Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy | Chapter 19 of 41 - Part: 1 of 3

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During his diplomatic service in France two decades earlier, Jefferson had repeatedly been warned that the Barbary States were perfectly situated to blackmail any nation desiring access to the Mediterranean trade routes. Their proximity to passing ship traffic, the difficulty of blockading their harbors, their lack of maritime commerce upon which to retaliate—all of these factors united to make war against the Barbary powers expensive and frustrating. The only realistic military options were large-scale naval operations or troop landings, and both alternatives were more costly and more risky than the time-worn path of bribery and tribute.

Though he had been fairly warned, it seemed as if Jefferson was destined to learn these lessons the hard way. The conflict with Tripoli was no closer to resolution in 1803 than it had been in 1801. As devoted as he was to strict economy in government, Jefferson could not fail to notice that the funds spent to keep a squadron active in the Mediterranean had surpassed the highest estimates of what it would take simply to bribe Yusuf off. After two years in office, the president appeared willing to reconsider the wisdom of his hawkish policy.

The first two years of the U.S.-Tripolitan War proved the rule that good officers are more important than good ships. Three months were required to carry dispatches from Washington to Gibraltar and back. The voyage between Gibraltar and Tripoli added another three weeks, at least. When a commodore sailed from the American coast, he might as well have been transported to another planet. If he proved complacent, inefficient, or incompetent, there was no way to correct the error until months had passed.

Commodore Richard Dale’s tour began with a stormy transatlantic passage in which the President and her consorts labored through violent head seas and heavy squalls. The flagship’s deck seams opened and she leaked badly into her lower decks. When the battered squadron crept into Gibraltar Bay on July 1, 1801, Dale learned that Tripoli had indeed declared war on the United States six weeks earlier. Complying with his orders, Dale dispatched most of his squadron to blockade Tripoli. From the start, however, the attempted blockade was feeble and intermittent. The unfamiliar harbor was protected by uncharted reefs and rocks, and the deep-draft American frigates could not safely approach the main channel. Frequent gales sent a heavy swell on shore, requiring the blockading vessels to gain sea room or risk being thrown onto the enemy’s beach. The nearest safe harbor was on the island of Malta, two or three days’ sail against the prevailing winds. The squadron was not numerous enough to maintain a constant presence in the offing; its vessels needed to rotate back into port frequently for reprovisioning and refitting.

Discouraged by the difficulty of the blockade and fearful of losing his ships, Dale concentrated his efforts on providing convoys to American merchantmen. The only fighting of his tour took place on August 1, when the schooner Enterprise, commanded by Lieutenant Andrew Sterrett (the same Sterrett who had served under Truxtun on the Constellation, and who had executed an American sailor for cowardice during the L’Insurgente action), engaged a Tripolitan 14-gun galley commanded by Admiral Rais Mahomet Rous. In a three-hour battle, the outgunned galley lost sixty men, while the Enterprise, incredibly, lost none. The Tripolitans twice lowered their colors, only to resume fighting when the Americans approached to take possession of the surrendered vessel. Sterrett, believing that he did not have authorization to make the galley a prize, ordered her masts cut away and her guns thrown into the sea. Thus crippled, she was permitted to return to Tripoli. Yusuf, infuriated, ordered the ship’s admiral beaten and forced to ride backward on a donkey through the streets of the city while wearing a necklace of sheep entrails.

In his first annual message to the Congress in December 1801, Jefferson acknowledged that “some difference of opinion may be expected to appear” among the Republicans with regard to naval operations, but that “a small force will probably continue to be wanted for actual service in the Mediterranean.” In February 1802, Congress granted authority to “subdue, seize and make prize of all vessels, goods and effects, belonging to the Bashaw of Tripoli, or to his subjects.” The navy was authorized to recruit American seamen for terms of up to two years. Secretary Smith ordered a relief squadron, including the frigates Constellation and Chesapeake, to sail for the Mediterranean. Dale’s ships would return to the United States, discharge their crews, and undergo needed repairs and refitting.

The administration continued to regard Truxtun as the navy’s most talented officer, and in January 1802 Secretary Smith offered him the command of the relief squadron preparing to sail from Hampton Roads. Accepting the commission, Truxtun traveled to Norfolk to prepare the Chesapeake for sea. The Chesapeake was the smallest of the original six frigates, and Truxtun deemed her too humble to serve as his flagship. He would have preferred his old command, the Constellation, or one of the 44s—but for various reasons none was available. Chesapeake’s lieutenants were young and untrained, and it looked at if he would have to promote one or more midshipmen to fill out their ranks. The inexperience of his officers would force Truxtun to involve himself deeply in the tedious details of readying the frigate for sea.

