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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORY & HERITAGE COMMAND
805 KIDDER BREESE SE -- WASHINGTON NAVY YARD
WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060

Chesapeake

 

The extensive bay lying between Maryland and Virginia.

 

I

(Frigate: tonnage 1,244; length 152'8"; beam 41'3"; depth. 20'1"; complement. 340; armament 30 18-pounders, 12 32-pounders)

The frigate Chesapeake grew out of a resolution from the House of Representatives, 2 January 1794. "That a Naval force adequate to the protection of commerce of the United States against Algerine corsairs ought to be provided." Six frigates were built; United States, Constellation, Constitution, President, Congress and Chesapeake.

In 1794, the State of Virginia confiscated the property of one of the most prominent men in Virginia, the President of the Virginia Court of Merchants, Andrew Sprowle. One of Sprowle's more profitable business ventures was the development of the Gosport Virginia shipyard, which the British Navy used to supply, careen and refit ships. At the outbreak of war, Sprowle showed loyalty to the King and fled to England. His property was seized by Virginia, which began building ships for the Continental and State Navies. Sprowle’s confiscated property was located on the Southern Branch or the Elizabeth River and leased to the United States government to build the frigate Chesapeake. William Pennock, a merchant who was reputed to own some 40 square rigged vessels engaged in foreign trade, was appointed Naval Agent. Captain Richard Dale, the prospective Captain of the vessel, was assigned superintendent. Directed by Josiah Fox, an English Quaker shipwright, and under the supervision of John T. Morgan, a master ship builder, men were sent Georgia to find a readily available supply of oak and red cedar to build the frigate.

Chesapeake’s construction was suspended in 1796 when peace was achieved with Algiers. The United States and the Dey of Algiers developed a treaty that permitted American merchantmen to freely sail the Mediterranean. In return, Hassan Pasha, the Dey of Algiers, would receive concessions including a lump sum of $642,500, and annual payments of $21,600. The treaty was ratified on 2 March 1796.

On 30 April 1798, Benjamin Stoddert of Maryland was appointed the first Secretary of the Navy. The renewed urgency in a Federal Navy, stemmed from the Dey of Algiers discontent with the concessions granted by the United States. Barbary pirates attacking merchantmen underscored the need for a standing Navy in both war and peace. Also, the XYZ Affair weakened the relationship between the United States and France, leading to privateers to exploit the weaknesses of American merchantmen in the West Indies. Stoddert then reauthorized Chesapeake’s completion, requesting her construction expedited.

Fox suggested that one way to reduce the time it would take to complete Chesapeake was to reduce her over all size. Modifying the length and design of the stern would expedite the build time by almost half. On 17 August 1798, the new plans were approved by Stoddert, and Josiah Fox was sent back to Gosport to complete the project. Chesapeake's design was unusual compared with that of the other five frigates. She was considered an oddity and often described as an "unfortunate ship". Her keel was the last to be laid down of the six frigates, she was originally named Frigate "D" and renamed Chesapeake even though there was already a Sloop named Chesapeake, she also didn’t honor a feature of the Constitution. The largest and most important difference between her and the other frigates was her size.

The redesigned project; shortened the length to 152'6", reduced the beam to 40'11", lightened the ship to 1244 tons and decreased the armament from 44 guns to 36, eventually increased to 38. These changes created a ship 13% shorter than the Constellation and Constitution but with a wider beam which made her heavier and slower. The overall price was also reduced to $220, 678. Chesapeake was launched on 2 December 1799 at the Gosport Navy Yard and commissioned on 22 May 1800 with Captain Samuel Barron in command. Barron, a Virginia native who was a Lieutenant in the Virginia Navy at the close of the Revolutionary War, became a merchantman to make ends meet after the war. In 1798, Barron became a newly commissioned Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. Within one year, Barron was promoted to Captain and awaiting his command of the frigate Chesapeake.

