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The Hard-luck Frigate

July 2024
13min read

After a century and a half of misadventure, the Constellation (if she is still the Constellation ) returns home

When Hurricane Connie whirled towards the U.S. coast in August, 1955, an odd-looking old cral’t wallowed up Chesapeake Bay just ahead of the oncoming gales. The United States frigate Constellation , oldest American fighting ship, her masts and spars gone and her hull gripped tight in a floating dry dock pulled by a panting tug, was racing for her life.

She made it, warping into a berth in Baltimore Harbor just before the hurricane hit. The gala reception that had been planned for her arrival had to be postponed.

The ill fortune which would bring a hurricane up the East Coast on the occasion of the Constellation’s final voyage would be remarkable in the case of any ship save the Constellation . But for her it was a perfectly normal occurrence. For the Constellation , probably more than any other American ship, holds the undisputed record for plain bad luck. Not only has she been embarrassed in battle, repeatedly deprived of her rightful glory and even cheated out of an entire war, but whatever fate deals with ships has now gone so far as to scandalize her very name.

Fate started early. The Constellation was conceived, simultaneously with the United States Navy, in the Naval Act of 1794. Of the 35 warships of the Continental Navy, exactly one remained in American hands when the Revolution was over. And at war’s end even the personnel of the Navy was disbanded for economy.

So the new nation was in no position to remonstrate with the Dey of Algiers when in 1793 his warships started to plunder American merchantmen in and around the Mediterranean. During October and November of that year alone, eleven ships were taken and 113 Americans were imprisoned and held for ransom. Consuls general represented this country at the Barbary States in those days, and it was humbling to hear that some of the Deys [breed them to enter the Presence by creeping under wooden bars and kissing the Dey’s hands.

Such reports—and the continually rising ransom prices—finally stirred the government to call the Dey’s blufl. The Naval Act of 1794 called for six frigates, three of 44 guns each, of which the Constitution was one, and three of 36 guns, one of them the Constellation . Congress let the bill squeak through, by a margin of two votes, but only after attaching a rider stipulating that all work on the frigates would be halted if a treaty were reached with the Deys.

The Constellation’s troubles started at once. Three designers fought over the plans. Finally construction started in Baltimore, but the work went slowly and amidst considerable confusion.

A year after the passage of the Naval Act, only the bare ribs of the Constellation poked into the air. Supplies of cordage and live oak were fouled up somewhere. Then, to cap everything oil, a peace treaty was negotiated with Algiers. All work on the frigates stopped immediately.

There followed more arguments in Congress, at the end of which a supplementary act was passed authorizing the completion of three of the frigates. One was the Constellation .

On September 7, 1797, three years after the original go-ahead signal, the frigate Constellation was finally launched. She was 164 feet long and she had twenty-eight 24-pound guns in her main deck battery and twelve or more 12-pound guns on her spar deck.

By this time the Administration had nearly forgotten about the Barbary pirates because our merchant ships were having so much trouble with the French. As part of their war effort against the British, French ships were scizing and sometimes sinking or burning neutral American ships suspected of carrying goods to and from England. An estimated 316 American vessels were captured between July, 1796, and July, 1797. Finally, so that no mistake would be made about its intentions, the French government recalled its minister and refused to accept one from the United States. The naval war that followed was undeclared, but it was war nevertheless.

The captain of the Constellation was Thomas Truxtun, a red-laced, bewigged, gouty martinet who schooled his junior officers so well that he is frequently called “The Father of the Navy.” Truxtun ran a taut ship, as evidenced by what happened when the Constellation got to sea.

With as large a force as could be scraped tip, the Constellation sailed for the West Indies, to search out and attack elements of the French Navy at one of their main bases. And for once the Constellation had a stroke of good luck. She was the first to sight a French warship.

It was the Insurgente , new and last. But the Constellation was faster, and fifteen miles off the west coast of the island of Nevis on February 9, 1799, the battle started.

Using a squally wind with all the skill gained in his privateering days. Truxtun swept down on the Insurgente , managed to maneuver across her bow and sent a broadside of cannon balls, spikes and twisted metal screaming the length of her deck. Then a lucky shot from the Insurgente neatly hit Truxtun’s foremast, splitting it so badly that the topmast would undoubtedly go over in a lew minutes. In charge of the foretop was a midshipman named David Porter. He bawled below for orders to lower the yard and ease the strain, but at that point the battle was reaching a crescendo and he could not make himsell heard. Scrambling up to cut the slings himsell, he lowered lhe yard and saved the mast only a lew minutes before it would have crashed over and IeIt the ship partially crippled and at the Insurgente’s mercy.

