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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Thence Round Cape Horn

Robert Erwin Johnson

published by
United States Naval Institute
Annapolis, Maryland

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p1  1. Distant Stations

A small frigate rounded Cape Horn from the east, on one of the Cape's rare, quiet days in the summer of 1819, then squared her yards and ran off to the northward. The USS Macedonian, originally commissioned in the Royal Navy, but now flying the United States colors at her mizzen peak, had arrived in the Pacific Ocean to protect American commercial interests. While she was not first of her country's warships to round the Horn, neither of her predecessors — the Essex and Ontario — had been assigned the specific mission of commerce protection. Moreover, Captain John Downes's sailing orders definitely stated that further ships would be sent to the Pacific; in short, it was to be one of the regular cruising stations for United States naval vessels.

The American flag had first been flown in the Pacific Ocean by merchant vessels soon after the founding of the North American republic. In 1784, the New York ship Empress of China arrived at Macao, China, by way of the Cape of Good Hope. This pioneer voyage was repeated by other American merchantmen, and four years later the ship Columbia, John Kendrick, master, and the sloop Lady Washington, under Robert Gray, became the first United States vessels to enter the Pacific Ocean by way of Cape Horn. Standing north from the dreaded cape, they traded for furs at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. The Columbia, commanded by Gray, took her furry cargo to Canton in 1789, traded the furs for tea, and returned to Boston via the Cape of Good Hope, thus becoming the first of her nation's ships to sail around the world. Once the way had been shown, there was no lack of vessels to follow, and New Englanders especially became familiar with the schedule of trade goods for the northwest coast of North America, peltry for China, and tea for the United States.

 p2  Later variations on this theme were furnished by ships sent out for cargoes of sandalwood from the Hawaiian, or Sandwich, Islands and by sealers which found the Pacific waters a rich source of sealskins and oil. Other vessels found it profitable and not unduly dangerous to ignore Spanish regulation by trading with the Spanish colonists on the west coasts of North and South America. The rigors of the passage around Cape Horn commonly gave adequate excuse for ships to stop at Valparaiso or Callao for repairs and for replenishment of water and provisions; once in port, it was not difficult to engage in contraband trade without official Spanish notice. Farther north, the rule of Spain was even less effective, and after 1796 Monterey and other California ports became the squadron of clandestine fur‑trading by American vessels.

While these ships were discovering most of the coastal and island areas in the eastern Pacific where fur‑bearing animals could be hunted profitably, an even more lucrative occupation was luring other American vessels to Pacific waters. Whaling had been a flourishing industry long before the Stars and Stripes replaced the Union Jack over the east coast of North America. Beginning in the waters contiguous to the colonial coastline, whaling activity had been extended throughout the Western Ocean as the number of whales along the shore dwindled. South and east the hunt led the sons of Nantucket and New Bedford until they too found themselves in the vicinity of Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. American whaleships, seven in number, first rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1791, four years after a British ship had been the first to pursue the huge marine mammal in the Pacific Ocean. From the Chilean coast, the chase spread out just as it had in the Atlantic. Northward across the Equator and into the far reaches of the Pacific, the relentless hunt continued until the Pacific whaling industry was more valuable to the United States than was the earlier established fur and China trade.

Such widespread commercial activity was a national weakness as well as a strength, however, for neither whalers nor merchantmen were able to protect themselves against regular or irregular armed force. Trouble with the inhabitants of the various areas was frequent; and Spain, the power which considered itself the ruler of most of the Pacific, occasionally was responsible for interfering with the illegal (and, sometimes, legal) activities of American vessels. No real alarm  p3 was felt until the outbreak of the War of 1812, when some of British whalers were given comparatively heavy armaments and letters of marque authorizing them to add American whalers to their legitimate prey. The presence of the United States frigate Essex in the Pacific in 1813 was sufficient to meet this threat, and Captain David Porter so well carried out his mission that the British whaling industry never recovered from his depredations. The Essex did not survive her triumph, succumbing to the overwhelming fire of His Majesty's Ships Phoebe and Cherub in neutral waters near Valparaiso in 1814, but American commercial interests in the Pacific region were relatively safe for a time.

