The Naval Act of 1794 allowed the American government to officially fund construction of a standing ocean-going waterforce. The first batch of ships to begin service with the new United States Navy (USN) numbered six 38-gun sailing frigates. Among the group was USS Constellation which held two notable "firsts" for the service - the first USN vessel to be put to sea and the firs to overtake an enemy vessel. Ordered on March 27th, 1794, she was construction under the direction of David Stodder at the cost of over $300,000 USD. She was launched on September 7th, 1797 and served under the nickname of "Yankee Racehorse".
A fast and well-armed sailing ship, USS Constellation carried a hull designed by Joshua Humphrey which called for a long length against a slim width - this gave Constellation good speed against larger, more powerful enemy types while also giving her the capability to mount considerable armament. As the emerging American Navy lacked the size and power of its contemporaries (like Britain), initiatives such as this were the call of the day to help the service compete.
As completed, USS Constellation was categorized as a "38-gun Frigate" and held an armament of 28 x 18-pounder guns (long guns) and 20 x 32-pounder guns (carronades). The "38-gun" in the designator was a general gun rating for was no proven naming standard of the day in this regard. As such, ships like Constellation could very well see their armament fit changed throughout the course of her service. The vessel's crew numbered 340 men and structural dimensions included a running length of 164 feet, a beam of 41 feet and depth of 13.5 feet. She displaced 1,265 tons and carried sails across a standard three-mast approach.
USS Constellations first actions were in the Quasi-War (1798-1800) against France. The war's name was due to the fact that it was an informal, undeclared conflict between former allies and held roots in the American refusal to repay its loans to the French. As such, French ships began taking on American merchants. The Convention of 1800 brought about an end to this clash during which USS Constellation claimed the French 36-gun frigate L'Insurgente. It also tangled, and badly damaged, La Vengeance during the war.
Heightened tensions with North African nations concerning American shipping and piracy led to the First Barbary War. USS Constellation was pressed into the convoy escort role in Mediterranean waters and was used to blockade Tunisia during May of 1802. Peace with Tunisia followed in 1805 and Constellation was recalled stateside - moored at Washington until 1812.
1812 saw a renewed conflict between the United States and Britain in what became known as the War of 1812. Constellation was back in service for 1813 and her notable action during the war was two denials of British attempts to take her at Hampton Roads. The war lasted until 1815 and resulted in a stalemate.
During this time, with American warships committed against Britain, North African pirates seized the opportunity to take on American shipping once more and this led to the Second Barbary War. A formal declaration of war against Algiers followed and Constellation returned to Mediterranean waters to reinforce American ocean power in the region. She claimed the enemy frigate "Mashuda" by capture in June of 1815 and helped to force a treaty which led Constellation to return stateside for late 1817.
More anti-piracy actions followed, firstly in Atlantic waters off the South American coast and then, later, in Pacific waters. There was another return to Mediterranean waters and, in 1835, she was used to squash a Seminole uprising. Before taking a trip around-the-world, Constellation participated with West India Squadron.
In 1853, she was struck from the Naval Register and stripped of her military value at Norfolk, Virginia. Her sailing days were at an end.
Her name was resurrected by way of construction of the new USS Constellation, a sloop-of-war launched in 1854. Unlike the original Constellation, the 1854 vessel was saved from the scrap heap after her sailing days and remains a protected vessel in Baltimore, Maryland.