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American Warships of the Age of Sail

In the age of sail warships could be designated either in terms of their rig -- the arrangement of masts and sail -- or rate, the number of guns and gun decks. Generally, nomenclature for types of US Navy vessels is rather distinctive. For example, the terms frigate, ship-of-the-line, and sloop-of-war are indicative of different classes of 18th and 19th century warships that vary by tonnage, armament, and rigging. However, sloop may also mean a small, one-masted, fore-and aft-rigged sailing vessel.

Such problems were particularly evident in, although not exclusive to, 18th and 19th century vessels. This is due in part to less standardization in ship nomenclature, design, and function. While some of these earlier vessels were built specifically as warships and auxiliaries, many were commercial or private vessels altered for military use. A sailing vessel could be used as a whaler, or converted to a naval gunboat or transport. Nomenclature for these early ships is derived from a combination of rig, hull design, use, and naval-class descriptions.

In 1815 the entire US naval force assembled in the Mediterranean under Commodore William Bainbridge consisted of 18 warships, including ship-of-the-line Independence, 5 frigates, 2 sloops-of-war, 7 brigs, and 3 schooners. This was the largest fleet ever collected under the American flag in the Mediterranean to that time. While the first three categories of vessels are rates, the latter two are rigs.

120-gun Ship of the Line

USS Pennsylvania, a 3241-ton (burden) 120-gun ship of the line, was the largest sailing warship ever built for the US Navy. As a Ship of the Line, the first USS Pennsylvania represented the might of a new nation. She was one of nine ships to rate not less than 74 guns each authorized by the Congress on April 29th 1816. Specified to carry no fewer than 74 guns, her ports numbered 136 on four gun decks. This 210 ft (64 m) long sailing warship was laid down in 1821 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and spent a decade and a half on the shipways. Construction began in 1821, but was delayed due to budget restrictions. Exploding shell guns were replacing solid shot by the time Pennsylvania was being fitted. Pennsylvania was finally commissioned during the final months of 1837 and, at year's end, undertook her only sea voyage, a trip from Delaware Bay to Chesapeake Bay. Decommissioned after arrival at the Gosport Navy Yard, across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, Virginia, the big ship was laid up there until 1842, when she began a long career as a receiving ship. On 20 April 1861, as Confederate forces threatened the Norfolk Navy Yard, USS Pennsylvania was burned to the waterline to prevent capture. Her wreck was later salvaged and broken up.

74-gun Ship of the Line

The second Columbus was one of nine, 74-gun warships authorized by Congress on 29 April 1816. The second Columbus, rated a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, was launched 1 March 1819 by Washington Navy Yard and commissioned 7 September 1819, Master Commandant J. H. Elton in command. (SL: t. 2,480; l. 191'10"; b. 53'6"; dr. 26'6"; cpl. 780; a. 68 32-pdr., 24 42-pdr. car.) The first USS Vermont of the United States Navy was originally intended to be a ship of the line when laid down in 1818, but was not commissioned until 1862, when she was too outdated to be used as anything but a stores and receiving ship. Vermont was laid down at the Boston Navy Yard in September 1818, finished about 1825, and kept on the stocks until finally launched at Boston on 15 September 1848 in the interest of both space and fire safety considerations. However Vermont was not commissioned at this time. Instead the already aged ship of the line remained in ordinary at Boston until the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861. At this time, the cavernous hull of the vessel was badly needed as a store and receiving ship at Port Royal, South Carolina, and she was commissioned at Boston on 30 January 1862. The third Delaware, a ship-of-the-line, was laid down at Norfolk Navy Yard in August 1817 and launched 21 October 1820. New York, a 74-gun ship of the line, was authorized 29 April 1816 and laid down in March 1820 at Norfolk Navy Yard, Norfolk, Va. She was never launched and was burnt on the stocks at Norfolk 21 April 1861 by Union forces to prevent her capture by Confederate troops. The third Franklin, a ship-of-the-line, built in 1815 under the supervision of Samuel Humpherys, was the first vessel to be laid down at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Built in 1815, she was the first vessel to be laid down at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Franklin sailed on her first cruise on 14 October 1817, when under the command of Master Commandant H. E. Ballard she proceeded from Philadelphia to the Mediterranean. She carried the Hon. Richard Rush, U.S. Minister to England, to his post. Subsequently she was designated flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron, cruising on that station until March 1820. She returned to New York City on 24 April 1820. From 11 October 1821 until 29 August 1824 she served as flagship on the Pacific Station. Franklin was laid up in ordinary until the summer of 1843 when she was ordered to Boston as a receiving ship. She continued in this capacity until 1852 at which time she was taken to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, razed and broken up.

