Apr 13

WARFIGHTING FIRST – The Civil War fighting innovations of John Dahlgren

Sunday, April 13, 2014 3:00 AM

By Naval History and Heritage Command

When most people think about the Civil War, they think about a few common things: The people involved such as Army General Robert E. Lee and President Abraham Lincoln, where the battles took place and how many died there, as well as the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Few may consider the types of weapons used during the Civil War and the inventors who created them.


Rear Adm. John Adolphus Bernard Dahlgren, the “father of American naval ordnance,” was the savior the United States Navy needed during the Civil War and thereafter. His intelligence, persistence, and dedication to his duties were so well known that President Abraham Lincoln, a close friend, frequently sought his counsel and friendship.

Dahlgren began his Navy journey in 1826 when he was trained in advanced mathematics and scientific theory while serving on the U.S. Coast Survey for three years beginning in 1834.

In 1847, Dahlgren was assigned to ordnance duty at the Washington Navy Yard and within a year, was responsible for all ordnance matters at the yard which included developing rockets, inspecting locks, shells, and powder tanks among other things.

Before these weapons could be put into production, they needed to be tested first. Dahlgren accomplished this by using a firing range on the yard’s waterfront. By measuring the splashes in the water from the ammunition, Dahlgren could figure out the power and range of each type of gun and make adjustments accordingly.

As with all weapons testing and manufacturing, sometimes people got hurt from either personal negligence or unsafe weapons, and when testing large cannons, the results could be horrific. Dahlgren recognized this and decided that in order to make safer, larger-caliber guns for the Navy, he needed to have stronger and thicker metal around the breeches; giving them a pop bottle shape. These types of guns and cannons became known as “Dahlgren Guns.”


Not everyone was impressed with Dahlgren’s ideas and innovations, so he enlisted the support of politicians and high ranking naval officers so he could continue with his designs and manufacturing. His most well-known supporter and friend, President Lincoln, enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the Navy Yard and seeing firsthand the testing of new weapons and gadgets to help take his mind off of the stressors of his office.

Dahlgren’s ordnance capabilities, innovations, and advancements attracted the attention of ordnance experts from all over the world. Countries such as Great Britain, France, and Russia sent officials to the Washington Navy Yard so they could see and learn from Dahlgren’s designs and concepts.

As the Navy implemented Dahlgren’s ordnance designs and processes, the Navy Yard was rapidly expanding with new buildings to handle designs, testing, and the manufacturing process. Dahlgren also made sure that an adequate work force with skilled and talented labor was at the yard.

It wasn’t long before Dahlgren’s 9-inch and 11-inch guns were mainstays of the fleet and were on almost every Union ship in service during the Civil War, like the USS Monitor and the Kearsarge. Of note is that not one of his 9- or 11-inch guns failed in operations at sea.

Dahlgren became Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard at the beginning of the Civil War and it seemed, just in time. The Norfolk Navy Yard, at the time the Navy’s largest facility, had been destroyed along with its large reserves of naval ordnance thereby making the Washington Navy Yard the most important asset for munitions and ordnance for the Union Navy. Dahlgren worked around the clock producing 200 shells, 25,000 percussion caps, and 35,000 musket balls, and making sure ships’ guns were ready for distribution.

President Lincoln, so impressed with the victorious USS Monitor at Hampton Roads, was convinced that the Navy should develop a fleet of ironclad vessels that were able to withstand the punishment of heavy shot and shell. Dahlgren was dismayed when Congress did not agree with the President and therefore disapproved the proposal.

Many would be surprised to learn that Dahlgren, a brilliant engineer and presidential advisor, was not entirely happy with testing and producing guns for warships. He wanted to be a leader on the battlefield and have a combat command to do his part for the war effort. Unfortunately, his skills and talents were needed elsewhere and he was appointed as head of the Bureau of Ordnance which allowed him to continue his tests and experiments at the Navy Yard. Command at sea would have to wait just a little longer.

After Dahlgren was promoted to Rear Adm., he was finally given a combat assignment which failed to give him the glory he so desperately sought. Unfortunately, being in command of the naval forces at Charleston, SC., failed to have a gratifying impact on him and coupled with the loss of his son, Ulric, who was killed leading a cavalry raid near Richmond, his despair became deeper.

Dahlgren returned to the Washington Navy Yard in 1869 and was commandant there until 1870 when he died of a heart attack.

Rear Adm. Dahlgren left behind a legacy of engineering marvels that turned the tide in the Civil War and thereafter. His research and design facilities at the Navy Yard were still used as blueprints for later projects after the war ended.


Apr 11

#PeopleMatter: Volunteering 101 Centenarian Continues Naval Service at Puget Sound Museum

Friday, April 11, 2014 1:51 PM
Fred Lewis of Bremerton, Wash., has served as a volunteer for the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Puget Sound Naval Museum (PSNM), where he has logged more than 1,150 hours since 2006.

Fred Lewis of Bremerton, Wash., has served as a volunteer for the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Puget Sound Naval Museum (PSNM), where he has logged more than 1,150 hours since 2006.


By Lt. Cmdr. Heidi Lenzini, Naval History and Heritage Command, 

Communication and Outreach Division

WASHINGTON – In the past century America has witnessed tremendous turmoil, technological and medical advances, and the indomitable spirit and dedication of the American Sailor. 

Regardless of their length of time in the Navy, Sailors frequently display a spirit of service long after they have hung up their uniforms. One former Sailor turns 101 years old, Sunday, April 13 and there’s very little that Bremerton resident Fred Lewis hasn’t seen. Still, he feels most at home serving as a volunteer for the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Puget Sound Naval Museum (PSNM), where he has logged more than 1,150 hours since 2006. 

Fred Lewis, longtime volunteer at the Puget Sound Naval Museum, was attending a monthly volunteer training breakfast held at the Family Pancake House in Bremerton, Wash., on March 25, 2013, when the restaurant staff surprised him with a birthday pancake prior to his 100th birthday. Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Naval Museum

Fred Lewis, longtime volunteer at the Puget Sound Naval Museum, was attending a monthly volunteer training breakfast held at the Family Pancake House in Bremerton, Wash., on March 25, 2013, when the restaurant staff surprised him with a birthday pancake prior to his 100th birthday. Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Naval Museum


Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who now holds an office that did not even exist when Lewis was born, thanked Lewis for his service in a letter delivered last year on his 100th birthday. In the letter, Greenert said he was most impressed with Lewis’ “selfless devotion to others.” Lewis was also presented with a key to the city by Bremerton’s mayor.

As a young man, originally hailing from Kansas, Lewis was looking for adventure in 1942 and he found it in ample amounts on the destroyer USS Niblack (DD 424). Drafted in his late twenties, Lewis spent the rest of World War II hard at work in the engine room on the destroyer as it raced around Europe and North African waters, protecting convoys, escorting troop ships, and hunting down German submarines.

According to the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Niblack supported the bombardment of Italy during the Salerno campaign, clearing a path for Allied troops from Sept.-Oct. 1943. In early December, the ship rescued 90 survivors – approximately half the crew – of British destroyer escort HMS Holcombe (L 56) that sank in less than five minutes after being torpedoed by a German submarine.

A month later, the ship was sent to support the Anzio landings, where the ship “fought off simultaneous attacks by dive and torpedo bombers, E-boats, and human torpedoes” and “repulsed repeated attacks by enemy aircraft. “ Outlasting many of her sister ships, Niblack completed many missions during 1944 as part of Task Force 86, and earned five battle stars for her WWII service.

After the war, Lewis traded in his uniform for the life of a carpenter for nearly 40 years. He has spent almost half his life in Bremerton, Wash.

Fred Lewis Head Start 027

Fred Lewis Head Start 027

Although it had been decades since he had served in the U.S. Navy, Lewis found the call to serve impossible to ignore. He first volunteered at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Wash. and is now the most senior of 50 volunteers at PSNM. No threat seemed insurmountable after his WWII experiences – even as he recovered from lung cancer, a broken hip, or a recent hospital visit.

 Carolyn Lane, the volunteer coordinator for PSNM, says Lewis inspires both the museum’s visitors and staff.

