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A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of Old Ironsides

A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of Old Ironsides

by Tyrone G. Martin

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Called a definitive account when first published in 1980 and the winner of several book awards, this revised and expanded edition is available now for the first time in paperback. Tyrone G. Martin, the author, was captain of the USS Constitution during the nation's bicentennial celebrations. After decades of research and study, Martin was able to confirm


Called a definitive account when first published in 1980 and the winner of several book awards, this revised and expanded edition is available now for the first time in paperback. Tyrone G. Martin, the author, was captain of the USS Constitution during the nation's bicentennial celebrations. After decades of research and study, Martin was able to confirm that the innovative diagonal riders which ensured the frigate's long life were present at the ship's launching. He also provides details about the famous ship's participation in battles that have long been ignored or glossed over in official reports. Pictorial battle diagrams are included.

The book not only tells Constitution's complete story, but also presents a picture of life in the U.S. Navy during the nineteenth century—its proud moments as well as its concerns, attitudes, and tensions. Fascinating details are presented on the organization, care, feeding, and disciplining of the crew, and on events that involved such famous names in early American naval history as Edward Preble and Stephen Decatur. Just as previous editions were sought-after as sources of pleasure and information, this new edition will appeal to everyone who enjoys a good sea story and to serious students and sailing ship buffs seeking a reliable reference.

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Naval Institute Press
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7.04(w) x 9.94(h) x 0.85(d)

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A Most Fortunate Ship

A Narrative History of Old Ironsides
By Tyrone G. Martin

Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 1997 Tyrone G. Martin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1591145139

Chapter One

A Legend Is Born

Why a Navy?

On a hot, sultry day in August 1785, at the Merchants' Coffee House in Philadelphia, an eight-year-old ship was auctioned off for $26,00; Alliance was her name. During the American Revolution she had served well as a 32-gun frigate. Some in government had hoped to keep her as a symbol of national honor and as a deterrent to those who would interfere with American commerce on the high seas. But the terrible and costly Revolution was over. The expense of maintaining even a single frigate was a luxury the straitened economy of the weary young country could do without. With the sale of Alliance, the Continental Navy ceased to exist.

The few who sought to maintain a sea service were aware that the Barbary pirates of North Africa had pounced with delight on the merchantmen of the new nation as soon as they sailed the length and breadth of the Mediterranean. In their last years as colonials, Americans annually sent 80 to 100 ships, carrying some 1,200 seamen, to the Middle Sea in this trade-under the protection of the Royal Navy. The Revolution ended that protection.

Within a week of Alliance's sale in Philadelphia, there occurredtwo seizures of interest in the Mediterranean. The first was the schooner Maria, out of Boston, by an Algerine xebec of fourteen guns. One of the seamen enslaved was James Leander Cathcart, who would play an influential role in the Barbary Wars two decades later. The second was the ship Dauphin of Philadelphia, whose captain, Richard O'Brien, also would serve his country well in the solution of the pirate problem. Shocking and outrageous as these acts of piracy were, they stirred no national commotion in the United States.

In 1793 there occurred an event, involving no Americans, that ultimately would bring about the creation of the United States Navy and relief to the long-suffering captives taken in the Mediterranean. British diplomat Charles Logis, on his own, concluded a truce in the seven-year war between Algiers and Portugal. This, in turn, resulted in the termination of Portuguese naval activities in the Strait of Gibraltar, where they had been the "cork in the bottle," holding the Algerines in the Middle Sea. Thus, in no time at all, the corsairs were active in the Atlantic. The last three months of the year gave Americans a jolt: eleven merchantmen taken by pirates and more than one hundred crewmen held for ransom. Now they understood why a navy was needed.

The Enabling Legislation

The Algerine piracies that spurred the Third Congress into action heralded the beginning of the successful legislative effort to create a navy, but it was not the first effort. In 1789, immediately after the House of Representatives was organized, James Madison introduced a revenue bill that considered, in part, the collection of revenue to be used to strengthen the country's maritime defenses. In 1790, such considerations led to the creation of the Revenue Marine, precursor to the modern Coast Guard. And in November 1791, Secretary of War Henry Knox submitted several estimates concerning the maintenance costs of different types of warships to a Senate committee. None of these actions resulted in any positive moves toward a navy.

The Third Congress convened on 2 December 1793. On the 8th, the newspapers of Philadelphia carried the first stunning accounts of the Algerine depredations in the Atlantic. President Washington sent Congress a message on the subject on the 16th, together with a State Department report on foreign trade. The House adopted by a narrow margin three resolutions on 2 January 1794 to (1) appropriate additional money for diplomatic expenses; (2) provide a naval force sufficient to protect American commerce from the Algerine corsairs; and (3) establish a committee to determine the size and cost of this force.