Despite near panic among the crew, despite freakish squalls and a crippled foretop, Captain Truxtun somehow managed to work his way around the enemy, pouring more broadsides across her deck and up and down lier length. Outgunned, outguessed and outmaneuvered, Captain Barreaut struck his colors. And then, when the prize was within Truxtun’s grasp, it was almost whisked away.

The first lieutenant of the Constellation was John Rodgers; Truxtun selected him and Midshipman Porter to secure the French ship and send the prisoners across to the Constellation’s brig. But as night fell, the wind increased to a gale. There were 173 Frenchmen still aboard the Insurgente , and they had taken advantage of their break. They had thrown all the irons overboard and had even jettisoned the hatch gratings, so there was no way to lock the prisoners below deck. Rodgers and Porter had eleven seamen to control this rebellious crew. Stationing one man at each hatch with a blunderbuss and a pile of loaded muskets, and orders to shoot the first head that popped up, Rodgers directed the clearing of the bodies and wreckage from the decks. All night the storm increased, and by morning the plunging Insurgente , with jury rig and spliced bolt ropes, had been driven out of sight of the Constellation .

For three days, while the storm raged on, Rodgers, Porter and their little band of seamen fought to keep the 173 mutinous prisoners below and sail a ship that required a crew of 300 even in good weather. Finally, bone-weary and sleeping on their feet, they managed to raise St. Kitts. There TruxUm paced the deck of the anchored Constellation , anxiously awaiting news of his prize. For saving the Insurgente despite all these fearsome difficulties, Rodgers was promoted to captain and Porter raised on the spot lrom midshipman to lieutenant at nineteen.

But credit for overcoming so many mishaps must go to Truxtun, and even more credit was to go to him later. Within a year of his battle with the Insurgente , he had sighted the French warship Vengeance to southward of St. Kitts. This time he surmounted even worse handicaps.

The Vengeance was bigger than the Constellation , but her decks were piled high with an overflow of her cargo, hogsheads of sugar bound l’or Martinique. Her skipper was not anxious to get into a fight under those circumstances. He tried to get away, and for twelve hours Truxtun tried to close with the Vengeance , only to have the light wisps of wind die out at the last minute. Finally the wind picked up, just as darkness fell. Truxtun would not wait; lighting battle lanterns, he beat to general quarters and sent the Constellation plunging alongside the heavier-gunned Vengeance .

Yardarm to yardarm they fought for five hours. By withholding fire until it coidd be delivered in concentrated broadsides, Truxtun made his fewer guns more effective than those of the Vengeance . But again a lucky shot from the enemy crippled the Constellation’s maintop. The Vengeance , decimated by the superior marksmanship of Truxtun’s well-trained gunners, struck her colors. As Truxtun tried to bring the Constellation alongside, his mainmast went over the side.

His ship a cripple, Truxtun had to stand by helplessly and watch the Vengeance limp away.

It was not until later that he learned how bad his luck had been. Twice during the battle the Vengeance had tried to surrender; but her signals had gone unnoticed in the din and cannon smoke. If he had got alongside the Vengeance only a lew minutes earlier, he would have made her a prize. As it was, she got away, and the Constellation limped into Port Royal, Jamaica, a week later without a spar or a fathom of rigging on main or mizzen.

Once again Captain Truxtun had overcome what seemed like a jinx on his ship and had won. For accomplishing the seemingly impossible, he was voted a medal by Congress and received ceremonial swords, prize money and a 600-guinea silver plate from Lloyd’s of London.

But the jinx finally got Truxtun. An officious and overbearing disciplinarian, he was also the best allaround captain in the young Navy. But his successes against the French made him even more conceited than he had been before. When assigned to a new command in the Mediterranean, he got into a petty fight with the Navy Department over rank and seniority. Finally, discredited and maligned, he took oil his blue coat and epaulets (but not his white naval wig, which he wore until the day he died). Not many Americans today know Thomas Truxtun as well as they do John Paul Jones and Isaac Hull and David Farragut. They should.

The difference between the hardluck Constellation under Truxtun and under her other skippers was almost immediately apparent. On a particularly hapless cruise, running from the West Indies to New York, she sighted another warship, came up on her in the dark and exchanged shots before the skipper found out she was a British ship. This was embarrassing, and did little to improve the Constellation’s , low morale. Her captain now was Alexander Murray—old, crotchety, deal, with an unhappy habit of picking fights with his junior officers and disciplining them severely for minor infractions. He returned from one cruise with two of his officers in irons, and so harsh had been his treatment of them that the Navy Department removed him from command. On this cruise of the Constellation , Murray had hardly recovered his temper when he sighted, chased and captured a three-masted French lugger—only to discover from her disgusted captain that he was acting illegally because the war had ended. The Constellation was destined for more such comic-opera cruises, now that Truxtun was gone.