 “He always has a smile, kind word, and fun anecdote for our visitors,” Lane said. “He doesn’t let his age or health challenges slow him down…there’s no stopping him!”




Note to Media: Interested in learning more about the Naval History and Heritage Command? Call the NHHC Public Affairs Office at 202-433-7880 or via e-mail at nhhcpublicaffairs@navy.mil


Apr 6

On This Date in History, U.S. Enters World War I

Sunday, April 6, 2014 3:00 AM

By Naval History and Heritage Command


Nearly a century ago President Woodrow Wilson stood before Congress to ask for a declaration of war on Germany. They voted to do just that on April 6, 1917. Getting to that point was not a simple task for Wilson who faced opposition from both his own party and isolationists. However, he had learned well as a Princeton professor and the son a Presbyterian pastor, how to slowly guide an audience to see his side of an argument. In front of the joint session of Congress, he was just as methodical and as patient as he had been for the past two years canvassing America, convincing the U.S. to prepare for an inevitable war.

In an almost monotone voice with a simple raise and lower of the arm, Wilson showed himself as calm and collected. He had to present the U.S. composed with “hands unstained and passions not aroused.” Even his opening sentence appeared more of a request than a declaration of war: “I have called the Congress into extraordinary session because there are serious, very serious, choices of policy to be made, and made immediately, which it was neither right nor constitutionally permissible that I should assume the responsibility of making.”

He started out almost bland then slowly making his points one by one using increasingly stronger language. Even the Cornell Daily Sun noted that his call for war was, “… a dispassionate but unmeasured denunciation of the course of the Imperial German Government.”

Woodrow Wilson 28th President of the United States

Woodrow Wilson
28th President of the United States

Laying the Groundwork
The year before, Wilson had painstakingly pulled the U.S. from her self-imposed isolation to build a formidable naval presence with the passage of the Naval Act of 1916. That might sound odd given Teddy Roosevelt previously justified a prominent navy and just five years earlier sent the Great White Fleet to circumnavigate the globe. But Germany had changed the game with its U-boat submarines which had all but decimated the European navies, vividly demonstrating the outdated state of the day’s navies. In the face of German submarine warfare, it seemed everything was outdated.

If not to prepare for war, Wilson had to get America on board with the idea of at least supporting a stronger navy, which he initially believed would give America more clout to encourage an end to the war. However, House Majority Leader Claude Kitchin, argued that “true neutrality necessitated a commitment to remaining demilitarized.” According to historian Alex Arnett, a professor at Furman University, in his book, Claude Kitchin and The Wilson War Politics, Wilson’s challenge was to tone down the inflammatory accusations of those aligned against him by turning words like “militarization” to “preparedness.”

In Pittsburgh on Jan. 29, 1916, Wilson stood before an audience and claimed, “I would not be a true American if I did not love peace.” The Great War was well into its second year, and Americans were fearful of losing another generation of men. Wilson was only four when the Civil War broke out. He had grown up with his father in Columbia, S.C., which was charred and still in ruins. His own party’s platform since then had been “keep us out at all costs,” and his 1916 reelection campaign’s motto was “He [Wilson] kept us out of war!” To some it wasn’t good enough. His own Secretary of State resigned once Wilson placed demands on Germany after one of its U-boats sank RMS Lusitania killing 128 Americans.


Wilson did his best to placate such die hard pacifists. He altered his delivery and began by merely asking for an “adequate” and “efficient” Navy. Then out came his punch line, “in all honesty, it [the U.S. Navy] ranks no more than fourth in size and strength.” Once, he let it slip in St. Louis what he really wanted. On Feb. 2, 1916 he stated he wanted the U.S. Navy “to be incomparably the greatest navy in the world.” In the official text, he struck “greatest” to “most adequate.” Then, he back tracked pleading with Americans to be “neutral in action… in spirit and in feeling,” but warned the U.S. can’t be “an ostrich with its head in the sand.” Using the back and forth language, Wilson incrementally made the point: love peace, but hate cowardice.

US president Woodrow Wilson waves from his car in 1916, the year of his re-election. Photograph: Museum of the City of New York/Archive Photos

US president Woodrow Wilson waves from his car in 1916, the year of his re-election. Photograph: Museum of the City of New York/Archive Photos

Then came the Battle of Jutland on the evening of May 31, 1916 while Congress debated the Navy Act. Although Britain claimed the best navy and outgunned the German fleet, Britain lost a staggering 6,100 sailors compared to 2,500 German casualties. There are those who believe the British Navy’s stunning loss helped make it possible for Wilson to eventually sign the Naval Appropriations Act of 1916 on Aug. 20, 1916.

A few weeks earlier, at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, the new Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, expedited the purchase from Denmark for twenty-five million dollars what is now the U.S. Virgin Islands for a very good reason: Denmark bordered Germany and although neutral, Wilson didn’t want to risk Germany potentially angling into the Western Hemisphere, especially so close to Puerto Rico. Wilson was working the chess board on a global scale.

Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, German ambassador to the United States (1908-1917) Library of Congress

Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, German ambassador to the United States (1908-1917)
Library of Congress

On Jan. 31, 1917, Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German Ambassador to the U.S., presented to Wilson Germany’s formal declaration to commence unrestricted submarine warfare … effective the following day. Stunned, Wilson notified Congress on Feb. 3 that he had severed diplomatic relations with Germany. Then, two weeks later British Naval Intelligence gave Wilson a telegram they had intercepted from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman to the German Ambassador in Mexico City. This is known as the infamous “Zimmerman Telegram.” In it, Germany promised to help the Mexican government recover California, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona if Mexico supported Germany if it went to war against America.

Telegram, written by German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann and received by the German Ambassador to Mexico on January 19, 1917, is a coded message sent to Mexico, proposing a military alliance against the United States National Archives

Telegram, written by German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann and received by the German Ambassador to Mexico on January 19, 1917, is a coded message sent to Mexico, proposing a military alliance against the United States
National Archives

Wilson immediately asked Congress to authorize arming American merchant ships with Navy personnel and equipment. Anti-war senators filibustered the measure for nearly a month. Wilson needed a “final and last straw” which happened April 1, 1917. A German U-boat torpedoed the private steamer Aztec off of France, killing 28 American crewmen. The French government informed the American Ambassador William Graves Sharp the next day. On April 2, Wilson carefully crafted his response to Congress with an appeal to their honorable nature and protection of future generations.

“It is a distressing and oppressive duty, gentlemen of the Congress, which I have performed in thus addressing you. There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance.” On April 4, 1917, the Senate voted in for war by 82 to 6. Two days later, the House seconded the Senate’s approval by a vote of 373 to 50. After two arduous years, Wilson had motivated the American people and the Congress to approve a powerful navy and to go to war. Now he needed the Navy to cripple Germany’s destructive submarines.


Navy Victorious
Rear Adm. William S. Sims then met with British First Sea Lord, Sir John Jellicoe, in London. He reported, “The submarine issue is very much more serious than the people realize in America. It is therefore, urgently necessary that the maximum number of destroyers and other antisubmarine craft be sent abroad immediately.” Sims also reported that there was only enough food for the civilian population to survive no more than two months.

Rear Adm. William S. Sims NHHC

Rear Adm. William S. Sims

He immediately approved the use of destroyers to patrol and protect American and Allied ships delivering supplies. In three months, the Navy had convoyed 10,000 ships. The Navy had 34 destroyers prowling U-boat operating areas, thereby forcing submarines to remain submerged. Navy destroyers practically rendered useless the German submarine, which many thought to be the future of naval warfare.

By Bernard Gribble U.S. Naval Academy Museum. Arrival of the first division of American destroyers Queenstown, Ireland.

By Bernard Gribble
U.S. Naval Academy Museum.
Arrival of the first division of American destroyers
Queenstown, Ireland.

While World War I was primarily a land conflict, the U.S. Navy played a central role in the victory. The Navy successfully fended off 183 attacks and safely escorted a total of 18,653 ships that carried large freight quantities to armies in France and to Allied civilian populations. To the pride of the Navy and the nation, the Navy safely delivered for the Army 2,000,000 soldiers. Wilson’s keen vision and foresight combined with a tenacious persistence was key to unleashing the full force of naval power to support the people of Europe and allied forces ashore bringing World War I to a victorious end.

