The Hard-luck Frigate


When Hurricane Connie whirled towards the U.S. coast in August, 1955, an odd-looking old cral’t wallowed up Chesapeake Bay just ahead of the oncoming gales. The United States frigate Constellation , oldest American fighting ship, her masts and spars gone and her hull gripped tight in a floating dry dock pulled by a panting tug, was racing for her life.

She made it, warping into a berth in Baltimore Harbor just before the hurricane hit. The gala reception that had been planned for her arrival had to be postponed.

The ill fortune which would bring a hurricane up the East Coast on the occasion of the Constellation’s final voyage would be remarkable in the case of any ship save the Constellation . But for her it was a perfectly normal occurrence. For the Constellation , probably more than any other American ship, holds the undisputed record for plain bad luck. Not only has she been embarrassed in battle, repeatedly deprived of her rightful glory and even cheated out of an entire war, but whatever fate deals with ships has now gone so far as to scandalize her very name.

Fate started early. The Constellation was conceived, simultaneously with the United States Navy, in the Naval Act of 1794. Of the 35 warships of the Continental Navy, exactly one remained in American hands when the Revolution was over. And at war’s end even the personnel of the Navy was disbanded for economy.

So the new nation was in no position to remonstrate with the Dey of Algiers when in 1793 his warships started to plunder American merchantmen in and around the Mediterranean. During October and November of that year alone, eleven ships were taken and 113 Americans were imprisoned and held for ransom. Consuls general represented this country at the Barbary States in those days, and it was humbling to hear that some of the Deys [breed them to enter the Presence by creeping under wooden bars and kissing the Dey’s hands.

Such reports—and the continually rising ransom prices—finally stirred the government to call the Dey’s blufl. The Naval Act of 1794 called for six frigates, three of 44 guns each, of which the Constitution was one, and three of 36 guns, one of them the Constellation . Congress let the bill squeak through, by a margin of two votes, but only after attaching a rider stipulating that all work on the frigates would be halted if a treaty were reached with the Deys.

The Constellation’s troubles started at once. Three designers fought over the plans. Finally construction started in Baltimore, but the work went slowly and amidst considerable confusion.

A year after the passage of the Naval Act, only the bare ribs of the Constellation poked into the air. Supplies of cordage and live oak were fouled up somewhere. Then, to cap everything oil, a peace treaty was negotiated with Algiers. All work on the frigates stopped immediately.

There followed more arguments in Congress, at the end of which a supplementary act was passed authorizing the completion of three of the frigates. One was the Constellation .

On September 7, 1797, three years after the original go-ahead signal, the frigate Constellation was finally launched. She was 164 feet long and she had twenty-eight 24-pound guns in her main deck battery and twelve or more 12-pound guns on her spar deck.

By this time the Administration had nearly forgotten about the Barbary pirates because our merchant ships were having so much trouble with the French. As part of their war effort against the British, French ships were scizing and sometimes sinking or burning neutral American ships suspected of carrying goods to and from England. An estimated 316 American vessels were captured between July, 1796, and July, 1797. Finally, so that no mistake would be made about its intentions, the French government recalled its minister and refused to accept one from the United States. The naval war that followed was undeclared, but it was war nevertheless.

The captain of the Constellation was Thomas Truxtun, a red-laced, bewigged, gouty martinet who schooled his junior officers so well that he is frequently called “The Father of the Navy.” Truxtun ran a taut ship, as evidenced by what happened when the Constellation got to sea.

With as large a force as could be scraped tip, the Constellation sailed for the West Indies, to search out and attack elements of the French Navy at one of their main bases. And for once the Constellation had a stroke of good luck. She was the first to sight a French warship.

It was the Insurgente , new and last. But the Constellation was faster, and fifteen miles off the west coast of the island of Nevis on February 9, 1799, the battle started.