The return of peace to the United States did not give a long respite to the Navy. Squadrons were sent out to protect American interests in the Mediterranean Sea and the West Indies soon after the Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1814, and then affairs in South America called for attention. A sort of chain reaction started by the French Revolution had reached the Spanish colonies in that area, and virtually the entire continent was in revolt against the authorities sent out from Madrid. The restored Bourbon monarchy in Spain had no intention of sitting by quietly while the richest portion of its overseas empire detached itself, and open conflict resulted. Neither side was overscrupulous in its observance of neutral rights. American interests seemed not to be seriously threatened, but it was thought prudent that the United States flag be shown in the disturbed waters by a warship.

The active force of the United States Navy, somewhat reduced at the conclusion of the War of 1812, was taxed to maintain a squadron on the Mediterranean Station while operations were being carried on against the Caribbean picaroons; consequently, the South American mission was entrusted to Captain James Biddle of the sloop-of‑war Ontario which was under orders to sail to the Pacific Ocean and take formal possession of the land on both sides of the Columbia River mouth in the name of the United States. American claims to that area were based on the discovery of the river by Gray's Columbia in 1792 and on the subsequent Lewis and Clark Expedition. The American Fur Company had established the trading post of Astoria in 1811, but during the War of 1812 sold it to the British North West Company to prevent its seizure. Nonetheless, the United States  p4 flag was still flying when H. M. S. Raccoon arrived a month later to demand the post's surrender. Then the area was considered to have been captured, and although the North West Company continued to hold the post by right of purchase, the land in its vicinity reverted to the United States in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, the Ontario being sent out to complete the formalities.

Captain Biddle sailed in October 1817, touched at Rio de Janeiro to deliver dispatches, and then rounded Cape Horn. Stopping at Valparaiso for supplies, he found that the situation was serious indeed. The Chileans had risen and had driven out their Spanish rulers. The latter were attempting to reassert their sovereignty from Peru while Spanish warships blockaded the port of Valparaiso, through which most of the supplies for the rebels (or Patriots) had to pass. This blockade supposedly had been proclaimed by the Spanish government on 17 March 1817, but no news of it had reached the United States by the following October. Under American interpretation of international law, sufficient time must elapse between the proclamation of a blockade and its enforcement so that all merchant ships bound for the blockaded port will have been notified. Obviously this practice had not been observed by the Spaniards; therefore, Biddle held that the blockade was illegal and that all American shipping seized by Spanish cruisers while attempting to enter Valparaiso should be released.

On the other hand, the Patriot forces had been guilty of confiscating American ships and cargoes, and had impressed American seamen for military and naval service as well. With the assistance of John B. Prevost, a diplomatic agent of the United States who was embarked in the Ontario for passage to Callao, Biddle undertook to obtain the release of ships and men detained by the Patriots. When little progress was realized in this effort, Prevost was left to continue negotiations while Biddle sailed to Callao to protest against the Spanish blockade. The viceroy at Lima, probably impressed more by the American captain's tact and bearing than by the Ontario's twenty‑two guns, acceded to most of the American demands. In return, Biddle agreed to act as mediator to arrange the exchange of prisoners between the combatant forces. He was unsuccess­ful in this role and prepared to sail for the Northwest Coast, against the wishes of Prevost  p5 who felt that the Ontario's presence on the troubled South American seaboard was of paramount importance.

American sovereignty over the land on both sides of the Columbia River was proclaimed by boat crews from the USS Ontario on 19 August 1818, Captain Biddle having been one of the first, but not the last, of the seamen who declined to hazard their vessels by crossing the treacherous bar at the mouth of the Columbia. Sailing south again, the Ontario touched at Monterey for provisions, thus becoming the first American naval vessel to visit the three future Pacific coast states.

