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The Hard-luck Frigate
After a century and a half of misadventure, the Constellation (if she is still the Constellation ) returns home
February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
But the jinx finally got Truxtun. An officious and overbearing disciplinarian, he was also the best allaround captain in the young Navy. But his successes against the French made him even more conceited than he had been before. When assigned to a new command in the Mediterranean, he got into a petty fight with the Navy Department over rank and seniority. Finally, discredited and maligned, he took oil his blue coat and epaulets (but not his white naval wig, which he wore until the day he died). Not many Americans today know Thomas Truxtun as well as they do John Paul Jones and Isaac Hull and David Farragut. They should.
The difference between the hardluck Constellation under Truxtun and under her other skippers was almost immediately apparent. On a particularly hapless cruise, running from the West Indies to New York, she sighted another warship, came up on her in the dark and exchanged shots before the skipper found out she was a British ship. This was embarrassing, and did little to improve the Constellation’s , low morale. Her captain now was Alexander Murray—old, crotchety, deal, with an unhappy habit of picking fights with his junior officers and disciplining them severely for minor infractions. He returned from one cruise with two of his officers in irons, and so harsh had been his treatment of them that the Navy Department removed him from command. On this cruise of the Constellation , Murray had hardly recovered his temper when he sighted, chased and captured a three-masted French lugger—only to discover from her disgusted captain that he was acting illegally because the war had ended. The Constellation was destined for more such comic-opera cruises, now that Truxtun was gone.
Meanwhile the Bashaw of Tripoli had captured some American prisoners and was holding them for ransom. But this time, the Bashaw was bluntly notified that no ransom would be forthcoming. He “declared war.” Off to the Mediterranean went a fleet including the Constellation .
During this “war” the frigate Philadelphia distinguished herself in a reverse way by running aground in the harbor of Tripoli while chasing a blockade runner. Stephen Decatur and a brave little band slipped into the harbor in a captured Tripolitan ketch and burned her. But there was not even the excitement of being captured for the Constellation . Presently a violent storm damaged her so much that she had to return to the States.
For nearly seven years she lay rotting in New York. Her spars and topmast were sent down. Her paint peeled. Barnacles encrusted her hull. Dry rot ate at her planks and even some of her main beams. That was what she was like at the outbreak of the War of 1812.
The War of 1812 was the time of glory for many of the new Navy’s frigates. While the United States was defeating the British Macedonian , the Constitution was winning her undying lame by beating the Java and destroying the famous Guerrière . Meanwhile what of the Constellation ? En route south for repairs, she had gone aground on a sand bar, turned over at low tide and sunk. Finally she was towed to Norfolk for refitting. It was January, 1813, before she was ready for sea again. Dropping down to Hampton Roads, she ran into a British blockade and turned back. During the rest of the War of 1812, while other frigates made America a world maritime power, the refitted but unfortunate Constellation lay in the James River, engaging in desultory target practice. Once she saw some “action” when a little band of British boats tried to land some troops near Norfolk. Constellation sailors and marines, almost delirious over the prospect of something to do, fired on the boats from the frigate, manned artillery on the shore and repulsed the landing. It was the Constellation ’s only engagement in the entire war.
Meanwhile the Barbary pirates had taken advantage of the War of 1812 and were again on the rampage. Again they “declared war” on the United States. Again a Barbary “navy” captured the crews of two American ships and held them for ransom. Another fleet that included the Constellation took off for the Mediterranean. With rare good luck the Constellation was in the lead when the fleet came upon the big Algerian flagship Meshouda . With her usual bad luck, the Constellation only succeeded in driving the Meshouda under the guns of two other American ships. They promptly made and got credit for the kill, an unusually important one that included the Algerian admiral, Rais Hamida. The Dey capitulated and most of the fleet sailed home, leaving the Constellation the dreary job of staying behind and enforcing the terms of the new treaty.
For the next 45 years she had one uneventful cruise after another, in the West Indies, along the coasts of South America, across the Atlantic and back in the Mediterranean. In 1842 she went to the Far East but arrived too late to take part in the Opium War. In 1853-54 sne spent a year in the repair yard again. By 1861 she had the unenviable task of patrolling the coast of Africa, chasing slavers.