was that of commerce raiding, and she wanted nothing to do with another warship and so, rather than fight, she tried to flee Constellation. Within an hour of taking up the chase Truxtun was close enough to make private signals to find if the ship he was pursuing was British or not. With no answer, he went ahead chasing L'Insurgente down, clearing for action and beating to quarters. Truxtun made private signals for the US Navy and again received no answer.

Continuing the pursuit, Constellation crowded on all sail despite a rising squall that threatened to tear a sail or pull down a spar. The Constellation reefed her sails just long enough to ride out the squall and thus hardly paused her pursuit. The L’Insurgente did not and snapped its topmast, slowing the ship, allowing the Constellation to overtake her. The French Captain tried to ask for a parlay however Captain Truxton refused since his orders were to attack any French warship or privateer. Standard tactics in this period were for American warships, just like the British, to fire for the hull while the French fired for the masts and rigging. Constellation’s 24-pounders, loaded with double shot, devastated L’Insurgente with the first American broadside, with many French sailors killed and others deserting their guns. The French decided to slow to close and board the Constellation however, this allowed the American to surge ahead and cross the Frenchman’s bow for a bow rake. The two now began exchanging broadsides with the Constellation’s 24-pounders hammering L’Insurgente’s hull, while the Frenchman’s 12-pounders were not up to the task with Constellation. The French Captain, with sails down, many dead and wounded, and having been shown one of Constellation’s 24-pounder cannonballs, realized he was outclassed and struck his colors.

USS Constellation vs L'Insurgente
USS Constellation vs L'Insurgente

The following year, Constellation tried to take on a French frigate, La Vengeance. This turned into a “running battle” of broadsides resulting in the French firing 742 rounds and the Americas firing 1,229. Twice the ships closed enough for boarding parties to be called for on both sides. The second instance being particularly bloody as the Constellation fired broadsides of grapeshot at the French while American marines fired their muskets and hurled grenades down from the rigging, leaving the deck littered with bodies and forcing the French boarding party to seek cover. Although the French frigate struck her colors twice, (the first time during the night and not seen by the Americans) Constellation was unable to take La Vengeance as a prize because just as she was about to close, Constellation’s main mast fell overboard, and she was unable to maneuver well. Essentially, this turned out as a draw since both the French and American ships sustained serious damage with the French Captain escaping to Curaçao before grounding his ship and the American sailing to Jamaica for repairs. Constellation had suffered heavy damage with 15 of her crew killed and a further 25 wounded, of whom 11 later died. The ship sailed to Port Royal, Jamaica, for a refit, but Truxton could not complete the necessary repairs because of a shortage of naval stores. The ship left Jamaica a week after she arrived, with only her mainmast replaced. After escorting a convoy of 14 merchantmen back to the United States, Truxton sailed his battered frigate to Hampton Roads for a proper refit.

During the First Barbary War, Constellation was part of the Squadron commanded by Commodore Richard Morris and later with those of Commodores Samuel Barron and John Rodgers. She served in the blockade of Tripoli (Libya) in May 1802 and cruised throughout the Mediterranean, “showing the flag” in 1804. In June of 1805, Constellation successfully evacuated a contingent of US Marines and Diplomats from Derna (Libya), using small boats, following the signing, of a treaty on June 10, between US Emissary Tobias Lear and the Dey of Tripoli. This was the conclusion to an operation that involved a forced 521-mile march through the North African desert from Alexandria, Egypt, to the eastern port city of Derna, Libya, and seizing the city which was defended by a much larger force. This operation is the basis for the phrase in the Marine Hymn “to the shores of Tripoli”.

Returning to the United States, Constellation underwent repairs at the Washington Naval Yard throughout 1812. With the beginning of the War of 1812, she received orders to Hampton Roads, Virginia. Shortly after her arrival in February 1813, a British squadron of warships blockaded the port. Captain Stewart of the Constellation knew that English public opinion demanded the capture or destruction of the hated American frigates, and therefore assumed that an attack on Norfolk and the Constellation would come eventually. Stewart was concerned by the primitive conditions of Norfolk’s defenses. The Gosport Navy Yard did not have enough buildings, barracks, or storehouses, resulting in much of the local weaponry, ammunition, and naval stores being left out in the weather. The hospital had originally been set up in a room directly upstairs from the commandant’s office, and Commandant John Cassin complained that “whenever they wash it the water runs all over me, books & everything”.

