Sunday, April 8, 2018

The America That Could Have Been

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

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Continental Ship-of-the-Line America,
Naval History and Heritage Command
The Journal of the Continental Congress for November 20, 1776 contains a momentous entry regarding the strength of the Continental Navy:

"The Marine Committee to whom was referred the bringing in a plan for increasing the navy of the United States, brought in a report, which was taken in consideration; Whereupon, Resolved, That there be immediately undertaken,  In New Hampshire, 1 ship of 74 guns,..."

The resolution also calls for the construction of two other 74's, five 36-gun frigates, an 18-gun brig, and a packet boat in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.  The New Hampshire vessel referenced above is the ship-of-the-line America, the largest warship to be constructed in the Western Hemisphere up to that point, but sadly one destined for a brief and undistinguished career.  America's keel was laid in May 1777 at John Langdon's shipyard on the Piscataqua River.  Almost immediately, the would-be 74's construction was plagued by budget difficulties, scarcity of seasoned timber, and a lack of qualified tradesmen to work on such a massive vessel.  According to John Langdon's papers, the "Dimentions of a 74 Gun Ship" include a length of 147' at the keel, 49' across the beam, and a height of 7' between decks.  A Colonel James Hackett was appointed master builder under Langdon's supervision, and work plodded on for two years or so.

Difficulties in building notwithstanding, America would have two of the top contenders for the title of "Father of the United States Navy" as her prospective commanding officer.  Captain John Barry (already famed for his command of the Continental warships Lexington and Raleigh) was appointed to the command on November 9, 1779, with instructions to "hasten, as much as will be in your power, the completing of that ship."  Almost immediately, Barry would defeat a proposal to reduce America to a 54-gun razee (a ship-of-the-line that has had her top deck removed, essentially making her a heavy frigate), but little else would be accomplished in the coming months.  On March 23, 1780, Barry applies for a leave of absence from Continental service and commands a short privateering cruise.  Barry returns to the Continental Navy that September to assume command of the frigate Alliance, where he will, preside over the court-martial of Pierre Landais, defeat two British vessels at once, and eventually fight the final naval action of the American Revolution.

For the better part of another year, little to no work was done on America.  Then on June 26, 1781, Captain John Paul Jones would be appointed to the command.  Jones was ecstatic; still riding the waves of adulation from his storied victory over HMS Serapis and miraculously preserving the frigate Ariel through a massive storm on the Bay of Biscay, Jones thought command of a ship-of-the-line meant promotion to the rank of Rear Admiral was not far behind.  He would be sorely disappointed on that score, but Jones threw himself into the assignment nonetheless.  Finding money to pay for the construction plagued Jones just as it plagued Barry and Hackett before him, but he was determined to overcome.  Jones himself paid workmen out of his own pocket, and even tried his hand at crowdfunding.  Ever hopeful to get America to sea, Jones suggested to his friend Gouverneur Morris in Philadelphia, "a voluntary contribution of the public spirited ladies of Philadelphia, especially under the guidance of Mrs. Morris...I should hope also to give the ladies a ball on board soon afterwards at Philadelphia."  When not studying tracts on naval tactics to prepare himself for flag rank, Jones repeatedly butted heads with Langdon regarding different details of America's construction, just as they had during the fitting out of the sloop-of-war Ranger several years prior.  At one point as America stood vulnerable on the stocks, Jones received word of a rumored raiding party from a British frigate that planned to burn her.  Jones immediately posted guards and repeatedly stood watch himself; there were scattered reports of boats with muffled oars in the night, but no attack came.  John Paul Jones would be praised in a letter by John Adams (yet another "Father of the United States Navy"), who wrote, "The command of the America could not have been more judiciously bestowed, and it is with impatience that I wish her at sea.  Nothing gives me so much surprise, or so much regret, as the inattention of our countrymen to their navy.  It is to us a bulwark as essential as it is to Great Britain."

In the defense and Jones' and Adams' countrymen, they were essentially bankrupt.  The Continental Congress had bills and debts piling up across the board, with the war continuing to drag on.  When the French ship-of-the-line Magnifique was wrecked trying to enter Boston harbor on August 11, 1782, a way of crossing off one expense presented itself.  Instead of worrying how to arm, provision, crew, and maintain a 74-gun ship, Congress decided to gift America to the French as a replacement for Magnifique.  Jones was quite disappointed to say the least, but dedication to duty kept him moving forward; America was successfully launched on November 5, 1782.  She would depart for France on June 24, 1783 commanded by M. le Chevalier de Macarty Martinge, late of the Magnifique.  Her service in the French navy would be brief; an inspection revealed extensive dry rot (the direct result of building the ship with mostly green timber) in America's frame, and she was broken up in 1786.  It was probably just as well: armed with a main battery of 18-pound cannon supported by 12 and 9-pounders for an estimated broadside weight of 513 pounds, America was woefully under armed for her rate.  On the other hand, HMS Bellona, launched in 1760 as the prototype for the iconic British 74, was armed with a main battery of 32-pounders supported by 18 and 9-pounders, had an estimated broadside of 781 pounds.

The end of the beginning: the USN's first ship-of-the-line
USS Independence as a receiving ship circa 1890.
It would take thirty years and another war with Great Britain for the United States to launch another ship-of-the-line, this time to keep.  On June 22, 1814, the Boston Navy Yard would launch USS Independence.  While rated as a 74-gun third rate ship-of-the-line, Independence was immediately armed with 90 32-pound cannon and assigned to protect the approaches to Boston Harbor (and be blockaded therein by the British) alongside USS Constitution.  While Old Ironsides would break out of Boston for one last cruise, Independence would not put to sea until after the War of 1812 had ended.  In the interim, the Barbary Coast states (following British claims that they would sweep the oceans of United States vessels within six months) had once again begun raiding American vessels.  USS Independence was to be the flagship of Commodore William Bainbridge and lead an American fleet into the Mediterranean to combat Barbary piracy yet again...only to discover that a squadron dispatched earlier under Commodore Stephen Decatur had already secured a new peace treaty under threat of military reprisal.  Independence would eventually be razeed and become a 54-gun heavy frigate, albeit one of the fastest in the United States Navy.  She would cruise to Europe, the Mediterranean, off South America, and into the Pacific as far as the Hawaiian Islands before being decommissioned for the last time on November 3, 1912 at the Mare Island Navy Yard.

At the height of the Age of Sail, the strength of a nation's navy was often measured by the number of ships-of-the-line they had in service.  Ships-of-the-line were large and powerful, intended primarily as force projection.  While frigates tended to be more versatile and served a variety of purposes in the Continental Navy and early United States Navy, the development of American ships-of-the-line was a strong step towards making the United States a world renowned naval power.

1.  Morgan, William James.  Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Volume 7. (Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, 1976.)
2. Naval History and Heritage Command.  Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships: America I and Independence II  (June 16 and July 21, 2015.)
3.  Thomas, Evan.  John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.  (Simon and Schuster, 2010.)
4.  Wikipedia.  HMS Bellona (1760)  (January 18, 2018.)

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