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Chapter 23

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 25
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p111  Chapter 24

Frigates Are Begun

President Washington decided that the six frigates should be built in six seaport towns, with due regard for the "wealth, and populousness" of the states in which they were located. Accordingly, the four 44‑gun ships were assigned to Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Norfolk; the two thirty-sixes to Baltimore and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. That "appeared to me," Captain Truxtun told Secretary Knox, "to be going great lengths for the gratification of a few individuals."​1 It would be expensive, requiring six separate establishments, six master builders, six sets of everything; and six times as  p112 many mistakes could be made. Just how expensive this arrangement would become, nobody — in 1794 — could even guess.

Each naval captain was assigned to a building yard in order to superintend the construction of his ship. For each ship the government appointed a Navy Agent, to handle the money, a naval constructor, who was directly responsible for supervision of the workmen, and a clerk.

To the four senior captains went the four larger ships. Therefore, Captain Truxtun was assigned to a thirty‑six. Captain Barry elected to superintend the ship nearest home, and presumably the one that needed the least watching since Joshua Humphreys was naval constructor. To Captain Nicholson went the Boston frigate; to Captain Talbot the one in New York. At this point, the question of rank was raised momentarily.

Joshua Barney refused to serve at all if he could not be senior to Captain Talbot. Thereupon, he promptly sailed off and joined the French Navy.​2 The fourth large ship, then, went to Captain Dale. Captain Truxtun had no pretensions to rank — not yet — but the abdication of Barney moved him up to number five on the list, so he was given the choice of the thirty‑six at Portsmouth or the one at Baltimore. He chose the latter. To Portsmouth went the new sixth-ranking captain, James Sever, who had held a subaltern commission in the Continental Army.

All the arrangements for engaging agents, constructors, and clerks were carried on by correspondence with the War Office. Once the Navy Agent was selected, he could usually find suitable men for the other positions, but the difficulties of handling from a distance the business of such great magnitude were soon made manifest to Secretary Knox. For example, he wanted John Hackett, who had recently helped him with the planning of the ships, to be one of the naval constructors. Therefore, he directed the Navy Agent in Boston to employ him, but added the warning, "It is to be understood that there are three Hackets, one of whom, named William I believe, and who is subject to temporary insanity — you will of course not engage."3

Before the summer of 1794 was far gone, the situation in Baltimore was as settled as repeated exchanges of letters could make it; but the Secretary decided that Captain Truxtun had better go down and talk to the people concerned, look over the ground, and do everything  p113 possible to get the building started "with all possible vigor."​4 Vigor was one thing that the Captain possessed in full measure. His judgment might some day be questioned, but his energy and activity never. He set off at once for Baltimore.

Another traveler going to Baltimore that same year described the route: "We next changed horses at Newark [Delaware], and completed our day's journey, soon after sunset, at Head of Elk, the name given to a few houses situated upon the Elk River, which we crossed in a boat, hauling upon a rope stretched across it." He resumed his journey next day before dawn, and "proceeded very slowly till break of day, and not very fast after, the road being exceedingly deep and rough." After at least two full days on the road to cover the ninety‑odd miles from Philadelphia, the traveler rode into the courtyard of the "Indian Queen," a large Baltimore inn "of very respectable appearance."5

Captain Truxtun's principal task was to find a suitable building yard. The naval agency was in the hands of Samuel and Joseph Sterett, merchants, and the naval constructor was David Stodder, who for some years had been building vessels in his shipyard on Harris Creek. Most of the yards were located on Fell's Point, the commercial section of town; but when Captain Truxtun journeyed out to Stodder's yard, the better part of a mile beyond Fell's Point, he was convinced that this was the best that the city had to offer. By far the largest shipyard in the vicinity, it had plenty of room for the building ways and additional storage areas required for construction of a large ship. Moreover, it had along one side a natural basin, or wet dock, where ship timbers could be stored and preserved under water. It was at the point where Harris Creek flowed into the Patapsco, pleasantly situated, surrounded by fields and small woods; there was a rope walk just north of the yard; and directly across the river, on Whetstone Point, were the ruins of the fort built during the last war.6

Having settled upon Stodder's yard and having no further business in Baltimore for the time being, he returned to Philadelphia to report to the Secretary. "I stated to General Knox," he recalled, several years later, "that it was my Opinion, None of the ships . . . ought to be built to the southward of Philadelphia," because the facilities were inferior, there was "no choice of Artificers, Labourers scarce and indolent, every article higher in point of price than in the other parts  p114 of the United States N E of this."​7 Knox received his report politely, thanked him for his opinions, but told him that he did not care to upset the President's policy of spreading the benefits of the building program all up and down the land.

Progress in the building of the frigates was painfully slow. In its first sanguine report to the Congress at the end of 1794, the War Office reviewed the trials of that summer and fall, winding up with the statement that "Every thing, if not to be created, was to be modified. That the wood from which the frames were to be made was standing in the forests; the iron for the cannons lying in its natural bed; and the flax and hemp, perhaps, in the seed." The work was being vigorously pursued, added the report, and the ships might surely be launched during the ensuing twelvemonth.8

There was one obstacle that this report did not stress, but it was destined to plague the War Office and everyone concerned with the ships. It was needed to build the skeletons of the frigates. It was the cursed live oak.

The Author's Notes:

1 George Washington, Writings, J. C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Washington, D. C., 1931‑44), XXXII, 333; LC: Jefferson Papers, vol. 142, Truxtun to Jefferson, July 10, 1804.

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2 Hulbert Footner, Sailor of Fortune, The Life and Adventures of Commodore Barney, USN (New York, 1940), pp193‑203.

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3 Barbary Wars, I, 76.

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4 Navy 1790‑98 LB, August 8, 1794.

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5 Thomas Twining, Travels in America One Hundred Years Ago (New York, 1894).

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6 Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore: 1792 Folie MS. Map of Baltimore; Twining, op. cit. Rebuilding of the fort on Whetstone Point (later Fort McHenry), employing sodded dirt and some timber cribbing, was approved by Congress about the same time the new Navy was, in 1794. Its cost was estimated at $4225.44, which included $500 for contingencies. Perhaps $15,000 was spent on it from 1794 through 1797. In 1798, building of the masonry fort was begun, and by the end of 1801 at least $100,000 had been spent upon it. American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive (Washington, D. C., 1832‑61), Military Affairs, I, 63, 87‑89, 111, 116, 153, and passim.

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7 Maryland Historical Society: Truxtun to James McHenry, May 20, 1798.

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8 American State Papers, Naval Affairs, I, 6.

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