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, Constellation, Constitution, United States, Congress, Chesapeake 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”