Map Showing Constellation Anchorage during Battle of Craney Island
Map of Constellation Anchorage during Craney Island

On March 9, Captain Stewart maneuvered the ship down the river as far as the bight of Craney Island. The next morning, three British battleships and two frigates kedged up into Hampton Roads, just beyond cannon-shot range. In the face of such overwhelming force, Stewart took the Constellation back upriver and moored her permanently in the channel between Norfolk and Portsmouth. During the Battle of Craney Island, a sizable part of her crew, both seamen and US Marines, were sent to aid with defense of the Island. John Cassin reported:

“The Officers of the Constellation fired their 18-pounder more like riflemen than Artillerists. I never saw such shooting and seriously believe they saved the Island yesterday”.

Constellation spent the rest of the War of 1812 blockaded in Hampton Roads.

Shortly after the end of hostilities with Great Britain, the United States found itself having to deal with the Barbary pirates once again. Constellation, attached to the Mediterranean squadron under Stephen Decatur, sailed from New York in May 1815 and captured the Algerian frigate Mashuda. On July 3, the Dey of Algiers (Algeria), with the squadron’s guns aimed at his city, signed a treaty forswearing future tribute and releasing all American prisoners without ransom. The squadron then sailed to Tunis (Tunisia) and Tripoli (Libya), extracting similar concessions, as well as cash payments to compensate American shipowners for their recent losses.

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry

In the spring of 1819, the Secretary of the Navy tasked Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry with the mission of setting up friendly relations with the government of newly independent Venezuela and negotiating to obtain restitution for United States schooners Tiger and Liberty that the Venezuelans had illegally taken during the revolution. In 1819, by order of President James Monroe, Constellation sailed for the Orinoco River, Venezuela, along with the frigate John Adams and the schooner Nonsuch. A favorable treaty was signed on August 11, but when the little fleet started downriver, many of the crew, including Perry, had contracted Yellow Fever. The Commodore died on his 34th birthday, August 23rd, on board John Adams on the way to Trinidad for medical assistance.

From November 1819 to April 1820, Constellation served as flagship of Commodore Charles Morris on the Brazil Station, protecting American commerce against privateers, and supporting the negotiation of trade agreements with South American nations. In July 1820, it sailed for the first time to Pacific waters and attached to the Squadron of Commodore Charles Stewart. It remained here for two years, protecting American shipping off the coast of Peru, an area where disquiet erupted into revolt against Spain. In 1825, Constellation was chosen as flagship for Commodore Lewis Warrington and began duty with the West India Squadron to eradicate waning piracy operations in the Caribbean. During an outbreak of yellow fever at Key West, Florida, Warrington moved the squadron's home port to Pensacola, Florida where a permanent base was set up. Warrington returned to the United States with Constellation in 1826. Constellation was broken up at the Gosport Navy Yard in 1853.

Uss Constitution
USS Constitution

USS Constitution

Constitution is a 44-gun wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate laid down on 1 November 1794 at Edmund Hartt's shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts under the supervision of Captain Samuel Nicholson and master shipwright Colonel George Claghorn. Constitution's launching ceremony, attended by President John Adams and Massachusetts Governor Increase Sumner, occurred on 20 September 1797. Upon launch, she slid down the ways only 27 feet before stopping; her weight had caused the ways to settle into the ground, preventing further movement. A second attempt two days later resulted in only an added 31 feet of travel before the ship again stopped. After a month of rebuilding the ways, Constitution finally slipped into Boston Harbor on 21 October 1797, with Captain James Sever breaking a bottle of Madeira wine on her bowsprit.

Constitution, officially rated as a 44-gun frigate, often carried more than 50 guns at a time. During the War of 1812, Constitution's battery of guns typically consisted of 30 long 24-pounder cannons, with 15 on each side of the gun deck. Another 22 short 32-pounder carronade guns were located on the spar deck, 11 per side. Four chase guns, two positioned at the stern and two at the bow completed her armament.