Homeward bound, the sloop stopped at Valparaiso for three days and found the situation more menacing than before. Previously, the only naval force which had preyed on neutral shipping had been that of Spain, for the Patriots had had no navy worthy of mention. However, with foreign assistance and the dynamic leader­ship of the Scottish adventurer Lord Cochrane, a Chilean squadron was formed. Captain Biddle did not intend to remain at Valparaiso any longer than necessary, but he was followed to postpone his departure for the United States at the request of Patriot authorities. They feared that Biddle might warn the Spaniards of the sailing of Cochrane's ships, so the Ontario did not weigh anchor until the Chilean squadron had cleared the harbor and was standing to the northward.

Captain Biddle had carried out his mission in the Pacific, but it required no acute observer to see that the interest of the United States Navy in that ocean was just beginning. The American flag, unsupported by naval guns, would be no protection at all for the ships which called at ports on the west coast of South America.

A clearly established need for American naval forces in the eastern Pacific — and in other remote areas — led to a distant-station policy which was applied in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, as well as in the Pacific.

This policy of dispersing the warships in commission on widely separated and far‑distant cruising stations was adopted by the United States soon after the War of 1812. The Mediterranean Sea, where the embryo navy of the young republic had early shown its mettle, was the first of these foreign stations. The Barbary states had taken advantage of American preoccupation during the war against  p6 England to renew their depredations on United States shipping, and Commodore Stephen Decatur had led a squadron out in 1815 to end this semipiratical activity. It was obvious that only the continued presence of warships could ensure the safety of American commerce, and the Mediterranean Squadron remained the strongest single naval force maintained by the United States for many years.

Second of these cruising stations to be established was that in the eastern Pacific. The events which led to the assignment of American warships to cruise in the Pacific have been described, but it may be well to consider the reasons which cause the beginning of the Pacific Station to be dated in 1818. Most naval historians state that the Pacific Squadron was established in 1821 when Commodore Charles Stewart was sent to those waters with the line-of‑battleship Franklin and the schooner Dolphin. This is correct in that previously only a single ship had been present, although it is stretching the point a bit to dignify two vessels with the title of squadron. However, for many years the official name for the men-o'‑war cruising in the eastern Pacific was "United States Naval Forces on Pacific Station," and this could be applied either to one ship or to a squadron. The more valid criterion would seem to be that duty to which the force was assigned. Captain Biddle was sent out primarily to take possession of the Columbia River area, and his orders contained no intimation that other warships were to follow the Ontario; consequently, his mission, no matter what it developed into, did not mark the beginning of the Pacific Station. The USS Macedonian, on the other hand, sailed in 1818 for the express purpose of protecting American interests in the Pacific Ocean, and Captain Downes's orders made it clear that the sloop-of‑war Hornet was to have joined his command had not later events caused a change of assignment. The orders under which Commodore Stewart commanded his squadron differed only slightly from those given to Captains Downes and Charles G. Ridgely, his predecessors on Pacific Station, and the primary mission remained the same. Therefore, the United States Navy's Pacific Station may be said to have been established in 1818.

Third of the distant stations was that in the West Indies and Caribbean Sea. Even before the War of 1812, American naval vessels had operated in those waters, but they did not become a regular station until 1822. Again piratical activity drew warships to the scene. The  p7 Spanish government in this area was too weak, and perhaps unwilling, to curb the brutal assault on defenseless merchant shipping; therefore, the United States Navy undertook the task. Once again it was apparent that the beneficial results of this intervention could be realized only so long as naval guns and landing parties were on hand to enforce them; thus, the West India Station was added to those already existing.

The afore-mentioned stations were followed by others: the Brazil Station in 1826, the East India Station in 1835, the Home Station in 1841, and the Africa Station in 1843. Not all had the same purpose; for example, the last-named was meant to deal with the illegal slave trade, while the Home Squadron was established to guard the Atlantic coast of the United States from any sudden foray by a fleet of war steamers belonging to a European power. For the most part, however, the United States naval forces on distant stations were maintained primarily to guard American commerce in those regions against interruption and annoyance.

