Friday, January 11, 2019

The Navy's First Prize

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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With the 1794 "Act to Provide a Naval Armament," the construction of six frigates was authorized by the U.S. Congress to protect American merchantmen from the depredations of the Barbary Pirates.  In 1796, construction on the frigates was halted once a treaty was struck with Algiers.  Through the influence of President George Washington, construction was permitted to continue on the three frigates closest to completion: United States, Constitution, and Constellation.  The first vessels of the United States Navy would soon be called upon to fire their first shots in anger...not against corsairs from the Barbary Coast, but against corsairs from France.

Following the outbreak of war between Great Britain and Revolutionary France, tensions between the United States and their former mother country ratcheted up once again over issues such as impressment and the rights of neutral merchant vessels.  The 1796 Jay Treaty did much to alleviate these tensions (temporarily at least), but had the unfortunate consequence of aggravating the French Directory.  In turn, the French began aggressively policing neutral merchant vessels (especially American ones), and threatened to seize any vessel that did not provide a list of their crew's nationality on demand.  The United States sent a delegation to Paris to resolve these difficulties, but they immediately returned home following their refusal to pay $220,000 before even being allowed to meet with French officials.  French privateers then began seizing and condemning American merchantmen, especially those in the Caribbean Sea.  In the Caribbean alone, French privateers had taken some 300 vessels between July 1796 and March 1797.  

A new Naval Act dated 1 July 1797 empowered the president to man, outfit, and employ the three frigates named above to protect American shipping against the growing threat.  In addition, completion of the frigates President, Congress, and Chesapeake was authorized, construction of additional smaller vessels was begun, merchant vessels were converted for military use, and numerous vessels of the United States Revenue Service were transferred to the newly formed Navy Department.

Stephen Decatur, Sr., USN.
Revolutionary privateer turned
captain of USS Delaware.
Among the merchant vessels brought into the nascent United States Navy is the Hamburgh Packet; after bring armed with 16 nine-pound and 4 six-pound cannon, she is commissioned as the sloop-of-war Delaware and placed under the command of Stephen Decatur, Sr.  Decatur had previously served at sea as a privateer captain during the American Revolution, and his son Stephen Decatur, Jr. would soon rise to prominence during the First Barbary War and the War of 1812.

On 6 July 1798, the American merchantman Alexander Hamilton is making a voyage between New York and Baltimore when she is stopped by la Croyable, a French privateer schooner of 10 guns.  She was apparently a Baltimore schooner of new construction, and likely one of the many American vessels recently seized in the Caribbean.  La Croyable chooses not to take Alexander Hamilton as a prize, instead plundering her of a portion of her cargo (wine, brandy, sweetmeats, etc.) worth some $140 and sending her on her way.  The incensed American crew soon meets the Delaware, relates their story, and tells Captain Decatur where la Croyable and several of her prizes might be found.  Sure enough, Decatur comes up with four schooners the next day.

Not certain which of the four schooners is la Croyable, Decatur played the part of a fat, lazy, merchantman (a function Delaware had served in the past), and affected alarm at the possible sighting of armed vessels.  La Croyable takes the bait and sets off in pursuit.  The privateer sees through the ruse as she draws closer, noting that Delaware is somewhat over-manned for a merchantman and armed to boot.  Not yet realizing that the United States has established a naval force, the French captain mistakes Delaware for a British man of war, and bears for coastal waters in the hopes that the Royal Navy would not violate American neutrality by capturing a vessel in their territorial waters.  Naturally, Delaware keeps up the chase, and after firing several shots, compels la Croyable to surrender.

As Boston's Columbian Centinel reports on 8 August, "The Captain of the French privateer, taken a few days ago, seemed astonished when he went on board of Capt. Decatur's sloop of war, at his being taken by an American vessel, and said he knew of no war between the two republics.  Decatur observed that the French had been making war upon us for a long time, and it was now necessary for us to take care of ourselves.  The Frenchman seemed to be vastly mortified at seeing his Colours hauled down, and wished he had been sunk.  Decatur told him he should have been gratified if he had stood on board his vessel and fought her!"

La Croyable is purchased by the American government and enters the United States Navy as USS Retaliation.  Now armed with 4 six-pound and 10 four-pound cannon, she is placed under the command of Lieutenant William Bainbridge as part of a small squadron operating in the Caribbean under Captain Alexander Murray.  

Unfortunately, Retaliation's service would be brief; on 21 November 1798, Retaliation and her consorts retake the Fair American, a merchant ship recently captured by a pair of French privateers.  The two privateers make for the shallows, pursued by USS Montezuma and Norfolk, while Retaliation is left to protect the prize.  The next morning, Murray in the Montezuma notices Retaliation and Fair American in the distance being pursued by two large frigates.  He moves closer and hails Bainbridge, who insists they are two British warships the squadron had sighted the day before.  Murray raises British recognition signals but gets no response...just then, the two French corsairs try to break from the shallows, so Montezuma and Norfolk resume the chase.  They look on in consternation as the two frigates come up with Retaliation and open fire, quickly leading Bainbridge to strike his colors.  It is not until the Fair American sneaks away and rendezvouses with Murray that he learns the two frigates are the French warships la Volontaire and l'Insurgente.  The first prize taken by the United States Navy has also become the first ship taken from it.

Believe it or not, the beleaguered schooner's story is not over.  The French re-christen her la Magicienne, arm her with 12 guns of their own and a crew of 163.  On 28 June 1799, she runs afoul of Captain Moses Brown commanding the 28-gun USS Merrimack.  As Captain Brown notes in his journal, "Gave chase fir'd 23 Shott at her at 1/2 past 5 came up with her & gave her part of a Broadside which obliged them to hall down their colours."  Retaliation was back in the U.S. Navy, performing convoy duty in the Caribbean until returning to Philadelphia in August.  She would be sold out of the service on 29 November 1799.

By that point, the French Directory had been overthrown, and Napoleon Bonaparte established as First Consul of France.  Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord reopens negotiations with the United States, resulting in the Convention of 1800 and an end to the Quasi-War.  While the new United States Navy still had room to grow, they had proven moderately effective during their first days at sea.

1.  Palmer, Michael.  Stoddert's War: Naval Operations During the Quasi-War with France, 1798-1801.  (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.)
2.  Swanson, Claude (Publication Ordered By).  Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War Between the United States and France, Volumes 1, 2, and 3.  (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1935 and 1936.)


  1. Huzzah ! Nice read. I'm going to have to find some charts so I can track their courses.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! If you're interested in charts, go to the "Navigation in the Age of Sail" Facebook group. In their files section, there are PDF's of several charts, including one of the West Indies circa 1781.

  2. Well done, young sailor. Good reading.