The answer to his problems, Truxtun decided, was for Smith to send him a flag captain—an officer who stood below him on the captain’s list and who would direct everything pertaining to the Chesapeake and her crew, freeing the commodore to attend to the squadron and the war. Truxtun did not ask for a flag captain. He demanded one. Informing the Navy Secretary that “I have a reputation to lose which I am very tenacious of,” the malcontented commodore presented an ultimatum. If no flag captain could be found to sail with the Chesapeake, “I must beg leave to quit the service.”

The threat to resign may have been a bargaining ploy. But Smith had reached the end of his tolerance for Truxtun’s Olympian ego and his high, whining tone. No flag captain was available for the Chesapeake, Smith replied on March 13, and therefore: “I cannot but consider your notification as absolute.” Without giving Truxtun a chance to respond, Smith struck his name off the navy rolls and ordered Richard Valentine Morris to travel immediately to Norfolk to assume command of the Chesapeake and the relief squadron.

Had Smith foreseen the consequences of appointing Morris, he might have gone to any lengths to appease Truxtun. Morris (nephew of Gouverneur Morris, the famous financier and diplomat of the American Revolution) was a disastrous choice. Against advice he chose to bring his pregnant wife and young son along for the cruise. Sailing from Norfolk on April 14, the Chesapeake was tossed in heavy seas and sprang her mainmast. On her arrival in Gibraltar in late May, Morris reported: “I never was at sea in so uneasy a ship; in fact, it was with the greatest difficulty we saved our masts from rolling over the side.” For much of the next seven months, Morris would keep the frigate in port, undergoing long and leisurely repairs.

Morris’s orders had directed him to “place all our naval force under your command before Tripoli.” From the start, however, Morris showed little or no interest in blockading Tripoli. The junior officers came to believe that Mrs. Morris was the real source of authority on board, and clandestinely referred to her as the “Commodoress.” Her principal interest seemed to be to keep the flagship in port as much as possible. Mrs. Morris gave birth to a baby boy in the hospital at Malta, while the Chesapeake lay at anchor for five consecutive months in the Grand Harbor of Valetta. As a gesture in the direction of his orders, Morris sent Captain Alexander Murray and the Constellation to blockade Tripoli; but Murray soon realized that the deep-draft Constellation was no more suitable for operating in the uncharted shoal waters off Tripoli than her sister, the President, had been under Commodore Dale. Tripolitan galleys and gunboats were able to slip out of the harbor by sailing along the shore, using their superior knowledge of the passages through the shoals.

Jefferson and his cabinet were rapidly losing faith. The failure of the blockade was not the worst of it: Morris’s dispatches were so obtuse that the president and his secretaries found it difficult to piece together what was happening in the Mediterranean. “I have for some time believed that Commodore Morris’s conduct would require investigation,” Jefferson told Gallatin. “His progress from Gibraltar has been astonishing.” In September 1803, Morris was recalled to the United States, where he would face a court of inquiry and be summarily dismissed from the navy.

Thus far, all that the United States had accomplished was to make a show of naval force in the Mediterranean. The galleys and feluccas of the Barbary fleets were no match for the big American frigates, and they dared not challenge them directly. But naval superiority would not matter in the end. The corsairs could sally out from the harbors, seize unprotected merchantmen, and retreat to safety before the squadron could react. These tactics would never pose a direct threat to the American frigates, but—as a Tunisian minister told William Eaton, the American consul in Tunis—“though a fly in a man’s throat cannot kill him, it will make him vomit!”

But there was another, more important consideration. The futility of American naval operations had eroded American prestige in the Mediterranean. The United States, its envoys warned, was on the verge of becoming a general laughingstock throughout the region, and the result might weaken the American bargaining position in future negotiations with the other Barbary powers. Eaton expressed his concern to Madison in August 1802: “Our operations of the last and present have produced nothing in effect but additional enemies and national contempt. If the same system of operations continue, so will the same consequences…. The [Tunisian] minister puffs a whistle in my face, and says; ‘we find it is all a puff! We see how you carry on the war with Tripoli!’”

Bribing Yusuf began to look like a more palatable option. “I sincerely wish you could reconcile it to yourself to empower our negotiators to give…an annuity to Tripoli,” Gallatin wrote the president that August; “I consider it no greater disgrace to pay them than Algiers.” Stressing debt reduction above all other objectives, the Treasury Secretary urged Jefferson to consider it as a “mere matter of calculation whether the purchase of peace is not cheaper than the expense of a war.” In a cabinet meeting the following May, Jefferson put the question to his department heads: “Shall we buy peace with Tripoli?” The response was unanimously in the affirmative.

But Jefferson was not quite ready to pull his frigates back from the Mediterranean. He would continue to pursue—as he put it to Madison in his reticent way—“a steady course of justice aided occasionally with liberality.” To put it differently, the navy would continue to make a show of force in the Mediterranean, but American diplomats would not be slow to offer bribes, ransom, and tribute when it appeared that peace could be bought on reasonable terms. The Bashaw of Tripoli would be offered a financial settlement in exchange for renewing the peace. Until a deal was done, however, the war would carry on.