The French, though not technically at war with United States, had begun capturing merchantmen en route to nations at war with France. The Quasi-War with France, led French privateers to ransack American ships, claim their goods as prizes and scuttle or sail the captured ships to French ports. As early as 28 May 1798, more then a year before Chesapeake was launched, John Adams issued instructions to his Navy Commanders, stating that they "are hereby authorized, instructed and directed to subdue, seize and take any armed vessels of the French Republic."

No such opportunity presented itself to Chesapeake and her crew, who sailed from Norfolk on 6 June 1800. She patrolled for enemy cruisers and privateers and convoyed American merchantmen around the islands of St. Kitts, St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew then back to the U.S. mainland. In early January 1801, Chesapeake underwent a chase of over fifty hours to take the French privateer La Jeune Creole as a prize, who had jettisoned six of her sixteen guns to outrun her pursuer, but was eventually captured. La Jeune Creole, within a span of thirty days, had captured the American ship Hibernia, commanded by Captain James Fanning of Boston and the British ship Ludlow, commanded by Captain Matthews of St. Johns, New Brunswick. Barron placed Lieutenant Sinclair and a small crew on board La Jeune Creole and sailed for Norfolk, arriving on 15 January 1801.

On 3 February 1801, the French peace treaty was ratified and Chesapeake sailed from Basseterre, West Indies back to Norfolk. She was placed in ordinary on 26 February 1801 and her crew discharged. At the end of the Quasi-war, the Navy Department had only retained nine Captains, thirty six Lieutenants and one hundred and fifty midshipmen on full pay and just six frigates were to remain employed. Chesapeake is designated as one of the thirteen ships to remain in service for the Navy. Many of the other ships were broken up or sold at auction. Chesapeake was laid up in ordinary for most of 1801.

On 27 April 1802, Chesapeake was readied for departure from Hampton Roads Virginia. On May 14 1801, in a symbolic way of declaring war, the Bashaw of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, sent men to the U.S. Consulate to chop down the flag pole. The U.S. Government, unaware of the declaration, was beginning to develop a squadron suitable to send to the Mediterranean to protect American trading interests. Despite the concessions, the Barbary powers were continuing to prey on merchantmen. During the spring of 1802, Commodore Thomas Truxtun was assigned command of Chesapeake. His squadron consisted of; the 32-gun light Frigate Essex and the 36-gun philadelphia, who were still in the Mediterranean; the 36-gun Constellation, Captain Alexander Murray; the 28-gun Adams, Captain Hugh Campbell; the 36-gun New York, Captain James Barron; the 28-gun John Adams, Captain John Rodgers; and the 12-gun Enterprise, Lieutenant Sterrit.

Truxtun demanded a Captain for his flagship from the Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith. Smith, unwilling to compromise with Truxtun, relieved him of his command and replaced him with Captain Richard V. Morris. Morris commanded Truxtun's flagship and succeeded him as the Commodore of the squadron. Four days out of Norfolk while en route to Gibraltar, Chesapeake met with foul weather where she suffered damage to her mast spars and rigging. It took until 26 May 1802 for Chesapeake to reach Gibraltar. Further inspection in port showed that her mast was rotting and needed to be replaced. The repairs to her mast were completed in June. For the next year, Chesapeake led the blockade of Tripoli, and convoyed American merchantmen until 6 April 1803. When she departed Gibraltar for the U.S., arriving at the Navy Yard where she was laid up in ordinary.

Navy Secretary Smith ordered Commodore James Barron to take command of the U.S. squadron in the Mediterranean, commissioning Chesapeake as his flag ship. Barron had only visited Chesapeake twice in the days leading up to her departure, leaving the cruise details to Master Commandant Charles Gordon the acting Captain under Barron.

Tension increased over the violation of American neutrality and the impressments of sailors by the Royal Navy. These allegations stemmed from British ships reprovisioning their ships in Norfolk and suffering desertion. In June 1807, HMS Melampus was seeking supplies when at least four sailors deserted. These sailors went ashore and signed up for duty with American ships including the frigate Chesapeake.

