Original six frigates of the United States Navy: Wikis


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USS Constitution Departs.jpg
USS Constitution, one of the original six frigates of the United States Navy
Class overview
Operators: United States Navy
Preceded by: None
Built: 1794 - 1800
In commission: 1797 - present
Planned: 6
Completed: 6
Active: 1
Lost: 2
Retired: 3
General characteristics (Constitution; President; United States)
Class and type: 44-gun frigate
Displacement: 2,200 tons[1]
Length: 204 ft (62 m) (length overall);
175 ft (53 m) at waterline[1]
Beam: 43 ft 6 in (13.26 m)[1]
Draft: 21 ft (6.4 m) forward
13 ft (4.0 m) aft[2]
Depth of hold: 14 ft 3 in (4.34 m)[3]
Complement: 450 officers and enlisted, including 55 Marines and 30 boys[1]
General characteristics (Congress and Constellation)
Class and type: 38-gun Frigate[4]
Tonnage: 1,265 tons[5]
Length: 163.3 ft (49.8 m) between perpendiculars[4]
Beam: 40.6 ft (12.4 m)[4]
Depth of hold: 13.0 ft (4.0 m)[4]
Complement: 340 officers and enlisted[5]
General characteristics (Chesapeake)
Class and type: 38-gun Frigate[6]
Tonnage: 1,244[6]
Length: 152.8 ft (46.6 m) between perpendiculars[6]
Beam: 41.3 ft (12.6 m)[6]
Draft: 20 ft (6.1 m)[6]
Depth of hold: 13.9 ft (4.2 m)[7]
Complement: 340 officers and enlisted[6]

The original six frigates of the United States Navy were authorized by the Congress with the Naval Act of 1794 on 27 March 1794 at a cost of $688,888.82. Built during the formative years of the United States Navy, designer Joshua Humphreys recommended a fleet of frigates which would be powerful enough to engage other frigates of the French Navy or Royal Navy while being fast enough to evade a ship of the line.



In August 1785, after the Revolutionary War drew to a close, Congress sold Alliance, the last ship remaining in the Continental Navy.[8] From then until 1797, the United States' only armed maritime service was the Revenue Marine, founded in 1790 at the prompting of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.[9] In 1785, two American merchant ships were captured by Algiers, causing then-Minister to France Thomas Jefferson to call for an American naval force to protect American shipping in the Mediterranean. Jefferson's recommendations were initially met with indifference, however. In 1786 and 1791 Congress considered various proposals for a navy, including taking estimates for the cost of building frigates, but no action was taken.[10] Ultimately, it was only in 1793, when Algiers had captured eleven additional merchant ships, that a proposal was finally acted upon.[11][12]

Piracy had not been a problem when America was under the protection of the British Empire, but after the War of Independence many foreign powers felt they could harass American merchant ships with impunity. Indeed, once the French Revolution started, Britain also started interdicting American merchant ships, and there was little the fledgling American government could do about it.[13][14]

A bill was presented to the House of Representatives on 20 January 1794 providing for the construction of four ships to carry forty-four guns each, and two ships to carry thirty-six guns each — by purchase or otherwise. The bill also provided pay and sustenance for naval officers and sailors and outlined how each ship should be manned in order to operate them.[15] Opposition to the bill was strong and a clause was added that should peace be established with Algiers the construction of the ships was to cease.[12] The bill was accepted as the Naval Act of 1794.[13]


Humphreys' diagonal riders located on the orlop deck

In late 1792, Secretary of War Henry Knox requested that shipbuilders submit plans for six vessels. The plans of naval architect Joshua Humphreys and draftsman Josiah Fox were accepted in 1793. The design which would eventually be used for the six frigates was unusual for the time, being long on keel, wide of beam, and mounting very heavy guns. Humphreys designed a diagonal rib scheme, intended to reduce hogging, and covered this in extremely heavy planking.[16] This gave the ship's hull a strength that other, more lightly built frigates could not match. Humphreys realized that the underpopulated United States could not begin to match the European nations in the size of their navies.[13] Consequently, his heavy frigate was designed to overpower other frigates, while remaining fast enough to flee ships of the line.[17][18] Josiah Fox caused Chesapeake (one of the intended 44's) to be constructed as a 36[19] and eventually all three of the 36's would be re-rated as 38's.[4]


Constitution launching into Boston Harbor 21 October 1797.

