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The USS Essex: And the Birth of the American Navy

Overview

The USS Essex, a thirty-two gun frigate built in 1799 by the merchants of Salem, was known around the world for her speed and graceful lines, achieving a brilliant series of dramatic firsts for the young American Navy

She became the first U.S. war ship to round the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. Thirteen years later, the Essex became the first American man-of-war to round the Horn into the Pacific, where her crew fought—and lost—one of the bloodiest sea battles in U.S....

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Overview

The USS Essex, a thirty-two gun frigate built in 1799 by the merchants of Salem, was known around the world for her speed and graceful lines, achieving a brilliant series of dramatic firsts for the young American Navy

She became the first U.S. war ship to round the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. Thirteen years later, the Essex became the first American man-of-war to round the Horn into the Pacific, where her crew fought—and lost—one of the bloodiest sea battles in U.S. History. A list of her commanders—Edward Preble, William Bainbridge, James Barron, and David Porter—reads like a who's who of the early American Navy. David Farragut served as a midshipman before achieving fame as the first rear admiral of the US Navy.

The Essex's most important role, however was in promoting and protecting the interests of the United States throughout the world. By the late 1790s, the young country was emerging from its colonial dependence on Europe into a global commercial presence and a budding world power in its own right. Its future growth depended on international trade, and that trade depended, in turn, on unimpeded access to the sea.

The history of the Essex is both a stirring nautical adventure and an engaging look at an important turning point in the history of the young American nation.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
At the end of the American Revolution, the army and navy were abolished, for the founding fathers believed that America should not get involved in Europe's quarrels. By 1794, it was obvious that the navy should be reorganized. England and France, at war with each other, were stopping American vessels from trading with Europe, while Barbary pirates were capturing American ships and sailors. In response to the situation, the Essex, a 32-gun frigate, was constructed in Salem, MA, of good New England oak. Launched in 1799, she saw action in the quasi-war with France and operated against Algerian pirates. She was also the first U.S. warship to round Cape Horn, and during the War of 1812 she cruised the South Pacific. This book is more than the history of a single ship, however; Robotti (Whaling and Old Salem, Fountainhead, 1983) and Vescovi give an overview of early American shipbuilding, methods of finance, and the enlistment of crews. For all collections of U.S. naval history.--Stanley Itkin, Hillside P.L., New Hyde Park, NY
Booknews
The USS , a 32-gun frigate built in 1799 in Salem, played an important role in promoting and protecting the interests of the US as it emerged from colonial dependence on Europe. This account of her battles and journeys offers a balanced perspective on issues such as impressment and neutrality, and tells the stories of many individuals involved in building and commanding the ship. Includes b&w historical illustrations. Robotti has written two previous histories of Salem. Vescovi is managing editor of the . 5.25x7.5<">. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
W. Jeffery Bolster
...[C]an be read as a parable about maintaining naval superiority....Ultimately its uncritical patriotic tribute to the early Navy will satisfy those who like tidy stories, well-defined heroes and purposeful narratives. Yet [the authors'] particular slant has the whiff of anachronism....The authors' story rests on fast-paced journalism and hagiographic tradition.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A strongly written history of the early days of the American navy, as seen through the story of one of its legendary ships. Robotti (Chronicles of Old Salem) and Vescovi (managing editor of the Columbia Law School Report) begin at the birth of the American navy and quickly move on to the construction of the Essex. They create a broad, compelling portrait of maritime America by looking at the financing of the Essex in 1799 through public subscription, with especially large donations by the merchants whose interests the ship was built to protect. The details of their monetary contributions (or lack thereof in the case of at least one notable) bring to life the leading citizens of Salem, Mass., where the ship was built, as vividly as the humbler folk who physically assembled her. The authors deftly cover the political conflicts sparked by the Essex's deployment in the campaigns against the Barbary pirates and the British in the War of 1812, as isolationists wishing to avoid a European war at any cost clashed with the merchants attempting to import or export goods. Such naval notables as Edward Preble, William Bainbridge, David Porter, and David Farragut all served on board the Essex, and their characters are colorfully rendered. But it's when the frigate goes to war that the authors really shine, covering military actions in a style that makes actual battles as gripping as the fictional scenarios of Patrick O'Brian or C.S. Forester. The authors' habit of defining nearly every term may leave true naval history buffs feeling as if they have fallen into a primer on the subject, and there's so much general information that the book's title might be more accurate if its two elements werereversed, but these are minor flaws in a first-rate work. Naval history at its finest. (Maps, photos, and illustrations) (Author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616801304
  • Publisher: Adams Media Corporation
  • Publication date: 10/15/2003
  • Pages: 302
  • Product dimensions: 4.90 (w) x 7.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Essex and the Young
American Navy