56-gun Ship of the Line

Constitution (Fr: dp. 2,200; lbp. 175'; b. 43'6"; dph. 14'3"; s. 13 k.; cpl. 450; a. 30 24-pdr., 16 18 pd.car., 10 12-pdr.), one of six frigates authorized by act of Congress, approved 27 March 1794, was designed by Joshua Humphreys, and built at Hartt's Shipyard, Boston, Mass. She was launched on 21 October 1797 and christened by Captain James Sever. Into the trim frigate's construction went timbers from States ranging from Maine to Georgia, as well as copper bolts and spikes supplied by Paul Revere. A ship of beauty, power, and speed thus was fashioned as a national expression of growing naval interest, and a symbol auguring the dedication, courage, and achievement of American fighting men and ships. By authorizing the construction of six frigates the Third Congress in effect creates the U.S. Navy. The immediate issue is the need to protect the large American merchant fleet from continuous and increasing attacks by the North African "Barbary pirate" states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli-as well as from aggressive high-seas practices of the British. The ships are designed by Mr. Joshua Humphreys, a Philadelphia Quaker and an innovative naval architect, and are to be built at six different cities. The contract for one of these ships, to be named the CONSTITUTION, is given to Edmund Hartt's shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts.

50-gun Ship of the Line

USS Cumberland, a 1,726-ton sailing frigate, was built between 1825 and 1843 at the Boston Navy Yard. She was commissioned in November 1843 and served for the next few years in the Mediterranean. She was in the Home Squadron in 1846-48, sometimes as its flagship, and participated in Mexican War operations during this time. Cumberland made two more deployments to the Mediterranean in 1849-51 and in 1852-55. In 1855-56, Cumberland was converted to a sloop of war, allowing her to carry a battery of heavier, though fewer, guns. She was flagship of the Africa Squadron in 1857-59 and was again flagship of the Home Squadron in 1860. As the secession crisis turned warlike in the spring of 1861, Cumberland was at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, and was towed to safety when that facility was burned and abandoned on 20 April. Thereafter, she served on Civil War blockading duty off the Confederacy's Atlantic coast, taking part in, among other things, the capture of Forts Hatteras and Clark in late August 1861. Cumberland was anchored off Newport News, Virginia, on 8 March 1862, when the ironclad CSS Virginia came out to attack Federal warships in Hampton Roads. In a battle that decisively demonstrated the power of the armored steam-powered warships against the earlier wooden sailing types, Cumberland was rammed and sunk by the Virginia. Her own guns were unable to significantly hinder the Confederate ironclad, and she was incapable of sailing away from the encounter. (Fr: t. 1,726; l. 175'; b. 45'; dr. 21'1"; cpl. 400; a. 40 32-pdr., 10 8")

48-gun Ship of the Line

The fourth Congress was launched at the Navy Yard, Portsmouth, N.H. 16 August 1841, and placed in commission under Captain P. Voorhees on 7 May 1842. (Frigate: disposition 1,867; length between perpendiculars 179'; beam 47'10"; draft 22'6"; complement 480; armament 4 8", 48 32-pounders) USS Congress, a 1,867-ton sailing frigate, was built between 1839 and 1842 at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Kittery, Maine. Commissioned in May 1842, she made a Mediterranean cruise in that year and into 1843, then served off the South American east coast until early 1845. After a refit, she was sent to become flagship of the Pacific Squadron, remaining there until mid-1848. During that cruise, Congress took an active role in the war with Mexico. From June 1850 until June 1853, the frigate served as flagship of the Brazil Squadron. Congress next deployed to the Mediterranean Sea for two years' duty as flagship, beginning in June 1855 and concluding in November 1857. On her next assignment, from 1859 until mid-1861, she was again the Brazil Squadron flagship. The outbreak of the Civil War brought Congress back to U.S. waters, where she spent her remaining days. She joined the blockade of the Confederacy's Atlantic coast in September 1861. On 8 March 1862, while anchored off Newport News, Virginia, USS Congress was attacked by the ironclad CSS Virginia. After suffering heavy casualties in a one-sided action with a opponent that was virtually invulnerable to her guns, the veteran frigate was forced to surrender. She was subsequently destroyed by fire and the explosion of her powder magazine.

