If you happen to take our “Complete Freedom Trail” tour, we end at the most famous warship in the world, the USS Constitution. She’s over 220 years old and remains a commissioned ship in the US Navy.
One of the fun things about leading people on tour is that I’ll get questions that stump me. My recent guests, Doug and Tanya from Texas wanted to know about the other five ships that were built at the same time as the Constitution. After a little homework, here’s a brief summary.
The Naval Act of 1794
President Washington disbanded the small naval force remaining from the American Revolution and later decided the country needed some new ships, mostly to protect commercial shipping interests in the Mediterranean, and subsequently around the world. He received authorization from Congress to fund the construction of six frigates — smaller, stronger and more nimble that a “ship of the line”, the fearsome workhorse of the British Navy. Construction began in 1797 in six eastern ports. The decision to build them in different cities was to stimulate the economy in each of the selected cities.
The six ships, the Chesapeake, Congress, Constellation, Constitution, President and United States all served similar missions in their early days. None were ever destroyed in battle, but they did have a variety of final chapters to their stories.
For most, their early missions were to fight piracy in the Mediterranean. The Barbary Wars of the early 1800’s saw the fleet fighting privateers from Morocco to Tripoli.
The victory in Tripoli is remembered today in the Marine song, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli…” where the Constitution was the flagship of Marine forces who planted the first-ever US flag on foreign soil signaling their victory.
Here’s a brief summary of each ship’s fate:
Engaged in battle with the British ship, HMS Shannon outside Boston Harbor. She took heavy casualties and Captain James Lawrence, mortally wounded, told his officers “Don’t give up the ship”. The ship was captured, however and recommissioned as the HMS Chesapeake in the British Navy. She was eventually sold to a private party who used the wood to build the Chesapeake Flour Mill in Wickham, England. This is the only ship other than the Constitution that you can visit — although what you’ll see is a building from 1820!
The Congress captured nine prizes in the War of 1812. She later captured four enemy ships of coast of Brazil in 1813. The Congress was the first American naval ship to visit China from the US. In 1834, she was considered unfit for repair and broken up at the Norfolk, Virginia navy yard.
The Constellation first sailed to the Caribbean in 1799 to protect American ships. She defeated three French ships in the Quasi-War with France. She participated in action against Tripoli with the Constitution, and later protected American shipping interests in the Pacific during the Opium Wars. She was eventually broken up in the Norfolk Navy Yard in 1853.
The ship enjoyed several victories at sea before being blockaded in New York by a powerful British fleet. In attempting to evade the blockade, she was captured by four British ships. Commodore Stephen Decatur and crew were taken prisoner and detained in Bermuda. The Royal Navy recommissioned the Ship as the HMS President. She was later broken apart in England in 1817.
The United States initially sailed to Barbados to fight pirates. She took two privateer ships. In War of 1812, under command of Stephen Decatur, she encountered and defeated the HMS Macedonia. She would continue to patrol the Mediterranean and later Pacific ocean protecting American shipping. She was refitted in 1842 and was the flagship of America’s Pacific fleet. At that time, author Herman Melville enlisted and served on board. In 1846, she fought against the illicit African slave trade. In 1861, she was seized by Confederate forces and placed in their service, eventually being intentionally sunk in the Elizabeth River as an obstruction to Union naval vessels. She was later refloated and eventually dismantled.
“Let us bring her home to Boston, for she has truly become the nation’s ship”. With these words, the National Intelligencer persuaded the Navy to preserve the Constitution. She had many victories at sea and her legacy solidified the sovereignty of a young nation. Today, she’s available for all to visit and admire. Join us on our Freedom Trail tour, or investigate this nation treasure on your own. She’s well worth the visit!