Although we recommend taking good care of your vessel and people, yet we should deem it more praiseworthy in an officer to lose his vessel in a bold enterprise than to lose a good prize by too timid a conduct.
— Continental Congress, letter to Captain Elisha Warren of the sloop Fly.


The USS Essex, a thirty-two-gun frigate built in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1799, was not the most glorious vessel in the history of the American navy, yet she was unique. Sailors throughout the world remarked on her speed and beauty of line, and the list of men who commanded her—Edward Preble, William Bainbridge, James Barron, and David Porter—reads like a who's who of the early American navy. She was the first U.S. warship to round the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. Thirteen years later, she became the first American man-of-war to round the Horn into the Pacific, where her crew fought and lost one of the bloodiest sea battles in U.S. history.

    Yet, Essex was also typical of many warships of her era. She did not go down in history as the victor in any momentous combat, like the more famous frigates Constellation and Constitution. Many of her fifteen years in the U.S. Navy were spent in ordinary, during periods when the United States faced no war and had downsized its navy. When she was at sea, Essex spent much of her time performing the mundane but necessary task of protecting American merchant vessels from the Barbary States of North Africa and other enemies. And like a fair share of U.S. men-of-war, she was captured and ended up in the British navy. Essex was an integral part of the young U.S. Navy, and her singular and ordinary qualities make her a worthy subject of study.

    The U.S. Navy, now the world's most powerful and advanced, began with jumps and starts, interspersed with extraordinary milestones. The exact origin is difficult to pinpoint, but the Gaspee incident is a good place to start. The year was 1772, when the white oaks used to build Essex were growing along the Merrimac River, outside Salem. In June of that year, an armed British schooner, Gaspee, patrolling for colonial vessels that were violating England's Navigation Acts, was boarded from whaleboats by a group of colonial seamen led by Abraham Whipple and burned in Narragansett Bay off of Providence, R.I. Three years later, as Britain's relations with her North American colonies worsened by the day, British frigate commander Sir James Wallace discovered Whipple's role in the destruction of Gaspee and wrote to the rebel seaman, You, Abraham Whipple, on the 17th of June, 1772 burnt his Majesty's vessel the Gaspee, and I will hang you to the yardarm." Whipple wrote back: "To Sir James Wallace: Sir—always catch a man before you hang him."

    Such was the spirit of the nascent American navy. From its beginnings, its officers and crew did not hesitate to thumb their noses at countries with superior firepower. The irreverent impulse seemed natural for a nation of thirteen fractured colonies who declared their independence from the strongest naval power on earth. Boldness—absolutely essential in a navy that was often short on gunpowder, cordage, and provisions—was nurtured by the country's first captains, among them John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur Jr., Isaac Hull, and Oliver Hazard Perry. These men and their crews brought honor to a host of ships—Bon Homme Richard, Constitution, and Niagara—whose names are carved into American history books.

    As the prospect of war heated up with Great Britain, the United States did not possess a unified navy. Rather, individual colonies were scrambling to put a few fighting ships onto the seas and rivers. The first colony to act was Rhode Island, whose legislature, after the attack on Gaspee, fitted out two vessels under the command of Whipple.