The six ships authorized were constructed in different shipyards. There were two designs, one for a 44 gun frigate that would become Constitution, President, and United States. The second of the two designs were the 38 gun frigates Congress, Constellation and Chesapeake

In March 1796, as construction of the frigates slowly progressed, a peace accord was announced between the United States and the Dey of Algiers. In accordance with the Naval Act of 1794, a clause that specifically directed that construction of the frigates be discontinued if peace was established, construction on all six ships was halted. After some debate and prompting by President Washington, Congress agreed to continue to fund the construction of the three ships nearest to completion: United States,[20] Constellation[5] and Constitution.[3][21] By late 1798 however, France began to seize American merchant vessels and the attempt at a diplomatic resolution had resulted in the XYZ Affair, prompting Congress to approve funds for completion of the remaining three frigates: President,[22]Congress[23] and Chesapeake.[6]


Carronade on the spar deck of Constitution

The 44-gun ships usually carried 50 or more guns, and Constitution was known to carry 24-pounder guns in her main battery, instead of the normal 18-pounders most frigates carried.

The Naval Act of 1794 had specified 36-gun frigates however, at some point the 36's were re-rated as 38's.[4] Their "ratings" by number of guns was meant only as an approximation.[24] In comparison, a British ship of the line, depending on rating, carried between 60 and 100 guns.[25] Ships of this era had no permanent battery of guns as modern Navy ships carry. The guns and cannons were designed to be completely portable and often were exchanged between ships as situations warranted. Each commanding officer outfitted armaments to their liking, taking into consideration factors such as the overall tons of cargo, complements of personnel onboard, and planned routes to be sailed. Consequently, the armaments on ships would change many times during their careers, and records of the changes were not generally kept.[26]

Twelve men and a powder boy were required to operate each gun.[27] If needed, some men were designated to take stations as boarders, to man the bilge pumps, or to fight fires. Guns were normally manned on the engaged side only; if a ship engaged two opponents, gun crews had to be divided. All of the guns were capable of using several different kinds of projectiles: Round shot, bar shot, chain shot, grape shot and heated shot.[28] Each gun was mounted on a wooden gun carriage controlled by an arrangement of rope and tackle. The Captain ordered the gun crews to either open fire together in a single broadside, or allowed each crew to fire-at-will as the target came close alongside. The gun captain pulled the lanyard to trip the flintlock which sent a spark into the pan. The ignited powder in the pan sent a flame through the priming tube to set off the powder charge in the gun and hurl its projectile at the enemy. The marine detachment onboard were the naval infantry that manned the fighting tops armed with rifles to fire down onto the decks of the enemy ship.[27]

The frigates


United States

Naval Battle Between the United States & The Macedonian on October 30, 1812 by Thomas Birch, 1813

United States was built in Philadelphia, launched on 10 May 1797, and commissioned on 22 February 1797. On 25 October 1812, United States fought and captured the frigate HMS Macedonian. United States was decommissioned on 24 February 1849 and placed in ordinary at Norfolk, Virginia. In 1861 while in ordinary at Norfolk, the ship was seized and commissioned into the Confederate States Navy, which later scuttled the ship. In 1862 Union forces raised the scuttled ship and retained control until she was broken up in 1865.


