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

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

In part 1 of this series, we looked at the reestablishment of the US Navy, The Naval Act of 1794, and the first three frigates built under that act (United States, Constellation, and Constitution). Today we will examine the construction of the other three frigates authorized under that act (President, Congress, and Chesapeake) as well as their histories.

The Frigates

What follows is a brief history of the construction and operational histories of the last 3 frigates authorized under the Naval Act of 1794 – listed in the order in which they were launched. As with any article like this one, this 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.


USS Congress was a three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy nominally rated at 38-guns. Her keel was reportedly laid down late in 1795 at a shipyard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. James Hackett was in charge of her construction and Captain James Sever served as superintendent. Her construction went ahead slowly and finally suspended when, in March 1796, Algiers signed a peace treaty with the United States of America. Congress remained at the shipyard, incomplete, until relations with France deteriorated in 1798 with the start of the Quasi-War. At the request of then President John Adams, Congress approved funds on 16 July to complete her construction and slid down the ways on 15 August 1799. The name "Congress" was among ten names suggested to President George Washington by Secretary of War Timothy Pickering in March of 1795 for the frigates authorized under the Naval Act of 1794. Washington selected the name Congress after one of the principles of the United States Constitution.

USS Congress
USS Congress

The Naval Act of 1794 had specified 36-gun frigates and 44-gun frigates. However, because of their large dimensions, being 164 ft in length and 41 ft in width, the Navy rerated Congress and her sister-ship Constellation to 38s. In this period, the "ratings" by number of guns were meant only as an approximation, and Congress often carried up to 48 guns. During her first cruise in the Quasi-War against France, Congress carried a battery of forty guns consisting of twenty-eight 18 pounders and twelve 9 pounders. For her patrols during the War of 1812, her armament consisted of a battery of forty-four guns - twenty-four 18 pounders and twenty 32 pounders.

Upon her launch in August 1799, she fitted out in Rhode Island and set off on her maiden voyage in January 1800. Six days later, she lost all her masts in a gale because her rigging had been set and tightened in a cold climate and it had slackened once she reached warmer temperatures. Without the full support of her rigging, all her masts came down within a four-hour period with the loss of one crew member’s life. The crew rigged an emergency sail and she limped back to Gosport Navy Yard (Portsmouth VA) for repairs.

After six months of repairs and refitting, she finally sailed for the West Indies toward the end of July. Congress made routine patrols and on two occasions she almost ran aground. The first incident occurred when, while pursuing a French Privateer, she followed him into shallow water where lookouts spotted large rocks near the surface. Although there is no record of the exact depth, Capt. Sever at once abandoned pursuit of the privateer and changed course towards deep water. The second incident occurred off the coast of the Caicos Islands when, during the night, she drifted too close to the reefs. At daybreak, the lookouts discovered her predicament, and the crew took action to move out to deeper waters. Congress returned to Boston in April 1801 and placed in ordinary at Washington, D.C.

Captain James Sever
Captain James Sever

The continuing piracies of the Barbary States occasioned Congress' return to commission in April 1804. Under Captain John Rodgers she left for Hampton Roads to join the ships of the Mediterranean Squadron, commanded by Commodore Samuel Barron. Arriving at Gibraltar on 11 August, Congress cruised vigilantly in the Mediterranean for 11 months. Now commanded by Stephen Decatur, she returned to the United States in November, carrying the Tunisian ambassador to the United States. She again laid up in ordinary at Washington where she served as a classroom for midshipman training until 1811.

A period of extensive repair preceded recommissioning of Congress in the fall of 1811, under the command of Captain J. Smith. Early in 1812, before war broke out, she made several brief cruises along the eastern coast. Congress was assigned to the squadron of Commodore J. Rodgers, patrolling the North Atlantic, from June to August 1812. It was during this period that a passing American merchant ship informed Rodgers of a fleet of British merchantmen in route to Britain from Jamaica. Congress sailed along in pursuit but was interrupted when President began pursuing HMS Belvidera on 23 June. Congress trailed behind President during the chase and fired her bow chasers at the escaping Belvidera. Unable to capture Belvidera, the squadron returned to the pursuit of the Jamaican fleet. On 1 July they began to follow a trail of coconut shells and orange peels the Jamaican fleet had left behind them. Sailing to within one day's journey of the English Channel, the squadron never sighted the convoy and Rodgers called off the pursuit on the 13th. During their return trip to Boston, Congress helped in the capture of seven merchant ships, including the recapture of an American vessel.