    The first step in creating a national navy came when General George Washington—though Congress had given him command of the army only—commissioned the schooner Hannah, on 5 September 1775, into national service. Washington's foray into naval affairs was triggered by his army's desperate need for ammunition and other supplies. He had no intention of dispatching Hannah to take on ships of the all-powerful British navy. Rather, her mission was to capture British store ships and make haste back to port with much needed materiel.

    Two months later, Washington had six vessels operating under his command, and this minuscule navy, whose crews were recruited from the ranks of the army, surprisingly met with early success. One of the richest hauls came with the capture of Nancy by the American warship Lee, under John Manly, in November 1775, accomplishing exactly what Washington had hoped for. The Lee's flag had a green pine tree on it (a common symbol on colonists' flags) and the motto "Appeal to Heaven!" Certainly, the haul from Nancy, which struck her flag without resistance, was a blessed one. It consisted of 2,000 muskets, 30 tons of musket shot, 30,000 round shot, 100,000 flints, and many barrels of powder. It was a quantity of munitions that would have taken the colonies a year and a half to manufacture.

    A messenger bringing news of Nancy's capture arrived in Philadelphia when the Continental Congress was deciding, ironically, how to round up materiel and other supplies to fight the British. The messenger knocked on the meeting room door but was ordered to wait. He persisted until he was admitted. He delivered his news. So moved was John Adams that he rose to his feet and proclaimed, "We must succeed—Providence is with us—we must succeed!"

    The enthusiasm was contagious. The Marine Committee was established by the Congress and, in a milestone act, was ordered to "devise ways and means for furnishing these colonies with naval armament, and report with all convenient speed." The committee consisted of seven men, John Adams among them, and soon recommended fitting out thirteen ships, ranging from twenty-four to thirty-two guns, at a cost not to exceed $67,000 each and to be ready by March 1776. Congress voted half a million dollars to foot the bill, and with that, an embryonic American navy was officially born.

    The new navy was viewed by General Washington with mixed emotions. Despite the success of Lee and other vessels, the ragtag fleet was giving him headaches. "The plague, trouble, and vexation I have had with the crews of the armed vessels, are inexpressible," he wrote to Congress in December 1775. "Every time they come into port, we hear nothing but mutinous complaints.... The crews of the Washington and Harrison have actually deserted them." Washington worried that the navy would follow its own priorities and would not support his military initiatives, a fear that came to pass.

    Dissension was so prevalent that the navy's first commander in chief, Esek Hopkins, was sacked soon after his appointment. Hopkins, who was being paid an annual salary of $1,500, set off in the winter of 1776 to the Bahamas—a British colony—where he seized one hundred cannons and a goodly number of supplies. It was a victory of which he could be proud. Unfortunately, Hopkins had not followed the more urgent instructions given him—to cruise off and protect the coast of Virginia. He was censured, removed from his post, and not replaced.

    Despite the lack of naval cohesion, the Marine Committee strongly believed its officers should look like a unified body; so it established a code of dress. Officers cut dashing figures. Captains wore blue coats with red lapels, a slash cuff, stand-up collar, yellow buttons, blue britches, and a red waistcoat. Midshipmen were similarly attired, though not quite so colorful or elegant. As for salaries, it was established that captains commanding ships of twenty or more guns would make $60 per month, while those of ships carrying between ten and nineteen guns would take home $48. Lieutenants earned between $24 and $30, while surgeons made $25. A midshipman's salary was $12, while seamen got $8.

    The navy was not America's only fighting force on the seas during the Revolutionary War. There were also privateers, defined as private armed vessels allowed by the government to cruise against merchant ships of an enemy power. Privateering—first recorded in Great Britain in 1295 during the reign of Edward I—was an important part of the American war effort because the nation had such a small navy. The advantage of privateering was that it kept merchant vessels and sailors employed during wartime, when trade lagged because shipowners were wary of sending vessels out to seas patrolled by an enemy. Even landlubbers signed up to take a berth aboard a privateer, whose commanders promised rich rewards. Handbills that circulated during the Revolutionary War asked for "seamen or landmen who desired to make their fortunes in a few months." Crewmen received a percentage of whatever they captured after the booty was sold at public auction. Anything from almonds to wine to tea to the captured vessel itself went on the block, but success was never guaranteed. Privateers sometimes cruised for months without a successful capture, and they themselves were fair game to enemy ships.

