May 14

The U.S. Navy–China Bicentennial

Thursday, May 14, 2020 7:13 AM

By

U.S. Frigate Congress
(National Archives)

As today’s U.S. fleet faces the challenges of a navally ascendant China, it’s interesting to look at the relationship through the lens of history and recall that the U.S. Navy and China, they go back a ways. Back before the days of the Yangtze Patrol—back, in fact, a full 200 years ago to the day, as of Saturday, 16 May 2020. For it was on this day in 1820 that the U.S. Navy had its first-ever contact with China.

American merchant ships had ventured to those shores before an American warship ever came calling. The first such to do so, on a goodwill visit while undertaking a year-long cruise of the Pacific, was the frigate Congress, launched in 1799, one of the original six fighting ships with which the U.S. Navy was born. In 1801, while passing Mount Vernon en route to the nation’s capital, the Congress fired a 13-gun salute to the late George Washington—the beginning of a Navy tradition when passing Mount Vernon that endures to this day. (In so doing, the Congress also was honoring the man who had named her; Washington had selected her name from the proposed list.) Commodore Charles Morris, on board at the time as a midshipman, later recalled, “the Congress . . . was the first ship of war that reached what has since become the Navy Yard at Washington.”

During the First Barbary War, the Congress was captained for a time by Stephen Decatur and subsequently transported the Tunisian ambassador to the United States. During the War of 1812, prowling with her sister ship President, the Congress took part in the capture of 20 British merchant ships.

On the 16th of May 1820, when she put in at Guangzhou (Canton) and became the first U.S. warship to visit China, the Congress was under the command of Captain John D. Henley. (Interestingly, Henley had been commissioned a midshipman in 1799—same year as Congress’ launching—by his uncle—none other than . . . George Washington.)

By virtue of historical circumstance, Captain Henley shares an atavistic bond with those U.S. Navy officers of today who stand vigilant watch at the rising naval power of China; their eyes stare upon China—just as Captain Henley’s eyes were the first U.S. Navy officer’s eyes to do so.

Incidentally, the Fletcher-class destroyer that commemorated him, the USS John D. Henley (DD-553), earned six battle stars in World War II, for service in . . . where else? The Pacific. credit-n.ru
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