Captain Samuel Nicholson
Captain Samuel Nicholson

When, in May 1798, President John Adams ordered all US Navy ships to sea to patrol for armed French ships and obtain the release of any captured Americans, Constitution was not ready to sail and finally had to borrow sixteen 18-pound cannons from the fort at Castle Island to finish fitting out. She first put to sea in late July 1798 with orders to patrol the eastern seaboard between New Hampshire and New York. A month later, while patrolling between the Chesapeake Bay and Savannah, GA, Captain Nicholson and his crew intercepted the Niger, a 24-gun ship sailing with a French crew from Jamaica to Philadelphia and claiming to be under British orders. Nicholson had the crewmen imprisoned, placed a prize crew aboard the Niger and brought her into Norfolk. It turned out that she was, in fact, working under British orders and so, the crew was released and the ship returned, and allowed to continue its voyage. The American government agreed to pay restitution of $11,000. Constitution sailed south a week later on convoy duty however her bowsprit was severely damaged in a gale and she returned to Boston for repairs.

Departing Boston on 29 December, she reported to Commodore John Barry aboard the United States, near the island of Dominica as part of the West Indies squadron. After joining Barry’s command, Constitution was almost at once in need of repairs due to storm damage to her rigging and thus it was not until the beginning of March that anything of import occurred. Constitution met HMS Santa Margarita; whose Captain was an acquaintance of Captain Nicholson. The two agreed to a sailing duel, which the English Captain was sure he would win. After 11 hours of sailing, the English ship lowered its sails, admitting defeat and paying off with a cask of wine. Eventually resuming her patrols, Constitution recaptured the American Sloop Neutrality and a few days later the French ship Carteret. By this time, Secretary Stoddart had had enough and recalled Constitution and her commanding officer Samuel Nicholson to Boston, commenting that, “Having him in command of Constitution reduced the ship to the effectiveness of a 20-gunner”. Nicholson was relieved of command upon arrival and ordered off, ostensibly to oversee the building of a 74-gun ship.

Captain Silas Talbot was recalled to duty to command Constitution and serve as Commodore of operations in the West Indies. Constitution departed Boston in July 1799 with a destination of Saint-Domingue (Hispaniola) via Norfolk and a mission to interrupt French shipping. On the way there, she took the prize Amelia from a French prize crew and Talbot sent the ship back to New York City with an American prize crew. Constitution arrived at Saint-Domingue in mid-October and rendezvoused with Boston, General Greene, and Norfolk. Little of note occurred for the next six months as the French depredations had dropped away to almost nothing,

In April 1800, Talbot and the Constitution investigated an increase in ship traffic near Puerto Plata, (Hispaniola), and discovered that the French privateer Sandwich had taken refuge there. In early May the squadron captured the sloop Sally, and Talbot hatched a plan to capture Sandwich by using the familiarity of Sally to allow the Americans access to the harbor. First Lieutenant Isaac Hull led 90 sailors and Marines into Puerto Plata without challenge on 11 May, capturing Sandwich and spiking the guns of the nearby Spanish fort. However, it was later decided that Sandwich had been captured from a neutral port; she was returned to the French with apologies, and no prize money was awarded to the squadron. Routine patrols resumed until April 1801, when Herald arrived with orders for the squadron to return to the United States. Constitution returned to Boston, where she lingered until she was finally scheduled for an overhaul in October, but it was later canceled. She was placed in ordinary on 2 July 1802.

Captain Edward Preble
Captain Edward Preble

In May 1803, Captain Edward Preble recommissioned the Constitution to act as his flagship as commander of a new squadron to blockade the Barbary States. Among other repairs made during her recommissioning, the copper sheathing on the hull needed replacement and was supplied by Paul Revere. Constitution left Boston in mid-August and, as she neared Gibraltar in the dark of night in early September, met an unknown ship. Preble beat his crew to quarters and then ran the Constitution alongside the mystery ship. Preble hailed her only to receive a hail in return. He named his ship as the United States frigate Constitution but received an evasive answer from the other ship as to their identity. Preble replied: "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 stranger returned, "If you give me a shot, I'll give you a broadside."

Preble demanded that the other ship name herself and the stranger replied, "This is His Britannic Majesty's ship Donegal, 84 guns, Sir Richard Strachan, an English commodore." He then commanded Preble, "Send your boat on board." Preble was now out of patience and exclaimed, "This is United States ship Constitution, 44 guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel." And then to his gun crews: "Blow your matches, boys!" (This was the instruction for the gun crews to blow on their slow matches to make them white hot for igniting a cannon, the period equivalent of "prepare to fire".) Before the incident escalated further, a boat arrived from the other ship and a British lieutenant relayed his captain's apologies. The ship was in fact not Donegal but instead HMS Maidstone, a 32-gun frigate. Constitution had come alongside her so quietly that Maidstone had delayed answering with the proper hail while she readied her guns.

