USS Chesapeake (1799)

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Name: USS Chesapeake
Namesake: Chesapeake Bay[1]
Ordered: 27 March 1794[2]
Builder: Josiah Fox[1]
Cost: $220,677[3]
Laid down: December 1795[4]
Launched: 2 December 1799[1]
Commissioned: 22 May 1800[1]
Captured: 1 June 1813[1]
General characteristics (1813)
Class and type: 38-gun Frigate[5][Note 1]
Tonnage: 1,244[3]
Length: 152.6 ft (46.5 m) between perpendiculars[6]
Beam: 41.3 ft (12.6 m)[1]
Draft: 20 ft (6.1 m)[1]
Depth of hold: 13.9 ft (4.2 m)[6]
Decks: Orlop, Berth, Gun, Spar
Propulsion: Sail
Complement: 340 officers and enlisted[6]

29 x 18-pounder (8 kg) long guns
18 x 32-pounder (14.5 kg) carronades
2 x 12-pounder long guns (5.5 kg)

1 x 12-pounder (5.5 kg) carronade[7]

USS Chesapeake was a 38-gun sailing frigate of the United States Navy and one of the original six frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Act of 1794. Joshua Humphreys originally designed Chesapeake as a 44-gun frigate. Builder Josiah Fox altered her design to 38-guns. Launched at the Gosport Navy Yard on 2 December 1799 Chesapeake began her career during the Quasi War with France and saw service in the First Barbary War.

On 22 June 1807, in what has become known as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair—a cause leading up to the War of 1812, she was fired upon by HMS Leopard for refusing to comply with a search for deserters from the Royal Navy. This angered the American populace and government and led to the court-martial of James Barron.

Early in the War of 1812, she made one patrol and captured five British merchant ships before returning. She was captured by HMS Shannon shortly after sailing from Boston, Massachusetts on 1 June 1813. The Royal Navy took her into their service as HMS Chesapeake where she served until her timbers were broken up and sold in 1820; they're now part of the Chesapeake Mill.

Design and construction

During the 1790s American merchant vessels began to fall prey to Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean, most notably from Algiers. Congress's response was the Naval Act of 1794.[8] The Act provided funds for the construction of six frigates; however, it included a clause stating that construction of the ships would cease if the United States agreed to peace terms with Algiers.[9][10]

Joshua Humphreys' design was long on keel and narrow of beam (width) for mounting very heavy guns. The design incorporated a diagonal scantling (rib) scheme to limit hogging while giving the ships extremely heavy planking. This gave the hull greater strength than those of more lightly built frigates. Humphreys developed his design after realizing that the fledgling United States could not match the navy sizes of the European states. He therefore designed his frigates to be able to overpower other frigates, but with the speed to escape from a ship of the line.[11][12][13]

Originally designated as "Frigate D", the ship remained unnamed for several years. Her keel was laid down in December 1795 at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia where Josiah Fox had been appointed her naval constructor and Richard Dale as superintendent of construction. In March 1796, a peace accord was announced between the United States and Algiers and, in accordance with the Naval Act of 1794, construction was suspended. The keel remained on blocks in the Navy Yard for two years.[2][4]

In 1798 the onset of the Quasi-War with France prompted Congress to authorize completion of "Frigate D" and they approved so on 16 July. When Fox returned to Norfolk he discovered a shortage of timber caused by its diversion from Norfolk to Baltimore in order to finish Constellation. Subsequently he began correspondence with Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert in which Stoddert desired to expedite construction of the ship and reduce the overall cost. Fox submitted new design plans to Stoddert which called for utilizing the existing keel designed for a 44-gun ship but reducing the overall dimensions substantially in length and partially of beam. Fox's plans essentially proposed an entirely different design than originally planned by Humphreys. Fox had always been an opponent to Humphreys's large design of the frigates and it's possible he seized the opportunity to make alterations to his own liking. Regardless, Secretary Stoddert approved the new design plans.[14][15][16] When construction finished on Chesapeake, she had the smallest dimensions out of all six frigates. A length of 152.8 ft (46.6 m) between perpendiculars and 41.3 ft (12.6 m) of beam contrasted with her closest sisters, Congress and Constellation which were built to 164 ft (50 m) in length and 41 ft (12 m) of beam.[14][17][18] The final cost of her construction was $220,677—only second to the least expensive frigate of the six—Congress at $197,246.[3]

