USS United States (1797) Sailing Frigate Warship
The USS United States became Americas first-ever Navy vessel.
Authored By JR Potts, AUS 173d AB; Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com
The Congressional Act to Provide Naval Armament (known as the Naval Act of 1794) was passed by the United States Congress on March 27, 1794. This act established the naval marine force, which became the United States Navy, and authorized money to build America's first six frigates. The Continental Congress had built ships during the Revolution but the USS United States was the first war ship built for the new American Navy.
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.
In mid-February, the United States arrived in waters off Guadeloupe with 58 prisoners from L'Amour de la Patrie. Barry attempted to negotiate an exchange of prisoners under a flag of truce but shore batteries opened fire forcing the envoy to return to the frigate. After a week Barry arranged to exchange his prisoners for an equal number of American sailors. Leaving Guadeloupe on February 26, Barry sighted two sails and overtook the 430-ton Cicero which had been taken by the French privateer Democrat. As luck would have it, Barry had access to extra sailors. He put a crew on Cicero and pursued Democrat before ultimately losing her in the dark. By mid-March, commander Barry's squadron received additional ships of the United States Navy - two frigates, four revenue cutters and three other ships. Commodore Barry displayed naval skill in deploying his armada in key areas of the West Indies, allowing for maximum protection to American merchant shipping. Near the desert island of Antigua on March 26th, the United States took the privateer French schooner La Tartueffe along with its American prize, the sloop Vermont. In April, Barry had a decision to make - his fleet was discouraging the French in the area and a convoy of some 30 American merchantmen had sought his protection. Barry turned over command of the squadron to Commodore Thomas Truxtun and United States sailed for home, escorting the convoy. The frigate reached New Castle, Delaware, in early May, giving Barry time to visit Philadelphia to discharge crew members with expiring enlistments and take on new personnel and supplies.
The United States patrolled in home waters for two months and required repairs, receiving a new bowsprit - essentially a long spar attached to the Jib boom on the bow used to secure head sails. United States sailed south and anchored off Newport, Rhode Island, in mid-September. When they arrived. Barry received orders to sail for Europe on November 3rd, 1799. President John Adams sent commissioners to France to negotiate a settlement of the issues dividing the two countries. She returned to New York City in April 1800 with a signed treaty of peace and was recalled from the Caribbean and returned to Chester, Pennsylvania, in late April.
On the last day of his administration, President Adams signed a bill authorizing his successor, Thomas Jefferson, to dispose of all naval vessels except the frigates. The United States departed Chester in May and sailed to the Potomac River where the government was establishing the Washington Navy Yard. Frigates United States, President, Constellation, Congress, and Chesapeake were all decommissioned on June 6th, 1801.
United States remained in the Potomac River where her timbers continued to season. Some maintenance continued by the Navy department since all wooden-hulled ships had a tendency to leak. In 1809, orders were received to ready her for active sea duty. On June 10th, 1810, Captain Stephen Decatur, Jr. took command. Decatur knew the frigate as he was once a midshipman aboard her first cruise. While she was being refitted and recrewed at Norfolk, Virginia, Captain Decatur met Captain John S. Carden of the Royal Navy, commander of the new British frigate HMS Macedonian on a visit to America.
From the end of the American Revolution in 1783, the United States had been irritated by the failure of the British to withdraw from American territory along the Great Lakes. The British also maintained a dominance of the Indians on America's frontiers; and they purposely wrote commercial agreements unfavorable to the United States. These interferences to America's national businesses, coupled with the war between France and Britain in Europe, provided the reasons. America was not ready for war when the United States declared war on the United Kingdom on June 19th, 1812. United States, and her sister ship Congress, joined by the brig Argus and sailed to New York City to join Commodore John Rodgers' squadron. The fleet received orders for sea duty and cruised along the East coast until the end of August. The squadron again set sail and the United States was released to continue a cruise eastward. On October 25th, just south of the Azores, lookouts on United States reported a unknown sail to windward. As the ship closed over the horizon, Captain Decatur made out the outline of HMS Macedonian.
Both ships cleared for action and began to tack for an advantage. Captain Decatur had toured Macedonian as the guest of Captain Carden and new her main armament as 18-pounders (8 kg). His own 24-pounders (11 kg) would have the advantage over of the British ship. Carden wanted to close on a parallel course with the American vessel. With his cannon having longer range, Decatur intended to engage Macedonian out of range of the 24 pounders. The battle opened with the United States delivering a broadside at Macedonian. Decatur played down the urge to charge into the fray for a yardarm-to-yardarm engagement, choosing instead to use his ship's greater range and excellent gun crews while also avoiding needless damage to his flagship.