Initially, when Preble was appointed as Commodore, it caused much distress and distrust among the Navy’s officer corps since the Navy passed over several senior officers. Many feared that he was just a political appointee and could not be trusted in combat. This act, defying what seemed to be a British ship of the line, began the strong allegiance between Preble and the officers under his command, known as "Preble's boys”, who formed the officer corps that would later lead the US Navy in the War of 1812.

Constitution arrived at Gibraltar a few days later and Preble waited for the other ships of the squadron. His first order of business was to arrange a treaty with Sultan Slimane of Morocco, who was holding American ships hostage to ensure the return of two vessels that the Americans had captured. Constitution and Nautilus departed Gibraltar and arrived at Tangiers (Morocco) a day later. Followed by Adams and New York the next day. With four American warships in his harbor, the Sultan was glad to arrange the transfer of ships between the two nations, and Preble departed with his squadron heading back to Gibraltar.

Burning of the USS Philadelphia
Burning of the USS Philadelphia

Philadelphia ran aground off Tripoli (modern Libya) at the end of October under the command of William Bainbridge while pursuing a vessel owned by Tripoli. The crew was taken prisoner and Philadelphia was refloated and brought into Tripoli harbor. Preble, unwilling to allow the Philadelphia to become a prize of Tripoli, made plans to destroy Philadelphia using the captured ship Mastico, renamed Intrepid. Under the command of Stephen Decatur, Intrepid entered Tripoli Harbor on 16 February 1804 disguised as a merchant ship. Decatur's crew quickly overpowered the Tripoline crew and set Philadelphia ablaze.

Preble withdrew the squadron to Syracuse (Sicily) and began planning for a summer attack on Tripoli. He obtained six smaller gunboats that could move in closer to Tripoli than Constitution, given her deep draft. Constitution, Argus, Enterprise, Scourge, Syren, the six gunboats, and two bomb ketches arrived off Tripoli on the morning of 3 August and at once began operations. Twenty-two gunboats from Tripoli met them in the harbor; Constitution and her squadron severely damaged or destroyed the enemy gunboats in a series of attacks over the following month, taking their crews prisoner. However, Yuseuf Karamanli remained firm in his demand for ransom and tribute despite his continuing losses. Preble outfitted Intrepid as a "floating volcano" with 100 tons of gunpowder aboard in a final attempt of the season. She was to sail into Tripoli harbor and blow up in the midst of the corsair fleet, close under the walls of the city. Intrepid made her way into the harbor but she exploded prematurely, killing Master Commandant Richard Somers and his entire crew of thirteen volunteers.

Constellation and President arrived at Tripoli with Samuel Barron in command, forcing Preble to relinquish his command of the squadron to Barron, who was senior in rank. Barron ordered Constitution to Malta for repairs. While on the way there, Constitution captured two Greek vessels trying to deliver wheat to Tripoli. While Constitution was undergoing repairs and resupply in Malta, Captain John Rodgers assumed command. She resumed the blockade of Tripoli in early April 1805, capturing a xebec, along with two prizes that the xebec had captured.

Meanwhile, Commodore Barron gave William Eaton naval support to bombard Derne, while a detachment of US Marines and mercenaries under the command of Presley O'Bannon assembled to attack the city by land. They captured it on 27 April. A peace treaty with Tripoli was signed aboard Constitution on 3 June, and she embarked the crew members of Philadelphia and returned them to Syracuse. Constitution then went to Tunis and arrived there at the end of July. Seventeen more American warships had gathered in its harbor by 1 August: Congress, Constellation, Enterprise, Essex, Franklin, Hornet, John Adams, Nautilus, Syren, and eight gunboats. Negotiations went on for a few days until a short-term blockade of the harbor finally produced a peace treaty on 14 August.

