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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Short History of the United States Navy

George R. Clark et al.

published by
J. B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia & London 1939

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 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p42  III
The Beginnings of a New Navy
and the War with France

[image ALT: The barrel of a small cannon on two low stone supports in a patch of snow.]

[image ALT: The barrel of a small cannon on two low stone supports in a snowy field.]

The Beginnings of a New Navy

In the chaos that followed the Revolutionary War, all that remained of the Continental Navy disappeared. The ship-of‑the‑line America, which had been completed shortly after the conclusion of peace, was presented by the United States to the King of France, in token of gratitude for the timely aid of France during the war. The three ships that survived the Revolution, the Deane, the Washington, and the Alliance, were sold; and after the disposal of the last of these in 1785, the United States had not a single armed vessel.

With an empty treasury and an overwhelming public debt, the new‑born nation was in no condition to maintain a navy; but stronger than the reason of economy was the prevailing notion that an army and a navy were dangerous to the liberties of a republic. Years after the country had settled into its quiet and ordered career under the Constitution, when it was evident that a navy cost less than the annual tribute to pirates or extra insurance on ships and cargoes, the same cry of monarchism continued to be heard.

Yet very soon after the close of the Revolutionary War the necessity of a navy began to be felt. A treaty of peace, in 1785, between Spain and Algiers, opened the Atlantic to the Algerian pirates, and in July of the same year led to the capture of the American schooner Maria. Five days later, the ship Dauphin of Philadelphia was seized, and the crews of both vessels were  p43 taken into Algiers as slaves. At this time our consul-general at Paris, Thomas Barclay, was conducting a success­ful negotiation of a treaty of peace with the Emperor of Morocco. The costs of this treaty amounted to less than $10,000 in presents, with no annual tribute for the future; and it was hoped that some equally good treaty might be made with Algiers.

The capture of the Maria and the Dauphin, however, complicated the situation because, in addition to the cost of a treaty, the prisoners would have to be ransomed on whatever terms the Dey of Algiers chose. It was soon evident that he was in no hurry to conclude a treaty with America, for the prospect of preying on the shipping of a weak nation was highly attractive. The United States made three distinct efforts to treat with the Dey of Algiers and all were failures, the last being entrusted to John Paul Jones, who died before the orders reached him. By the time a fourth envoy was dispatched, the Dey refused to give him audience, and at the same time a treaty of peace between Portugal and Algiers made still freer for the corsairs the highway into the Atlantic. The treaty, in 1793, was negotiated by the English consul-general, apparently with no authority from Portugal. At this time the British Government was frankly subsidizing the Barbary States to prey on the shipping of rival nations, especially America — a policy which was maintained until the United States made her own terms in the Mediterranean by force of arms.

Taking instant advantage of the treaty with Portugal, Algerian corsairs swarmed into the Atlantic and, in the course of one month, captured eleven American vessels. By this time Algiers held thirteen American prizes, and their crews to the number of 119, seven of whom died in captivity.

This disgraceful situation at last prompted Congress  p44 to measures of force. On March 27, 1794, the President signed an act providing for six frigates, four of forty-four guns, and two of thirty‑six, for the purpose of protection against Algiers. The act, however, was careful to make clear that there was no intention of inaugurating a permanent navy, saying that "if a peace should take place between the United States and the regency of Algiers, no farther proceeding shall be had under this act." The fact remains, nevertheless, that this law marks the beginning of the permanent American Navy.

Work on the frigates was promptly begun; and, fortunately, the design of the new vessels was left to the finest ship-builder in country, Joshua Humphreys. It is a significant compliment to his skill that toward the close of the War of 1812, England built frigates "exactly upon the plan of the large American frigates,"​1 which had been constructed according to his designs. His idea was, "that the vessels should combine such qualities of strength, durability, swiftness of sailing, and force, as to render them superior to any frigate belonging to the European Powers."​2 His innovations were provisions for heavier batteries than had hitherto been attempted for frigates, much thicker scantlings, finer lines, and spars longer and stouter than those of any British frigate. The President, for example, had a thicker side by one inch than the British 74‑gun ship-of‑the‑line Hero, and a mainmast a foot longer than that of a British 64‑gun ship.

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Types of Ships and Guns

It is worth noting what the term "frigate" meant at the close of the 18th century. The victories of Rodney and of Nelson were won with fleets of "ships-of‑the‑line."  p46 These were heavy vessels of two or three gun decks, carrying from seventy-five to 125 guns. The "frigate" was, like the "ship-of‑the‑line," ship-rigged, but distinguished by having only one gun deck below the spar deck. Being speedier than the heavy ship-of‑the‑line, the frigate was generally used for scout duty; she was the "cruiser" of this period.