Recruiting Poster 1917 - NHHC

Recruiting Poster 1917 – NHHC


Wilson’s War Message to Congress

World War I Era Type Transports

The U.S. Navy and World War I


Mar 28

The Story Continues: Capt. David Porter, USS Essex and the War of 1812 in the Pacific

Friday, March 28, 2014 3:52 PM
Sailing frigate USS Essex (1799), from port side view, as a stylized illustration of the ship, with cannon ports visible, in configuration at the Galapagos Islands. Artist: Joseph Howard (1789 - 1857) U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection

Sailing frigate USS Essex (1799), from port side view, as a stylized illustration of the ship, with cannon ports visible, in configuration at the Galapagos Islands.
Artist: Joseph Howard (1789 – 1857)
U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection

From Naval History and Heritage Command

 When we last checked in with legendary Capt. David Porter, he had successfully sailed on USS Essex around Cape Horn Feb. 14, 1814, in shorter time, in worst weather, and with less support than any of his naval heroes had done before him.

 Porter and his crew spent the next year whupping up on the British whaling and merchant industry in the Pacific. At least that was how Porter himself described his success in his Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean.

Map of USS Essex's cruise where she rounded Cape Horn Feb. 14, 1813, the first American warship to sail into the Pacific Ocean.

Map of USS Essex’s cruise where she rounded Cape Horn Feb. 14, 1813, the first American warship to sail into the Pacific Ocean. It also shows all of the ports where Porter and Essex sailed for the next year.

 “I had completely broken up the British navigation in the Pacific; the vessels that had not been captured by me were laid up and dare not venture out. The valuable whale fishery there is entirely destroyed and the actual injury we have done them may be estimated at 2 ½ millions of dollars, independent of the expenses of the vessels in search of me.”

Capt. David Porter

Capt. David Porter


 Porter gleefully goes on to say how the provisions coming from the ships taken by Essex and her entourage had provided his crew with “sails, cordage, cables, anchors, provisions, medicines, and stores of every description – and the slops on board them have furnished clothing for the seamen. We had, in fact, lived on the enemy since I had been in that sea; every prize having provided a well-found store ship for me.”

 Porter wasn’t stingy with the largess, paying “considerable” advances to his officers and crew, among them a midshipman who was his 12-year-old adopted son, David Glasgow Farragut, who would become the first admiral of the U.S. Navy.

 But Porter longed for more glory. “I had done all the injury that could be done to the British commerce in the Pacific, and still hoped to signalize my cruise by something more splendid before leaving that sea.”

 In early February 1814, Porter heard the British sloop of war Phoebe and an escort ship Cherub were being sent to stop Essex’s harassment of the British whaling industry. Porter was familiar with Phoebe’s captain, Commodore James Hillyar, from when they both served in the Mediterranean. He has even at times shared dinner with his British counterpart.

 So Porter decided to sail for Valparaiso, Chile to meet up with his frenemy Hillyar. “I therefore determined to cruise about that place, and should I fail of meeting him, hoped to be compensated by the capture of some merchant ships, said to be expected from England.”

 Phoebe and Cherub were formidable opponents. Phoebe was loaded with 30 long 18-pounders, 16 32-pound carronades, one howitzer and six 3-pounders for a total of 53 guns with a crew of 320 men, along with Cherub’s 28 guns and 180 men.

 Based on armament, Essex was inferior to Phoebe. The frigate’s original long-range 12-pounder cannons had been replaced with short-range 32-pounder carronades, leaving only six “long twelves.”

 When accepting Essex as his command, Porter wrote to the Secretary of the Navy to have the frigate returned to her original armament, pointing out “a ship much inferior to her in sailing, armed with long guns, could take a position out of reach of our carronades and cut us to pieces.”

 And Porter loved nothing more than to be right.

 Polite and Honorable Warfare

 Porter only had to wait a few days before Phoebe and Hillyar arrived Feb. 8 at Valparaiso’s harbor, traveling a bit fast for Porter’s liking. Phoebe was “approaching nearer than prudence or a strict neutrality would justify me in permitting,” he wrote. As Phoebe’s jib-boom came across Essex’s forecastle, Porter noted Essex could have taken the more powerful ship in 15 minutes.

 But that didn’t happen. The two captains exchanged pleasantries by letter, with Porter warning Hillyar there would be “much bloodshed” if Phoebe attempted to board Essex in the neutral harbor. Wisely, Hillyar protested that was not his intention. Porter admitted to being “disarmed” by Hillyar’s assurances, and ordered his men to stand down, and later commented: “No one, to have judged from appearances, would have supposed us to have been at war, our conduct towards each other bore so much the appearance of a friendly alliance.”

 Porter’s failure to take down an enemy ship when he had the opportunity was justified by him as being the more honorable person for respecting the neutrality of the port at Valparaiso and he would “scrupulously continue to do so,” even though “Captain Hillyar was incapable of a similar forbearance.” And despite the outcome, Porter still felt his decision was correct, that “at no time during the engagement that took place afterwards, or since, would I have changed situations or feelings with that officer.”

SS Essex versus HMS Pheobe and HMS Cherub off Valparaiso, Chile, 28 March 1814. . Artwork by Captain William Bainbridge Hoff. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 2254.

USS Essex versus HMS Pheobe and HMS Cherub off Valparaiso, Chile, 28 March 1814. . Artwork by Captain William Bainbridge Hoff. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 2254.


Six Weeks of Sassy Songs and Flippant Flags

 So while Porter was patting himself on the back for his honorable manners, Hillyar was back out into international waters. And then just as quickly, Porter was the one trapped. With Phoebe and Cherub stalking outside the harbor, Porter had to be content to wage a war by song and fabric.

 Essex was flying a flag that stated the ship’s motto: “Free trade and sailors’ rights,” to which Phoebe responded with the motto “God and country; British sailors’ best rights; traitors offend both.”

 “Whenever I hoisted that (Essex’s) flag, he should not fail to hoist the other. I told him my flag was intended solely for the purpose of pleasing ourselves, and not to insult the feelings of others; that his, on the contrary, was considered as highly insulting in the light of an offset against ours; and that, if he continued to hoist it, I should not fail to retort on him,” a peevish Porter wrote in his journal.

 So when Phoebe raised its flag the following day, Porter’s flag responded with a new motto: “God, our country and liberty – tyrants offend them.”

 At times, the sailors aboard Cherub could be heard singing songs as they worked, appropriate to their situation, of their own composition and almost always a dig at the Americans. And Essex’s Sailors would loudly sing Yankee Doodle Dandy.

 The ever-fair Porter admitted “the songs from the Cherub were better sung, but those from the Essex were more witty and more to the point.”

 While the sailors sang, Porter and Hillyar battled with hilariously polite letters, mostly over the nefarious comments made by a British prisoner of war who escaped Essex and sought safe refuge on Cherub. The POW spoke of being chained and treated miserably, and so Hillyar requested Porter to liberate the rest of the British prisoners. Porter defended his actions stating the Brit and his mates tried to poison members of the crew.

 “I have not perhaps, had as long a servitude as Captain Hillyar; nor was it necessary I should, to learn honor and humanity,” Porter sniffed in his reply to Hillyar’s letter accusing Porter of chaining his prisoners. Pointer added of the many prisoners, British and otherwise, none were confined or punished except when “they deserved it.”

 Concerned about how the public might perceive a captain who would mistreat prisoners of war, Porter did “the honor” of sending over letters from the Department of the Navy and British Adm. Sir John Duckworth that made note about prisoners of war who had spoken of Porter’s humane treatment of them.

 “I have been induced to do this, from a wish to remove certain impressions that have been made on the public mind, highly prejudicial to the character of an American officer; and I assure you, although I have endeavored to perform, and shall continue to do, my duty to my country, to the utmost of my abilities, I disdain a mean and dishonorable act, whatever advances may result from it.”