Captain Rodgers, aboard Constitution remained in command of the squadron, sending warships back to the United States as the need for them ceased. Eventually, all that remained were Constitution, Enterprise, and Hornet. They performed routine patrols and studied the French and Royal Navy operations of the Napoleonic Wars. Rodgers turned over the command of the squadron and Constitution to Captain Hugh G. Campbell on 29 May 1806. James Barron sailed Chesapeake out of Norfolk on 15 May 1807 to replace Constitution as the flagship of the Mediterranean squadron however, he met HMS Leopard, resulting in the Chesapeake–Leopard affair and delaying the relief of Constitution. Unaware of the delay, Constitution continued patrols. Constitution arrived in late June at Leghorn (Livorno Italy), where she took aboard the disassembled Tripoli Monument for transport back to the United States. When he arrived at Málaga (Spain), Campbell learned the fate of Chesapeake, and began preparing Constitution and Hornet for war against Britain. The crew became mutinous upon learning of the delay in their relief and refused to sail any farther unless the destination was the United States. Campbell and his officers threatened to fire a cannon full of grape shot at the crewmen if they did not comply, thereby putting an end to the conflict. Campbell and the squadron were ordered home on 18 August and set sail for Boston in early September, arriving there on mid-October. When she arrived, Constitution had been gone for more than four years.

Captain Isaac Hull
Captain Isaac Hull

Constitution was recommissioned in December with Captain John Rodgers again taking command to oversee a major refitting. Isaac Hull took command in June 1810 and departed for France at the beginning of August 1811, transporting the new Ambassador, Joel Barlow, and his family, arriving the around the beginning of September. Constitution remained near France and the Netherlands through the winter months, continually holding sail and gun drills to keep the crew ready for hostilities with the British should they break out. Tensions were high between the United States and Britain after recent events and British frigates shadowed Constitution while she awaited dispatches from Barlow to carry back to the United States. They arrived home on 18 February 1812.

On 18 June, War was declared on Great Britain and Hull put to sea on 12 July, trying to join the five ships of a squadron under the command of Captain John Rodgers in President. He sighted five ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey on 17 July and at first believed them to be Rodgers' squadron but, by the following morning, the lookouts determined that they were a British squadron out of Halifax: HMS Aeolus, Africa, Belvidera, Guerriere, and Shannon. They had sighted Constitution and were giving chase. Hull found himself becalmed, but he acted on a suggestion from his Executive Officer Charles Morris. He ordered the crew to put boats over the side to tow the ship out of range, using kedge anchors to draw the ship forward and wetting the sails to take advantage of every breath of wind. The British ships soon imitated the tactic of kedging and remained in pursuit. The resulting 57-hour chase in the July heat forced the crew of Constitution to employ myriad tactics to outrun the squadron, finally pumping overboard 2,300 gal of drinking water. Cannon fire was exchanged several times, though the British attempts fell short or overshot their mark, including an attempted broadside from Belvidera. On 19 July,

Constitution pulled far enough ahead of the British that they abandoned the pursuit.

USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere
USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere

Constitution arrived in Boston near the end of July and remained there just long enough to replenish her supplies, sailing without orders to avoid being blockaded in port. Heading on a northeast route towards the British shipping lanes near Halifax (Nova Scotia) and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, Constitution captured three British merchantmen, which Hull burned rather than risk taking them back to an American port. On 16 August, he learned of a British frigate 100 nm. to the south and sailed in pursuit. On August 19, a frigate was sighted and identified to be HMS Guerriere. Upon coming into range of Constitution, Guerriere opened fire, doing only minor damage. After a few exchanges of cannon fire between the ships, Captain Hull maneuvered Constitution into an advantageous position within 25 yards of his opponent. He then ordered a full double-loaded broadside of grape and round shot which took out Guerriere's mizzenmast. With her maneuverability decreased due to her mizzenmast dragging in the water, Guerriere collided with Constitution, entangling her bowsprit in the American’s mizzen rigging. This left only Guerriere's bow guns capable of effective fire. Hull's cabin caught fire from the shots, but the crew extinguished it quickly. With the ships locked together, both captains ordered boarding parties into action, but the sea was heavy and neither party was able to board the opposing ship.

At some point, the two ships rotated together counterclockwise, with Constitution continuing to fire broadsides. When the two ships finally pulled apart, the force of the bowsprit's extraction sent shock waves through Guerriere's rigging and her foremast collapsed, which brought down the mainmast shortly afterward. Guerriere was now a dismasted, unmanageable hulk with close to a third of her crew wounded or killed, while Constitution remained almost undamaged. The British surrendered. Hull had surprised the British with his heavier broadsides and his ship's sailing ability. Adding to their astonishment, many of the British shots had rebounded harmlessly off Constitution's hull. This resulted in an American sailor reportedly exclaiming "Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!" and so, Constitution acquired the nickname "Old Ironsides". The battle left Guerriere so severely damaged that she was not worth towing to port, and Hull ordered her to be burned the next morning, after transferring the British prisoners onto Constitution. Constitution arrived back in Boston on 30 August, where Hull and his crew found that news of their victory had spread fast, and they were hailed as heroes.