This policy of dispersal of force has been criticized strongly on the ground that it made impossible the creation of an efficient fighting fleet. The various squadrons never met for combined maneuvers; indeed, the ships which made up these squadrons rarely operated in company, and if they did so occasionally, the group thus composed was usually so heterogeneous in nature as to preclude any semblance of tactical unity. It may be said that this remained a navy composed of single ships.

Yet it is not readily apparent that any other course was open to the United States Navy in the early nineteenth century. If all of the warships in commission had been gathered together to form an efficient fleet, which would have required that they be kept together, the extremely important merchant marine would have been left at the mercy of pirates and the unpredictable whims of local officials all over the world. The country was unable, or at least unwilling, to support a naval force which could maintain cruising vessels on distant stations in addition to an effective fleet in home waters, as did Great Britain. There was no immediate threat to American national existence which called for the presence of a fleet on the Atlantic coast. Moreover, all of the American warships then in commission could not have hoped to engage success­fully the British fleet which dominated  p8 the Atlantic at that time. A government which had to face the demands of the extremely power­ful shipowners that their interests be protected, might well be forgiven if it ignored the requirements of sound strategy, especially since much of the political support for any naval force was given by those same shipowners and the areas which they represented.

Far better, then, to adopt the practical course — rely upon diplomacy to keep the British lion in a good humor, knowing full well that he would not stand idly by to see his best market taken over by a third power, while the United States Navy spread its thin, sometimes nonexistent, protective net over the waters of the world where American ships and citizens traveled. Probably the system of distant stations with its dispersal of force was continued for too long a time, but for the early nineteenth century it is difficult to believe that a seemingly sounder strategic policy would have proven so success­ful and beneficial for the United States.

No doubt the greatest of all the problems attendant upon the distant-station policy was that of communications, and this difficulty was probably felt more on the Pacific Station than on any of the others. In 1826, Secretary of the Navy Samuel L. Southard informed the Chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs that the passage from the United States to Valparaiso required from 80 to 120 days, while the time could be reduced by half if the messenger traveled to Chagres, on the Isthmus of Panama, by fast schooner, crossed the Isthmus, and proceeded to Valparaiso in another schooner. These were optimum estimates; the sailing vessel could make no guarantee of such passages, and the time would be correspondingly greater if the commander in chief were at one of the more remote points of his command. It had been expected that the whalers going and coming to and from the Pacific would furnish a reliable means of communication between the United States and its Pacific Squadron. But few of these vessels were noted for their speed, and their leisurely cruising habits, added to the fact that whales generally did not frequent the shortest shipping routes, made them an extremely unsatisfactory means of communication.

Years later the clipper ships did reduce the time required for passage from the American Atlantic coast to the Pacific, and in 1851 the aptly named Flying Cloud romped in through the Golden Gate  p9 less than three months out of New York. But even the lovely Cloud made only one more such passage, and of all the other clippers, the Andrew Jackson alone rivaled the record on a single occasion. However, correspondence for the Pacific Squadron was passing across Central America by this time, so the clippers did not facilitate communications for the Navy.

The completion of the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861 facilitated communication with the Pacific Squadron considerably, but it did not solve the problem with regard to a ship which was at sea or in a remote harbor. Only with the installation of radio in warships during the period just before World War I, did the communication difficulty become negligible.

Almost from the beginning of the Pacific Station, its commanders in chief pointed out the desirability of maintaining fast schooners to carry dispatches from the usual cruising ground of the squadron to Panama. Congress considered the proposals on several occasions, as well as a plan to keep a few such vessels running between Baltimore and Chagres; however, the cost of such a service was sufficient to ensure that it would not be approved. At least one officer took it upon himself to improve communications by having two small vessels built at his own expense and manned from his flagship, but the personal means of his successors on the station would not allow the continuation of this policy.