    However, there were success stories. For example, Salem, one of the country's bustling ports, sent to sea over 150 privateers that made close to 450 captures. But many crews of privateers returned home with little to show for their efforts. Because they were lightly armed, privateers avoided combat at all costs. They aided a war effort but were no substitute for an experienced and well-financed navy.

    America's navy, unfortunately, was neither experienced nor well financed. There were a handful of victories, many of them scored by John Paul Jones in his eighteen-gun Ranger. The colonists were also successful in raiding merchant shipping around the British Isles, subsequently causing a rise in insurance rates. However, in the end, America's navy was drastically outgunned and outmanned by the Royal Navy.

    Of the thirteen vessels authorized by Congress in 1775, all were eventually captured or destroyed. The thirty-two-gun Randolph had been blown to smithereens after taking a hit in her magazine, in March 1778, during a fierce battle with the sixty-four-gun Yarmouth. Only four of Randolph's 315-man crew survived. The thirty-two-gun Washington and twenty-eight-gun Effingham suffered more ignoble defeats. They were burned to keep them from falling into British hands. Even the battle for which John Paul Jones is most famous—his defeat of the fifty-gun Serapis by the forty-gun Bon Homme Richard—was a pyrrhic victory. Both ships were heavily damaged, and Jones's vessel soon sank. America's victory in the Revolutionary War was not secured by her own men-of-war but by French Admiral de Grasse, whose fleet appeared at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in October 1781 to drive away the British fleet and thus assist General Washington in the final showdown at Yorktown.

    Nevertheless, victory went to the colonists, and it was time for them to move ahead with their experiment in democracy. One of the first orders of business was to reduce the armed forces. Having so recently unyoked themselves from the British, the colonists were suspicious of large armies and navies, which in times of peace were looked upon as engines for establishing despotism. To that end, Washington's victorious army was reduced to seven hundred men. The navy, or what was left of it, was totally disbanded. The newly completed ship-of-the-line America, with seventy-four guns, was given to France as a thank-you gift. Another surviving vessel, the thirty-two-gun Alliance, was sold to a private shipper (and subsequently converted to a China trade ship) to save the cash-stricken government the money needed to repair her. A few colonies kept a handful of ships to act as a kind of coast guard, but the United States was too poor and too divided under the Articles of Confederation to contemplate maintaining a national navy.

    The choice was shortsighted. As one British official observed soon after peace had been made with the United States:


It is not probable that the American States will have a very free trade in the Mediterranean; it will not be in the interest of any of the great maritime powers to protect them from the Barbary States. They cannot protect themselves from the latter; they cannot pretend to a navy.


    The words proved prophetic. In July 1785, two American merchant vessels, Dolphin and Maria, were captured in the Mediterranean by ships from Algiers, one of several kingdoms along the North African coast comprising the Barbary States. The rulers of these states, who reported to the Ottoman sultan of Turkey, had been blackmailing world shipping for centuries, even though they did not possess large navies. Algiers, for example, had nine ships, the largest wielding thirty-two guns, and fifty gunboats—nothing compared to the fleets of France and Great Britain. Nevertheless, the Barbary States could demand tribute payments for a couple of reasons. For one, many countries, such as Holland and Denmark, had large and active merchant fleets but relatively small navies. It was easier for these countries to pay off Barbary rulers than to send their navies, sometimes needed to protect local interests, deep into the Mediterranean. As for larger powers, like Great Britain and France, it was less trouble to pay tribute money than expend their energy—often needed to fight each other—laying waste to Barbary cities, some of which had well-protected and well-armed harbors.

