The United States Navy (USN) has a long and storied history of victories and bravery made possible by both man and ship. In the case of the latter, the legacy of the service was built upon such designs as USS United States, a three-masted sailing first-class frigate armed with cannons and crewed by hundreds of personnel. The warship began her career in the period immediately following the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and ended her storied tenure during tumultuous period of the American Civil War (1861-1865).
USS United States was part of the American modernization and expansion of the USN fleet in the post-Independence period, authorized as part of six fighting frigates under the Naval Act of 1794. She was ordered on March 27th, 1794 to be constructed by shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys in Philadelphia for nearly $300,000. Launched on May 10th, 1797, the warship saw a service life that took into action during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Construction of these vessels was driven largely by Algiers-based Barbary pirates attacking American merchants in the Mediterranean. Far from home, these merchants could do very little against harassment and confiscation of their goods at sea.
At its core, the 1,575-ton warship was designed with a very strong wooden hull supporting three primary masts adorned with sections of sail. Her draught was deep for stability in the open sea though her beam was kept to a minimum, making her long and slim. Dimensions included an overall length of 175 feet, a beam of 43.5 feet and a draught of 23.5 feet. Her inherent design and construction resulted in a very powerful and robust warship which was typically armed with a battery of 32 x 24-pounder guns backed by 22 x 42-pounder guns and crewed by up to 600 personnel. She was capable of Blue Water voyages which would allow her to access the Mediterranean Theater in service of pirates.
As a sail-driven vessel, USS United States could make headway in ideal conditions at about 11 knots and her endurance was limited only by crew morale and onboard food stores. USS United States, originally known simply as "Frigate A", was classified as a "First Class Frigate" or "heavy Frigate" and formed a potent addition to the USN fleet - she was officially named "United States" by none other than U.S. President George Washington.
Construction of the six frigates was originally given a clause indicating that if the United States and Algiers - the major supplier of the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean - would find a common peace, the USN would halt work on the ships. This occurred during March of 1796 so only three of the most mature of the six warships were completed and these became USS United States joined by her sisters USS Constellation and USS Constitution.
Upon entering service, USS United States played a role in the Quasi-War (1798-1800) against former ally France where she was used to good effect against French privateers preying on American shipping in Caribbean waters. In June of 1812 began the "War of 1812" between the United States and Britain, pitting two naval powers against one another. She committed to a battle with HMS Macedonian in October of 1812 and claimed the British vessel by surrender in a drawn-out engagement.
During this period, Barbary pirates resumed attacking American shipping in the Mediterranean and this led to a formal declaration of war against Algiers in March of 1815. The USN responded by sending USS United States to the region but the vessel arrived too late to see action - a peace deal had already been secured.
From there, USS United States, operating under a false report that the U.S. had declared war on neighboring Mexico, was used to secure Monterey in October of 1842 - this was an American attempt to head off what was believed to be a similar British naval mission. However, the false report was soon uncovered and Monterey returned to its owners. USS United States was then directed to Hawaii and helped the monarchy regain control of the islands from British rule.
In February of 1849, the warship was decommissioned from service and lay in a largely forgotten state - a poor end to what was once the apple of the USN's eye and a point of pride to many onlookers. She laid in such a way until April of 1861 by which time the American Civil War began. Confederate forces took the naval shipyard at Norfolk and, with it, could claim the remains of USS United States. With a great need for any war-making vessel, USS United States was reconstituted as CSS United States and placed in defense of the strategic harbor. She was made ready for June of 1861 but her second life came to an abrupt end when she was ordered sunk as a river obstruction in the Elizabeth River (Virginia) during May of 1862. Confederate forces then were forced to give up the harbor to which Federal units claimed it - and the damaged ship.
She was raised and taken back to port where she resided until March of 1864. With her usefulness all but spent in the modern world, the order was given to dismantle what remained of the grand wooden-hulled sailing ship. She was broken up in December of 1865 and her story officially came to an end.
Status Decommissioned, Out-of-Service
Complement 414 Personnel
Ship Class [ United States-class Frigate ] Ships-in-Class [ 6 ]Ship Names:USS United States; USS Constellation; USS Chesapeake (not completed); USS Congress (not completed); USS President (not completed); USS Constitution
Confederate States; United States
- Blue Water Operations
- Fleet Support
175 ft (53.34 m)
Width / Beam:
43.5 ft (13.26 m)
Height / Draught:
20 ft (6.10 m)
3 x Primary sailing masts.
13 kts (15 mph)
32 x 24-pounder guns.
24 x 42-pounder guns.
1 x 18-pounder gun.
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