The difficulties resulting from this communication delay hardly need to be pointed out. At best, the officer commanding in the Pacific could expect an answer to his letter six months after it was sent, and it was not uncommon for the interval to be extended by two months or more. Dispatches usually were prepared in duplicate, each copy being sent by a different route or ship — a necessary precaution, for often only one copy would be received by the addressee. In short, the commander in chief could expect no advice from his government until long after the event. The responsibility thus entailed was tremendous, even in a day when all occurrences tended to develop much more slowly than at present. The flag officer had to meet all requirements with the force at hand, for reinforcement could not reach him in less than half a year after it was requested, and this makes no allowance for the time required to outfit and commission the vessel sent out to join his flag.

 p10  Communications were very uncertain even within the limits of the station. An order might take a matter of weeks to reach Valparaiso from Callao even if the sender were so fortunate as to find a vessel on the point of sailing to that port when his dispatch was ready. The more distant parts of the station were very nearly as remote as the moon — if the commodore wished to communicate with a vessel which had been sent to cruise among the islands of the eastern Pacific, he could do no more than to send copies of his letter to all ports at which the ship was expected to touch and hope that she would receive one of them. This was complicated by the fact that it was not always possible to find a merchant ship bound for the desired points. As soon as the departing warship saw the flagship disappear below the horizon, her captain was almost as independent of his commodore as was the latter of the Navy Department in Washington.

Yet another major problem involved in the distant-station policy was that of bases from which the squadrons could operate. It might be expected that the Pacific Squadron would base on the only Pacific coast area owned by the United States — the Columbia River and its environs. But this area was completely undeveloped and lacking in most of the supplies required by the squadron, and it was removed so far from the cruising ground of the warships as to be useless for this purpose. Instead, the major ports in which the men-o'‑war were bound to spend some time were utilized. Valparaiso and Callao both served as rendezvous and supply depots for the Pacific Squadron in its early years, and other ports also became supply depots as the cruising area expanded. At first the necessary supplies had to be purchased on the station, but it became the practice to send out all but fresh provisions from the United States in merchant vessels chartered for this purpose. In addition, every warship sent out to the station was required to carry articles thought to be in short supply. That the goods so transported were subject to damage by dampness and rats was one of the unavoidable hazards of the system. More than once the commander in chief was forced to buy on the open market supplies which should have reached him from home, but the difficulty of justifying such purchases to the Navy Department made most officers extremely reluctant to adopt such a course except as a last resort.

Later the supply depots maintained ashore were supplemented or replaced by storeships which were moored more or less permanently  p11 at the ports frequented by the squadron. These might be either worn‑out sloops-of‑war with most of their batteries removed and crew spaces converted for storage of supplies, or merchant vessels purchased and fitted out for this duty. They were manned by a few officers and men whose most important task was to care for the stores embarked. The lieutenant in command was normally appointed a naval storekeeper while so assigned. Considering the boredom which must have accompanied such duty, it is not surprising that many of the officers and men of the storeships turned to drinking to relieve the monotony. Commodores on Pacific Station had frequently to intervene to maintain harmony between storeship officers.

The Board of Navy Commissioners, under whose jurisdiction came all matters of supply during the period 1815‑1842, tried to provide for an adequate replenishment of supplies for the Pacific Squadron by sending out two ships each year. Reports from the commander in chief were supposed to include a statement of supply on hand and those required. However, the inevitable communications difficulty and the spoils system in naval contracts combined to prevent the smooth operation of this plan. Commanders in chief denounced Navy Commissioners for shortages and defective or unwanted shipments, and the latter responded vigorously. Only more rapid transportation and communication could solve the problem of supply.

Obviously the vessels cruising from foreign ports had to have money on hand to purchase necessary fresh provisions. It was impractical to supply each warship with enough specie to last for her entire cruise on the distant station; hence, her captain was given authority to draw sight drafts on an international banking house, usually Baring Brothers and Company, the Navy Department's London bankers.