Captain William Bainbridge

William Bainbridge, who senior to Hull, took command of "Old Ironsides" shortly after her return to Boston. She, along with Hornet, departed on another mission in British shipping lanes near Brazil toward the end of October. They arrived near São Salvador (Brazil) in mid-December, sighting HMS Bonne Citoyenne in the harbor. Bonne Citoyenne was reportedly carrying $1.6 million in specie (coins) to England, and her captain refused to leave the neutral harbor lest he lose his cargo. Constitution sailed offshore in search of prizes, leaving Hornet to await the departure of Bonne Citoyenne. At the end of December, she met HMS Java under Captain Henry Lambert. At the first hail from Bainbridge, Java answered with a broadside that severely damaged Constitution's rigging. She was able to recover, however, and returned a series of broadsides to Java. A shot from Java destroyed Constitution's helm (wheel), so Bainbridge directed the crew to steer her manually using the tiller for the remainder of the engagement. Java's bowsprit became entangled in Constitution's rigging, as in the battle with Guerriere, allowing Bainbridge to continue raking her with broadsides. Java's foremast collapsed, sending her fighting top crashing down through two decks below. Bainbridge drew off to make emergency repairs and re-approached Java an hour later. She lay in shambles, an unmanageable wreck with a wounded crew, and she surrendered.

Bainbridge determined that Java was far too damaged to retain as a prize and ordered her burned, but not before having her helm salvaged and installed on Constitution. Returning to São Salvador (Brazil) on 1 January 1813 to disembark the prisoners from Java, she met Hornet and her two British prizes. Being far from a friendly port, and needing extensive repairs, Bainbridge ordered Constitution to sail for Boston on 5 January, leaving Hornet behind to continue waiting for Bonne Citoyenne in the hopes that she would leave the harbor (she did not). Java was the third British warship in as many months to be captured by the United States, and Constitution's victory prompted the British Admiralty to order its frigates not to engage the heavier American frigates one-on-one; only British ships of the line or squadrons were permitted to come close enough to attack. Constitution arrived in Boston on 15 February to even greater celebrations than Hull had been honored with a few months earlier.

Marines Firing From the Fighting Top.
Marines Firing From the Fighting Top.

Bainbridge determined that Constitution required new spar deck planking and beams, masts, sails, and rigging, as well as replacement of her copper bottom. However, personnel and supplies were being diverted to the Great Lakes, causing shortages that kept her in Boston intermittently with her sister ships Chesapeake, Congress, and President for the majority of 1813. Charles Stewart took command on 18 July and struggled to complete the construction and recruitment of a new crew, finally making sail at the end of December. Constitution set course for the West Indies to harass British shipping and had captured five merchant ships and the 14-gun HMS Pictou by late March 1814. She also pursued HMS Columbine and HMS Pique, though both ships escaped after realizing that she was an American frigate.

Her mainmast split off the coast of Bermuda toward the end of March, requiring immediate repair. Stewart set a course for Boston. On the way there, she met HMS Junon and HMS Tenedos who began pursuit. Stewart ordered drinking water and food cast overboard to lighten her load and gain speed, trusting that her mainmast would hold together long enough for her to make her way into Marblehead, Massachusetts. Upon Constitution's arrival in the harbor, the citizens of Marblehead rallied in support, assembling what cannons they had at Fort Sewall, and the British called off the pursuit. Two weeks later, Constitution made her way into Boston, where she remained blockaded in port until mid-December.

Captain George Collier of the Royal Navy received command of the 50-gun HMS Leander and was sent to North America to deal with the American frigates that were causing such losses to British shipping. Meanwhile, Charles Stewart saw his chance to escape from Boston Harbor the afternoon of 18 December, and Constitution again set course for Bermuda. Collier gathered a squadron consisting of Leander, Newcastle, and Acasta and set off in pursuit, but he was unable to overtake her. On 24 December, Constitution intercepted the merchantman Lord Nelson and placed a prize crew aboard. Cruising off Cape Finisterre in early February 1815, Stewart learned that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed. He realized, however, that a state of war still existed until the treaty was ratified, and Constitution captured the British merchantman Susanna on 16 February; her cargo of animal hides was valued at $75,000.