    Moreover, the European states used the North African potentates to harass the shipping of their enemies. Britain employed that strategy against the United States as a form of revenge after the Revolutionary War; British diplomats stationed along the Barbary Coast let it be known that merchantmen flying the Stars and Stripes were ripe for the picking. Ships from America had no navy and were no longer protected by the British Empire, they said.

    The twenty-one crewmen of the Dolphin and Maria were stripped of their clothing and valuables, taken to Algiers, and paraded past crowds of heckling citizens to prison. They were then sold into slavery and ransom was set at a phenomenal $3,000 per head. The seamen wasted away while negotiations ensued; the United States had no choice but to buy peace with the Barbary nations through annual payments. America had no navy and, in addition, was too consumed with its own domestic survival to spend much energy protecting interests thirty-five hundred miles away.

    Luckily for the Americans, a subsequent war between Portugal and Algiers lessened the depredations against U.S. shipping, for a while. American vessels often sailed under the protection of Portugal, but this situation did not last long. A peace was brokered between Algiers and Portugal and, by the 1790s, captures resumed. In July of 1793, eight American merchantmen were taken during a three-week period. By November, eleven American vessels with over one hundred seamen (seven of whom would die in captivity) were in Algerian prisons. Colonel David Humphreys, American minister at Portugal, wrote to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, "If we are to have a commerce we must have a naval force (to a certain extent) to defend it." Humphreys's qualifying phrase "to a certain extent" is extremely telling. It shows that, despite the attacks on U.S. shipping, many government officials were still averse to the notion of creating a full-fledged navy.

    Nonetheless, some congressmen had had their fill of bullying and blackmailing. In the early months of 1794, the House of Representatives passed a resolution "that a naval force ... ought to be provided for the protection of the commerce of the United States against Algerian cruisers." The resolution, which passed by the slimmest of margins, 43 to 41, eventually led to the construction of six frigates. Three would carry forty-four guns, and three would wield thirty-six. Secretary of War Henry Knox took charge of the building project because the nation had no secretary of the navy. The six frigates (and their host cities) were Constitution (Boston), President (New York), United States (Philadelphia), Congress (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), Chesapeake (Portsmouth, Virginia), and Constellation (Baltimore). To captain these vessels, the United States reached into its past and selected Revolutionary War naval figures like Samuel Nicholson, Silas Talbot, Joshua Barney, and Richard Dale.

    Resistance to raising a navy continued. Americans—particularly Jeffersonian Democrats—dragged their feet on any initiatives designed to resurrect a fighting sea force. They encouraged negotiations with Algiers even while the six warships were being built. Paying tribute, they reasoned, was cheaper than raising a navy from scratch. Their logic also was fueled by a continuing wariness of militias and navies. They argued that Louis XVI, the French monarch whose head had fallen to the guillotine the previous year, had brought on revolt of the people because of his nation's costly expenses—"the king, nobility, the priesthood, the army and, above all, the navy." James Madison, who led opposition to the frigates, went so far as to suggest paying Portugal to protect U.S. shipping.

    The ruling Federalist party won the shipbuilding vote but not without the compromise that work on the six frigates would cease if peace were made with the Barbary States. The dey of Algiers, after catching wind of American resolve, hastened to broker a treaty. Though he agreed to stop his nation's attacks, he made out very well under the accord, signed in July 1794. The United States agreed to pay Algiers a hefty sum of $800,000, plus annual tributes. Ironically, the treaty cost the young nation about as much as six good frigates. At the insistence of President Washington, however, three of the vessels were completed because they were nearly finished anyway. They were Constitution, United States, and Constellation.

    There were other sound reasons for completing the frigates. Other Barbary States were now preying on U.S. shipping. Second, there was a foreboding sense among Americans that the dey himself was not wholly satisfied with his arrangement, and his future actions would eat further into the U.S. Treasury. Finally, and most significantly, American shipping was being increasingly harassed by far more threatening powers: the British and French.