A third class was the "sloop of war." This, the smallest type, was distinguished by the fact that all her armament was mounted on the spar deck. These "sloops" were sometimes ship-rigged, sometimes brigs or schooners, and they varied widely in tonnage. The ship-rigged sloops were frequently spoken of as "corvettes." Between the ship-of‑the‑line and the frigate there was an intermediary class, the "razee," which was simply a ship-of‑the‑line that had been cut down one deck, but was still of greater size and heavier metal than the frigate. As a type it is unimportant; but the other three classes, "ship-of‑the‑line," "frigate," and "sloop," were standard types till the days of steam and steel.

[image ALT: An engraving of a three-masted wooden ship flying the flag of the United States.]

Firing was done on some ships by flint locks, but these missed so often that the priming quill was more popular. This was a split quill, full of powder, inserted in the touch-hole of the gun. The cartridge had already been punctured by a sharp wire thrust through the touch-hole, so that when a slow match in the hands of the captain of the gun touched off the powder in the quill, the discharge followed almost instantaneously. All the men were assigned to the guns of one broadside, a large crew to each gun, every man of whom had a definite duty to perform. In case a ship had to fight both broadsides at once, half the crew of each gun ran to the corresponding gun on the opposite side.

[image ALT: An engraving of a three-masted wooden ship flying the flag of the United States.]

The number of guns a ship carried gave her her rating within her own class. The ships-of‑the‑line ranged from "74's" to "120's," frigates from "28's" to "44's," but  p50 the technical rating was always below the actual number of guns carried. The "44‑gun" frigate Constitution, for example, carried fifty-four guns in her battle with the Java.

In accordance with the act of March 27, 1794, six frigates were laid down as follows:

Constitution, 44 guns, 1576 tons, costing $302,719, at Boston.

President, 44 guns, 1576 tons, $220,910, at New York.

United States, 44 guns, 1576 tons, $299,336, at Philadelphia.

Chesapeake, 36 guns, 1244 tons, $220,678, at Norfolk.​3

Congress, 36 guns, 1268 tons, $197,246, at Portsmouth.

Constellation, 36 guns, 1265 tons, $314,212, at Baltimore.

It is interesting to compare figures like these with those of one of our latest battle­ships, the North Dakota: ten 12‑inch guns, 20,000 tons, costing approximately $8,000,000.

On the fifth of June of the same year, six captains were selected in the following order: John Barry, Samuel Nicholson, Silas Talbot, Joshua Barney, Richard Dale, and Thomas Truxtun. All of these men had distinguished themselves in the struggle for independence. Captain Barney, however, feeling that he was unjustly rated with reference to the men above him, declined to serve, and James Sever was appointed sixth captain, ranking after Truxtun. The lieutenants were to be selected by the captains, the first lieutenant of Barry ranking the first lieutenant of Nicholson, etc.

Meanwhile, efforts were continued to arrange a treaty with Algiers; and finally, toward the close of the year 1795, a humiliating treaty was ratified by the Senate, requiring the United States to pay Algiers maritime stores  p51 to the value of $21,600 annually. The cost of obtaining this treaty, including ransom of captives, amounted to nearly a million dollars.

The law provided that nothing more was to be done on the frigates if peace was arranged, but three were so far constructed that Congress authorized their completion. The perishable material of the other three was ordered sold, and the rest kept in storage for future use. In 1797 the three frigates completed were launched in the following order: the United States, July 10, at Philadelphia; the Constellation, September 7, at Baltimore; and the Constitution, September 20, at Boston. Captain Barry commanded the United States, Captain Nicholson, the Constitution, and, as it happened, Truxtun, the fifth on the list, who had been appointed to command the 36‑gun Constellation, got to sea with his command, while his seniors, Captains Talbot and Dale, were forced into other occupations, because their frigates were not completed. This point, later, gave rise to a question of seniority between these two and Captain Truxtun, because at the time it was not clear whether Talbot and Dale had been retired or merely put on furlough.

According to the terms of the above treaty, as we have seen, the difficulties with Algiers were settled by the payment of a large annual tribute and a cash payment at the time of nearly a million dollars. The last item alone would have been sufficient to build and equip three 44‑gun frigates, which could have gone far toward protecting our shipping, and might even have blockaded Algiers and forced a peace on terms of honor.