In June 1807, Chesapeake prepared for patrol duty and stood out of Hampton Roads. Chesapeake departed Cape Henry Virginia on 22 June. Overloaded with passengers and cargo she passed a British squadron off the coast of Virginia looking for French ships. Chesapeake was doing double duty as its own supply ship; she was stocked with provisions, stores, baggage and spare ammunition. The vacant corners or her hull were filled with lumber, casks of wine, an armorer’s forge and anvil, a horse, grindstone and the baggage of her crew and guests. Chesapeake’s officers were under the impression that they would have time to prepare before they made way so they left a thick anchor cable obscuring her gun deck. The ship's surgeon had also placed the crews’ sick list on the spar deck for fresh air and sunlight, rendering the vessel unfit for battle.

On 22 June, late in the afternoon, the HMS Leopard overtook Chesapeake. Leopard sent over an officer with a message from her commanding officer, Captain Salusbury Humphreys. Humphrey's requested Barron to muster his sailors and check for deserters. Barron refused this request on the grounds that only he and his officers have the right to muster their sailors. Forty five minutes passed and Humphrey’s yelled over to Chesapeake, but Barron replied that he was unable to understand him. Shortly after the parlay, Leopard fired on Chesapeake. Barron beat to quarters but the warship was caught completely off-guard, with powder horns unfilled, matches unlit and cannons fouled. Humphrey's continued to fire for ten minutes before Barron struck colors, but not before he ordered at least one cannon fired as a symbolic gesture. The unprepared Chesapeake lost 3 killed and 18 wounded including the Captain. Four supposed deserters were carried off by the British.

After the Chesapeake-Leopard incident, James Barron received a five year suspension from the Navy based on an inquiry and court martial from fellow officers. The court found that Barron showed negligence by not putting the ship in perfect order before they had set sail, failed to see the suspicious movements of Leopard and shown indecision in his orders. Barron, a landless seaman with a family of six, a wife and five daughters, turned to the merchant service to support himself. At the start of the War of 1812, Barron was serving as a merchant captain on an American owned brig, sailing between Lisbon and Copenhagen. The command of Chesapeake's squadron was turned over to Commodore Stephen Decatur.

The United States and Argus left Boston in October of 1812. Chesapeake was commanded by Captain Samuel Evans and was the third ship in the squadron. She was still refitting and unable to make sail until 17 December. Evans headed to the cruising ground to rendezvous with the squadron, between 24 and 30 degrees West longitude, and captured two British merchantmen that had left their convoy in South America. The British Ship Volunteer was captured on 12 January 1813 bound from Liverpool to Bahia with a considerable amount of dry goods on board. Evans placed a crew on her and with orders to sail for the United States. The next day, another sail was spotted on the horizon. At 11 a.m., Chesapeake hoisted British colors and boarded the brig Liverpool Hero in an attempt to collect information regarding the remainder of the convoy. Although there was little of value on board, Evans decided to use her main mast to replace one of Chesapeake's main top masts that had been destroyed in a storm days prior.

Captain Evans, gambling on the prospect of more merchantmen captures, decided to forgo finding the squadron and left Chesapeake in the cruising grounds. The British brig Earl Percy was captured on 5 February bound from Bonavista to Brazil with a cargo of salt. She was assigned a prize master and sent to America. Two weeks passed and due to poor weather they had failed to capture any more ships. They sailed for Surinam, which led to another two weeks without any merchantmen captures, though on 7 April she recaptured the American schooner Valerius from a British prize master. On 10 April, the Masters of Volunteer and Liverpool Hero were paroled and placed on Earl Percy bound for America. On board Chesapeake were between 40 and 50 prisoners taken from the merchantmen. She then turned north to Barbados and sailed up the East coast of the United States where she arrived in Boston.