    As of 1793, Great Britain and France were again at war and were using American shipping as a pawn in their struggle. Each side wanted American trade but would not countenance it with the other. American merchant vessels were forced to submit to lengthy searches by the warships of both nations. Many captains were forced to stand trial and, as if to rub salt into the wound, saw their perishable cargo spoil while awaiting judicial proceedings. When their vessels were intercepted by British warships, some American sailors were pressed into the Royal Navy. U.S. Minister to France Governeur Morris hit the nail on the head when he said, "One thing I am thoroughly convinced of, that if we do not render ourselves respectable we shall continue to be insulted."

    The seizures hit the port of Salem hard. The Salem Gazette carried account after account of depredations. For example, on 5 November 1793, the Gazette reported, "Captain Joshua Webb of the schooner Polly was robbed of $200 by a privateer flying French colors but manned by British sailors, obviously a ruse." And on 17 February 1794, it stated that "at the Port of St. Kitts, 26 Americans are libeled" (libeled meant held prisoner for transporting contraband). Other accounts reported American seamen being beaten and deprived of food. Some died in prison.

    American merchant skippers attempted to adapt to wartime conditions, taking advantage of French convoys (which often sailed under the protection of French warships) when shipping goods to France and British convoys when moving goods to Britain and its colonial ports. Seizures, however, still occurred, cut profits, and threw many people out of work. In Salem, the town's sailors held demonstrations and petitioned Congress for action. It is easy to understand why towns like Salem, which relied so heavily on sea trade, would rally to support and build Essex.

    But, that was five years away. For now, President Washington and his government tried to address problems with the English and French through negotiation. He dispatched Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay to Great Britain to settle the seizure question, as well as other thorny issues left over from the Revolutionary War. Jay returned home with a treaty that granted many concessions to Britain, including most-favored-nation trading status. Jay also promised that America would not allow French privateers access to its ports. Thirdly, naval stores, which France needed in its war against Great Britain, were deemed contraband. The one-sided agreement, which brought temporary peace, angered so many Americans that Jay once said he could ride across the nation by light given off from his burning effigies.

    If the treaty angered Americans, it enraged the French, who deemed it a slap in the face from an ungrateful nation with a short memory. Had not Lafayette helped assure the victory at Yorktown? Had not the treaty of friendship signed in 1778 made France and the United States allies in practically all matters?

    The United States, however, took a pragmatic view towards its French brethren. Americans wanted no part of foreign entanglements. Having ratified a new constitution in 1787, the nation was anxious to get down to the business of commerce. Also, Americans—while feeling some solidarity with a nation that also had unyoked itself from a monarchy—were troubled by the excesses of the French Revolution, which had terrorized that nation.

    American aloofness made the French resentful; they took out their revenge by issuing a broad decree on what was considered neutral trade. It stated that "every vessel found at sea, laden in whole or in part with merchandise coming from England or her possessions, shall be declared prize goods, whoever may be the proprietor of these productions or merchandise." The decree made official and government-sanctioned a policy that was already being carried out.

    Future decrees got tougher. In March 1797, France declared that "every American vessel shall be a good prize which has not on board a list of the crew in proper form, such as is presented by the model annexed to the treaty of the 6th of February 1778." No American captain had followed this "model" since the end of the Revolutionary War, and the French knew it. Their intent was to harass American skippers or frighten them from taking to the seas at all.

    A typical example of French harassment was recorded in the Philadelphia Gazette on 6 April 1797, reporting the action involving the American merchantmen Two Sisters and a French privateer. The American captain, whose name was Worth, was ordered aboard and asked to sign a paper written in French. Worth refused, and the captain of the privateer drew his cutlass and threatened to cleave the American skipper in two. Worth still would not budge, arguing that it was absurd for him to sign a paper written in a language he did not understand. The French captain, with his weapon still drawn, ordered two American seamen to put their names to the paper, and they complied. The seamen had signed a confession that their ship was bound for Jamaica, a British port, and the French claimed Two Sisters as a prize.

