By MC3 Casey Scoular, USS Constitution Public Affairs
George Washington gives us perhaps one of the greatest quotes to describe our Navy’s important role. In a letter he writes:
“It follows then as certain that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force, we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.”
It should come as no surprise then that on March 27th, 1794 Washington himself signed the law that set in motion the reestablishment of our Navy following the American Revolutionary War: the Act to Provide a Naval Armament.
When Washington signed that law, it authorized the creation of six frigates to protect America from “the depredations committed by the Algerine corsairs on the commerce of the United States.”
Washington named these six frigates: USS President, USS Constellation, USS Chesapeake, USS United States, USS Congress and (our favorite) the undefeated USS Constitution.
Of the six original frigates, USS Constitution remains in commission and holds the title of the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat and the honor of being America’s Ship of State.
But what happened to the other five?
Each of the original frigates has a unique story and an interesting fate ranging from seeing service in the Confederacy to seeing service as, oddly enough, a flour mill.
The Fate of USS United States: Forced into Confederate Service
We start with USS Constitution’s oldest sister, USS United States, launched May 10, 1797 in Philadelphia. Her original captain, John Barry, had been a hero of the revolution. During the War of 1812, she was captained by Stephen Decatur Jr. and successfully captured HMS Macedonian.
By 1861, USS United States was rotting in Norfolk when she was captured by Confederate forces. She was then commissioned CSS United States, often called CSS ‘Confederate’ States, (a fitting metaphor for the divided nation). A year later, the Confederates abandoned the navy yard and sunk CSS United States to block incoming Union ships. It’s said that an entire box of axes was ruined as they attempted to scuttle the ship, making it necessary instead to bore through the hull.
After Union troops recaptured the Norfolk Navy Yard, USS United States was raised, but soon after broken up for scrap wood.
The Fate of USS Constellation: Broken up for Wood to Make… USS Constellation!
USS Constellation, the second completed of the first six frigates, was launched Sept. 7, 1797 in Baltimore. She was first commanded by Capt. Thomas Truxton and won glory in the Quasi-War with France in which she outfought two French ships, L’Insurgente and La Vengeance. She captured L’Insurgente in a lopsided battle, suffering only two casualties to her opponent’s 29.
She was broken up in 1853; however, some of the wood is said to have been used to build the smaller, 22-gun sloop by the same name, which fought against the slave trade and now resides in Baltimore as a National Historic Landmark.
The Fate of USS Congress: Scrapped
USS Congress, was launched Aug. 15, 1799 in Portsmouth, N. H. A steadfast veteran during all of America’s early naval conflicts, she saw action in the Quasi War, the first Barbary war, and the War of 1812.
USS Congress became the first American warship to visit China, before eventually serving out the remainder of her career as a receiving ship for the Navy. In 1834 a survey was done to decide whether it was worth repairing her. It was determined repairing her was too great a cost and she was broken up that same year.
The Fate of USS Chesapeake: Used to Make a Flour Mill in England
USS Chesapeake, launched on Dec. 2, 1799 in Gosport, now Norfolk, Va. and made her first capture during the Quasi War after a 50-hour chase with a French privateer.
During the War of 1812 she suffered a devastating defeat. While undergoing repairs in Boston, Capt. James Lawrence accepted a challenge from the captain of HMS Shannon for a ship-to-ship duel. USS Chesapeake was overtaken by HMS Shannon and, though mortally wounded, Lawrence continued calling to his Sailors the famous words: “Don’t give up the ship!”
Chesapeake went on to serve in the Royal Navy as HMS Chesapeake for the remainder of the war. She was later scrapped and used to build the Chesapeake Mill, still located in Wickham, England, today.
The Fate of USS President: Put in British Service as HMS President
Last to launch was USS President on April 10, 1800 in New York, N.Y. At the beginning of the War of 1812 President sailed with USS Congress and was able to capture several merchant vessels. The Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on Dec. 24, 1814, was meant to end the war but was not yet ratified until Feb. 17, 1815.
During the interim, USS President, under Capt. Decatur, planned to sail from New York to the Caribbean in order to disrupt British shipping. However, trying to leave port, USS President became stuck on a sandbar and by the time she was freed she had been heavily damaged. Decatur decided to bring her back to New York for repairs, but was spotted by an enemy squadron. Being too severely damaged by the sandbar to get away, USS President was engaged and captured by HMS Endymion.
After her capture by the Royal Navy, USS President went into service as HMS President until the end of the war. In 1817 she was broken up for scrap wood in Portsmouth, England.
The Fate of USS Constitution: Still Being Written
USS Constitution has 33 victories to her name, including actions during the Quasi War, the bombardment of Tripoli, and the defeat of HMS Guerriere, HMS Java, HMS Levant and HMS Cyane during the War of 1812; however, her story is not over.
USS Constitution is the last of the original six that still exist to this day. Why is that? Luck? Maybe. But I think it’s more than that.
USS Constitution exists because she is loved by the nation that created her and the Navy that crewed her. She accepts this love on behalf of all her sister frigates, our profession of incredibly talented Sailors and our entire Navy from our humble beginnings in the Age of Sail to the modern day. She reminds us of the heroism of all those who served valiantly in our Nation and Navy’s earliest days. She connects us to our past, and also reminds us that while much has changed, our mission is an enduring one.
The world is more complex, but the mission is still the same:
“The United States Navy will be ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea. Our Navy will protect America from attack, promote American prosperity, and preserve America’s strategic influence. U.S. naval operations will deter aggression and enable resolution of crises on terms acceptable to the United States and our allies and partners. If deterrence fails, the Navy will conduct decisive combat operations to defeat any enemy.”
Or as George put it: “everything honorable and glorious.”
Be sure to check out our video on the Naval Act of 1794, linked below!