Secretary of Navy Jones sent correspondence to Evans to make haste in the outfitting of Chesapeake with as little cost as possible to the Navy. Evans, exhausted from a four month cruise, and suffering from a problematic eye injury requested a shore assignment. Captain James Lawrence, the victorious commander of the Hornet-Peacock incident, had been just given command of the New York Navy Yard. Reassigned as the Captain of Constitution and further reassigned to Chesapeake in early May. On 18 May 1813, Lawrence arrived in Boston and reluctantly reported for duty to Commodore William Bainbridge. He took command of Chesapeake on 20 May 1813. Lawrence assigned the twenty years old Lt. Augustus C. Ludlow, as First Lieutenant and Midshipmen William S. Cox and Edward J. Ballard were made acting Lieutenants.

At the end of May 1813, Captain Phillip B.V. Broke, commander of the 38-gun royal frigate Shannon climbed into the main rigging of his ship to get a look for himself of the condition and state of Chesapeake in Boston Harbor. At seeing for himself that she was ready to sail, Broke sent a hastily written letter to James Lawrence on 1 June, issuing the challenge of a ship to ship duel. Ship to ship duels were clearly against American naval strategic interests, which focused more on breaking up and preying on British shipping. A ship could be laid up for repairs for months after a ship to ship duel, resulting in a significant reduction in the power of fledgling American Navy. Although Lawrence did not receive the letter, which arrived the same day Chesapeake set sail, based on his past successes Lawrence no doubt expected another victory in a ship to ship battle.

Lawrence along with half of his officers and around one quarter of Chesapeake's crew were new to the ship, many of which had not even practiced firing the cannons or small arms. On Tuesday 1 June at 8 a.m. Lawrence commanded Chesapeake to set sail in Shannon's wake, hoisting a banner with the motto "Free Trade and Sailors Rights". Broke a careful, skillful, disciplinarian of a seaman, who had commanded Shannon for seven years, was determined to fight well outside of Boston harbor to insure Chesapeake could not receive assistance from shore boats. Shannon's crew were crack seaman, more experienced than the men aboard Chesapeake and familiar with their ship.

At 4.30 p.m., Shannon hove to with her bow pointed to the South-East. Chesapeake was moving at 6 to 7 knots compared to Shannon's slow headway. Commanding the weather-gauge allowed Chesapeake a significant advantage in choosing an offensive position before Shannon could gain enough headway to maneuver. Lawrence intended to bring the ships yard arm to yard arm. Broke anticipated this and prepared his starboard battery. By 5.45 p.m., the action had commenced with Chesapeake hauled up on Shannon's starboard side. Within a pistol shot, they exchanged between two and three broadsides. The broadsides and exchange of small arms fire shot away Chesapeake's rigging, killing three men at the wheel, including the sailing master Lieutenant White, and it wounded Captain Lawrence with a musket ball lodged under his knee cap. Out of the 150 men stationed on the spar deck almost 100 had been killed or wounded within the first two minutes, including nearly all of the officers.

Chesapeake's sails, rigging and helm had been destroyed which rendered the ship unable to maneuver. Shannon's crew continued their relentless fire, killing First Lt. Ludlow and further wounding Captain Lawrence with a shot fired by a British marine. The ships rigging became entangled together and Broke called for boarders. Broke led a charge of boarders after a grenade was thrown into an open chest of musket charges on Chesapeake's deck, which exploded and camouflaged the boarding party in smoke. With no officers to rally them, Chesapeake's remaining defenders were backed into the forecastle.

Captain Lawrence, mortally wounded below deck, continued to demand a boarding party and uttered "Don’t give up the ship" and "Fight her till she sinks" when he realized that all was lost. Within minutes of Shannon's crew boarding Chesapeake, the fighting was over and the white ensign of St. George flew over Chesapeake. The Chesapeake-Shannon incident was the bloodiest naval battle of the war. Two hundred and eighty men were dead or wounded from small arms fire. Lawrence, mortally wounded, died en route to Halifax. He was wrapped in ensign and given full military honors when they reached Halifax on 6 June 1813. Chesapeake was then commissioned as HMS Chesapeake and sold at auction to a private buyer in Plymouth, England. She was broken up after the war and some of her principal pieces of timber were used to build the Chesapeake Mill, a commercial flour mill, in Wickham England.