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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
BY THE NUMBERS
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.