 Hillyar was having none of it. “The letters from your prisoners must be highly gratifying to your personal feelings – and I hope the individuals who have benefited by your humane attentions will feel themselves bound in honour to rescue your character from every unjust and illiberal aspersion.”

 On Feb. 25, Porter sent a note to Hillyar that he had “immediately liberated on parole, the British prisoners” under his command. “My feelings have been greatly roused by the scandalous reports that have been circulated respecting my conduct. Yet I hope I shall always have sufficient control over myself, to prevent any change in my conduct towards those whom the fortune of war may place in my power; for, though such a change might be just, it would not be generous.”

 When he wasn’t trying to salvage his reputation, Porter was plotting his escape and possible battle with Phoebe. On a day with a calm sea, Essex towed the prize Hector out to sea and set fire to her within reach of Phoebe’s guns. Essex managed to get back to the neutral harbor, despite the British ships’ attempts to cut them off.

 Then came a series of flags-up-man-ship between the British ships and Essex, with each raising, lowering and raising another flag in response to each other like three demented cheerleaders trying to do the wave across a football stadium.

 The war of words and prose continued, with Porter complaining to Valparaiso’s citizens on how Hillyar’s crew were writing nasty notes about Essex’s crew, and even more shocking, those nasty-grams appeared not only to have the approval of their captain, but were written by Hillyar.

 Incensed, Porter wrote to Hillyar, pointing out the style of the papers, which were encouraging Essex’s crew to abandon ship, proved they were not written by a “common sailor.” Despite credible sources confirming the deed was done by Hillyar, Porter wrote “my knowledge of the character of Captain Hillyar will not permit me to believe him capable of so base an expedient to effect the object of his cruise…”

 Porter assured Hillyar that his letter-writing campaign would not shake his men from their mission: “They have given me innumerable proofs of their readiness at all times, to die in support of their country’s cause: They have my unlimited confidence – I have theirs.”

 On Feb. 27, the stalemate between the two captains escalated from snippy missives. Phoebe sailed toward Essex in the harbor, hoisting her “God and our country” flag and then fired a gun. Taking the challenge, Essex immediately chased after Phoebe, raising her “God, our country and liberty” flag and fired her gun. As she closed in on the British sloop of war, Essex fired two shots across her bow to bring her to for the one-on-one battle Porter so desperately wanted, but Phoebe continued sailing.

 After chasing her as far as was prudent, Porter returned to the harbor, and observed to all who were within earshot, both on and off the ship, that he deemed Hillyar’s conduct “cowardly and dishonorable.”

 Incensed, Hillyar sent on March 16 an emissary to confirm the scandalous words were coming from Porter. Hillyar’s lieutenant assured Porter that the hoisting of Phoebe’s flag and firing her gun was not a challenge to Essex.

 Unrepentant, Porter said his use of the word “cowardly” was justified given Hillyar’s actions, but if his British cohort said it wasn’t a challenge, then Porter “was bound to believe” the captain. He then warned the emissary that if Phoebe or Cherub ever committed a similar maneuver, Porter would consider it a challenge.

 After that, Phoebe and Cherub stayed close together to avoid a confrontation with Essex unless they could both engage the American frigate. They didn’t have long to wait.


USS Essex battles HMS Pheobe and HMS Cherub off Valparaiso, Chile, March 28, 1814. . Artwork by Captain William Bainbridge Hoff. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 2254.

USS Essex battles HMS Pheobe and HMS Cherub off Valparaiso, Chile, March 28, 1814. . Artwork by Captain William Bainbridge Hoff. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 2254.

Fickle are the Winds of War

 “To reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind, and sometimes against it. But we must not drift or lie at anchor.” Sir Oliver Wendell Homes Sr.

 For a frigate like Essex, the wind was often a blessing or a curse. But after six weeks of being cooped up in Valparaiso’s harbor, Porter had waited long enough. With Phoebe and Cherub blockading him, Porter knew of at least four other ships in pursuit of his frigate.

 On March 28, Porter noted a southward wind had blown in, giving his ship the necessary speed to get past the blockade. He ordered sails up, but while rounding the point, those winds turned deadly as a heavy squall carried away the ship’s main top-mast, along with the men setting the sails.

 Prudently, Porter gave up on his plan and sailed to the east side of the harbor for repairs, but Phoebe and Cherub closed in, despite the neutrality of the harbor.

 “The caution observed in their approach to the attack of the crippled Essex was truly ridiculous, as was their display of their motto flags, and the number of jacks at their mast heads,” Porter said.

 As the Essex crew worked feverishly to repair the ship and prepare for battle, at 3:54 p.m., the two British ships hemmed Essex in under her stern and starboard bow, raking her with fire.

 Porter’s men responded with the three long 12-pound cannons they were able to secure on deck, forcing Phoebe and Cherub to pull back.

 With a deck-filled with wounded and dead crew from the first British assault, Porter’s worse nightmare was about to come true. Phoebe and Cherub placed themselves on the starboard side out of range of Essex’s carronades and where the ship’s three stern-side 12-pounders were useless.

 As the British ships shot away Essex’ sails, sheets and jib, the “decks were now strewed with dead, and our cock-pit filled with wounded, although our ship had been several times on fire, and was rendered a perfect wreck, we were still encouraged to hope to save her,” Porter believed, after Cherub pulled away from the battle.

 But that might have been a strategic move to give Phoebe the honor of sinking Essex. The British sloop of war “kept a tremendous fire on us, which mowed down my brave companions by the dozen. Many of my guns had been rendered useless by the enemy’s shot and many of them had their whole crews destroyed.”

 One gun in particular, Porter noted in his journal, had been manned by three crews – 15 men killed in action – yet the captain of the gun was only slightly wounded.

 With winds picking up again, Porter still hoped to avoid capture by running his crippled ship the short distance to shore and destroying her. But yet again, as they limped to within “a musket-shot” of land, the fickle winds shifted, pulling Essex back to within range of Phoebe’s cannons.

 Briefly, Porter entertained the thought of just pulling Essex close enough to Phoebe to board her, but she stalled in the water.

 With “flames bursting up each hatchway” and no hopes left of saving the ship just three-quarters of a mile from shore, Porter ordered his crew to save themselves before the ship blew. Some did get away, while others were either captured or drowned. Of those who stayed with Porter, they “entreated me to surrender my ship to save the wounded, as all further attempt at opposition must prove ineffectual.” At 6:20 p.m., Porter “gave the painful order to strike the colors.”

 Yet Phoebe continued firing. With his “brave, though unfortunate companions” were still falling about me,” Porter ordered an opposite gun to be fired to show they would offer no further resistance.

 “But they did not desist; four men were killed at my side, and others in different parts of the ship. I now believed he (Hillyar) intended to show us no quarter, and that it would be as well to die with my flag flying as struck…”

 Porter was about to hoist the flag again when Phoebe finally ceased firing, 10 minutes after the flag had been lowered.

 Porter was understandably furious.

 “We have been unfortunate, but not disgraced – the defence <sic> of the Essex has not been less honourable to her officers and crew, than the capture of an equal force.”

 And even though defeated, Porter considered “my situation less unpleasant than that of Commodore Hillyar, who, in violation of every principle of honor and generosity, and regardless of the rights of nations, attacked the Essex in her crippled state, within pistol shot of a neutral shore. The blood of the slain must be on his head, and he has yet to reconcile his conduct to heaven, to his conscience, and to the world.”

 Essex lost 58 crew members, another 39 were severely wounded, 27 injured and 31 missing for a total of 154 casualties. The British suffered five killed and 10 wounded between both ships.

View of Valpariso Harbor, Chile, after the capture of USS Essex by HMS Phoebe and Cherub, 1814. Unknown artist. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 55431.

View of Valpariso Harbor, Chile, after the capture of USS Essex by HMS Phoebe and Cherub, 1814. Unknown artist. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 55431.

 Porter took issue that Hillyar “thought proper to state to his government” that Phoebe’s victory over Essex took only 45 minutes, but the “thousands of disinterested witnesses, who covered the surrounding hills, can testify that we fought his ships near two hours and a half; except the few minutes they were repairing damages, the firing was incessant.” He credited “nothing but the smoothness of the water saved both the Phoebe and Essex.”