    While such incidents heightened tensions between the United States and France, the so-called XYZ affair set the two nations on an inevitable course for war. The incident, in October 1797, came during a last-ditch effort to address problems with France. Three U.S. diplomats—John Marshall, Elbridge Gerry, and Charles Pinckney—were dispatched to Paris, where they were met by three French agents (known as X, Y, and Z) who demanded a $250,000 bribe before negotiations proceeded. The Americans refused and returned home. The newspapers reported the incident, which triggered the famous quote: "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!" Depredations by France, as well as Great Britain, continued. By 1797, Secretary of State Thomas Pickering reported to Congress that over two hundred American ships had been plundered.

    In April of the following year, Congress re-established its official navy—disbanded fourteen years earlier after the Revolutionary War—by a vote of 42 to 27. The legislative act was a key turning point in the development of the U.S. Navy and the nation as a whole. America would downsize its navy in future years, but never again would the nation find itself caught without some type of national force to protect its interests on the seas.

    The position of the secretary of the navy was also established. The first incumbent was Benjamin Stoddert, a successful and well-connected shipper from Georgetown, Maryland. As a young man, he had joined Washington's army, despite that his father had been a captain in the British army. Benjamin was so severly wounded in the Battle of Brandywine that his injuries plagued him for the rest of his life. In 1779, he was appointed secretary to the Board of War, where he made the acquaintance of future U.S. President John Adams and other leaders. When the American capital was being moved from Philadelphia to the outskirts of Georgetown, President Washington asked Stoddert to buy up tracts around the proposed government site to prevent speculators from doing the same and selling the land at exorbitant prices to the cash-starved U.S. government.

    Despite his patriotism, Stoddert thought long and hard about taking the position as naval secretary when it was offered in May, 1798. He wrote:


I hate office—have no desire for fancied or real importance and wish to spend my life in retirement and ease without bustle of any kind. Yet it seems cowardly at such a time as this to refuse an important and highly responsible position.... You know I have managed Peaceable ships very well. Why should I not be able to direct as well those of War? After all this preface I think there is about thirty to one I shall not accept.


    Stoddert defied his own odds. The position paid $3,000 a year, not a trivial sum, but Stoddert really needed to devote time to his personal affairs, which were suffering from poor investments, rather than directing the nation's small navy. But in the end, he could not refuse President Adams. On 19 June 1798, the President administered the oath of office for a position marked by very humble beginnings. The staff, numbering less than ten, included Stoddert, an accountant, some clerks, and a messenger. Repair and equipping of ships was done through naval agents located in the country's major seaports. The agents were paid $750 per year and a 2 percent commission.

    Humble beginnings aside, Stoddert's first directive to his captains proved the American navy meant business:


You are, hereby, authorized, instructed and directed to subdue, seize and take any armed French vessel, or vessels sailing under authority or pretense of authority from the French Republic, which shall be found within the jurisdictional limits of the United States, or elsewhere on the high seas; and such captured vessel with her apparel, guns, and appurtenances, and the goods and effects which shall be found on board the same ... to bring her within some port of the United States.


    To put punch into Stoddert's words, Congress supplied him with more warships, authorizing President Adams to hire or purchase twelve more vessels, with none to exceed twenty-two guns. This was in addition to the six frigates authorized earlier. By 1798, the American navy possessed twenty warships. A year later there were thirty.

    No formal declaration of war was made in what historians have called "The Quasi-War with France." (In fact, French Foreign Minister Charles Talleyrand, who was behind the XYZ affair, was making peace overtures before much of the fighting began.) Nevertheless, the firing commenced, with America's first naval victory coming in June 1798, when the twenty-gun Delaware captured a fourteen-gun privateer by the name of Croyable. The American captain, Stephen Decatur Sr., sent his prize back to America, where she was aptly rechristened Retaliation. Command of her was given to Lieutenant William Bainbridge, who would become the second captain of Essex in 1801. Bainbridge would have a checkered career, often redeeming himself from blunders, a pattern that began as commander of Retaliation.