Captain Charles Stewart

In late February, Constitution sighted the small British ships Cyane and Levant sailing together and gave chase. Cyane and Levant began a series of broadsides against her, but Stewart outmaneuvered them both and forced Levant to draw off for repairs. He concentrated fire on Cyane, which soon struck her colors. At this point, Levant returned to engage but when she saw that Cyane had been defeated she turned and tried to escape. Constitution overtook her and, after several more broadsides, she struck her colors as well. Stewart remained with his new prizes overnight while ordering repairs to all ships. Constitution had seemed to suffer insignificant damage in the battle; however, it was later found that she had twelve 32-pound British cannonballs embedded in her hull, none of which had penetrated. The trio then set a course for the Cape Verde Islands and arrived at Porto Praya on 10 March. The next morning, lookouts spotted Collier's squadron on a course for the harbor (until now, Stewart had been unaware of Collier's pursuit) and Stewart ordered all ships to sail at once. Cyane was able to elude the squadron and make sail for America, where she arrived on 10 April, but Levant was overtaken and recaptured. Constitution made her escape while Collier's squadron was distracted with Levant.

Constitution set a course towards Guinea and then west towards Brazil, as Stewart had learned from the capture of Susanna that HMS Inconstant was transporting gold bullion back to England, and he wanted her as a prize. Constitution put into Maranhão (Brazil) at the beginning of April to offload her British prisoners and replenish her drinking water. While there, Stewart learned by rumor that the Treaty of Ghent had been ratified, and set course for America, receiving verification of peace at San Juan, Puerto Rico the end of April. He then set course for New York and arrived home on 15 May to large celebrations. Constitution came through the the war undefeated, though her sister ships Chesapeake (captured in 1813) and President (captured in 1815) were not so fortunate. “Old Ironsides” moved to Boston and the Navy placed her in ordinary in January 1816, sitting out the Second Barbary War.

Isaac Hull, Charlestown Navy Yard's commandant, directed a refitting of Constitution to prepare her for duty with the Mediterranean Squadron in April 1820. They removed Joshua Humphreys' diagonal riders to make room for two iron freshwater tanks, and they replaced the copper sheathing and timbers below the waterline. Constitution, under commanding officer Jacob Jones, left on 13 May 1821 for a three-year tour of duty in the Mediterranean.

Constitution experienced a generally uneventful tour, sailing in company with Ontario and Nonsuch, until crew behavior during shore leave gave Jones a reputation as a commodore who was lax in discipline. The Navy grew weary of receiving complaints about the crews' antics while in port and ordered Jones to return. Constitution arrived in Boston the end of May 1824, and Jones was relieved of command. Thomas Macdonough took command and sailed for the Mediterranean at the end of October. With discipline restored, Constitution resumed uneventful duty. Macdonough resigned his command for health reasons in October 1825. Constitution put in for repairs during December and into January 1826, until Daniel Todd Patterson assumed command on 21 February. By August, she had put into Port Mahon (Minorca Spain), suffering decay of her spar deck, and she remained there until temporary repairs were completed in March 1827. Constitution returned to Boston on the 4th of July 1828 and was placed in ordinary.

There is much more to the operational history of USS Constitution however, it is outside of the era that we address here on the Academy of Knowledge blog. There are, however three things that we feel we should point out that make her special today. First, she is the oldest warship, not just in the US Navy but in the world, still commissioned in active service. Second, on Oct. 28, 2009, Congress signed the National Defense Authorization Act, in which section 1022 names USS Constitution as America’s Ship of State. So, what does being America’s “Ship of State” mean? Here is what the National Defense Authorization Act says about it:

“It is the sense of Congress that the President, Vice President, executive branch officials, and members of Congress should use the USS Constitution for the conducting of pertinent matters of state, such as hosting visiting heads of state, signing legislation relating to the Armed Forces, and signing maritime related treaties”.

The Constitution is the only Ship of State in the world.

Finally, another event, which occurred six years later, brought one more honor to the Constitution. When the last Perry-class frigate, the USS Simpson, was decommissioned in 2015, it left only one commissioned US Navy ship which has sunk an enemy in combat, the Constitution, which sank the British warship HMS Guerriere, during the War of 1812.