 Well, that and because Essex was held to the use of only the six long 12-pound cannons, “our carronades being almost useless.”

 Porter’s desire for “something more splendid before leaving that sea” proved fruitful for Hillyar and Great Britain, with the capture of Essex and Essex Junior, plus the British recaptured three of Porter’s prizes before they reached safe haven in the United States.

 Porter grudgingly admitted Hillyar had “shown the greatest humanity to my wounded and had endeavored as much as lay in his power to alleviate the distresses of war by the most generous and delicate deportment towards myself, my officers and crew.”

 That deportment would be another craw for the proud Porter to chew: Hillyar ordered Porter’s prize Essex Junior to be disarmed, offering the ship to Porter and his surviving crew to return to the United States with a “passport” to prevent her recapture. Although in true “gift-horse-in-the-mouth” fashion, Porter pointed out Essex Junior was “small and we knew we had much to suffer.”

 In his report to the Department of Navy about the affair, Porter noted it cost the British nearly six million dollars in their pursuit of Essex, and yet, “her capture was owing entirely to accident; and if we consider the expedition with which naval contests are now decided, the action is a dishonor to them.” He also got another dig at his adversary, adding if Hillyar had been bold with a force so superior, they should have captured Essex and Essex Junior in “one-fourth of the time they were about it.”

 Before Porter and his crew sailed back to the United States, the American captain took one more shot of telling Hillyar that he had cheated.

 “I seized the opportunity to tell him, that though I should take every occasion to do him free justice in that respect, I should nevertheless be equally plain making known his conduct in attacking me in the manner he had done.“

 “My dear Porter, you know not the responsibility that hung over me, with respect to your ship. Perhaps my life depended on my taking her,” Hillyar responded with tears in his eyes, Porter recalled in his journal.

 Porter said Hillyar still had it in his power to clear up the affair to the world, “…and if he can show that the responsibility rests on his government, I shall do him justice, with more pleasure than I now impeach his conduct. Until then, the stigma rests with him.”

 Despite his defeat and capture, Porter hoped “our conduct may prove satisfactory to our country, and that it will testify it by obtaining our speedy exchange, that we may again have it in our power to prove our zeal.” Porter achieved that goal. He and his crew were hailed as heroes upon their return to the United States.

USS Essex versus HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub off Valparaiso, Chile, 28 March 1814. Drawn by Captain David Porter, USN. Engraved by W. Strickland. From journal of a cruise made to the Pacific Ocean in the frigate Essex 1812-14, Vol. 2. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 2047.

USS Essex versus HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub off Valparaiso, Chile, March 28, 1814. Drawn by USS Essex Capt. David Porter, USN. Engraved by W. Strickland. From journal of a cruise made to the Pacific Ocean in the frigate Essex 1812-14, Vol. 2. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 2047.

 Careers After the Surrender

Porter’s sense of justice and vengeance continued later into his career. He gave up his post on the Board of Navy Commissioners in 1822 to fight piracy. While commanding an expedition in the West Indies in 1825, Porter approved the invasion of a small Puerto Rico community after an officer from his fleet was jailed. But the United States did not sanction such an action, so Porter was court-martialed upon his return. He resigned from the U.S. Navy, but became the commander-in-chief for the Mexican Navy from 1826-29.

 Following his return from Mexico, Porter was appointed U.S. Minister to the Barbary States. While ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Porter died at the age of 63 on March 3, 1843.

 The “stigma” that Porter believed would follow Hillyar ended when he got to England. After service on HMS Revenge and HMS Caledonia during the Napoleonic Wars, Hillyar was knighted the first time in 1834 and promoted to rear admiral in 1837. In 1840, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. He died at age 73, on July 10, 1843, four months after his old foe, Porter.

 After Essex’s capture, the British commodore sent the frigate to England, where she

was repaired as a 42-gun ship and renamed HMS Essex. By 1819, she served as a troopship, then turned into a prison ship at Cork in 1823 and 1824-34 at Kingston, Ireland. Essex was sold for 1,230 pounds at public auction in 1837, 23 years after her surrender.

Mar 28

#PeopleMatter – The Rebirth of the U.S. Navy and the Legendary Exploits of the Original Frigate Sailors

Friday, March 28, 2014 11:21 AM
USS Constitution fires a 21-gun salute toward Fort Independence on Castle Island U.S. Navy

USS Constitution fires a 21-gun salute toward Fort Independence on Castle Island
U.S. Navy

 From Naval History and Heritage Command

The Naval Act of 1794 brought the U.S. Navy back to life after it was disbanded following the revolutionary war. The Act provided for the building of six frigates, ConstellationConstitutionUnited StatesCongressChesapeake and President. They were among the most sophisticated warships of their time. As is the case with the 21st century Navy, so it was in the Navy of 18th and 19th centuries: our great ships are nothing without great people to bring them to life. The exploits of the Sailors who took these ships to sea are the stuff of legend. Here are a few examples.

Commodore Edward Preble
On the evening of Sept. 6, 1803, USS Constitution having left Boston encountered an unknown ship close to the Rock of Gibraltar. She was there to work out a deal with Morocco whose Sultan was holding American ships hostage during the Barbary Wars.


In the dark, Constitution’s commander had made several attempts to hail the unknown ship’s commander. The only response to Constitution was to obnoxiously repeat Constitution’s hail. The impatience of her commander grew, and he bellowed a final warning, “I am now going to hail you for the last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you.

A return threat and order was made, warning Constitution’s commander she would encounter return fire from a British ship with 84 guns, the order further directed Preble to report to the British commanding officer via boarding party.


The frigate Constitution wouldn’t stand a chance against 84 guns, but that didn’t faze her commander’s growing rage. He climbed the mizzen shroud and made the following reply, “This is United States ship Constitution, 44 guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel.

The American commander even ordered his crew, “Blow your matches, boys!” Thankfully, before anything escalated, the British commander apologized for having ignored the hails, claiming Constitution had been so quiet there was no time to respond. Oh, and by the way, the British ship turned out to only be 32-guns.

But Preble’s reputation for fearlessness from this incident quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean.

Commodore Edward Preble NHHC

Commodore Edward Preble

Edward Preble’s temper was something already well known to those who served with him, and they understood where it came from: the British had burned his father’s house during the American Revolution, an act that would drive him to join the Navy. Then the British held him prisoner aboard the infamous prison ship Jersey where more than 10,000 Americans died with eight dying per day from starvation over the course of ten years. Preble survived and with him an understandable bad temper which would serve the Navy well.

Among his exploits in the Mediterranean, planning the blockade on Tripoli and ordering Lt. Stephen Decatur to recapture and burn the captured USS Philadelphia. The ship had been abandoned by its Capt. William Bainbridge who found himself on the wrong side of Preble’s judgment for having done so; Preble, it is said, believed Bainbridge and his crew should have chosen death over slavery.

After preventing Philadelphia from falling into enemy hands, Preble laid siege to Triploi in August of 1804. From Constitution, his Third Squadron flag ship, Preble forced many Tripolitans to move further into the countryside. Still, Tripoli showed no signs of surrender.

In addition to his temper, Preble was also relentless. He renewed the attack on Tripoli on Aug. 24, 1804 even though President Jefferson had failed to send reinforcements. Still, Preble had no fear. Preble’s persistent attack on Tripoli worked, forcing the Bashaw [ruler] of Tripoli to surrender to the Navy on June 4, 1805 and return all American prisoners of war including Capt. Bainbridge.[PT1] 

Lt. Stephen Decatur
On Feb. 16, 1804, Lt. Stephen Decatur burned the frigate, Philadelphia, in Tripoli Harbor. British Adm. Horatio Nelson called it, “the most bold and daring act of the age.” It was an event that established the reputation of the young Naval officer and set him on a path of continued outstanding naval service.

As a commanding officer, the high point of his career came when he commanded one of the six frigates, USS United States.


After having been laid up with President, Constellation, Congress, and Chesapeake, United States rejoined the fleet on June 10, 1810 sailing from the Washington Navy Yard for Norfolk for refitting under Decatur’s command. Coincidentally, Decatur had served in United States as a midshipman more than ten years earlier.