During her construction, a sloop named Chesapeake was launched on 20 June 1799 but renamed Patapsco between 10 October and 14 November apparently to free up the name Chesapeake for "Frigate D".[19] Further confusing matters was that in communications between Fox and Stoddert, Fox repeatedly referred to her as Congress until informed by Stoddert the ship was to be named Chesapeake. Of all the six frigates, Chesapeake was the only one not named by President George Washington, or after a principle of the United States Constitution.[14][20]


See also: Naval artillery in the Age of Sail

Chesapeake's gun rating is stated as either 38 or 36-guns.[Note 1] Originally designated as a 44-gun ship, her redesign by Fox led to a rerating; apparently based on her smaller dimensions to those of Congress and Constellation. Joshua Humphreys may have rerated Chesapeake to 38-guns[24] or Secretary Stoddert rerated Congress and Constellation to 38s because they were larger than Chesapeake and she was rated to 36-guns.[21] The most recent information on her rating is from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships which states she was rerated "from 44 guns to 36, eventually increased to 38".[1] However, her gun rating was a matter of confusion throughout her career. In addition to Fox calling the ship Congress, he also used a 44-gun rating in his correspondence with Secretary Stoddert.[20] In preparing for the War of 1812, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton directed Captain Samuel Evans to recruit the number of crewman required for a 44-gun ship. Hamilton was corrected by William Bainbridge via a letter stating: "There is a mistake in the crew ordered for the Chesapeake, as it equals in number the crews of our 44-gun frigates, whereas the Chesapeake is of the class of the Congress and Constellation."[26]

Yet, gun ratings did not correspond to the actual number of guns a ship would carry. Chesapeake was noted as carrying forty guns during her encounter with HMS Leopard and fifty guns during her engagement with HMS Shannon in 1813. The fifty guns consisted of 28 x 18-pounder (8 kg) long cannon on the gun deck, 14 on each side. This main battery was complemented by two long 12-pounders, (5.5 kg) one long 18-pounder, eighteen 32-pounder (14.5 kg) carronades, and one 12-pound carronade on the spar deck. Her broadside weight was 542 pounds (246 kg).[7][27]

Unlike modern Navy vessels, ships of this era had no permanent battery of guns. Guns were completely portable and often were exchanged between ships as situations warranted. Each commanding officer modified his vessel's armaments to his liking, taking into consideration factors such as the overall tonnage of cargo, complement of personnel aboard, and planned routes to be sailed. Consequently, a vessel's armament would change often during its career; records of the changes were not generally kept.[28]


See also: Quasi-War

Chesapeake was launched without ceremony on 2 December 1799 and her fitting-out continued through May 1800. In March, Josiah Fox was reprimanded by Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert for continuing to work on Chesapeake while Congress was fully manned with a crew drawing pay but still awaiting completion. Stoddert appointed Thomas Truxton to ensure that his directives were carried out towards Congress.[29]

Chesapeake first put to sea on 22 May commanded by Captain Samuel Barron and marked her departure from Norfolk with a 13-gun salute.[30] Her first assignment was to carry currency from Charleston, South Carolina to Philadelphia[31] and on 6 June 1800 she joined a squadron patrolling off the southern coast of the United States and in the West Indies escorting American merchant ships.[32]

Capturing the French privateer La Jeune Creole on 1 January 1801 after a chase lasting fifty hours, she returned to Norfolk with her prize on 15 January. Chesapeake returned briefly to the West Indies in February and soon after a peace treaty was ratified with France. She returned to Norfolk and decommissioned on 26 February and subsequently placed in ordinary.[32]

First Barbary War

See also: First Barbary War
File:Mediterranean Relief.jpg
Mediterranean Sea area of operation

During the Quasi-War, the United States paid tribute to the Barbary States to ensure that they would not seize or harass American merchant ships.[33] In 1801 Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli, dissatisfied with the amount of tribute in comparison to that paid to Algiers, demanded an immediate payment of $250,000.[34] Thomas Jefferson responded by sending a squadron of warships to protect American merchant ships in the Mediterranean and pursue peace with the Barbary States.[35][36] The first squadron was under the command of Richard Dale in President and the second was assigned to the command of Richard Valentine Morris in Chesapeake. Morris's squadron eventually consisted of the vessels Constellation, New York, John Adams, Adams, and Enterprise. Some months were occupied in getting the vessels ready for sea; they departed individually as they became readied.[37][38]