The Royal Navy blockaded Congress, along with President, in Boston harbor for several months until they were finally able to find an opportunity to slip through the blockade at the end of April 1813. She made her second cruise against the enemy in company with the frigate President, sailing from Boston the beginning of October and capturing nine prizes before returning the end of December. On 30 April 1813, Congress again put to sea, cruising off the Cape Verde Islands and the Brazil coast where she captured four small enemy ships. On 14 December she returned to Portsmouth, VA for repairs. A shortage of materials and personnel, most of which was being diverted to the Great Lakes for strategic reasons, in addition to the extensive nature of the repairs she needed, the Navy decided to place Congress in ordinary, where she stayed for the rest of the war.

As the second Barbary War began, the Navy brought Congress out of ordinary. Captain Charles Morris assumed command of Congress and, after repairs and refitting, she transported the Minister to Holland to his new post. After a few weeks in Holland, Congress sailed for the Mediterranean, arriving at to join William Bainbridge’s squadron. Unfortunately, by the time of Congress’s arrival, Commodore Stephen Decatur had already secured a peace treaty with Algiers. After a few weeks of patrolling off the coast of the Barbary States, Congress was ordered back to America where she was decommissioned at Boston MA.

Captain James Biddle
Captain James Biddle

In 1816 she was recommissioned and spent the period from 1816 through early 1822 in the Gulf of Mexico and along the coast of South America, carrying out a combination of diplomatic missions and ensuring the free passage of American shipping. From October 1822 to April 1823 Congress, with Captain J. Biddle commanding, operated against the West Indies pirates. During the second half of 1823 she carried the United States Ministers to Spain and the Argentine Republic.

In 1824 Congress was placed in ordinary at Norfolk until December when she was towed to Washington for repairs. In November 1829 she returned to Norfolk where she served as receiving ship for several years and then was laid up in ordinary. A survey by the Navy Department in 1834 found her unfit for repair and she was broken up at the Norfolk Navy Yard by order of the Navy Commissioner.


Originally designated as "Frigate D", the ship remained unnamed for several years. Her keel was laid down in December 1795 at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, where Josiah Fox had been appointed her naval constructor and Richard Dale as superintendent of construction. In March 1796, a peace accord was announced between the United States and Algiers and construction was suspended in accordance with the Naval Act of 1794. The keel remained on blocks in the navy yard for two years.

Josiah Fox
Josiah Fox

The beginning of the Quasi-War with France in 1798 gave Congress the nudge they needed to authorize the completion of “Frigate D”. Returning to Norfolk to complete the construction, Fox discovered a shortage of timber caused by its diversion from Norfolk to Baltimore to finish Constellation. When Fox wrote to Navy Secretary Benjamin Stoddert about the situation, Stoddert showed a desire to speed up construction of the ship and reduce the overall cost. Fox, who had always been an opponent of Humphreys' large design, sent new plans to Stoddert which called for using the existing keel but reducing the overall length. Fox's plans were an entirely different design than originally planned by Humphreys. Secretary Stoddert approved the new design. When built, Chesapeake had the smallest dimensions of the six frigates with a length of only 152.8 ft between perpendiculars, contrasted with her closest sisters, Congress and Constellation, which were built to 164 ft in length. The final cost of her construction was $220,677—the second-least expensive frigate of the six. The least expensive was Congress at $197,246. Chesapeake was finally launched in early December 1799 during the Quasi-War with France. Her fitting out continued until May 1800.

Chesapeake's nominal rating is listed as either 36 or 38 guns depending on the source consulted. Originally meant as a 44-gun ship, her redesign by Fox led to a rerating, based on her smaller dimensions when compared to Congress and Constellation. Chesapeake was noted as carrying 40 guns during her encounter with HMS Leopard in 1807 and 50 guns during her engagement with HMS Shannon in 1813. The 50 guns consisted of twenty-eight 18-pounder long guns on the gun deck, fourteen on each side. This main battery was complemented by two long 12-pounders, one long 18-pounder, eighteen 32-pounder carronades, and one 12-pound carronade on the spar deck.