USS Constellation by John W. Schmidt

Constellation was built in Baltimore, and launched on 7 September 1797. On 9 February 1799, Constellation fought and captured the French frigate L'Insurgente. This was the first major victory by an American-designed and -built warship. In February 1800, Constellation fought the French frigate La Vengeance. Although La Vengeance was not captured or sunk, she was so badly damaged that her captain intentionally grounded the ship to prevent it from sinking. Constellation was struck in 1853 and broken up. Some timbers were re-used in the building of a new Constellation, leading to uncertainty over which ship was preserved in Baltimore until the preserved vessel was proven to be the second Constellation in 1999.


USS Constitution under sail for the first time in 116 years on 21 July 1997.

Constitution was built in Boston at Edmund Hartt's shipyard, and launched on 21 October 1797 and remains the oldest commissioned vessel afloat in the world.[Note 1] Her first duty was to provide protection for American merchant shipping during the Quasi War with France and the defeat of the Barbary pirates in the First Barbary War.

She is most famous for her actions during the War of 1812 against Britain, when she captured numerous merchant ships and defeated four British warships: HMS Guerriere, HMS Java, HMS Cyane and HMS Levant. The battle with the Guerriere earned her the nickname of "Old Ironsides" and public adoration that has repeatedly saved her from scrapping. She continued to actively serve the nation as flagship in the Mediterranean and African squadrons and made a circumnavigation of the world in the 1840s. During the American Civil War she served as a training ship for the United States Naval Academy and carried artwork and industrial displays to the Paris Exposition of 1878. Retired from active service in 1881, she served as a receiving ship until designated a museum ship in 1907. In 1931 she made a three year 90-port tour of the nation and in 1997 she finally sailed again under her own power for her 200th birthday.

Constitution is berthed at the Charlestown Navy Yard where her mission today is to promote understanding of the Navy’s role in war and peace through educational outreach, historic demonstration, and active participation in public events. Constitution is open to visitors year-round providing free tours with the USS Constitution Museum nearby.


USS Chesapeake

Chesapeake was built at the Gosport Navy Yard, Virginia, launched on 2 December 1799. The Chesapeake was the only one of the six frigates to be disowned by Joshua Humphreys because of liberties taken by her Master Constructor Josiah Fox during construction relating to overall dimensions. On 22 June 1807, what has become known as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair occurred when the Chesapeake was fired upon by HMS Leopard for refusing to comply with a search for deserters from the Royal Navy. After several quick broadsides to which the Chesapeake replied with only one gun, the Chesapeake struck her colors. HMS Leopard refused the surrender, searched the Chesapeake, captured four deserters and sailed to Halifax. Chesapeake was captured on 1 June 1813 by HMS Shannon shortly after sailing from Boston, Massachusetts. Taken into Royal Navy service, she was sold and broken up at Portsmouth, England in 1820.


A black and white drawing of a ship's sails. The ship has 3 masts in which all sails are set and full of wind. The bow of the ship is pointed to right of the frame.
Sail plan of Congress as drawn by Charles Ware in 1816.[29]

Congress was built at a shipyard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire by James Hackett, and launched on 15 August 1799. She would see service during the Quasi War with France and patrolled the Mediterranean during the First Barbary War. During the War of 1812, she captured or assisted in the capture of twenty British merchant ships, but at the end of 1813 she was laid up in ordinary. In the remainder of her career she would serve as a classroom and training ship and made several patrols in the West Indies but spent the majority of her thirty-five years laid up in ordinary. Compared to her sister-ships, Congress was the least notable of the six,[30] and was unceremoniously broken up in 1834.


USS President as depicted as 1805

President was built in New York City, launched on 10 April 1800. On 16 May 1811, what has become known as the Little Belt Affair occurred when the President mistook HMS Little Belt for the frigate HMS Guerriere and engaged in a naval battle. HMS Little Belt was almost destroyed before the action stopped. On 23 September 1813, President captured the schooner HMS Highflyer. President was captured on 15 January 1815 by a Royal Navy squadron one day out of New York. Commissioned as HMS President, she was broken up at Portsmouth, England in 1818. Another HMS President was ordered the same year, built to the exact lines of the captured frigate. It was the only United States-class ship built by a foreign navy.