Chesapeake departed from Hampton Roads on 27 April 1802, bound for the Mediterranean and arrived at Gibraltar on 25 May immediately putting in for repairs to her main mast, which had split during the voyage.[39] Morris remained at Gibraltar while awaiting word as to the location of his squadron, as several of them had not reported in. On 22 July Adams arrived with belated orders for Morris, dated 20 April. Those orders were to "lay the whole squadron before Tripoli" and treat for peace.[40] Morris and Chesapeake departed Gibraltar on 17 August bound for Leghorn in company with Enterprise providing protection for a convoy of merchant ships to intermediate ports. Morris made several stops in various ports finally arriving at Leghorn on 12 October and then sailed to Malta where Chesapeake needed repairs for a rotted bowsprit.[41][42] Chesapeake was still in port when John Adams arrived on 5 January 1803 with orders dated 23 October 1802 from Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, directing Chesapeake and Constellation to return to the United States. Morris was to transfer his command to New York.[43] Constellation sailed directly as ordered however, Morris retained Chesapeake at Malta as she was not in a condition to make an Atlantic voyage during the winter months.[44]

Now gathered under Morris were the ships New York, John Adams and Enterprise while Adams was at Gibraltar.[44] On 30 January Chesapeake and the squadron got underway for Tripoli where Morris planned to burn Tripolitan ships in the harbor. Heavy gales made the approach to Tripoli difficult and fearing Chesapeake would lose her masts, Morris returned to Malta on 10 February.[45][46] With provisions for the ships running low and none available near Malta, Morris decided to abandon plans to blockade Tripoli and sail the squadron back to Gibraltar for provisioning. They made stops at Tunis on 22 February and Algiers on 19 March. Chesapeake arrived at Gibraltar on the 23rd where Morris transferred his command to New York.[47] Under James Barron, Chesapeake sailed for the United States on 7 April and she was placed in ordinary at the Washington Navy Yard on 1 June.[48]

Morris remained in the Mediterranean until September when orders from Secretary Smith arrived suspending his command and instructing him to return to the United States. There he faced a Board of Inquiry which found that he was censurable for "inactive and dilatory conduct of the squadron under his command" and dismissed from the Navy in 1804.[49][50] Morris's overall performance in the Mediterranean has been particularly criticized for the state of affairs aboard Chesapeake and his inactions as a commander. His wife, young son and housekeeper accompanied him on the voyage and Mrs. Morris gave birth to a son while there. Midshipman Henry Wadsworth wrote that he and the other midshipman referred to Mrs. Morris as the "Commodoress" and believed she was the main reason behind Chesapeake remaining in port for months at a time.[51][52] Consul William Eaton reported to Secretary Smith that Morris and his squadron spent more time in port sightseeing and doing little but "dance and wench".[53]

Chesapeake–Leopard Affair

Chesapeake fires her only shot upon Leopard

In January 1807 Master Commandant Charles Gordon was appointed Chesapeake's commanding officer (Captain) and ordered to prepare her for patrol and convoy duty in the Mediterranean to relieve her sister ship Constitution which had been on duty there since 1803. James Barron was appointed overall commander of the squadron as its Commodore.[54][55] Chesapeake was in much disarray from her several year period of inactivity and several months were required for needed repairs, provisioning and recruitment of personnel.[56] Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair was tasked with the recruiting and among those chosen were three sailors who had deserted from HMS Melampus. The English minister to the United States requested the return of the sailors but Barron found that although they were indeed from Melampus, they had been impressed into Royal Navy service from the beginning. He therefore refused to release them back to Melampus and nothing further was communicated on the subject.[57][58]

In early June Chesapeake departed the Washington Navy Yard for Norfolk Virginia where she completed provisioning and loading armaments. Capitan Gordon informed Barron on the 19th that Chesapeake was ready for sea and they departed on 21 June armed with a total of forty guns.[27] At the same time a British squadron consisting of HMS Melampus, Bellona, and Leopard were operating in the area to intercept French shipping. Leopard also got underway and preceded Chesapeake to sea.[57][59]