The Select Committee, composed of six Federalists and three Republicans, was heavy with pro-shipping people. Its report, delivered on the 20th, was based upon the earlier estimates from Secretary Knox, in addition to those documents most recently provided by the president and the secretary of state. The committee recommended that four 44-gun (18- and 9-pounders) and two 20-gun ships be constructed for the optimistically small sum of $600,000.

The House debate on this report began on 16 February and split along predictable North-South, inland-tidewater lines. Opponents argued that the proposed naval force was too expensive, constituted a menace to democratic government, was inadequate, and that its development could both upset the British and render negotiations with the Algerines more expensive in itself. Proponents argued that this naval force would cost less than the inflated insurance rates being paid by the merchant marine and that a defenseless government was equally in danger of being overthrown. Furthermore, they argued that the proposed force was adequate for the intended limited purpose, and for this reason, too, would be less of a burden than a full-blown navy and less of a menace to civil liberties.

The debate had been going on for nearly a month when Washington sent over additional supporting documents. More help for the proponents came on 5 March in the form of a petition from Baltimore merchants for an adequate naval force. And final impetus was gained when news of the British Orders in Council prohibiting all neutral trade in the French West Indies outraged the congressmen just two days later.

The complete bill was brought to a vote in the House on the 10th and passed 50 to 39. The opposition had been further weakened by the addition of an article providing for the termination of construction should a peace treaty with Algiers be signed. Senate action seems never to have been in doubt, and on 19 March the bill was approved without a division. President Washington signed "An act to provide a naval armament" on 27 March 1794. It called for the construction of four 44-gun and two 36-gun frigates, stipulated their crew composition, set pay scales, and detailed the weekly food ration.

The Designer and His Design

While there is no extensive file of correspondence available to detail his activities in this regard, existing letters indicate that Secretary Knox had been considering the problem of beginning a naval force for some time before the bill became law. It is known that he was corresponding with naval veterans of the Revolution within a year after the establishment of the federal government. One of those contacted was John Foster Williams, one-time captain of the Massachusetts state frigate Protector. Others known to have been consulted by Knox were James Hackett of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who had built the Continental Navy's Alliance; Capt. John Barry, who had commanded both Alliance and the brig Lexington during the Revolution; and John Wharton, a shipwright of Philadelphia whose firm had built the Continental frigate Randolph, 32. The following letter to Robert Morris, from Joshua Humphreys, Wharton's cousin and one-time business partner, is further evidence of the tight little group in consultation with Secretary Knox and, in light of later developments, is a good summation of the consensus of their advice. It is dated 6 January 1793, but the opening statement seems to indicate that Humphreys meant to date it "1794."

From the present appearance of affairs I believe it is time this country was possessed of a Navy; but as that is yet to be raised I have ventured a few ideas on that subject.

... [A]s our navy must for a considerable time be inferior in numbers, we are to consider what size ships will be most formidable and be an over match for those of an enemy; such Frigates as in blowing weather would be an overmatch for double deck ships, and in light winds to evade coming to action, or double deck ships as would be an over match for common double deck ships and in blowing weather superior to ships of three decks, or in calm weather or light winds to outsail them. Ships built on these principles will render those of an enemy in a degree useless, or require a greater number before they dare attack our ship. Frigates, I suppose, will be the first object and none ought to be built less than 150 feet keel to carry 28 32-pounders or 30 24-pounders on the gun deck and 12-pounders on the quarterdeck. These ships should have scantlings equal to 74's.... [T]hey should be built of the best materials that could possibly be procured.

Who was Joshua Humphreys and how did he come to be selected as the designer of the authorized frigates? He was born in Haverford, Pennsylvania, on 17 June 1751, the son of Welsh Quakers who first arrived in the colonies in 1682. At the age of about fourteen, he was apprenticed to James Penrose, a well-known Philadelphia shipwright and builder. When Penrose died in 1771, shortly before Humphreys completed his apprenticeship, the Widow Penrose remitted his time and hired him as master shipwright to complete a vessel then building at her late husband's yard.

In 1774, young Joshua, now twenty-three, went into a partnership with his older cousin, John Wharton. Wharton was a close friend of Robert Morris, a politician on the inside track to both Continental and provincial shipbuilding. It was the firm of Wharton and Humphreys that built the frigate Randolph in 1776. The design, on which Humphreys may have worked, was of a sharp frigate of conventional layout in the British pattern, but larger than the standard for the rate, in the French manner. Clearly, the design reflected elements found in both contemporary French and British construction, but these were combined with peculiarly American requirements-e.g., a greater emphasis on speed.