Chesapeake first put to sea in late May, commanded by Captain Samuel Barron and left Norfolk with a 13-gun salute. Her first assignment was to carry currency from Charleston, South Carolina, to Philadelphia. In early June she joined a squadron patrolling off the southern coast of the United States and in the West Indies escorting American merchant ships. Chesapeake captured the 16-gun French privateer La Jeune Creole on 1 January 1801 after a chase lasting 50 hours, and she returned to Norfolk with her prize in mid-January. Chesapeake returned briefly to the West Indies in February, soon after ratification of a peace treaty with France. She returned to Norfolk and was decommissioned on 26 February, being placed in ordinary.

USS Chesapeake
USS Chesapeake

With the beginning of the First Barbary War, Chesapeake was recalled to service. Named flagship of one of the squadrons sent to the Mediterranean to deal with the pirates, it took several months to prepare all of the vessels for sea and they sailed for Europe one-by-one as they became ready. Chesapeake left Hampton Roads under the command of Richard Valentine Morris toward the end of April 1802 and arrived in Gibraltar toward the end of May. Upon arrival, she put into port for repairs (her mainmast had split during the voyage) and then remained in port waiting to hear where his other ships were. Toward the end of July, John Adams arrived with belated orders for Morris, dated 20 April. Those were to "lay the whole squadron before Tripoli" and negotiate peace. Chesapeake and Enterprise departed Gibraltar on 17 August bound for Leghorn (Livorno, IT), while providing protection for a convoy of merchant ships that were bound for intermediate ports. Morris made several stops in various ports before finally arriving at Leghorn in mid-October, after which he sailed to Malta. In Malta, Chesapeake undertook repairs of a rotted bowsprit. She was still in port when John Adams arrived in early January 1803 with orders from Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith. These directed Chesapeake and Constellation to return to the United States; Morris was to transfer his command to New York. Constellation sailed directly as ordered, but Morris retained Chesapeake in Malta, claiming that she was not in any condition to make an Atlantic voyage during the winter months.

In addition to Chesapeake, Morris now had the ships New York, John Adams, and Enterprise gathered under him. At the end of January Chesapeake and the squadron got underway for Tripoli, where Morris planned to burn Tripolitan ships in the harbor. Heavy gales made the approach to Tripoli difficult and fearing Chesapeake would lose her masts from the fierce winds, Morris returned to Malta on 10 February. With provisions for the ships running low and none available near Malta, Morris decided to abandon plans to blockade Tripoli and sailed the squadron back to Gibraltar for provisioning. They made stops at Tunis on 22 February and Algiers on 19 March. Chesapeake arrived at Gibraltar on 23 March, where Morris transferred his command to New York. Under James Barron, Chesapeake sailed for the United States on 7 April and she was placed in ordinary at the Washington Navy Yard on 1 June.

Morris remained in the Mediterranean until September, when orders from Secretary Smith arrived suspending his command and instructing him to return to the United States. There he faced a Naval Board of Inquiry which found that he was censurable for "inactive and dilatory conduct of the squadron under his command" and that he had not "discovered due diligence and activity in annoying the enemy". He was dismissed from the navy in 1804. Morris's overall performance in the Mediterranean was particularly criticized for the state of affairs aboard Chesapeake and his inactions as a commander. Consul William Eaton reported to Secretary Smith that Morris and his squadron spent more time in port sightseeing and doing little but "dance and wench", rather than blockading Tripoli.

In January 1807 Master Commandant Charles Gordon was appointed Chesapeake's commanding officer (captain). He was ordered to prepare her for patrol and convoy duty in the Mediterranean to relieve her sister ship Constitution, which had been on duty there since 1803. James Barron was appointed overall commander of the squadron as its commodore. Chesapeake was in much disarray from her multi-year period of inactivity and many months were required for repairs, provisioning, and recruitment of personnel. Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair was tasked with the recruiting. And among those chosen were three sailors who had deserted from HMS Melampus. The British ambassador to the United States requested the return of the sailors. Barron found that, although they were indeed from Melampus, they had been impressed into the Royal Navy and he therefore refused to release them back to Melampus.