We hope you found today’s look at the resurrection of the US Navy, The Naval Act of 1794, and the operational history of the first three frigates built under that act (United States, Constellation, and Constitution). Join us in two weeks when we will examine the operational history of the last 3 frigates built under the Naval Act of 1794, (President, Congress, and Chesapeake). As with any subject of this size, today’s post, as well as the following one, is not meant to be an in-depth history of each ship but rather a synopsis of their construction and operations during the period of the Early Republic.

If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow you to post comments to let us know your thoughts on our articles, suggest new subjects for future articles, and allow us to inform you when we post new articles. Please be assured that the Norfolk Towne Assembly never shares our community members information with outside entities except as required by law. We also invite you to return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a variety of subjects.

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Bar-Shot – two cannonballs linked by a short section of solid iron bar, used to damage rigging and masts.

Beat to Quarters - Prepare for battle (in reference to beating a drum to signal the need for battle preparation).

Bomb Ketch - A type of specialized naval wooden sailing vessel of the late 17th through mid-19th centuries designed for bombarding fixed positions on land, armed for this purpose with mortars mounted forward near the bow.

Bow Chaser - A cannon pointing forward, often of longer range than other guns. Bow chasers were used to fire upon a ship ahead. Unlike guns pointing to the side, chasers could be brought to bear in a chase without slowing the pursuit.

Bow Rake - In sailing naval warfare, raking fire is fire directed parallel to the long axis of an enemy ship from ahead or astern. Although each shot is directed against a smaller target profile than by shooting broadside and thus more likely to miss the target ship to one side or the other, an individual cannon shot that hits would pass through more of the ship, thereby increasing damage to the hull, sails, cannon, and crew. In addition, the targeted ship will have fewer (if any) guns able to return fire. Bow rakes were intended to travel from the bow to the stern of a ship.

Bowsprit - A spar projecting from the bow used as an anchor for the forestay and other rigging.

Carronade - a short, smoothbore, cast-iron naval cannon, used from the 1770s to the 1850s as a powerful, short-range, anti-ship and anti-crew weapon.

Cartel - a ship employed on humanitarian voyages to carry communications or prisoners between belligerents during wartime. A cartel flies distinctive flags, including a flag of truce, traditionally is unarmed except for a lone signaling gun, and under international law is not subject to seizure or capture during her outbound and return voyages if she engages in no warlike acts.

Chain-Shot – two cannonballs linked with short lengths of chain, used to damage rigging and masts.

Fitting Out - the period after a ship is launched during which all the remaining construction of the ship is completed, and she is readied for sea trials and delivery to her owners.

Grapeshot - Small balls of lead fired from a cannon, analogous to shotgun shot but on a larger scale. It is similar to canister shot but with larger individual shot. Used to injure personnel and damage rigging more than to cause structural damage.

Gun Deck - any deck, other than the weather deck, having cannons from end to end.

Gunboat - A gunboat is a naval watercraft designed for the express purpose of carrying one or more guns to bombard coastal targets, or attack naval targets in shallow inland waters, as opposed to those ships designed specifically for high seas naval warfare.

In Ordinary - An 18th- and 19th-century term originally used to refer to a naval vessel that is out of service for repair or maintenance, later coming to mean naval ships in reserve with no more than a caretaker crew.

Kedge - A technique for moving or turning a ship by using a lighter anchor, also known as a kedge. The kedge anchor may be dropped while in motion to create a pivot and thus perform a sharp turn. It may also be carried away from the ship in a smaller boat, dropped, and then weighed, pulling the ship forward.

Luff Up - To steer a sailing vessel more towards the direction of the wind until the pressure on the sheets eases.

Spar Deck - the upper deck of a vessel; especially, in a frigate, the deck which continues in a straight line from the quarter-deck to the forecastle, and on which spare spars are usually placed.

Studding Sails - a light sail set at the side of a principal square sail of a ship in free winds, to increase her speed.

Xebec - was a Mediterranean sailing ship used mostly for trading. Xebecs were ships similar to galleys used by Barbary pirates, which have both lateen sails and oars for propulsion. Early xebecs had two masts: later ones three. Xebecs featured a distinctive hull with pronounced overhanging bow and stern, and rarely displaced more than 200 tons, making them slightly smaller and with slightly fewer guns than frigates of the period.


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