Fortunately, the sailing warship was much more nearly a self-sufficient entity than is the steel-hulled, steam-propelled man‑o'‑war. Even major damage could be repaired by the ship's company, and carpenters from the flagship often assisted the crews of smaller vessels with important repairs. Dry docks were unknown in American navy yards until 1833; therefore, repairs below the waterline were no more difficult on the Pacific Station than at home. The ship was simply eased onto a sandy beach at high water and her bottom planking was exposed as the tide ebbed. If a sufficiently smooth beach could  p12 not be found, the vessel might be hove down to a barge by means of tackles on her masts and by shifting guns and other weighty objects from one side to the other. Care had to be taken that her stability was not reduced unduly, or she might heel over too far and sink, as did the USS Enterprise in 1838.

One of the subjects stressed in the sailing orders of successive commanders in chief of the Pacific Squadron was that of relations with the authorities of the countries which they would visit and with the officers of the foreign warships certain to be encountered. In every case, the flag officer was urged to show the utmost courtesy in all such contacts. Promptness in rendering the usual salutes and honors was required, and no partiality or unneutral action was condoned. Commanders in chief were cautioned against too‑zealous support of American nationals; any action on their behalf must be preceded by a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding the infringement of American rights. If United States diplomatic officials were present, they must be consulted and their recommendations considered by the senior naval officer present, although even diplomats of ministerial rank had no authority over naval personnel.

Relations with these diplomatic officials were not devoid of problems of their own. Generally, the naval officers co‑operated in full agreement with the more responsible ministers, but the actions of the officers often did not please the consuls who represented the government of the United States at the seaports and more important inland cities. In common with the ministers residing at the various capitals, the consuls were supposed to report all occurrences and recommendations to the State Department in Washington. If the Secretary of State and his aides felt that the situation demanded the presence of a warship, they communicated this recommendation to the Secretary of the Navy, who, in turn, would send orders to that effect to the commander in chief of the Pacific Squadron. By the time all of these letters had been sent and received, the whole problem would have to be evaluated again by the senior naval officer before a ship could be dispatched.

Since this process would require a period of several months, State Department regulations allowed the diplomatic and consular representatives to apply directly to the commander in chief if the situation was considered to be sufficiently grave. Again the minister or consul  p13 could only request, and the responsibility rested entirely on the naval officer. What might seen an emergency to the man on the scene could easily appear to the flag officer in a different light, especially since the latter had to consider the needs of the entire station, so the whole situation was fraught with possibility of disagreement.

Ministers sent out to the various capitals by the United States government generally were men of high cultural and political attainments, and they usually found it easy to get along with the naval officers, but not so the consular officials. Often it was necessary for the latter to engage in private business for their livelihood; therefore, they were bound to become involved in local political affairs to some extent, although like the ministers, the consuls were supposed to remain aloof from domestic politics. In many cases, the consular appointments were given to men already prominent in the economic activities of the city. This had the advantage of giving the duties into the hands of men well acquainted with the local conditions and well known to local authorities, but they were the more likely to be parties to the factional wrangling which was so common in Latin American countries.

On the other hand, consuls sent out from the United States too frequently were mere political hacks who had neither understanding of, nor sympathy for, conditions in the regions where they were the sole representatives of their country. The reports of the naval officers on Pacific Station abound in instances where the intolerant and arrogant behavior of the American diplomat was responsible for the situation which demanded the presence of a warship. Consuls in remote areas sometimes asked that a vessel be sent merely to remind the inhabitants of American interest in the region, and often one suspects that they really wanted the company of their fellow-countrymen more than anything else.

The revolutions which so frequently inflamed the Latin American republics presented yet another problem for the Pacific Squadron. Often the senior naval officer on the scene did not know which of the factions had the approval of his government — sometimes it was difficult to know which was the established and recognized government. Of course, the arrival of the warship would be followed immediately by communication with the American diplomatic representative, but as has been stated, that individual was likely to be involved with one  p14 of the factions, and full reliance could not be placed on his report. Complete responsibility for any action was vested in the naval officer. He could only proceed with caution, trying to decide the case on its merits and knowing very well that his conduct might become the subject of an official inquiry, followed by a general court-martial, if he had not been success­ful in anticipating the desires of his government many thousands of miles distant.