In early June Chesapeake departed the Washington Navy Yard for Norfolk, Virginia, where she completed provisioning and loading armaments. Captain Gordon informed Barron on the 19th that Chesapeake was ready for sea and they departed on 22 June armed with 40 guns. At the same time, a British squadron consisting of HMS Melampus, Bellona, and Leopard (a 50-gun fourth rate) were lying off the port of Norfolk blockading two French ships there. As Chesapeake departed, the squadron ships began signaling each other and Leopard got under way, preceding the American to sea.

HMS Leopard and USS Chesapeake
HMS Leopard and USS Chesapeake

After sailing for some hours, Leopard approached Chesapeake and hailed a request to deliver dispatches to England, a customary request of the time. When a British lieutenant arrived by boat, he handed Barron an order, given by Vice-Admiral George Berkeley of the Royal Navy, which instructed the British ships to stop and board Chesapeake to search for deserters. Barron refused to allow this search, and as the lieutenant returned to Leopard Barron ordered the crew to general quarters. Shortly afterward Leopard hailed Chesapeake; but Barron claimed he could not understand the message. Leopard fired a shot across the bow, followed by a broadside, at Chesapeake. For fifteen minutes, while Chesapeake attempted to arm herself, Leopard continued to fire broadside after broadside until Barron struck his colors. Chesapeake only managed to fire one retaliatory shot. The British boarded Chesapeake and carried off four crewmen, declining Barron's offer that Chesapeake be taken as a prize of war. Chesapeake suffered three sailors killed and Barron was among the eighteen wounded. Upon Chesapeake’s return to Norfolk, word of the incident spread quickly. The British squadron that included Leopard was in port provisioning and mobs of angry citizens destroyed two hundred water casks destined for the squadron as well as nearly killing a British lieutenant before local authorities intervened. President Jefferson recalled all US warships from the Mediterranean and issued a proclamation: all British warships were banned from entering US ports and those already in port were to depart. The incident eventually led to the Embargo Act of 1807. After the heavy damage inflicted by Leopard, Chesapeake returned to Norfolk for repairs.

Captain Samuel Evans
Captain Samuel Evans

When the United States declared war on Britain in mid-June 1812, Chesapeake, under the command of Captain Samuel Evans was prepared for duty in the Atlantic. Beginning in mid-December, she ranged from Madeira and traveled clockwise to the Cape Verde Islands and South America, and then back to Boston. She captured six ships as prizes: the British ships Volunteer, Liverpool Hero (burned as she was considered too leaky to take as a prize), Earl Percy (ran aground off the coast of Long Island and lost), and Ellen; the brig Julia, an American ship trading under a British license; and Valeria, an American ship recaptured from British privateers. The cargo of Volunteer, 40 tons of pig iron and copper, were sold for $185,000 and Chesapeake’s total monetary damage to British shipping was $235,675 (equivalent to $3.6 million today). Also, during the cruise, she was chased by an unidentified British ship-of-the-line and a frigate but, after a passing storm squall, the two pursuing ships were gone the next morning. She returned to Boston in early April 1813 for refitting.

Captain Evans, now in poor health, requested to be relieved of command. Captain James Lawrence, late of Hornet and her victory over HMS Peacock, took command of Chesapeake in May. Lawrence found matters on board the ship in disarray. The term of enlistment for many of the crew had expired and they were leaving the ship daily. Those who remained were disgruntled and approaching mutiny, as the prize money they were owed from her previous cruise was held up in court. Lawrence paid out the prize money from his own pocket in order to appease them. Some sailors from Constitution joined Chesapeake and they made up the crew, along with sailors of several nations.

Cannon Sights and Other Terminology
Cannon Sights and Other Terminology

Meanwhile, HMS Shannon, a 38-gun frigate, was patrolling off the port of Boston on blockade duty. Shannon had been under the command of Broke since 1806 and, under his direction, the crew held daily great gun and small arms drills lasting up to three hours each. Crew members who hit their bullseye were awarded a pound of tobacco for their good marksmanship. Captain Broke had also fitted out his cannons with dispart and tangent sights to increase accuracy as well as marking degree bearings on the decks and gun carriages to allow the crew to focus their fire on a specific target. In this regard Chesapeake, with traditional gun practice and a crew that had only been together for a few months, was inferior.