Whatever his role as a ship designer and builder during the Revolution, in the years following the war's end Humphreys became an established shipbuilder in Philadelphia. The reason he had access to the secretary of war undoubtedly was due more to his connections and his residence in Philadelphia than to any preeminence in his chosen field.

Further evidence as to Humphreys's readiness to design the new ships is inferred from the fact that, when hired for the job in June, his pay was made retroactive to 1 May 1794, since it was during this period he created a half model illustrating his concept. As was the case with Randolph, the half model contained features found in both French and British frigates, blended with native ideas to produce a uniquely American man-of-war. These ships were very large for 44s, being 175 feet between perpendiculars and with an extreme beam of 44 feet, 2 inches. That made them 2 to 3 feet wider and 20 feet longer than their British contemporaries and 13 feet longer and 1 foot wider than the French. Strengthening and widening the gangways connecting the forecastle and quarterdeck created the "spar deck" capable of accommodating great guns anywhere along its length. The framing was so close that the designed interval between pairs was two inches, compared with two to four times that amount of space in other frigates of the day. And while this great strength of deck and hull permitted the mounting of heavier armament, the better length-to-beam ratio and the comparative fineness of the bow resulted in ships capable of sailing with the fastest and most maneuverable in the world.

The most innovative elements of Humphreys's design, however, were not to be seen in his half model; rather, they were found in different places in his materials requirements list and evident only when the ship's structure took shape. Original with Humphreys was the development of what one might call an inverted cantilever system built into the hull. His design called for three parallel pairs of pre-stressed diagonal riders rising forward from the sides of the keelson to be joined to the opposite ends of berth deck beams four, six, and eight from the bow, and another three pairs rising aft to join with the fourth, sixth, and eighth berth deck beams from the sternpost. The lower ends of the aftermost pair of the forward diagonals and those of the forwardmost after pair butted together at the keelson. The berth deck structure was, in turn, connected to the gun deck structure by three lines of stanchions running the length of the ship. Two pairs of lock-scarphed "thick planks" ran the lengths of both decks on either side of the main hatch, and the spirketting of both decks consisted of pieces hooked and joggled together. The result was an integrated system that distributed the weight of the gun deck and its armament evenly to the berth deck and ultimately via the diagonals to the central portion of the keel, thereby greatly diminishing those forces mostly responsible for a ship "hogging" (bowing down at either end) and the resultant keel distortion. This was something new in warship design. It was a stroke of genius.

Preparing to Build the Ship

At the time the "Act to provide a naval armament" was signed by President Washington, no funds were appropriated to pay for the construction of the six ships authorized. Indeed, nothing existed that could immediately be put to use in their creation. Recognizing that funding would be forthcoming, Knox and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who had responsibility for letting contracts, took preliminary steps to be ready to act when monies were available. Within three weeks of signing the bill, President Washington assigned construction of the six frigates to Portsmouth (New Hampshire), Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Gosport (Portsmouth today), Virginia. Subsequently, contracts were let with existing yards at these places, and agents, superintendents, constructors, and clerks of the yard were appointed to oversee the government's business.

In Boston, the yard selected to build Frigate "B" belonged to Edmund Hartt and was located near where Coast Guard Base Boston stands today, north of Copp's Hill. Gen. Henry Jackson was hired as naval agent and charged with hiring artisans and laborers, purchasing materials not otherwise contracted for, supervising the clerk of the yard, paying wages, and maintaining accounts. The prospective commanding officer of the ship, Capt. Samuel Nicholson, appointed to that rank on 5 June 1794, was ordered to report as superintendent, to exercise overall supervision, and provide naval expertise to the builders. Col. George Claghorn joined the organization as constructor, controlling the work force on the ship and ensuring Humphreys' design was followed. Clerk of the Yard Caleb Gibbs maintained the accounts and inventories for the naval agent.

On the 9th, $688,888.32 were appropriated for initial construction costs. That same day, a contract was let with John T.


Excerpted from A Most Fortunate Ship by Tyrone G. Martin Copyright © 1997 by Tyrone G. Martin
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Tyrone G. Martin, Commander, USN (Ret.), was the first Constitution skipper since 1815 to be decorated for his command tour. He is the author of Undefeated and Creating a Legend, and he has written numerous articles for such magazines as the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings and Naval History, and for American Neptune.

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