Another of the problems inherent in the distant-station policy was that of deciding the force each station should receive. Opinion was divided as to the types and numbers of vessels to be assigned, but almost without exception commanders in chief on Pacific Station felt that they did not have enough ships effectively to perform the multifarious duties assigned them. The geographical area was so vast that several vessels were necessary. This fact and the shallow waters of many of the harbors made a few large ships rather less effective than a greater number of smaller vessels.

Only four ships-of‑the‑line served on Pacific Station during the days of sail, and each of these was sent out to meet a special emergency. For the most part, the squadron consisted of one or two frigates, a like number of sloops-of‑war, and a schooner. The number, especially of sloops, increased as the station gained in relative importance. It was the opinion of most officers that the sloop-of‑war was the type of vessel best adapted to the distant-station policy. Relatively inexpensive to maintain (an 1825 estimate of the annual expense of maintaining a vessel of each class at sea, exclusive of the pay and rations of commissioned and warrant officers: ship-of‑the‑line, $162,196.25; 44‑gun frigate, $107,815.75; 36‑gun frigate, $88,146; sloop-of‑war, $37,935.75; brig, $23,664.50; schooner, $16,408), these ships possessed respectable batteries and crews large enough to furnish landing parties when the occasion required. Moreover, they had storage space for enough supplies to enable them to sail on extended cruises, and they could enter almost any port safely. The little twelve‑gun schooners were handy and economical, but their crews were small and only with difficulty could they operate far from bases of supply. The presence of at least one frigate was necessary because an officer senior enough to command the station could hardly be expected to endure the hardships of life in a smaller vessel. Almost every South American republic on the Pacific seaboard could  p15 commission one or more frigates in its navy, and the British and French squadrons in the area always contained frigates and often ships-of‑the‑line, as well.

No evidence has been found to indicate that any of the warships of the United States Navy were designed for use specifically on the Pacific Station.​1 Rather, the vessels were designed with a view to operating efficiently on any station to which they might be assigned — the arguments in favor of ship-sloops might apply to almost any of the distant stations. Indeed, one group, the third-class sloops-of‑war of 1838, was considered almost useless for service in the Pacific Squadron by one commander in chief because the ships could not stow sufficient supplies for extended cruising among the islands of the Pacific.

The ships which succeeded the Macedonian on the Pacific Station usually were fitted out for a three-year cruise, and their crews enlisted for this term of service. Navy Department regulations forbade the discharge of American seamen at any point outside the continental United States; consequently, the vessel had to return home within that period. Theoretically the crew could be re‑enlisted while on the station, but could not be compelled to do so. Quite understandably, the men were extremely reluctant to carry out their duties after their terms of service had expired, so it was important that the ship arrive at a home port before this date.

Desertion was always a problem, not only because there were no American citizens to enlist in the deserter's place, but also because he was likely to become a burden upon the country in which he deserted. The latter's government often would demand that the United States assume responsibility for his well-being or for his transgressions against the laws of the country. Shipboard life was made even harder by naval discipline, and the Latin American countries, as well as the exotic Pacific islands, presented many inducements for the man-o'‑warsman to remain after his ship got under way. An early annoyance was the impressment of deserters into the Patriot armed forces in South America, and later experienced seamen were in great demand to man the numerous small vessels which traded along the South American coastline. None of these allurements, however, could compare with the discovery of gold in California soon after the Navy won that area for the United States.

 p16  These general problems continued to worry every commander in chief of the Pacific Squadron right up to the Civil War. Technological advances and political developments presented solutions for some, but brought new difficulties in their wake. Almost every cruise was marked by its own specific problems which must be considered in their chronological settings. While this account is in no sense an operational history, the following chapters will be devoted to the story of these general and especial problems and the way in which they were met by the officers and men of the United States Navy who served on Pacific Station.

The Author's Note:

1 Howard I. Chapelle, The History of the American Sailing Navy (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1949), p340, intimates that some sloops were designed specifically for duty on Pacific Station, but gives no authority for this intimation.

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