The British answered immediately, bringing down a small spar on the United States. Decatur's second broadside destroyed Macedonian's mizzen top mast which was then followed by a blast that shot the main mast away. Carden could not close with the United States and decided that the battle would be a fruitless act to continue considering his ship's condition. With the safety of his crew in mind, John Carden officially struck the colors - overcome with the feeling that he had betrayed his trust as a captain in the British Navy. United States dismasted Macedonian and accepted Carden's surrender. Macedonian had 36 dead and 68 wounded against the United State's 12 casualties - 7 dead and 5 wounded. The United States was almost untouched in the battle and was still seaworthy. The ship came along side to help repair the broken Macedonian. It took four days to make her seaworthy again.
United States and her prize entered New York Harbor on December 4th the battle had been relayed to the news papers and created a national pride over the victory. Captain Decatur understood the importance of the ship's value in gold and the profound psychological victory it proved for the young burgeoning nation. Decanter became aware of an upcoming engagement ball in Washington and sent the largest battle flag of the Macedonian to be presented to Dolly Madison and President James Madison along with the guests at the ball. The guests and the Madison's were filled with national pride and the young Navy reached a high water mark at the Washington gathering. The Navy had proved itself and made America a viable world sea power second to none.
The United States sailed from New York late in May 1813 with her new 42-pounder carronades escorted by the now-rebuilt USS Macedonian and the sloop Hornet. On the trip north, the three ships were driven into New London, Connecticut, by a large British squadron. The British kept New London blockaded and United States and Macedonian remained there until the end of the war. Decatur went ashore and was transferred to the USS President in the spring of 1814, taking the officers and some crew members of United States with him - Hornet managed to slip the blockade and escape. After the end of the War of 1812, the American Navy returned to the Mediterranean where Algiers had started seizing American ships during the War of 1812. In February 1815, President Madison requested Congress to declare war on Algiers and, based on his recommendation, it was so voted.
Under the command of Captain John Shaw, the United States needed repairs after being bottled up in New London during the war, sailed two months later for the Mediterranean. When the frigate reached Gibraltar, Shaw learned that a treaty of peace with Algiers had been signed. However, the Barbary States had made a habit of changing their minds when they no longer were under the gun so Washington kept an American squadron in the Mediterranean. Both Decatur and Bainbridge sailed for home and the United States remained behind, keeping close to the North African coast and ready to show the Barbary rulers the American flag and her 42-pounders. Captain Shaw became commodore and commanded the squadron until relieved in July 1816. The United States continued to serve in the Mediterranean until she sailed for home in the spring of 1819 and reached Hampton Roads in mid-May. The frigate was decommissioned on June 9th, 1819, and was laid up at Norfolk. United States was recommisioned in 1824, and deployed with the Pacific Squadron under Commodore Isaac Hull, again protecting American shipping and commercial interests. She arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1828 for needed repairs and remained under repair till 1830 to which she was placed in ordinary time at the New York Navy Yard. The Navy Department inspected her and felt she was in good enough condition to be completely overhauled with new sails, cannon and a coppered hull. She served in the Mediterranean Squadron from 1833 to 1838 and was deployed with the Home Squadron between 1839 and 1840.
United States was designated the new flagship of the Pacific Squadron in January 1842. She left Hampton Roads, bound for the Pacific via Cape Horn. Herman Melville, the future author of Moby-Dick, enlisted as an ordinary seaman onboard United States at Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 17th,1843. He felt the discipline and the Captain were harsh and he used some of his accounts in his novel "White Jacket". United States returned stateside in 1844 and was placed out of commission at Boston beginning in October. Being recommissioned once more in May 1846, she sailed to join the African Squadron for duty to suppress the African slave trade. United States was ordered to support the Mediterranean Squadron in 1847 and served as such until 1848. She then returned to America and was decommissioned once again in February 1849, placed in ordinary time at Norfolk.
United States rotted away at Norfolk until 1861, now being some sixty one years old, when the navy yard was captured by Confederate troops during the Civil War. The Union troops did not burn her due to her poor condition and feeling she was of no use. The Confederates needed ships of any kind and condition so they pumped her out and refloated her as the frigate CSS United States. Her new crew liked to called her the "Confederate States". Confederate States was fitted out as a receiving ship and was provided with a deck battery of 19 guns for harbor defense (a receiving ship was a training vessel that received unassigned troops). The Confederates decided to sink her in the Elizabeth River in Virginia to create an obstruction to Union vessels when the Confederates abandoned the navy yard in May 1862.
The 62-year old timbers of the frigate were found to be strong and well seasoned so when Confederate troops tried to chop thru her they amazingly failed to do so. It became necessary to bore through her hull from the inside and she then sank to the bottom of the river. After the destruction of the ironclad Virginia, the Norfolk Navy Yard surrendered to Union troops. United States was raised and towed to the yard by federal authorities where she remained until March 1864, ultimately being broken up and having her wood sold. This work was delayed until late 1865, when the Bureau ordered on December 18th, 1865, that the grand old frigate - the first ship of the United States Navy having served in three wars - was immediately broken up.