After some hours of sailing Leopard approached Chesapeake hailing a request to deliver dispatches to England; a customary request of the time.[60] When a British lieutenant arrived by boat he handed Barron an order given by Vice-Admiral Berkley of the Royal Navy which instructed their ships to stop and board Chesapeake to search for deserters. Barron refused to allow this search and as the lieutenant returned to Leopard Barron ordered the crew to general quarters.[61] Shortly afterward Leopard hailed Chesapeake but Barron could not understand the message and Leopard fired a shot across the bow and then fired a broadside at Chesapeake. For fifteen minutes while Chesapeake attempted to arm herself, Leopard continued to fire broadside after broadside until Barron struck his colors. Chesapeake only managed to fire one retaliatory shot after hot coals from the galley were brought on deck to ignite the cannon.[62] The British boarded Chesapeake and carried off four crewmen, declining Barron's offer that Chesapeake be taken as a prize of war.[63] Chesapeake had three sailors killed and Barron was among the eighteen wounded.[64]

In Norfolk, word of the incident spread quickly upon Chesapeake's return. The British squadron of which Leopard was a part of had been drawing supplies there until mobs of angry citizens destroyed two hundred water casks destined for the squadron and nearly killed a British lieutenant before local authorities intervened. President Jefferson recalled all U.S. warships from the Mediterranean and issued a proclamation banning all British warships from entering U.S. ports and forcing those already in port to depart. The incident eventually led to the Embargo Act of 1807.[65][66]

Chesapeake was completely unprepared to defend herself during the incident. None of her guns were primed for operation and the spar deck was filled with materials that were not properly stowed in the cargo hold.[67] A court martial was convened for Barron and Capitan Gordon as well as Lieutenant Hall of the Marines. Barron was found guilty of "neglecting on the probability of an engagement to clear his Ship for action" and suspended from the Navy for five years. Gordon and Hall were privately reprimanded and the ship's gunner was discharged from the navy.[68][69]

War of 1812

Captain James Lawrence
See also: War of 1812

After the heavy damage inflicted by Leopard, Chesapeake returned to Norfolk for repairs. Under the command of Stephen Decatur she made patrols off the New England coast enforcing the laws of the Embargo Act through 1809.[70]

The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair and later the Little Belt Affair contributed to the United States' decision to declare war on Britain on 18 June 1812. Chesapeake was prepared for duty in the Atlantic under the command of Captain Samuel Evans.[71] Beginning on 13 December, she ranged from Madeira and traveled clockwise to Cape Verde Islands to South America and then back to Boston. She captured four British ships,Volunteer, Liverpool Hero, Earl Percy, and Ellen, one American ship trading under a British license, brig Julia, and one American ship recaptured from British privateers, Valeria, as prizes. During the cruise, she was chased by an unknown British ship-of-the-line and frigate, but after a passing storm squall, the two pursuing ships were gone the next morning. The cargo of Volunteer was 40 tons of pig iron and copper, which sold for $185,000. Earl Percy never made it back to port as she ran aground off the coast off Long Island and Liverpool Hero was burned as she was considered leaky. Chesapeake returned to Boston on 9 April 1813 for refitting.[72][73]

Captain Evans, now in poor health, requested relief of command. Captain James Lawrence, late of the Hornet and her victory over HMS Peacock, took command of Chesapeake on 20 May. Affairs of the ship were in poor condition. The term of enlistment for many of the crew had expired, and they were daily leaving the ship.[72] Those who remained were approaching mutiny over the delay of prize money from her previous cruise, it being held up in court.[74] In order to appease them Lawrence paid out the prize money from his own pocket. Some sailors from Constitution joined Chesapeake and together they filled the crew with sailors of several nations.[75]

Meanwhile, Captain Philip Broke and HMS Shannon were patrolling off the port of Boston on blockade duty. Shannon had been under the command of Broke since 1806 and, under his direction, the crew held daily gun and weapon drills lasting up to three hours. Crew members who hit their bullseye being awarded a pound (454 g) of tobacco for their good marksmanship. In this regard, Chesapeake with her new and inexperienced crew was greatly inferior.[76]