War with France

Long before the first three frigates were launched, other enemies than Algiers had appeared. In the tremendous conflict between Napoleon and England, French and  p52 English cruisers and privateers alike plundered American merchantmen. A treaty of "amity, commerce, and navigation," in 1795, between Great Britain and the United States, temporarily relieved the burden of British oppression, but only increased the hostility of the French. In 1797, the Secretary of State reported that documents concerning the capture of thirty‑two ships, brigs, and schooners lay in the department, while the newspapers had reported some 308 others, all by French cruisers. In many cases, these captures were attended with great inhumanity toward the unlucky crews. Finally, to bring their insolence to a climax, early in 1798, French privateers began to make captures in American harbors.

This was too much even for the Congress of that day, and in April of the same year an act was passed authorizing the building, purchase, or hire of "a number of vessels not exceeding twelve . . . to be armed, fitted, and manned." On April 30, 1798, the office of the Secretary of the Navy was established, to which Benjamin Stoddert of Georgetown, D. C., was appointed. Several other acts followed in quick succession, authorizing the further extension of the navy; more especially the building of the three frigates suspended in 1796, and the establishing of a marine corps. Further, all treaties with France were declared void, and rules were made governing the capture of prizes. The entire naval force authorized by these acts consisted of twelve ships of not less than 32 guns, twelve ships not less than 20 nor exceeding 24 guns, and six not exceeding 18 guns, besides galleys and revenue cutters.

Of this force, Captain Richard Dale, in the Ganges, 24 guns, was the first to get to sea, followed in a few days by Captain Truxtun in the frigate Constellation, 36 guns, and Captain Stephen Decatur (senior), in the corvette Delaware, of 20 guns. These vessels were under orders to capture only such French ships as they found guilty of hostile acts, but it was only a matter of a few  p53 days before the Delaware took the Croyable, a French privateer of 14 guns, caught red‑handed off the American coast. This vessel was taken into the service, under the name Retaliation, and put under the command of Lieutenant William Bainbridge.

By the time the other ships were ready for sea, the administration had decided to carry on a vigorous offensive campaign in the West Indies instead of merely patrolling the Atlantic coast. Accordingly, during the winter of 1798‑9, the fleet was divided into three squadrons, with definite cruising grounds assigned to each. The frigates President, Chesapeake, and Congress were as yet unfinished, and the greater number of the vessels in the squadrons were merchantmen hastily transformed into men-of‑war. Nevertheless upon the mere sailing of these squadrons for the West Indies, the rates of insurance fell off, in some cases as much as fifty percent; for one of the important duties of these men-of‑war was the safe conduct of fleets of American merchantmen.

While thus convoying a fleet from Charleston to Havana, Captain Phillips, of the 20‑gun sloop Baltimore, underwent an experience that cost him his epaulets and aroused in the nation a feeling of bitterness against Great Britain that did not subside till after the War of 1812. Shortly before reaching Havana, November 16, 1798, Captain Phillips ran into a British squadron. Signaling his convoy to scatter and make every effort to reach port, he himself bore up to meet the flagship, hoping to divert attention from the merchantmen. On being invited aboard the flagship, he was coolly informed that the British commodore, Loring, would impress all of the Baltimore's crew who did not have American "protection papers." Phillips protested, but he was in a difficult situation. He had been provided with no commission to prove that the Baltimore was a public vessel, he had been strictly ordered to avoid all hostile acts toward  p54 British men-of‑war, "even if they were in the act of capturing American vessels," and, finally, he lay under the guns of an overwhelming force. At last he submitted. Fifty-five of the Baltimore's crew were taken off, but of these fifty were returned. As Loring refused to accept the surrender of the American corvette, Phillips continued to Havana. On his return to the United States, he made a detailed report of the affair to the Department, with the result that he was promptly dismissed from the service by Secretary Stoddert.

Immediately after this incident, the Secretary issued orders to each of the commanders of the squadrons in the West Indies in the following vein: "Sir — It is the positive command of the President that on no pretense whatever you permit the public vessels of war under your command to be detained or searched, nor any of the officers belonging to her to be taken from her by the ships or vessels of any foreign nation, so long as you are in a capacity to repel such outrage on the honor of the American flag. If force should be exercised to compel your submission you are to resist that force to the utmost of your power, and when over­powered by superior force, you are to strike your flag and thus yield your vessel as well as your men, but never your men without your vessel."

Four days after the Baltimore outrage, the Retaliation, Lieutenant William Bainbridge, was overhauled off Guadeloupe, by two French frigates, Insurgente and Volontier, and compelled to strike. It was due to Bainbridge's quick wit, shortly after his surrender, that the other two American sloops, the Montezuma and the Norfolk, which happened to be in the neighborhood, were not taken also. The Insurgente was rapidly overhauling them, when the captain of the Volontier, turning to Bainbridge, asked him the force of the American vessels.