Two commodores had disappointed Jefferson’s hopes. Secretary Smith was determined that the third, Edward Preble, should succeed where his predecessors had failed.


ON THE MORNING OF MAY 21, 1803, Boston Harbor was swept by breezes under cloudy skies. It was the busiest month of the year, with vessels of every description preparing for sea and taking on cargoes. At her moorings was the USS Constitution, the 44-gun frigate that had been launched from nearby Hartt’s Shipyard six years earlier. Joshua Humphreys had never laid eyes on her, but she was his ship, his design. Built on the same lines as the United States, she was 204 feet long from her Hercules figurehead to her taffrail; she displaced more than 2,000 tons of water. She was almost certainly the largest ship in the harbor that day.

Having been laid up in ordinary for more than ten months, she would have looked lonely and bare, stripped of her guns, masts, boats, anchors, and most of her men. Originally, her hull had been painted ochre with a black wale strake, her two uppermost panels vibrant blue and red, and her taffrail gold; but now the paint was faded and peeling, contributing to the overall impression that she had been neglected and unloved. She would need a good deal of work to be made respectable, let alone seaworthy.

Her new captain, Edward Preble, was from Falmouth (later Portland), a small seaport town in the northern, non-contiguous district of Massachusetts (later Maine). Preble was a small, wiry man, with the sharp, prominent nose and cold, piercing eyes of a bird of prey. His coloring was “that of a fair-skinned man who had spent many years at sea,” and his hair was close-cropped and combed forward in front, giving him the look of an ancient Roman general. He suffered from ulcers that kept him in a bad temper for weeks at a time; his subordinates quickly learned that he was prone to explode without warning into fits of rage.

As an adolescent, during the Revolution, Preble had served as a midshipman in the Massachusetts state navy. When his ship, the 26-gun Protector, was captured in May 1781, it was Preble’s bad luck to be imprisoned in the notorious prison ship Jersey. The Jersey had once been a 64-gun Royal Navy battleship, but in 1781 she was a blackened and rotting hulk, permanently anchored in Wallabout Bay in New York’s East River, near the present-day site of the Manhattan Bridge. Mortality rates for prisoners of war in the Jersey almost certainly exceeded 50 percent; an estimated eleven thousand American prisoners died while confined in her lower decks. The stench of waste and death was so powerful that boats would not approach her from leeward. Newly arrived prisoners inoculated themselves against smallpox by making a small cut in their arms and massaging in a bit of blood or pus taken from one of the sick. One survivor told the editor of the Niles’ Register that “the hardest battle he ever fought in his life was with a fellow prisoner on board of the Jersey; and the object of contention was the putrefied carcass of a starved rat.” Each morning the guards opened the hatches and shouted down to the living to turn out the dead. Burial details took the bodies in boats to the beach, heaved them into shallow trenches, and threw a layer of sand over them. Heads and limbs were left jutting from the surface. When it rained, bodies sometimes washed into the river and floated out to sea.

Preble was fortunate. His imprisonment in the Jersey lasted only two months before a parole was negotiated and he was permitted to move to lodgings in New York. During those weeks, however, he nearly died of typhoid fever, and he continued to suffer from bad health for the rest of his life.

In the postwar years, Preble served as master or supercargo on several merchantmen. At the outset of the Quasi War, in April 1798, he received a naval lieutenant’s commission and a year later was promoted captain. As commander of the USS Essex in 1799, he sailed to Jakarta to fetch home a convoy of stranded merchantmen. It was the longest voyage that had ever been made by an American naval vessel, and the first beyond Cape Hope.

Preble had hoped to have the Constitution at sea in three weeks, but an inspection of the hull using iron rakes and boat hooks showed that the copper sheathing was “ragged and full of small holes with a quantity of grass and sea moss.” The original panels, imported from England at great cost in 1797, would have to be torn off and replaced. The careening and coppering operations would require a minimum of seven to eight weeks.

Within days of his arrival, Preble had whipped the Boston naval establishment into a paroxysm of activity. While the Constitution lay in ordinary, her guns had been loaned to the shore battery at Castle Island, which guarded the approaches to Boston’s inner harbor. The huge iron weapons would have to be transported, one by one, up the harbor to Charlestown Wharf. An inspection of the rigging and stores, laid up in the Charlestown warehouses, was discouraging. Examining the huge coils of tarred hemp, Preble judged that some of it was in passable condition but much was decayed and useless. The ship would need new anchor cables, and most of her old powder would have to be discarded. New blocks and rigging would have to be built and fitted.

On May 28, in a dead calm, the ship was warped across the harbor to May’s Wharf, where she would be hove down for the replacement of her copper sheathing. It was a complicated and costly operation. But the replacement copper, at least, would not have to be imported from Europe, because high-quality copper sheets were now being manufactured at a local mill owned by an entrepreneur named Paul Revere. Revere’s copper, Preble wrote, was “good, and of proper thickness.”


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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