Meanwhile the Bashaw of Tripoli had captured some American prisoners and was holding them for ransom. But this time, the Bashaw was bluntly notified that no ransom would be forthcoming. He “declared war.” Off to the Mediterranean went a fleet including the Constellation .

During this “war” the frigate Philadelphia distinguished herself in a reverse way by running aground in the harbor of Tripoli while chasing a blockade runner. Stephen Decatur and a brave little band slipped into the harbor in a captured Tripolitan ketch and burned her. But there was not even the excitement of being captured for the Constellation . Presently a violent storm damaged her so much that she had to return to the States.

For nearly seven years she lay rotting in New York. Her spars and topmast were sent down. Her paint peeled. Barnacles encrusted her hull. Dry rot ate at her planks and even some of her main beams. That was what she was like at the outbreak of the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 was the time of glory for many of the new Navy’s frigates. While the United States was defeating the British Macedonian , the Constitution was winning her undying lame by beating the Java and destroying the famous Guerrière . Meanwhile what of the Constellation ? En route south for repairs, she had gone aground on a sand bar, turned over at low tide and sunk. Finally she was towed to Norfolk for refitting. It was January, 1813, before she was ready for sea again. Dropping down to Hampton Roads, she ran into a British blockade and turned back. During the rest of the War of 1812, while other frigates made America a world maritime power, the refitted but unfortunate Constellation lay in the James River, engaging in desultory target practice. Once she saw some “action” when a little band of British boats tried to land some troops near Norfolk. Constellation sailors and marines, almost delirious over the prospect of something to do, fired on the boats from the frigate, manned artillery on the shore and repulsed the landing. It was the Constellation ’s only engagement in the entire war.

Meanwhile the Barbary pirates had taken advantage of the War of 1812 and were again on the rampage. Again they “declared war” on the United States. Again a Barbary “navy” captured the crews of two American ships and held them for ransom. Another fleet that included the Constellation took off for the Mediterranean. With rare good luck the Constellation was in the lead when the fleet came upon the big Algerian flagship Meshouda . With her usual bad luck, the Constellation only succeeded in driving the Meshouda under the guns of two other American ships. They promptly made and got credit for the kill, an unusually important one that included the Algerian admiral, Rais Hamida. The Dey capitulated and most of the fleet sailed home, leaving the Constellation the dreary job of staying behind and enforcing the terms of the new treaty.

For the next 45 years she had one uneventful cruise after another, in the West Indies, along the coasts of South America, across the Atlantic and back in the Mediterranean. In 1842 she went to the Far East but arrived too late to take part in the Opium War. In 1853-54 sne spent a year in the repair yard again. By 1861 she had the unenviable task of patrolling the coast of Africa, chasing slavers.

It is a fitting irony among the many of her life that the Constellation ’s job in the Civil War was, in the words of her sailing orders, “the protection of our commerce from the piratical depredations of vessels fitted out by those in rebellion against the United States. The principal one of these vessels, the Sumter , which has so far eluded our cruisers, when last heard from was in the vicinity of Gibraltar …” The irony lay in the fact that the Sumter was a steamer; setting a sailing ship like the Constellation to catch her was like sicking a chicken on a weasel. The old frigate was reduced to pathetic and useless cruises about the Mediterranean while her captain understandably hoped he would not see the quarry that could so easily gobble him up.

The Constellation was through. She came home from the Mediterranean to live out the rest of the century as a training ship, a receiving ship and a gunnery practice ship.

In 1893 she was towed to Newport, made fast to a wharf and left to die.

Somehow she held together and by 1914, historians began to talk about preserving a ship that was 117 years old; she was refitted. But three years later she even lost her name; a new World War I cruiser was to be called the Constellation , so the wooden ship was renamed the Old Constellation . By 1925, however, she had outlived the cruiser and got her proper name back. She was kept in fair condition at Newport until 1940 when she caught the eye of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had her put back in full commission, just in in time for her to serve in World War II—as “flagship” for Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King, a man with precious little time to spend traveling up to Newport to visit her.

