Author: Ian W. Toll

Title: "Six Frigates – The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy"

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co. 2006; 467 pages

Ian W. Toll acknowledges the U.S. Navy started during the American Revolution, taking note of the “truly remarkable naval victory” on Sept. 23, 1779, when John Paul Jones in the 40-gun Bonhomme Richard, a converted merchant ship, defeated the 50-gun British frigate Serapis.

With the end of the revolution, increased American shipping was being attacked by the Barbary Pirates of North Africa with ships and cargoes being taken and the crews being forced into slavery or held for ransom. An early American response was to pay tribute to rulers who never stayed bought.

Toll sees the March 1794 Act to Provide a Naval Armament as the founding of the U.S. Navy. Congress appropriated “the then-colossal sum of $688,888” to build or buy four frigates rated for 44 guns and two frigates rated at 36 guns. Naval architect Joshua Humphreys’ design was for “exceptionally large, heavily armed, fast-sailing frigates — ships weighing well over 1,000 tons, with a deck length of not less than 175 feet, mounting a battery of 30 24-pounder long guns on the gun deck and a smaller battery of carronades on the upper deck.”

The British Navy was dominated by two types of warships: the 74-gun battleship and the 36- or 38-gun frigates. Humphreys believed his design was superior to any British frigate and could either out gun in heavy weather a British battleship or outrun any battleship.

In the construction of these ships, “the southern live oak … found only in the southeastern United States” was used, proving to be invaluable. Over time, with stops and starts, all six frigates were built and served in the U.S. Navy. They were the United States, President, Congress and Constitution at 44 guns and the Constellation and Chesapeake at 36 guns.

The first major victory of these ships was scored by the Constellation during the “Quasi-War” with France, when, in February 1799, she defeated and captured L’Insurgente. By 1805, several of these frigates temporarily subdued the Barbary Pirates only to see the United States being once again at odds with Great Britain. Great Britain and other European countries were at war with France. With its worldwide empire and the need to blockade and defeat France, the British Navy, which was the world’s largest, needed more men. This led to the impressment of sailors off of American ships, which ultimately led to the War of 1812, which was first declared by the United States.

On paper, the United States Navy was no match for Great Britain, but the British suffered several embarrassing defeats in the first months of the war. In August 1812, the Constitution defeated the Guerriere, one of whose shots bounced off the Constitution, thus forever giving her the nickname of  “Old Ironsides.” In October 1812, the British frigate Macedonian was taken by the United States. In December 1812, the Constitution defeated the British frigate Java. Not a great start to the War of 1812 for the British, but they soon made up for it, with a few rare exceptions, by blockading the U.S. Navy in its ports. In June 1813, the British frigate Shannon challenged the Chesapeake in Boston harbor to come out for a fair fight as both ships were of about the same size. Shannon was much better prepared and quickly defeated Chesapeake.

With control of the American coast, the British launched a few invasions to punish and destroy, which resulted in the burning of government buildings in Washington, D.C., but an attempt to capture Fort McHenry and Baltimore failed. The British were more concerned about defeating France, and the war with America was not widely popular.

The treaty ending the War of 1812 was signed in Ghent, Belgium, on Christmas Eve 1814, but the news took months to get to the various ships and forces, thus leading to the capture by the British of the president and the disastrous defeat of the British Army at the Battle of New Orleans, both of which took place after the treaty was signed.

Toll writes: “What was remembered and cherished about the War of 1812, above all, was the fact America’s tiny fleet had shocked and humbled the mightiest navy the world had ever known.”

Of those six original frigates, only the Constitution remains afloat, being the oldest commissioned vessel in the U.S. Navy. Toll has written an excellent and very readable history of the founding of the U.S. Navy.

Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge. Wefald became a lawyer in 1970. His career included serving a year as a law clerk, four years as attorney general, more than 23 years in private practice in Bismarck and 12 years as a judge. He served as an officer in the Navy for three years of active duty, plus 24 years in the Navy Reserve.

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