  1. ^ HMS Victory is the oldest commissioned vessel by three decades; however, Victory is permanently drydocked.


  1. ^ a b c d "US Navy Fact File - Constitution". United States Navy. 7 July 2009. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=100&ct=4. Retrieved 18 July 2009.  
  2. ^ Jennings 1966, p. 10
  3. ^ a b "Constitution". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History & Heritage Command. http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/c13/constitution.htm. Retrieved 18 September 2009. ""  
  4. ^ a b c d e f Chapelle 1949, p. 128
  5. ^ a b c "Constellation". DANFS. http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/c13/constellation-i.htm. Retrieved 19 July 2008. ""  
  6. ^ a b c d e f g "Chesapeake". DANFS. http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/c7/chesapeake-i.htm. Retrieved 24 October 2008. ""  
  7. ^ Chapelle 1949, p. 535
  8. ^ "Alliance". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History & Heritage Command. http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/a7/alliance-i.htm. Retrieved 26 October 2009. ""  
  9. ^ "US Coast Guard A Historical Overview". United States Coast Guard. http://www.uscg.mil/history/articles/h_USCGhistory.asp. Retrieved 8 October 2009.  
  10. ^ Allen 1909, pp. 41–42
  11. ^ Abbot 1896, Volume I, Part I, Chapter XV
  12. ^ a b Allen 1909, p. 42
  13. ^ a b c Ireland, Bernard (2000). Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail. W. W. Norton & Company Inc.. ISBN 0393049833.  
  14. ^ Cuticchia, Rosalie A. "Celebrating The History Of The U.S.S. Constitution". Marblehead Magazine. http://www.legendinc.com/Pages/MarbleheadNet/MM/Articles/USSConstitutionHistory.html. Retrieved 26 October 2009.  
  15. ^ "A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774–1875". Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=473. Retrieved 27 October 2009.  
  16. ^ Toll, Ian W (2006). Six Frigates The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy. W. W. Norton & Company Inc.. ISBN 978-0-393-05847-5.  
  17. ^ Jennings, John (1966). Tattered Ensign The Story of America's Most Famous Fighting Frigate, U.S.S Constitution. Thomas Y. Crowell Company.  
  18. ^ Mitchell, C. Bradford (February 1970 Volume 21, Issue 2). "Memo to Oliver Wendell Holmes from The Friends of Old Ironsides". American Heritage Magazine. http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1970/2/1970_2_23.shtml. Retrieved 26 October 2009.  
  19. ^ Fowler 1984, p. 21, 22
  20. ^ "United States". DANFS. http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/u1/united_states.htm. Retrieved 19 July 2008. ""  
  21. ^ "Launching the New U.S. Navy". National Archives. http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/new-us-navy/navy-bill.html. Retrieved 27 August 2008.  
  22. ^ "President". DANFS. http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/p11/president-i.htm. Retrieved 4 September 2008. ""  
  23. ^ "Congress". DANFS. http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/c12/congress-iii.htm. Retrieved 5 September 2008. ""  
  24. ^ Roosevelt 1882, Chapter V
  25. ^ Swinburne, Henry Lawrence; Wilkinson, Norman (1907). The Royal Navy. A. and C. Black. pp. 107. http://books.google.com/books?id=eGZJAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA107&dq=%22royal+navy%22+%22ship+of+the+line%22&lr=&as_brr=1&client=firefox-a.   Retrieved on 23 September 2008.
  26. ^ Jennings 1966, pp. 17–19
  27. ^ a b Kane, Jr., John D. H. (4 February 2008). "The Constitution Gun Deck". Naval Historical Center. http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/consitutiongundeck.htm. Retrieved 9 October 2008.  
  28. ^ Jennings 1966, p. 224
  29. ^ Canney 2001, p. 46
  30. ^ Canney 2001, p. 45


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