The Constellation had not been to sea in 52 years when, on a chilly October day in 1946, she moved out of Newport Harbor and once more began to rise and fall to the swells of the open sea. She had no masts. Her deck was housed over. Her hull was bolstered by massive timbers that took the strain of the steel cable running to the tug. She was bound for the Boston Navy Yard and its dry dock.

A squall came up. White-capped seas crashed across her huddled form. Her weak old hull groaned and a foot and a half of water sloshed from side to side in her hold. A desperate bucket brigade kept her afloat until she could reach the smoother waters of Boston Harbor. Creaking up to wharfside at last, she settled in the stillness of what appeared to be her final resting place.

But the cost of her upkeep mounted every year, and the Navy Department, hard-pressed to keep its fighting ships in trim without worrying about its relics, could no longer finance the battle against rot. In 1948 Congress passed a bill authorizing enough money to pay 25 per cent of the restoration of the old ship if the public would put up the rest. The Navy estimated that it would cost $3,500,000 to restore the Constellation to the condition she was in when she was originally built for $314,000. A public subscription drive was launched.

It netted $93.85.

The old hulk lay disconsolately at her wharf and started to fall apart. And as if by calculated insult, she lay next to the spanking clean frigate Constitution , restored by a public subscription that had been successful.

Finally the Navy asked for congressional permission to break up the poor old hard-luck frigate. She was getting to be an eyesore in the Boston Navy Yard. That was when the civic group in Baltimore stepped in. The Constellation was built in Baltimore, and Baltimore wanted her back. By act of Congress the Navy encased her in a floating dry dock and towed her to Baltimore, running before the onrushing gales of Hurricane Connie. There the Constellation was left to the people of Baltimore.

The Constellation Committee of Maryland estimates that a minimum restoration can be done for $100,000, and this amount is already available; half of it was appropriated by the Maryland legislature and the other half by the city of Baltimore. For this amount her ancient hull can be settled in a gravel bed and her interior made presentable enough for tourists to go aboard. Then, hopefully, collections will start for enough money to repair her, erect new masts and possibly even bend sails on her spars once again.

Thus the Constellation has almost achieved her long-deserved shrine—almost, but not quite. For the old girl’s bad luck is still with her. In fact, this last blow is probably the crudest of all. Evidence has been presented to indicate that the venerable hulk on which Mary !anders are spending $100,000 is the wrong ship.

It appears that, far from being America’s oldest warship, she is comparatively new as such relics go; that she is not the ship that fought the Insurgente and the Vengeance , not the ship that stumbled about the Mediterranean after the Barbary pirates, not the ship that helped teach John Rodgers and David Porter the art of naval warfare by testing them with every kind of ill fortune imaginable.

Not far from Baltimore lives a marine architect named Howard I. Chapelle. He is an expert on sailing ships, their designs and their history. His two most ambitious books, The History of American Sailing Ships and The History of the American Sailing Navy , are classic reference works for anyone studying United States maritime history. Mr. Chapelle has been looking into the Constellation with special reference to his particular interest, her design and its changes over the years. On the basis of this study he states that when the old Constellation was supposedly “rebuilt” in 1853–54, she was actually broken up, surveyed, found to be thoroughly rotten and condemned and junked. A few pieces of her may or may not have been used in the new ship that was then built, but the new vessel was not the Constellation any more. She was built as a modern sailing warship of her day. She was not even a frigate, but a corvette. (Although this is a distinction of design too minor for the layman’s eye, the marine architect can easily differentiate between the two types.)

Why the fiction of “rebuilding” the old Constellation? Simply, says Chapelle, because by this administrative device the Navy could have a new warship without going to Congress for authority and funds; maintenance and repair money was thereby used to build a new ship. Hence, although the new ship had to be named the Constellation , the old frigate from Baltimore no longer existed.

Mr. Chapelle’s reputation in the field is such that when a Navy officer was first presented with the claim his immediate answer was, “Well, if Chapelle says so, it must be true …” But since then the Navy has conducted an investigation and concluded officially that the present ship is simply the old one rebuilt, that the Constellation may be running on her patches, so to speak, but she is still the Constellation . So has the Constellation Committee of Maryland, which holds that the “principle of continuous existence” makes the Constellation as much the original as the Constitution is. Chapelle’s rebuttal is simply that the vessel should then be a frigate and not a corvette.

If Chapelle’s view is correct, the old lady now suffers her final degradation. She has been cheated out of all there was left to her, a clear name and a bit of respect at the end.

There are those who believe ships really do have personalities of their own. If that is so, there must be a stirring in the sludge at the bottom of Norfolk Harbor these days, as the twisted bones of the real Constellation churn over in their 100-year-old grave.

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