While at Norfolk, British Capt. John S. Garden, of the new British frigate HMS Macedonian, wagered Capt. Decatur a beaver hat that his vessel would take United States if the two should ever meet in battle.

The opportunity to settle the bet came sooner than either officer expected, as the United States declared war on Great Britain on June 19, 1812. United States, the frigate Congress, and the brig Argus joined Commodore John Rodgers’ squadron at New York and put to sea immediately, cruising off the east coast until the end of August.

The squadron again sailed on Oct. 8, 1812, this time from Boston. Three days later, after capturing Mandarin, United States parted company and continued to cruise eastward. At dawn on Oct. 25, five hundred miles south of the Azores, lookouts on board United States reported seeing a sail 12 miles to windward. As the ship rose over the horizon, Decatur made out the fine, familiar lines of Macedonian.

Both ships were immediately cleared for action and commenced maneuvers at 9:00 a.m. Capt. Carden elected not to risk crossing the bows of United States to rake her, but chose instead to haul closer to the wind on a parallel course with the American vessel. For his part, Decatur intended to engage Macedonian from fairly long range, where his 24-pounders would have the advantage over the 18-pounders of the British, and then move in for the kill.

United States vs. Macedonian NHHC

United States vs. Macedonian

The actual battle developed according to Decatur’s plan. United States began the action at 0920 by firing an inaccurate broadside at Macedonian. This was answered immediately by the British vessel, bringing down a small spar of United States.

Decatur’s next broadside had better luck, as it destroyed Macedonian‘s mizzen top mast, letting her driver gaff fall and so giving the advantage in maneuver to the American frigate. United States next took up position off Macedonian‘s quarter and proceeded to riddle the hapless frigate methodically with shot. By noon, Macedonian was a dismasted hulk and was forced to surrender. She had suffered 104 casualties as against 12 in United States, which emerged from the battle relatively unscathed.

The two ships lay alongside each other for over two weeks while Macedonian was repaired sufficiently to sail. United States and her prize entered New York Harbor on Dec. 4 amid tumultuous national jubilation over the spectacular victory.

Wherever they went, Decatur and his crew were lionized and received special praise from both Congress and President James Madison. Macedonian was subsequently purchased by the U.S. Navy, repaired, and had a long and honorable career under the American flag.

Capt. James Lawrence
James Lawrence was second in command under Decatur during the burning of Philadelphia in one of the most daring acts of the young U.S. Navy. But history was not finished with Lawrence who had joined the Navy as a midshipman with a background mostly in law. 

Roughly five years after the Barbary Wars, America was closer to going at it again with Great Britain. When the war of 1812 began, Lawrence had already been in command of the sloop of war, Hornet for two years.

From the beginning Lawrence was a thorn in the side of the British navy, capturing the privateer Dolphin in July 1812. Early the next year he blockaded the British sloop Bonne Citoyenne at Bahia, Brazil on Feb. 24, 1813. Then, Lawrence captured the Brig sloop, HMS Peacock and reduced it to a sinking ship in fifteen minutes. This is exactly the kind of behavior the British didn’t like. Most especially annoying to the British was the embarrassing fact that of the one-on-one naval battles fought so far, Americans had won almost every time.

Captain James Lawrence NHHC

Captain James Lawrence

Once Lawrence was promoted to the rank of Captain and given command of the frigate Chesapeake, one of the original six frigates, the commander of the British HMS Shannon wrote to him challenging the U.S. Navy’s ability and offered a fair one-on-one fight before British reinforcements came. Shannon’s commander appeared to delight in literarily poking Lawrence in the eye writing, “… after all, these single-ship actions are all that your little navy can accomplish.”

On June 1, 1813, Chesapeake battled Shannon off Boston. Lawrence would lose, but it was the manner with which he kept fighting that echoes to date. In full officer dress uniform, he fought alongside his men without fear. Conspicuously standing out, Lawrence was first shot in the leg with a pistol ball. Later he received his fatal blow from Shannon’s swivel gun. Although dying, he reiterated the same order even as his men carried him below, “Don’t give up the ship!” Even when his surgeon told him the British were boarding Chesapeake, he ordered the ship be blown up.

Boarding of The Chesapeake NHHC

Boarding of The Chesapeake

The British navy was so impressed with Lawrence’s temerity and courage, they buried him with full military honors in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Accounts vary, but from paintings and testimony, it is remarkable that the British opted not to strike the American flag even upon entering Halifax. Instead, they flew the British ensign above it.

Naval forces in Lake Erie under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry named the flagship Lawrence upon hearing Lawrence’s remains were transferred from Nova Scotia to Trinity Churchyard in New York in September 1813.

Oliver Hazard Perry by Gilbert Stuart

Oliver Hazard Perry by Gilbert Stuart

This banner would have an impact on American Sailors against immense odds. The Navy defeated the British at the Battle of Lake Erie on Sept. 10, 1813. In fact, the book War on the Great Lakes Essays Commemorating the 175th Anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie notes this was the first time an entire British squadron would surrender and every captured ship would be returned.

And it’s worth noting that Perry’s victory occurred under a blue flag embroidered with the words that still serve as a rallying cry for Sailors in today’s Navy, “Don’t give up the ship!”


Mar 27

#PlatformsMatter — The Rebirth of the U.S. Navy: A Fleet of Frigates to Equal None

Thursday, March 27, 2014 12:46 PM

By Joseph Fordham, Naval History and Heritage Command


Yesterday, we outlined how piracy was the catalyst in getting the leadership of the young United States on board with creating a national naval force.

 As the Barbary Coast pirates continued to either break or try to renegotiate their treaties with the U.S., Congress finally authorized the construction of six frigates at the cost of $688,888.82, which was signed into law March 27, 1794.

 Piracy is a battle that continues to be fought today. Modern Sailors have at their disposal agile ships with the most advanced technology used to, among other things, deter, disrupt and suppress piracy in order to provide maritime security and secure freedom of navigation.

 And that is exactly what the first Department of War Secretary, Henry Knox, wanted this fleet of six frigates to be: “equal, if not superior, to any frigates belonging to any of the European powers.”

Henry Knox Secretary of War U.S. Army

Henry Knox
Secretary of War
U.S. Army

 That was 1794. It had been nine years since the Navy sold its last warship, so the task was to build a fleet nearly from scratch.

 Joshua Humphreys, a shipbuilder from Philadelphia who had turned merchant ships into warships during the Revolution, was chosen as the designer for America’s first Navy. Construction of the ships would take place at several different seaports simultaneously: Norfolk, Va., Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Portsmouth, N.H., and Baltimore.

 Three would have 44 guns – Constitution, President and United States — and three would rate between 36 and 38 guns – Chesapeake, Congress and Constellation.

USS Constellation National Archive

USS Constellation National Archive

 Humphreys had specific ideas about the ships to be constructed, he wanted to build frigates as big as any built in that day, heavily armed yet built in a way so that even in a modest wind, they would have the speed necessary to elude a squadron.

 The ships would be 20-feet longer than British ships and 13 feet longer than the 40-gun French frigates. Their longer, but more-narrow design gave the ships their speed and agility, which was evident when the British nicknamed USS Constellation the “Yankee Racehorse.”

 A combination of white oak and live oak made up the 3-layered hull, spaced just two inches apart compared to 4-to-8-inches for the British and French ships. Live oak, which at that time grew only in the southeastern U.S., was five times denser than other oak woods. The live oak chosen for the hull construction came from Georgia. This hardened external shell helped fact become legend as cannon balls seemingly bounced off the planking of USS Constitution, which earned her the nickname Old Ironsides.

 The planks were held together with copper pins made by a Boston coppersmith named Paul Revere, along with 150,000 wooden pegs. The hull was 25-inches thick at the waterline, and then plated with copper sheets imported from Great Britain with tarred paper called “Irish felt” placed between the hull and sheeting.

 Six curved timbers ran from keel to the gun deck allowing for equal distribution of weight by the ship’s 24-pound armament. Other innovative elements to give the ships their edge included diagonal riders, lock scarfing (notched planking on the deck) and standard knees.