Chesapeake vs Shannon

File:HMS Shannon boarding Chesapeake.jpg
Captain Broke leads the boarding party aboard Chesapeake

On the evening of 31 May, Lawrence, advised that Shannon had moved in closer to Boston, began preparations to sail. The next morning Broke wrote a challenge to Lawrence dispatching his message to Chesapeake but it did not arrive before Lawrence set out to meet Shannon on his own accord.[77][78]

Leaving port with a broad white flag, bearing the motto, "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights" Chesapeake met with Shannon near 5pm that afternoon. During six minutes of firing, each ship managed two full broadsides. Chesapeake was struck by 362 shots, while Shannon was hit by 158.[79] Chesapeake damaged Shannon with her broadsides but suffered early in the exchange. A succession of helmsmen were killed at the wheel and she lost maneuverability.[80] Captain Broke brought Shannon aside Chesapeake and ordered the two ships lashed together to enable the crew to board her. Confusion and disarray were the state of affairs on the deck of Chesapeake and Captain Lawrence tried rallying a party to board Shannon but the bugler failed to sound the call.[81] At this point, Lawrence was mortally wounded by a sniper and as he was carried below, gave his last order: "Don't give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks."[82][83]

Captain Broke boarded Chesapeake leading a party of 20 men who met with little resistance from the crew, most of whom had run below decks. The only resistance from Chesapeake came from her contingent of marines but they were soon overwhelmed; out of forty-four, only nine escaping injury.[84] Captain Broke was severely injured in the fighting on the forecastle, being struck in the head with a sword. Soon after, Shannon's crew pulled down Chesapeake's flag. The entire operation, from the first exchange of fire to capture, only fifteen minutes had elapsed.[85][86]

Despite being seriously injured, Broke ordered repairs to both ships and they proceeded on to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Captain Lawrence died en route and was buried there with military honors; and the rest of the crew imprisoned. Captain Broke survived his wounds and was later made a baronet.[87][88]

Chesapeake was repaired and taken into service by the Royal Navy as HMS Chesapeake. She served on the Halifax station under the command of Alexander Gordon through 1814 and under the command of George Burdett, she sailed to Plymouth England for repairs in October of that year. Chesapeake went into ordinary during 1815 and apparently never returned to active duty. In 1819 she was sold to Joshua Holmes for £3,450.[89] Eventually her used timbers became part of the Chesapeake Mill where they can be seen and visited to this day.[90]


Chesapeake's flag on display in London 1914

To the superstitious sailors of the 19th century, Chesapeake, almost from her beginnings, was considered an "unlucky ship" the "runt of the litter"[91] and the product of a disagreement between Humphreys and Fox. Her ill-fated encounters with HMS Leopard and Shannon and several accidental deaths of crewmen led many to believe she was cursed.[14]

Parties defending both Humphreys and Fox regarding their long standing disagreements over the design of the frigates carried on for years. Humphreys disowned any credit for Fox's redesign of Chesapeake and in 1827 he wrote: "She [Chesapeake] spoke his [Fox] talents. Which I leave the Commanders of that ship to estimate by her qualifications."[92]

Lawrence's last command of "Don't give up the ship!" became a rallying cry for the US Navy. Oliver Hazard Perry in command of naval forces on Lake Erie during September 1813, named his flag ship Lawrence which flew a broad blue flag bearing the words: "Dont give up the ship!"[93] The phrase is still used in the US Navy today as displayed on the USS Lake Erie.[94]

Chesapeake's blood stained and bullet ridden American flag was sold at auction in London in 1908. Purchased by William Waldorf Astor it now resides in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England along with her signal book.[95][96] The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax also holds several artifacts of the battle with Shannon.[97] In 1996 a timber fragment from the Chesapeake Mill was returned to the United States and is on display at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.[98]


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  23. Calhoun (2008), p. 6.
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  33. Maclay and Smith (1898), Volume 1, pp. 215–216.
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  51. Toll (2006), p. 173.
  52. Fowler (1984), p. 73.
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Further reading

  • Poolman, Kenneth (1962). Guns Off Cape Ann; The Story of the Shannon and the Chesapeake. Chicago: Rand McNally. OCLC 1384754. 

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