During the 1790s, American merchant shipping were under constant harassment from the British and French navies as well as pirates by way of Algiers on the Barbary Coast (the latter responsible for seizing eleven American ships). After the War of Independence, many foreign powers felt they could harass American merchant ships without consequences. The widespread persecution could continue without repercussion as America lacked a strong navy. President George Washington and his Congress knew the time was right to construct a naval force to defend the merchant marine. Despite the obvious need, not all of Congress was onboard for this new financial venture. Some felt the cost was much too high while others felt that construction of warships would be an imperialistic gesture. Could this new navy stand alongside the European naval powers that featured so many Ships-of-the-Line with their expertly-trained crews? Regardless, the situation for American shipping was growing dire by the month. After the loss of more ships and their respective cargos the decision was made to build frigates. These vessels would be more than capable of holding their own with other frigates of the time and would be made fast enough to outrun the Ships-of-the-Line.
In March 1796, the construction of the frigates was making slow progress when a peace treaty came about between the United States and the Dey of Algiers. The Naval Act of 1794 indicated construction of the frigates would be discontinued if peace was established so construction on all six ships was effectively halted to honor the agreement. After more contentious debate, Congress voted to continue the construction of the three ships closest to completion. Two years later on May 10th, 1796, the USS United States, the first of the America's new warships (designed by architects Joshua Humphreys and William Doughty) was ready to be commissioned. The United States had "diagonals", six pairs of massive timbers that extended from the ends of the ship, down to the keel in diagonal lines. They were there to prevent the ship from "hogging", or the stress the hull experiences causing the center of the keel to bend upward.
The honor in naming the first ship went to President George Washington and he chose "United States". The United States was launched on May 10th, 1797 and commissioned on February 22nd, 1797. Handpicked by President Washington as commander, was Revolutionary War naval hero Captain John Barry with his naval commission becoming Commission "No. 1". The United States was fitted out at Philadelphia during the spring of 1798, receiving her 56 cannon, sails and her all-important crew.
The Quasi-War with France had commenced by this time and, on July 3rd, United States was ordered to sea to protect American interests. The USS Constellation was commissioned at Baltimore on September 7th, 1797, and the USS Constitution at Boston on October 21st, 1797. The remaining three ships that had their construction delayed by Congress but were eventually completed and entered service in 1800.
Captain John Barry and his new frigate sailed with the USS Delaware, a former merchant ship which had been acquired by the Government and refitted for naval service under the command of Stephen Decatur, Sr. They rounded Cape Henlopen in Delaware and sailed a course for Boston. President Washington and his naval advisors wanted additional ships to sail with United States and Delaware so the purchased 20-gun ship USS Herald and the revenue cutter USS Pickering were at Boston Harbor ready to join the fleet. Once the United States and the Delaware arrived in Boston, Barry soon learned that Herald and the 14-gun Pickering needed repairs and would not be ready for some weeks. Captain Barry decided against waiting for the repairs and sailed for the Caribbean Sea. United States and Delaware departed Boston harbor on July 26th and set a course for Barbados.
Reaching the Caribbean Sea, the United States and Delaware cruised to protect American merchant shipping from French privateers. She guarded convoys during their approach to Philadelphia and New York, patrolled the West Indies, and escorted convoys into Havana. The first prize taken by the American ships was the French privateer La Croyable, taken off Great Egg Harbor July 7th, 1798. During the voyage south, the small squadron encountered a number of ships however all were flying neutral flags. The two warships reached Bridgetown, Barbados, in late August but finding no French ships in port they returned out to sea. The next day, an unfamiliar sail was seen and the Americans gave chase. The United States came within range and fired two cannon shots from the frigate, forcing the French 10-gun privateer Sans Pareil of Guadeloupe, to lower her flag. The frigate continued to hunt and on September 7th, United States, took the French 8-gun privateer Jalouse`s Prize by surrender. Delaware was put in charge of Sans Pareil and set sail for home. After a month in home waters, the United States put to sea again in mid-October with orders to cruise between Cape May, New Jersey, and the Boston coastline. Soon a storm forced her some 250 miles (400 km) south to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where damages became apparent. It took the frigate almost 2 weeks sailing north to anchor in the Delaware River on October 30th. It took an additional 45 days to repair the ship to make her seaworthy once more. Once revitalized, United States headed back to the West Indies where Barry was put in command the American squadron.
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