"The ship carries twenty-eight 12‑pounders, and the brig twenty 9‑pounders," he replied.

 p55  Surprised at such force, the Frenchman instantly recalled the Insurgente and did not realize the deception till her captain came aboard and reported the facts. In the meantime, the two sloops made good their escape.

On the 9th of February, 1799, the Constellation sighted a large sail in the neighborhood of the island of Nevis. The stranger hoisted American colors as Captain Truxtun bore down on her, but was unable to answer the private signals which he displayed. She soon declared herself an enemy by raising the tricolor and firing a gun to windward. The following account is from Captain Truxtun's report to the Secretary of the Navy, dated on the 10th of February, the day after the battle:

"I continued bearing down on her, and at a quarter past three P.M. she hailed me several times; and as soon as I got in a position for every shot to do execution, I answered by commencing a close and success­ful engagement, which lasted until about half-past four P.M., when  p56 she struck her colors to the U. S. Ship Constellation, and I immediately took possession of her. She proved to be the celebrated French national frigate Insurgente, of 40 guns and 409 men, lately out from France, commanded by Monsieur Barreaut, and is esteemed one of the fastest-sailing ships in the French Navy. I have been much shattered in my rigging and sails, and my foretopmast rendered, from wounds, useless — you may depend the enemy is not less so. The high state of our discipline, with the gallant conduct of my officers and men, would have enabled me to have made a more formidable enemy yield, had the fortune of war thrown him in my way. As it is, I hope the President and my country will, for the present, be content with a very fine frigate being added to our navy. I must not omit in this hasty detail to do justice to M. Barreaut; for he defended his ship manfully, and from my raking him several times fore and aft, and being athwart his stern, ready with every gun to fire, when he struck his colors, we may impute the conflict not being more bloody on our side; for had not these advantages been taken, the engagement would not have ended so soon; for the Insurgente was completely officered and manned."

The total loss of the Constellation amounted to two badly wounded and one slightly wounded. Early in the action one man was shot by the third lieutenant for deserting his quarters. The loss of the Insurgente amounted to twenty-nine killed and forty‑one wounded. Both frigates were rated at 36, but the American broadside was fully one‑third heavier than the French.

During the action with the Insurgente, Midshipman David Porter, who was stationed in the foretop of the Constellation, saved the wounded foretopmast from falling over by going aloft, under fire, cutting away the slings of the yards and letting them down. Porter had another and more trying proof of his coolness and  p57 gallantry after the action, when he and Lieutenant John Rodgers were sent with a prize crew of eleven men to take possession of the captured frigate. A gale which arose after the battle separated the two vessels before all the prisoners could be transferred to the Constellation, and the two young officers found themselves forced to navigate a ship whose decks were still strewn with dead and wounded, and whose spars, sails, and rigging were cut to pieces, some of which encumbered the decks — a situation made critical by the storm. But the worst danger lay in the fact that, before the surrender, the hatches had been thrown overboard, and the prize crew of two officers and eleven men had the task of guarding 173 prisoners, as well as navigating a crippled ship in a gale. A heavily-armed sentinel was placed at each hatchway, with orders to fire at the first prisoner who attempted to come on deck; and during the three nights and two days that passed before the ship reported to Truxtun at St. Kitts, neither Rodgers nor Porter could take a single minute of sleep or even rest. These two officers rose subsequently to distinction in positions of command, but they never afterward had to go through a more trying test of their courage and efficiency.

During the year 1799, American operations in the West Indies were hampered by the fact that enlistments had been, by law, for only one year. Every ship, therefore, had to leave her station during this year and go to the United States for fresh crews; and the French privateers that made Guadeloupe were quick to take advantage of these enforced absences. On the whole, however, the French gained little beyond a brief respite.

The second frigate action of the war also fell to Truxtun and the Constellation. On the morning of February 1, 1800, while about fifteen miles west of Basse Terre, the Constellation sighted a ship which soon proved to be a French frigate, the Vengeance. Captain Truxtun  p58 immediately gave chase; but, owing to the light wind, it was not till eight o'clock on the evening of the 2d that he was able to close. The Frenchman, without waiting to hear the hail of the American, opened fire with his stern and quarter guns, which he directed at the Constellation's rigging.

Captain Truxtun then gave orders, "not to throw away a single charge of powder and shot, but to take good aim and fire directly into the hull of the enemy." A few minutes later, he gained a good position on the weather quarter of the Vengeance which enabled the American batteries to reply. A sharp action followed, lasting till about 1 A.M., when the Vengeance stopped firing and sheered off as if to escape. Just as Captain Truxtun was trimming his shattered rigging to come alongside and take possession, his mainmast fell over the side. As the Constellation was now unable to pursue the Vengeance, the latter made good her escape.