 One of the frigates remains afloat today: USS Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat.

USS Constitution in Boston Harbor June 11, 2005 - Navy Office of Community Outreach

USS Constitution in Boston Harbor June 11, 2005 – Navy Office of Community Outreach

 The frigates were the most advanced ships of their time and as the young nation embarked on one of its first major procurements, there were challenges during the construction process. Of immediate concern during the construction was the signing of a peace treaty with Algiers in 1795. According to section 9 of the Naval Act of 1794, a peace treaty with Algiers would negate the need to build the six frigates, of which work had already begun on Constellation, Constitution and United States.

 But President George Washington, perhaps knowing the tenuous nature of treaties with the Barbary Coast nations, urged Congress to continue building the three ships. Sure enough, as the treaties were violated, the remaining three ships – Congress, Chesapeake and President – were built as well.

Eventually the ships were launched between 1797 and 1800.

 The frigates were born of necessity, and, necessity, being the mother of invention, resulted in a project to construct the most technologically advanced warships of their time. But as Ben Franklin once quipped, “Necessity never made a bargain.”

 In the Naval Act of 1794, Congress set aside $688,000 to build the ships six frigates, a significant percentage of the nation’s $8 million budget. The building of just three of the frigates — Constellation, Constitution and United States — consumed nearly all of the original funding allocations. That required several more budget increases from Congress. First $172,000, then another $200,000, followed by an additional $115,833 for a total of $1,176,721 million, a cost overrun of 70 percent, and using more than a fourth of the 1795 defense budget of $5 million. The prior year’s defense budget? $1 million.

 There were rumblings through Congress of fraud, waste and abuse, treaty delays, issues with logistics in acquiring the desired ‘live oak’ for construction, bad weather, a plague of yellow fever and even fires all thwarting the progress of attaining the sea power the country so desperately needed.

 Bookkeeping proved sloppy, an admitted issue for the War Department, resulting in the establishment of the U.S. Department of the Navy on April 30, 1798.

 But eventually all six of the frigates would come to fruition, with the last ship launching in 1800: Constellation, Constitution, United States, Congress, Chesapeake and President. Four were designed to be larger ships at 175-feet, with two rated at 36-38 guns at 164-feet. A design dispute between the overall designer Joshua Humphreys and the Chesapeake’s master constructor Josiah Fox, resulted in the Chesapeake coming in at just 152-feet and downrated to only 38 guns. Humphreys later would disavow the ship’s design.

USS President and HMS Endymion Buttersworth, Sr., Thomas

USS President and HMS Endymion
Buttersworth, Sr., Thomas


So how did these ships, born of necessity, change the world for America?

 The six frigates served with distinction. Constellation was one among many that tallied victories during the Quasi War from 1798-1800, after the new Republic of France was a bit put out America quit paying its debt to that country. America claimed the debt was owed to the newly deposed and beheaded crown monarchs of France, not the French revolutionaries.

 From 1798 through 1815, United States took part in a variety of wars and skirmishes: Quasi War with the French in 1798-1800, two Barbary Coast Wars and then the War of 1812.

 During the Barbary wars, Congress and Constitution formed blockades off the coast of Tripoli and assisted in the capture of other vessels. It was Congress that brought the Tunisian ambassador to Washington, D.C. helping end the piracy of American cargo for the first Barbary War.

USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere - NHHC

USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere – NHHC

 During the War of 1812, Constitution captured 14 ships, including five British ships, with eight of them being burned or scuttled. The British blockade of American harbors kept Constellation out of the fight. But the four other frigates – President, United States, Congress and Chesapeake – together captured, sank or burned dozens of ships. The news of United States capturing Macedonian, and Constitution capturing Guerriere and Java, shocked Europe and the world and damaged the reputation of the Royal Navy’s inherent superiority.

H.M.S. Shannon Leading American Frigate Chesapeake into Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia John Christian Schetky 1830 Canada Library of Archives

H.M.S. Shannon Leading American Frigate Chesapeake into Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia
John Christian Schetky
Canada Library of Archives

 The British would eventually capture both President and Chesapeake before the war was over. Chesapeake went down infamously in 1813 as her mortally-wounded commanding officer, Capt. James Lawrence, ordered “Don’t give up the ship.” President was taken three days after the treaty was signed in 1815 and renamed HMS President.

Flag of USS Chesapeake, exhibited in London, 1914 - NHHC

Flag of USS Chesapeake, exhibited in London, 1914 – NHHC

 The remaining frigates were engaged in the Second Barbary Wars and returned to Tripoli and Tunis, then continued to protect the Gulf of Mexico against further piracy from 1816-1817. Congress went to South America in 1818, and from there to China, the first U.S. vessel ever to go to that country.

USS Congress National Archives

USS Congress National Archives

 Since those first six frigates, the U.S. Navy has continued to launch the latest and greatest technology in the defense of freedom. In 1862, the clash of two titans, the ironclads — Monitor and Merrimack — in the narrow straits of Hampton Roads, made all the rest of the navies in the world seem obsolete. The Great White Fleet of 1907 was meant not only as a great show of force and a display of American ingenuity, but also as a physical manifestation of President Teddy Roosevelt’s diplomatic foreign policy: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” On Nov. 14th 1910, Eugene Ely flew off the deck of Birmingham, launching a new era for naval aviation around the world. This was followed by achievement after achievement, including examples such as the launches of the first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus and the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise. All these breakthroughs in technology resulted from the need for more presence, increased capability and greater survivability.

 In 1794 the architects of the Constitution recognized that the nation needed a naval force to operate continuously in war and peace. Today our nation continues to face risks, challenges and threats from afar and the need for a Navy is even greater.

 “Whether facing high-end combat, asymmetrical threats or humanitarian needs, America’s maritime forces are ready and present on Day One of any crisis for any eventuality,” said Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus March 25, 2014 during a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee. “In today’s dynamic security environment, the forward presence of naval assets serves to reassure the nation’s partners, and remind potential adversaries that we are never far away.”


Ship Name Cost Launched Final Destination/Destiny

Constellation $314,212 1797 1853 (broken up)

Constitution $302,718 1797 Still in service

United States $299,336 1797 Abandoned in 1861; CSS United States abandoned 1862; reclaimed by U.S. and broken up in 1865.

Chesapeake $220,677 1799 Captured by British in 1813, sold for timber 500 pounds

Congress $197,246 1799 Broken up in 1834 (trip to China in 1819)

President $220,910 1800 Captured in 1815, by British, broken up in 1818

 As is the case with the 21st century Navy, so it was in the Navy of 18th and 19th centuries: our great ships are nothing without great people to bring them to life. Tomorrow we’ll wrap up this three-part series with a look at some of the Sailors who took these ships to sea and their legendary achievements.

Mar 26

#PresenceMatters – The Rebirth of the U.S. Navy and the Scourge of Piracy

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 10:20 AM


USS Constitution fires a 21 gun salute U.S. Navy photo

USS Constitution fires a 21 gun salute
U.S. Navy photo

Salutations with a Bang! The Military Gun Salute


By Joseph Fordham, Naval History and Heritage Command

It was 220 years ago this week when the 3rd U.S. Congress received a committee report suggesting the young nation build six frigates to fight against Algerian piracy and then set aside the money needed to maintain them.

It would be the forbearer to the Naval Act of 1794 that was approved two months later.

The report requested a resolution to create a naval force to consist of four ships with 44 guns and two ships of 20 guns, to be provided for the protection of the commerce of the United States against the Algerian corsairs.

The next resolution defined ho

w to pay for the ships requesting permission to tax upon all goods, wares and merchandise, imported into the United States, an additional duty of one percent on top of the already levied 7.5 percent. Marble, slate, stone and tile were taxed an additional five percent, while salt, at 56-pounds per bushel, were nicked three cents per bushel.

The taxing didn’t stop there: ships made in the U.S. or employed in foreign trade were levied six cents per ton. The “not-made-in-America” ships were taxed 25 cents per ton.

