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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.

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