36-gun Frigate

The USS Chesapeake was a 36-gun sailing frigate of the United States Navy. The USS Chesapeake was built at Gosport Navy Yard, now Norfolk Naval Shipyard, between December 1798 and December 1799. Sister ships and locations where they were built were USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides"), Boston; USS President, New York City; USS United States, Philadelphia; USS Congress, Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and USS Constellation, Baltimore. Congressional authorization to build the first frigates, including the USS Chesapeake, after the American Revolution was on March 29 1794. The CHESAPEAKE was attacked by the British LEOPARD off Cape Henry in 1807 which affair led to the duel between Commodores James Barron and Stephen Decatur, and was one of the causes leading to the War of 1812. She was captured off Boston, 1 June 1813, by the British frigate SHANNON, on which occasion her commander, Capt. James Lawrence, uttered his celebrated dying words, "Don't Give Up the Ship", which have become a tradition in the Navy. The CHESAPEAKE was taken into the Royal Navy and, in 1820 broken up at Portsmouth, England, her timbers being used to build a flour mill at Wickham.

28-gun Frigate

USS Boston, a 700-ton 28-gun frigate, was built at Boston, Massachusetts, paid for by public subscription during the undeclared war with France. Commissioned in mid-1799, she protected American commerce in the West Indies from July 1799 until June 1800. BOSTON cruised extensively in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean protecting American commerce against privateers, capturing numerous prizes. On 12 October 1800 she captured the French LE BERCEAU, and towed her prize to Boston. During the winter of 1801 BOSTON carried Minister Livingston to France. She fought Tripolitan gunboats with the Mediterranean Squadron in 1802. BOSTON returned to Boston, then proceeded to Washington where she was laid up. She remained there until 24 August 1814, when she was burned to prevent her falling into British hands. (Length: 134' Beam: 34' 6" Displacement: 400 tons Complement: 220 men Power: Three masts; sail Speed: 9.2 knots Armament: 26-12 pound cannon; 12-9 pounders )

20-gun Sloop-of-War

The first Constellation was a frigate with an armament 38 24-pounder long guns. She was designed by naval constructors Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox whose plans were altered in the execution by builder, David Stodder, and the superintendent of shipbuilding, Captain Thomas Truxtun, was built at the Sterrett Shipyard, Baltimore, Md., and launched on 7 September 1797.
In 1845 the 48-year old frigate Constellation was placed in mothballs at the Gosport Naval Ship Yard near Norfolk. In 1852 Chief Naval Constructor John Lenthall was ordered to modernize the fleet, including the old frigate Constellation, in order to mount shell guns and arrange supporting magazines and shell rooms. The modifications could be funded from the annual congressional appropriation provided to the Navy for general repairs to ships. Probably mainly to help plan the shoring and blocks necessary to hold the ship upright when she would be brought into a dry slip for examination on February 23, 1853, Constellation was measured and a simple 1853 Frigate Hull Survey survey drawing of nine hull cross sections plus a related two-part drawing of the keel were developed in January and February 1853. These drawings combined to show the twisted hull and hogged keel of the old frigate.
Intending to build the sloop by using up part of the stockpile of pre-shaped timbers stored in the Gosport Yard, Lenthall apparently drew his preliminary draft for the new sloop in May 1853. It was a new and independent hull form. In June he developed a more refined design. Since Congress had not appropriated money for a new ship, Lenthall resorted to a practice occasionally done by the Navy before and after 1853 - building a new ship with repair money to occupy the "room" of the old ship, retaining the old name, and classifying the ship as "rebuilt." Four specific floor timbers and four specific third futtocks in the new sloop were made from some of the serviceable floor timbers of the old frigate.
The Sloop-of-War Constellation displaced 1,400 tones; length 179 feet, beam 41 feet; draft 21 feet; complement 240; armament 16 8-inch shell guns; 4 32-pound pivot guns. Famous as the last ship to be built driven solely by the wind for the US Navy. After a three-year tour of duty in the Mediterranean, the outbreak of the Civil War saw her as the flagship of the Africa Squadron patrolling against slavers. In 1865, she returned to Newport and was decommissioned. The Constellation spent the next 75 years as training and receiving ship. During this period, she undertook a number of special assignments. She sailed to Europe for the Paris Exposition in 1878, and the Colombian Exposition of 1892, to Ireland with food aid in 1880, and to Baltimore for the centenary of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 1914. Re-commissioned in 1940, Constellation served as relief flagship for the Atlantic fleet and the Battleship Division Five from 1941 to 1943. She is currently in a museum in Baltimore.

