By the fateful year of 1812, America's young Navy found itself desperately engaged in a struggle with the most fearsome maritime war machine of the age: the British Royal Navy, which numbered 900 ships and had emerged victorious from virtually every one of its actions in recent history. Fortunately, the United States Navy was to find within its ranks some of the most gallant sea warriors of all time, fighting captains who dueled like knights in ship-to-ship actions that were among the most brilliant in the annals of fighting sail. But it was not only the men who sailed the ships that made this a dramatic story. The glory and success were shared by the ships that, ton for ton, were the marvel of their day.
In 1794, the Congress passed an act authorizing the procurement of six frigates. These were the long, swift warships that substituted the speed of a greyhound for the power of a mastiff. Joshua Humphreys was appointed Master Builder of six 44-gun ships to be built in Philadelphia and other ports. Humphreys produced a design for a super-frigate, large enough to outsail and outfight other ships of her class, yet nimble enough to avoid combat in unfavorable circumstances, and with inner structural timbers and planking of enormous size to enable survival under terrific pounding. In fact, more than 3000 trees had to be felled for the making of each frigate. Timber of choice was live oak, five times stronger than white oak and expected to endure for a half-century.
Although construction was interrupted, it resumed in 1797. Washington and others agreed to name the first three: the "United States" already built in Philadelphia, the "Constitution" to be built in Boston, and the "Constellation", with 36 guns, to be built in Baltimore.
In June of 1798, the Constellation
under Captain Thomas Truxtun sailed past the Virginia capes and out into the Atlantic, convoying a dozen merchantmen to protect them from French privateers. Less than a year later, the Constellation
was engaged by the Insurgente
, a crack frigate and the fastest ship in the French Navy. During an engagement marked by vicious broadsides, the Insurgente was forced to strike her colors and was taken as a prize.
During the war of 1812, the Constellation
played an important defensive role. She was moored at Norfolk, Virginia, when a force of 1500 British soldiers made an attempt to capture her. They were defeated by raw American militiamen who turned them back with grievous losses. By the conclusion of the war, the Yankees had more than held their own against the most formidable navy then sailing the seas. The London Times summed it up: "Scarcely is there an American ship of war which has not to boast a victory over the British flag. With the bravest seamen and the most powerful navy in the world, we retire from the contest with the balance of defeat so heavily against us."
It is possible that some timbers from the Constellation
were used to build the U.S.S. Constellation
that was built in 1854.
of 1854, has been preserved and is now on display in Baltimore.Constellation Links:
Constellation (1854) Web Site.