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Frigate - History

A frigate in the days of wooden war vessels was the designation of a full-rigged ship with two decks, and so distinguished from a ship of the line which had three. In large fleets, three-deck ships of the line had the advantage of overlooking those of inferior rates with the fire of their main and upper decks. Their imposing mass often contributes to ensure victory, solely by the impression of terror which they produce on board the enemy's ships which are not so high.

In time frigates were designed to ensure speed and ease in working them, while they remained of moderate size. After 1600, the frigate type became more or less fixed although a rigid adherence to a single form was not demanded until about 1750, after which frigates were classified as forty-fours, thirty-eights, thirty-sixes, thirty-twos, twenty-eights and twenty-fours; this classification being made on the basis of the number of guns aboard. In the British navy the tonnage of frigates was from 500 to 1,200, while in the early days of the United States navy, vessels over 1,200 tons were at times classed as frigates. Frigates were usually fast sailers, mounted with 28 to 60 guns, and were employed as scouts and as cruisers, to convoy merchantmen, etc. This sort of vessel seemed the most proper for independent cruising on distant expeditions.

The great battle of the Nile in 1798 was the most brilliant, and the most important of the scenes ot naval engagements which sustained the reputation and assured the safety of the British Empire from the arrogance of the common enemy of Europe. The victory would have been complete, had any frigates and small craft been attached to the British squadron. With such auxiliaries, none of the French transports in the harbour of Alexandria could have escaped destruction. "Were I to die at this moment," writes Nelson in one of his despatches, "want of frigates would be found stamped on my heart." Nelson was in want of frigates, - the eyes of the fleet, as he always called them : - to the want of which, the enemy before were indebted for their escape, and Bonaparte for his arrival in Egypt.

In the early 19th Century the British Empire possessed an immense number of ships of the line, and frigates. The Lords of the Admiralty would have thought that they were lavish of the finances of the three kingdoms, if they had caused new vessels to be constructed for such an unequal contest; it appeared to them sufficient to set apart for it, some of those with which their ports were crowded. The Americans, on the contrary, whose naval force at that time was inconsiderable, perfectly understood, that if they confined themselves to building vessels similar to those of the English, they would remain constantly inferior to them; and with a calculation, the justice of which was proved by the event, they sent to sea frigates respectively stronger than those of their adversaries. It followed that every time an American frigate met an English frigate alone, the latter was overpowered.

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Page last modified: 04-08-2018 18:08:22 ZULU