16-gun Sloop-of-War

The first Dale, a sloop-of-war, was launched 8 November 1839 by Philadelphia Navy Yard, and commissioned 11 December 1839, Commander J. Gwinn in command. She was taken to Norfolk Navy Yard to be readied for sea. USS Dale, a 566-ton sailing sloop-of-war, was built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Pennsylvania. She was placed in commission in December 1840 and began a long voyage around Cape Horn to take her place on the Navy's Pacific Station. After returning to the United States in October 1843, Dale was laid up for nearly three years. Between June 1846 and August 1849, she deployed to the Pacific for her second tour, this time taking part in war operations off California and the Mexican west coast. During the 1850s, Dale primarily served off Africa as part of the effort to supress the slave trade. Dale cruised along the Confederacy's Atlantic shore in 1861, capturing two schooners in October and November. For the rest of the Civil War she was employed as a store ship at Port Royal, South Carolina, and Key West, Florida. (Sip: t. 566; l. 117'; b. 32'; dr. 15'8"; s. 13 k.; cpl. 150; a. 14 32-pdr., 2 12-pdr.)

12-gun Brig

The first Bainbridge, a 12-gun 259-ton brig, was launched 26 April 1842 by Boston Navy Yard and commissioned 16 December 1842, Commander Z. F. Johnston in command. She operated with the Home Squadron until mid-1844 and then alternated in service with the Brazil and African Squadrons until 1860. Sailing from Boston 26 January 1843, Bainbridge served with the home Squadron until returning to New York 3 May 1844. During 26 June 1844-10 October 1847 she served with the Brazil Squadron. She laid up for most of the next year and then spent 10 April 1849 July 1850 with the African Squadron. She departed New York 2 November 1850 and until September 1856 cruised with both the African and Brazil Squadrons. She returned to Norfolk 10 September 1856. 1859-60 Bainbridge participated in the punitive expedition against Paraguay. On 21 August 1863 while proceeding to her station with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron she capsized off Cape Hatteras with the loss of all but one of her crew. (Brig: T. 259, 1. 100'; b. 25', dr. 14'; s. 11.5 k., cpl. 100; a. 12 32- pdr. car., cl. Bainbridge)

10-gun Brig

The second Porpoise, a hermaphrodite brig, was authorized by Congress 30 June 1834; built in 1835; and launched 31 May 1836; Lt. William Ramsay in command. Porpoise, Lt. Cadwallader Ringgold in command, was then assigned to the squadron which Wilkes was to command on an extended exploratory expedition around the world. She stood out of Hampton Roads 18 August 1838 with the United States Exploring Expedition Squadron. She assisted in the exploration and survey work of the Expedition as it confirmed the existence of the Antarctic Continent, charted vast areas of the South Pacific, circumnavigated the world, and returned to New York four years later. (Brig: t. 224; l. 88'; b. 25'; dph. 11'; cpl. 80; a. 2 9-pdr., 8 24-pdr. car.; cl. Dolphin)

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:41:15 ZULU