    In November 1798, while cruising off the coast of Guadeloupe, Bainbridge and his crew mistook two French frigates for British warships they had seen a day earlier. Finding himself suddenly facing the forty-four-gun Volontaire and the thirty-six-gun Insurgente, Bainbridge ordered the flag struck without firing a shot. Any action on his part would have meant utter destruction for his ship and crew. Retaliation was now back in French hands.

    Bainbridge was taken aboard Volontaire, where he watched Insurgente pursue two smaller American warships that had been sailing with him. The French man-of-war quickly gained on the American vessels, which were no match in speed and firepower. The French captain turned to Bainbridge and asked him how many guns the American ships wielded. One ship has twelve twelve-pounders, and the other carries twenty nine-pounders, lied Bainbridge, doubling the power of the American weaponry.

    The captain of Volontaire was stunned, never expecting such force, and called Insurgente off the chase. Such ruses were not uncommon. Men-of-war sometimes flew the flag of a different—usually neutral—nation in order to catch an enemy vessel by surprise. The only hard-and-fast rule of that cat and mouse game was that a ship had to be flying her true colors when her men opened fire. At fault was the French captain, who had been foolish enough to believe Bainbridge.

    A few months later, in February 1799, Insurgente was captured by the USS Constellation. It was not only the first major engagement of the war but also a battle in which a future Essex captain, David Porter, exhibited heroism and a coolness under fire. As the battle raged, the nineteen-year-old Midshipman Porter climbed into the rigging of the foretop and, while French cannonballs whizzed past him, cut down a damaged fore-topsail yard, which was in danger of pulling down the entire mast. Had Constellation lost the mast, it would have greatly hindered her maneuverability and speed, vitally needed under the intense battle conditions. Shortly thereafter, the French frigate, riddled by American fire and her decks strewn with seventy dead and wounded, surrendered.

    After the fighting, Porter had a chance to show his mettle again. As French prisoners were being removed to Constellation, a storm erupted. Porter, First Lieutenant John Rodgers, and eleven American seamen were caught aboard Insurgente, surrounded by defeated French sailors. The enemy was quickly herded into the lower hold, and for three tense days, the "prison" ship made its way to St. Kitts to join Constellation. Not a single prisoner escaped.

    Americans, so hesitant to raise a navy, grandly celebrated the capture of Insurgente. The captain of Constellation, Thomas Truxton, was awarded a gold medal by Congress. Toasting the navy was suddenly in vogue. Shop owners sold pitchers emblazoned with the words "Success to our infant navy," and people were singing a popular ballad called "Truxton's Victory."

    The call went out for more warships, but the young nation was short on cash. Given the enthusiasm for the new navy and the news that the Barbary States were rattling their sabers again it is not surprising that money for several ships was raised by private subscription. America's largest cities—New York (population: 60,000), Philadelphia (41,000), and Boston (28,000)—responded by building frigates. The town of Salem, which had a population of less than 10,000 but which possessed a seafaring reputation second to none, came through with Essex. She would serve faithfully during the Quasi-War, and the Barbary Wars and famously during the War of 1812. The thirty-two-gun ship embodied America's spirit during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, when the navy—like the nation—was brimming with the attributes of youth: righteousness, cockiness, and speed.

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Table of Contents

Cast of Characters ix
Foreword xv
CHAPTER ONE Essex and the Young American Navy 1
CHAPTER TWO Salem Builds a Frigate 23
CHAPTER THREE The Shakedown Cruise 45
CHAPTER FOUR Mediterranean Duty 67
CHAPTER FIVE America Defeats the Bashaw 107
CHAPTER SIX Porter Takes Command 137
CHAPTER SEVEN The Glorious Pacific Cruise 169
CHAPTER EIGHT Valparaiso: The Final Battle 215
CHAPTER NINE A Fitting End 255
Epilogue 261
Bibliography 265
Glossary 273
Salem Subscribers to Essex 281
Acknowledgments 285
Index 287
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