At the end of May, Lawrence, learned that Shannon had moved in closer to Boston, and he began preparations to sail. Chesapeake met Shannon around 5 pm the day they left Boston. During six minutes of firing, each ship managed two full broadsides. Chesapeake fired her first broadside while the ship was heeling, causing most shots to strike the water or Shannon's waterline, causing slight damage, although carronade fire caused considerable damage to the British ship’s rigging. A second round of fire was more effective, landing hits on Shannon's 12-pounder shot locker. Chesapeake's 32-pound carronades punished Shannon's forecastle, killing three men, wounding others, and disabling the British ship’s nine-pounder bow gun.

Chesapeake, however, suffered far more heavily in the exchange, as precise British fire caused heavy losses among American gun crews, and crippling losses to the men and officers on Chesapeake's quarterdeck with several helmsmen killed and her wheel destroyed. At the same time, she had her foretopsail halyard shot away causing the ship to lose maneuverability. Unable to maneuver, Chesapeake "luffed up" and her port stern quarter caught against the side of Shannon amidships and the crews lashed the two ships together in preparation for boarding. Confusion and disarray reigned on the deck of the American ship; Captain Lawrence tried rallying a party to board Shannon, but the bugler did not sound the call. At this point a shot from a sniper mortally wounded Lawrence and, as his men carried him below, he gave his last order: "Don't give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks."

Captain James Lawrence Mortally Wounded
Captain James Lawrence Mortally Wounded

Captain Broke boarded Chesapeake at the head of a party of 20 men. They met little resistance from Chesapeake's crew, most of whom had gone below deck. The only real resistance came from Chesapeake’s marines. The British soon overwhelmed them with only nine escaping injury out of a contingent of 44. Captain Broke was severely injured, having been struck in the head with a sword, in the fighting on the forecastle. However, soon after that the British boarding party pulled down Chesapeake's flag.

Only 15 minutes had elapsed from the first exchange of gunfire to the capture. Reports of the number of killed and wounded aboard Chesapeake during the battle varied from 48-70 killed and 85-100 wounded. The counts for Shannon have 23 killed and 56 wounded. Despite his serious injuries, Broke ordered repairs to both ships and they sailed on to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Captain Lawrence died in route of his wounds and the Royal Navy buried him in a Halifax cemetery with full military honors. The Royal Navy repaired Chesapeake and took her into service as HMS Chesapeake, where she served until she was broken up and her timbers sold in 1819. They are now part of the Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, England.

Almost from her beginning, Chesapeake was considered an "unlucky ship" and the "runt of the litter". To the superstitious sailors of the 19th century her unsuccessful encounters with HMS Leopard and HMS Shannon, the courts-martial of two of her captains, and the accidental deaths of several crewmen led many to believe she was a cursed ship.


USS President was a three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy nominally rated at 44-guns. She was authorized by the Naval Act of 1794 however, in March 1796, before her keel could be laid down, a peace accord was announced between the United States of America and Algiers. Per the terms of the Naval Act of 1794, her construction came to a halt until, at the onset of the Quasi-War with France in 1798, the US Congress appropriated funds to complete her construction.

USS President
USS President

Based on lessons learned from building President’s sister ships Constitution and United States, her builders raised her gun deck 2 inches and moved the mainmast 2 feet aft as opposed to the original plans. While President’s nominal rating was 44-guns, she usually carried over 50. Her initial armament consisted of 60 cannons - thirty 24-pounder guns on the gun deck, twenty-eight 42-pounder carronades on the spar deck, plus two more 24-pounder guns on the forecastle. In February 1817, while in service as HMS President, she was again re-rated, this time to 60 guns.

President, the last of the original six frigates completed, launched on 10 April 1800. After her fitting out, she left for Guadeloupe in early August with Captain Thomas Truxtun in command. She conducted routine patrols during the latter part of the Quasi-War and recaptured several American merchant ships. Nevertheless, her service in this period was uneventful. She returned to the United States in March 1801, after ratification of a peace treaty with France.