The resolution also requested a separate fund be created to begin to build up the $600,000 expected to pay for the naval armament, including six months stores and provisions and three months’ pay to the officers and seamen, and $247,960 for the annual expense.

When the final resolution was approved two months later, March 27, it bumped up the two 20-gun frigates to 36-guns and left out the tax levy language. The final resolution did include guidelines on how to man each of the vessels, their salaries (captain at $75 a month, six rations per day; boatswain at $14 a month plus two rations a day), and the type of food they could expect for those rations: A pound of bread, a pound and a half of beef and a half-pint of rice for Sundays; one pound of bread, a pound of pork, a half-pint of peas or beans and four ounces of cheese for Monday. Added to that was a half-pint of distilled spirits, or one quart of beer per day.

Sailors know that the Navy celebrates its birth date as Oct. 13, 1775. So what happened to the Navy of the revolutionary war? After gaining her independence in 1783, the new nation’s leaders disbanded its Continental Navy, claiming a national military would be too costly to maintain, and besides, Congress had no authority to raise the money to pay for it.

But as piracy began to impede the young country’s economy, discussions arose in Congress about bringing back its navy as a means to protect the commerce flowing in and out of the fledgling nation’s sea ports.

By 1789, the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified and it gave Congress the authority they needed to “provide and maintain a navy.”

It was Ben Franklin who said “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and in this case, the need to protect the country’s economy from piracy and possible future invasion conceived the approval of the Naval Act of 1794. That decision didn’t come without much debate, funding challenges and politics. The same can be said 220 years later of today’s Navy, but as was the case then so it is today: America needs a Navy; presence still matters.

In this first of three parts, we’ll touch on the main challenges faced by America’s leadership as they attempted to re-create its naval force.

USS Enterprise Battling Tripolitan Pirates National Archives

USS Enterprise Battling Tripolitan Pirates
National Archives

Piracy and plunder hit profits

The arguments for a navy came from the systemic problem of piracy, and not just in continental waters, but also on the high seas abroad. The early republic had no capable response to these threats because it had no people, partnerships, power nor, as mentioned earlier, platforms. After winning their freedom from Great Britain, the Continental Navy had been disbanded, with the last of its warships sold by 1785.

In his book “Six Frigates,” Ian W. Toll explains early American leaders managed the problem of Barbary piracy “with a combination of flattery, promises, bribes and occasional threats.” Yet American ships would still be hijacked, taken to Barbary Coast ports, their cargo confiscated as tributes to the Ottoman régime and their crew held for ransom, in one case, for more than 10 years.

Six Frigates by Ian Toll

Six Frigates by Ian Toll

Attempts to lean on former allies fell flat for the young nation. As a colony of Great Britain, the Royal Navy protected merchant ships from piracy. But the former motherland was hostile to American merchant ships and suspected them of aiding and abetting France during the Napoleonic Wars. British ships intercepted American merchant vessels, commandeering cargo and impressing their sailors into the British Navy, as many as 15,000 between 1793 and 1812.

In fact, English merchants appreciated having fewer nations compete for goods coming from the Barbary Coast as it gave them more of the market share, a sentiment Ben Franklin heard in London and then repeated: “If there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.”

France, which had been America’s ally through her independence from Great Britain, also declined to provide safe passage through the treacherous waters of the Barbary Coast because they had their own interests to protect.

While the United States got no love from Great Britain or France, Portugal provided some protection to American ships when that country began blockading Algerian ships from entering the Atlantic.

Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat NHHC

Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat

Shortly after the warship Alliance, was sold, two American merchant ships were attacked by Algerian pirates in 1785, the survivors forced into slavery or offered to be returned for a ransom. Rumor got back to the U.S. that Ben Franklin, who was returning from peace talks in Europe around that time, may have been on one of the ships. He was not, but that just fueled the flames for a naval force to protect American interests.

In an effort to appease the pirates, the United States entered into its first treaty with Morocco in 1786.

But then Portugal signed their own treaty with Algiers in 1793, and that left American merchant ships vulnerable again. By the end of that year, 11 U.S. ships had been seized by pirates.

That was enough for President George Washington, who stood Jan. 2, 1794 before the House of Representatives for the 3rd Congress. He asked to have six frigates built for the protection of American commerce.

The House of Representatives approved the request and asked a committee to create a bill. Just 18 days later, on Jan. 20, 1794, that committee presented its recommendation for building, manning and maintaining the six frigates.

After the Senate heard and approved the bill two months later, Washington signed it into law March 27. But the bill had a clause that would later confound the construction of the frigates. In order to appease those against building a navy, Section 9 stated “…that if a peace shall take place between the United States and the Regency of Algiers, that no farther proceeding be had under this act.”

That treaty came about in 1795, and soon to follow would be treaties with Tripoli and Tunis in 1797. All involved some sort of payment, or tribute, to the Ottoman regime. For the anti-navy proponents, paying bribery and protection fees was cheaper than the cost of funding a real navy. Despite the clause, Washington asked for the three ships nearly completed to be finished, especially since trouble was brewing with their former ally, France.

Tomorrow, we’ll address the challenges of building a navy from scratch.  

Mar 25

#PeopleMatter: Office of Naval Intelligence Celebrates 132 Years Service to Navy and Nation

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 11:53 AM


Rear Admiral Elizabeth L. Train

Rear Admiral Elizabeth L. Train

Rear Adm. Elizabeth L. Train, USN, Commander, Office of Naval Intelligence

  On March 23, 1882 Secretary of the Navy William H. Hunt signed General Order 292 establishing an “Office of Intelligence” in the Bureau of Navigation to support the modernization of the U.S. Navy in an era of rapid technological change. As our nation’s oldest intelligence agency, ONI has experienced and catalyzed significant change over the course of its long history.

Office of Naval Intelligence in the Bureau of Navigation State, War, and Navy Building, corner of Pennsylvania Ave. and 17th Street NW

Office of Naval Intelligence in the Bureau of Navigation
State, War, and Navy Building, corner of Pennsylvania Ave. and 17th Street NW

It has adapted and innovated to provide effective and efficient intelligence support to the Fleet, the U.S. Navy acquisition community, government decision makers, and U.S. allies and foreign partners responding to a dynamic and dangerous global strategic environment. ONI laid the foundation for today’s globe-spanning network of naval intelligence organizations and operations ashore and at sea supporting the front lines of our nation’s defense.

Adm. Ernest J. King 1942 NHHC

Adm. Ernest J. King 1942

  At the turn of the 20th century, ONI provided the technical data that helped build the “New Steel Navy,” heralding America’s arrival on the international scene as a naval power. ONI trained hundreds of operational intelligence officers and language officers during World War II to serve Fleet and theater commands. Its Special Activities Branch supported Admiral Ernest J. King’s wartime Tenth Fleet organization to defeat Nazi Germany’s U-boat threat in the Battle of the Atlantic and turn the tide against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific. Over the course of the long Cold War, ONI developed a deep understanding of Soviet naval capabilities and operations, which underpinned military deterrence and political containment strategies. The post Cold War era and the rise of international terrorism in the 21st century created demand for intelligence to address and counter transnational maritime issues and threats, encompassing the enforcement of international sanctions, disrupting maritime weapons and narcotics smuggling networks, maritime piracy activities, and denying violent extremists the use of the sea as a means of logistical support and attack.

Yalta Conference - Adm. King Behind Churchill - DoD

Yalta Conference – Adm. King Behind Churchill – DoD

In 2009 ONI stood up four subordinate Centers of Excellence to deliver tailored intelligence to war fighters and decision makers: Farragut Technical Analysis Center, Nimitz Operational Intelligence Center, Hopper Information Services Center, and Kennedy Irregular Warfare Center.

As part of a larger naval intelligence community, ONI strengthens our Navy’s mission effectiveness in defending our nation at home and abroad. Today we are working collaboratively with our counterparts in the Navy’s cyber, meteorology, oceanography, and electronic warfare disciplines toward achieving Information Dominance from the depths of the ocean to cyberspace.

The men and women of ONI can reflect on their heritage with pride and anticipate the future with confidence. The outstanding work you are doing today will be the history of tomorrow.