In his report of this action, Captain Truxtun gave the American loss as fourteen killed and twenty-five wounded. The only officer killed was Midshipman Jarvis, who was stationed in the maintop and who, though warned of the dangerous condition of the mast, refused to leave his quarters without orders.​a The casualties of the Vengeance are put at fifty killed and 110 wounded. She was a beaten ship, and was saved from capture only by the fall of the Constellation's mainmast. Her first lieutenant stated some years afterward that the tricolor was struck two or three times; but, owing to the darkness and smoke, this fact evidently was not perceived by the officers of the Constellation. While it is impossible to state the precise armament of the French frigate during this action, owing to the disparity of the reports,​4 all the authorities are  p59 agreed in a considerable superiority in weight of metal over that of the Constellation.

The third encounter with a French man-of‑war took place, October 12, 1800, between the frigate Boston of 28 guns and the sloop Berceau of 24. The French ship was taken only after a long and stubborn running fight, in which the honors belong to the French captain, Senez.

But the real work of the war lay in the capture of the privateers that swarmed out of the French ports of the West Indies, and there were many spirited combats between our smaller vessels and these privateers. One particularly gallant exploit was performed by Lieutenant Isaac Hull, who ran into Port Plate in broad daylight, spiked the guns of the fort, and surprised and carried away one of the best equipped and most success­ful of the French privateers. Mention also must be made of the famous cruise of the schooner Enterprise, under Lieutenant John Shaw, who, in eight months, captured six privateers and recaptured eleven American merchantmen. This is only the beginning of the fame of this little vessel; for she came to be regarded, next to the Constitution, as the "lucky" vessel of the navy.

The foregoing naval operations against France covered in all about two years and a half; at the end of that time, February 1, 1801, they were terminated by a treaty of peace, which had been under way for several months. By the terms of this treaty each side was to return to the other all government vessels that had been captured. This provision was greatly to the advantage of France, because none of our men-of‑war had been taken save the Retaliation, which, as we have seen, had originally been a French privateer. On the other hand, the Insurgente, the Berceau, a small cruiser, the Vengeance, had been taken by American ships. The Insurgente, dispatched to the West Indies early in the fall of 1800, was never heard from again. The other two were turned over to France. Of the  p60 eighty-four vessels remaining in the hands of the United States at the close of the hostilities, thirteen were released, and one was sunk, leaving seventy lawful prizes for the American Navy.

[image ALT: A map of the southeastern Caribbean, showing Haiti, Porto Rico, the Leeward Islands, Trinidad, and Venezuela, with three naval battles marked.]

The war, while never formally declared, and existing only in the West Indies, was of great benefit to the young American Navy. The large increase in exports due to the protection afforded by our cruisers, and their brilliant successes in battle, gave the navy a standing and popularity that it needed in the days when the maintenance of a man-of‑war seemed, to many, a threat of monarchy. To the personnel of the navy, also, it gave a practical training in warfare and self-confidence. The heroes of the war with Tripoli and the second war with Great Britain received their schooling as midshipmen or lieutenants in the West Indian campaigns.

A point, also, which cannot be over­looked is the fact that during these campaigns, while American men-of‑war were co‑operating with the British in fighting the French, an "Act for the Better Government of the Navy of the United States" was passed by Congress, embodying a set of regulations taken almost word for word from the rules that governed the navy of Great Britain. In short, the discipline and traditions of the British service were then adopted as the standards of our own. Had the United States been allied with France against England at this time, and had the practice of the French Navy been accepted as our own, the results would have been very unfortunate, since the discipline of the French men-of‑war was at that time demoralized by the levelling ideas of the French Revolution. The point is aptly expressed in the remark of the Duke of Wellington, "I believe in free speech, but not on board a man-of‑war."

The Authors' Notes:

1 London Times, March 17, 1814.

[decorative delimiter]

2 Report of Gen. Knox, Secretary of War, December 27, 1794.

[decorative delimiter]

3 The Chesapeake was intended originally to be a forty-four.

[decorative delimiter]

4 According to the lowest estimate, that of an American prisoner on the Vengeance, she carried fifty-four guns, firing 516 lbs. at a broadside. The Constellation fired a broadside of only 372 lbs.

Thayer's Note:

a See E. S. Ferguson, Truxtun of the Constellation, p193; and for the honors ordered him, ib. p199.

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