In May, Commodore Richard Dale selected President as his flagship for his Mediterranean squadron. Dale's orders were to present a show of force off Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis and maintain peace with promises of tribute. Dale was authorized to begin hostilities at his discretion if any Barbary State had declared war by the time of his arrival. Dale's squadron consisted of President, Philadelphia, Essex, and Enterprise. The squadron arrived at Gibraltar at the beginning of July; and President and Enterprise quickly continued to Algiers, where their presence convinced the regent to withdraw threats made against American merchant ships. The two ships then made appearances at Tunis and Tripoli before President arrived at Malta in mid-August to replenish drinking water supplies.

Blockading the harbor of Tripoli on 24 August, President captured a Greek vessel with Tripolitan soldiers aboard. Dale used these prisoners to negotiate an exchange resulting in the release of several Americans held captive in Tripoli. President arrived at Gibraltar in early September. In early December, while patrolling near Mahón (a town in Minorca, Spain), President struck a large rock while traveling at 6 knots. An inspection revealed that the impact had twisted off a short section of her keel. President remained in the Mediterranean until March 1802 when she departed for the United States, arriving in mid-April.

Returning to the Mediterranean, President and her squadron arrived at Gibraltar in mid-August 1804 and with Constellation stopped at Malta before arriving off Tripoli, joining Constitution, Argus, and Vixen. Sighting three ships running the blockade of Tripoli, the squadron moved in to capture them however, during the pursuit, a sudden change in wind direction caused President to collide with Constitution. The collision caused severe damage to Constitution's stern, bow, and figurehead. Two of the captured ships went to Malta with Constitution; while President sailed to Syracuse, Sicily, arriving in late August. Commodore Barron went ashore in Syracuse in poor health and became bedridden. Command of the squadron passed to Edward Preble at this point and Captain George Cox became President’s temporary commanding officer. Barron’s fragile health caused his resignation. Before resigning, Commodore Barron ordered Cox to command Essex and turned President over to his brother James Barron. Following the signing of a peace treaty with Tripoli, President sailed for the United States carrying the ailing Samuel Barron and many sailors released from captivity in Tripoli.

USS President vs HMS Little Belt
USS President vs HMS Little Belt

In 1807, the previously discussed Chesapeake-Leopard Affair raised tensions between the United States and Great Britain and in 1809, President was brought out of ordinary and recommissioned under the command of Commodore John Rodgers. Her patrols along the eastern seaboard of the United States were mostly routine and without incident until the beginning of May 1811. The British frigate HMS Guerriere stopped the American brig Spitfire 18 mi from New York and impressed a crewman. Rodgers received orders to pursue Guerriere, and President sailed at once from Annapolis, MD. In mid-May, approximately 40 miles northeast of Cape Henry, a lookout spotted a sail on the horizon. Closing to investigate, Rodgers determined the sail belonged to a warship, and raised signal flags to identify his ship. The unidentified ship, later learned to be HMS Little Belt—a 20-gun sixth rate—hoisted signal flags in return, but the President's crew did not understand the signal.

Little Belt sailed southward and Rodgers, believing the ship to be Guerriere, pursued her. Before the ships were within hailing distance darkness set in. Rodgers hailed twice, only to have the same question returned to him: "What ship is that?" According to American accounts, right after the exchange of hails, Little Belt fired a shot that tore through President's rigging. Rodgers returned fire. Little Belt promptly answered with three guns, and then a whole broadside. Rodgers ordered his gun crews to fire at will and several accurate broadsides heavily damaged Little Belt. After five minutes of firing, President's crew realized their adversary was much smaller than a frigate and Rodgers ordered a cease fire. However, Little Belt fired again, and President answered with more broadsides. After Little Belt became silent, President stood off and waited overnight. At dawn it was obvious that Little Belt was heavily damaged from the fight. Rodgers sent a boat from President to offer assistance in repairing the damage.

Little Belt’s Captain acknowledged the damage and, declining any help, he sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia. President had one sailor slightly wounded in the exchange, while Little Belt suffered 31 killed or wounded. The British and American governments argued about the encounter for months. Rodgers insisted that he had mistaken the sloop for a frigate and was adamant that Bingham had fired first. The Admiralty expressed their confidence in Bingham and promoted him to post-captain on 7 February 1812. On 19 August 1812, after war had finally broken out, HMS Guerriere sailed into her ill-fated action against USS Constitution. Painted across her foretopsail were the words "NOT THE LITTLE BELT".

The United States declared war against Britain on 18 June 1812. Within an hour of receiving official word of the declaration, Commodore Rodgers sailed from New York City. The commodore sailed aboard President, leading a squadron consisting of United States, Congress, Hornet, and Argus on a 70-day North Atlantic cruise. A passing American merchant ship informed Rodgers about a fleet of British merchantmen in route to Britain from Jamaica. The squadron sailed in pursuit, and towards the end of June they met what was later learned to be HMS Belvidera. President pursued the ship, and in what is recorded as the first shot of the War of 1812, Rodgers himself aimed and fired a bow chaser at Belvidera, striking her rudder and penetrating the gun room. Upon President's fourth shot at Belvidera, a cannon one deck below Rodgers burst, killing or wounding 16 sailors, and throwing Rodgers to the deck with enough force to break his leg.

HMS Belvidera vs USS President
HMS Belvidera vs USS President

In the confusion resulting from the explosion, Belvidera was able to fire her stern chasers, killing six more men aboard President. Rodgers kept up the pursuit, using his bow chasers to severely damage Belvidera's rigging, but the two broadsides fired by President had negligible effect. The crew of Belvidera quickly made repairs to the rigging, cut loose her anchors and boats, and pumped drinking water overboard to lighten her load. This lightened load increased her speed and Belvidera soon distanced herself from President, and the American abandoned pursuit. Belvidera sailed to Halifax to deliver the news that war had been declared.

After some refitting, President, still under Rodgers' command, sailed in early October with Congress, United States, and Argus. After a few days, United States and Argus parted from the squadron for their own patrols. During October, President chased HMS Nymphe, but did not overtake her, and captured the British packet ship Swallow, which carried a large amount of currency on board. At the end of October, President and Congress began pursuit of HMS Galatea, which was escorting two merchant ships. The chase lasted about three hours, and in that time, Congress captured the merchant ship Argo. Meanwhile, President kept after Galatea and drew close, but lost sight of her in the night. Finding no ships to capture during November, President returned to the United States, arriving in Boston on 31 December, having taken nine prizes during her patrol.

President found itself blockaded there by the Royal Navy until April 1813. On 30 April, President and Congress sailed through the blockade on their third cruise of the war. In early May, they pursued HMS Curlew, but she outran them and escaped. President parted company with Congress on 8 May, and Rodgers set a course along the Gulf Stream to search for merchant ships to capture. At the end of June, not having come across a single ship, President put into North Bergen, Norway, to replenish her drinking water. Sailing soon after, President captured two British merchant ships, which helped to replenish her stores. On 10 July, President captured the outward-bound Falmouth packet Duke of Montrose, which managed to throw her mails overboard before President could send a prize crew aboard. President made a cartel of Duke of Montrose, putting all of President's prisoners on board and then sending her into Falmouth under the command of an American officer. When Duke of Montrose arrived at Falmouth the British Government abrogated the cartel on the grounds that they had advised the American Government that the British would not recognize cartel agreements entered into on the high seas. Around the same time, two Royal Navy ships came into view. President set all sail to escape and outran them in a chase lasting 80 hours.

Spending a few days near the Irish Channel, President captured several more merchant ships before setting a course for the United States. In late September, she met HMS Highflyer along the east coast of the United States. Captain Rodgers used his signal flags to trick Highflyer into believing that President was HMS Tenedos. Highflyer's captain came aboard President only to discover he had walked into a trap and President captured Highflyer without firing a shot. President's long cruise netted her 11 merchant ships, in addition to Highflyer.

At the beginning of December 1813, President sailed from Providence, Rhode Island. On Christmas day, she met two frigates in the dark, one of which fired at her. Rodgers believed the ships to be British, but they were two French frigates, Méduse and Nymphe. Afterward, President headed toward Barbados for an eight-week cruise in the West Indies, making three small captures, among them the British merchant ships Wanderer, and Edward. Returning to New York City in mid-February 1814, President encountered HMS Loire, which turned to escape once the latter's crew realized President was a 44-gun frigate. President remained in New York for the duration of 1814 due to the harbor's blockade by a British squadron consisting of HMS Endymion, Majestic, Pomone, and Tenedos. The Treaty of Ghent, ending hostilities between the United States and Britain, was signed on 24 December 1814. However, the United States did not ratify the treaty until 18 February 1815 and so the war carried on in the interim.

Stephen Decatur
Stephen Decatur

Stephen Decatur assumed command of President in December 1814, planning a cruise to the West Indies to prey on British shipping. In mid-January 1815, a snowy gale with high winds forced the British blockading squadron away from New York Harbor, giving Decatur the opportunity to put to sea. On the evening of 14 January, President headed out of the harbor but ran aground, the result of harbor pilots incorrectly marking a safe passage. Stranded on the sand bar, President lifted and dropped with the incoming tide. Within two hours her hull had been damaged, her timbers twisted, and masts sprung. Damage to her keel caused the ship to hog and sag. Decatur was finally able to float President off the bar and, assessing the damage, he decided to return to New York for repairs. The wind direction was not favorable however, and President had to head out to sea instead.

Unaware of the exact location of the blockading squadron, President set a course to avoid them and seek a safe port, but approximately two hours later lookouts spotted the squadron's sails on the horizon. President changed course to outrun them, but the damage she suffered the night before had significantly reduced her speed. Attempting to gain speed, Decatur ordered expendable cargo thrown overboard; by late afternoon of 15 January, HMS Endymion under Captain Henry Hope pulled alongside and began to fire broadsides. Decatur hatched a plan to bring President in close to Endymion, whereby the American crew could board and capture the opposing ship and sail her to New York after scuttling President to prevent her capture.

After making several attempts to close on Endymion, Decatur discovered that President's damage limited her maneuverability, allowing Endymion to predict, and draw away from, positions favorable for boarding. Faced with this new realization, Decatur ordered bar and chain shot fired to disable Endymion's sails and rigging, the idea being to shake his pursuer and allow President to flee to a safe port without pursuit. By mid-afternoon, the British ship had gained on President and took position on the American ship's quarter, shooting into President as she tried to escape. Endymion was able to rake President three times and did considerable damage to her; by contrast, President primarily directed her fire at the British ship’s rigging trying to slow her down. Finally, at 8:00 pm, President ceased fire and hoisted a light in her rigging, showing that she had surrendered. Endymion ceased firing on the defeated American ship but did not board to take possession of her prize, due to a lack of undamaged boats. Endymion's foresails had been damaged in the engagement and while she hove to for repairs, Decatur tried to take advantage of the situation and, despite having struck, made to escape. Endymion hastily completed repairs and resumed the chase.

HMS Endymon vs USS President
HMS Endymon vs USS President

President drew away while her crew made hurried repairs of their own, however, within two hours, one of her lookouts spotted the rest of the enemy squadron drawing near. President continued her escape attempt, but by nightfall HMS Pomone and Tenedos had caught up and began firing broadsides. Realizing his situation, Decatur surrendered President again, just before midnight. Now in the possession of the Royal Navy, President and her crew were ordered to proceed to Bermuda with Endymion. During the journey, they encountered a dangerous gale. The storm destroyed President's masts and strained Endymion's timbers so badly that all the upper-deck guns were thrown overboard to prevent her from sinking.

The British held Decatur and his crew prisoner briefly in Bermuda. The cartel Clarendon, brought 400 prisoners, including the crew of President, from Bermuda back to New York. Upon the prisoners' return to the United States, a U.S. Navy court martial board acquitted Decatur, his officers, and his men of any wrongdoing in the surrender of President. Meanwhile, President and Endymion continued to England, arriving at the end of March. The Royal Navy Commissioned President under the name HMS President. In March 1818, the British Admiralty was considering the HMS President for refitting however, a drydock inspection revealed that the majority of her timber was defective or rotten and she was broken up at Portsmouth England in June.

We hope you found today’s look at the operational history of the last three frigates built under the Naval Act of 1794 both enlightening and interesting. If you missed Part 1 of this series where we examined the reestablishment of the US Navy, The Naval Act of 1794, and the first three frigates built under that act (United States, Constellation, and Constitution) we hope you will take the time to go back and read it HERE. As with any subject of this magnitude, today’s post, as well as last week’s post, 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.

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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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1 Comment

Kathryn Gray Melhuish
Kathryn Gray Melhuish
Feb 12, 2021

Incredible detail!

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