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Vincennes

 

A city in Knox County, Ind., on the Wabash River, 55 miles south of Terre Haute. Vincennes was founded in 1731 or 1732 by soldier-explorer Francois Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes, and was the site of old Fort Vincennes, captured twice during the American Revolution—in December 1778 and February 1779—by the Virginian, George Rogers Clark.

 

I

 

(SlpW: t. 700; Ibp. 127'; b. 33'9"; dr. 16'6"; cpl. 80; a. 18 guns)

 

The first Vincennes—one of 10 sloops-of-war whose construction was authorized by Congress on 3 March 1825—was laid down at New York in 1825; launched on 27 April 1826; and commissioned on 27 August 1826, Master Commandant William Bolton Finch in command.

 

During her 41 years of service in both peace and war, Vincennes compiled an outstanding record of unprecedented achievements in polar exploration, global cartography, and commercial expansion and protection. Her career paralleled that of the young, expanding, and confident American nation and began with her departure from New York on 3 September 1826.

 

Accompanied by Commodore Jacob Jones' frigate Brandywine, Vincennes rounded Cape Horn and cruised in the Pacific protecting American merchantmen and whalers until June 1829, when she received orders which sent her first to the Society Islands, then to the Sandwich (now Hawaiian) chain, and ultimately to Macao, China, which she reached early in 1830. From Macao, she sailed to the Philippines and put into Manila on 29 January. She got underway again on 5 February; sailed across the Indian Ocean; and arrived at Capetown, South Africa, 56 days later. After a brief stop at St. Helena, Vincennes returned to New York on 8 June 1830 to become the first American naval vessel to circumnavigate the globe.

 

Master Commandant Finch wrote of a voyage around the world that "none is more trying to a ship's qualities, hull, rigging and spars, and only such vessel as is most perfect in every respect, ought to undertake it." Finch also corrected earlier surveys of the Pacific Basin, discovering two islands west of the Society group and actually sailing over the charted location of a third.

 

Vincennes was decommissioned at New York on 10 June 1830; underwent extensive repairs at New York; and was then ordered to take up station in the West Indies to protect American commerce from pirates, Comdr. Edward R. Shubrick in command. She anchored at Pensacola, Fla., on 31 March 1831; visited Cuba and Jamaica in May; but—after yellow fever had broken out on board—returned to Pensacola in July. The vessel remained at Pensacola for nearly a year while the disease ran its course, finally put into the Portsmouth (N.H.) Navy Yard on 29 July 1832 and was decommissioned there on 19 August 1832 for extensive overhaul.

 

Placed back in commission on 1 June 1833, Comdr. Alexander S. Wadsworth in command, Vincennes departed Portsmouth that autumn for her second Pacific cruise. She rounded Cape Horn early in 1834 with orders to visit the Fiji and Palau Islands, China, and Sumatra and search for shipwrecked and stranded American seamen. Following a more southerly route westward from South America than that taken previously by any American vessel, Vincennes became the first American warship to call at Guam. She arrived at Singapore on 24 January 1836, passed through the Straits of Malacca, and called at Quallah Battu on the west coast of Sumatra on 15 February. Continuing westward, Vincennes provisioned and watered at Capetown and St. Helena, and stood into Hampton Roads, Va., on 5 June 1836 to complete her second circumnavigation of the globe.

 

Decommissioned on 18 June 1836, Vincennes remained in ordinary at Norfolk, Va., for two years while receiving a thorough overhaul. By now, she had acquired a reputation for sturdiness and fine handling under sail and was selected as flagship for Lt. Charles Wilkes' United States South Sea Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Antarctic and South Pacific. Accordingly, a new light deck was added to the ship at this time to provide better accommodations and improved weather protection for scientists and crew.

 

The expeditionary force sailed from Hampton Roads on 18 August 1838 and arrived at Madeira on 16 September. Lt. Wilkes and the civilian scientists on board Vincennes explored the interior and ports of the island before sailing on 25 September for Porto Praya, Cape Verde Islands, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the squadron arrived on 23 November. Repairs to the vessels occupied the remainder of the year, delaying departure for Antarctica until 6 January 1839.

 

Vincennes rounded Cape Horn easily and anchored in Orange Bay, located on the southeast coast of Hardy Peninsula 45 miles northwest of the cape, the scheduled jumping off place for the Antarctic exploration. Here, she established an observatory and remained to conduct surveys and local exploration while Lt. Wilkes and most of the rest of the squadron sailed south to the ice barrier. Following Lt. Wilkes' return on 30 March, Vincennes prepared for the voyage north, sailed for the coast of Chile on 17 April, and arrived at Valparaiso on 15 May. The expedition again followed its usual pattern of activity when in port. The ships were repaired and provisioned while the scientists and some of the officers made explorations inland. On 6 June, the squadron sailed for Callao, Peru, and arrived there on 30 June to complete repairs which could not be made at Valparaiso. On 13 July, Vincennes headed west for the Tuamotu Archipelago and, on 13 August, landed at Minerva Island in the Low Archipelago.

 

During August and September, the squadron made extensive surveys and explorations through the Tuamotu Islands and at Tahiti, Society Islands, contacting local natives and amassing a wealth of information on the anthropology, geology, history, botany, and zoology of these islands. Vincennes sailed westward on 29 September, bound for Samoa, reached Tutuila on 11 October, and anchored at Upolu on 26 November. Here, Lt. Wilkes took into custody a native murderer of an American seaman and also concluded an agreement with native chiefs on regulations governing affairs with American merchantmen and whalers. He also made the first thorough survey of the Samoan group, constructing charts still of great use today for checking land measurements.

 

The squadron left Apia, Samoa, on 10 November and headed for Australia to prepare for a second voyage to the Antarctic. After stopping at several small islands for botanical outings, the vessels stood off Sydney on 26 December. Continuing southward, all hands hastily prepared the vessel for an extended encounter with subzero temperatures and rough seas.

 

Vincennes sighted her first icebergs on 10 January 1840 and, by the evening of the 11th, a compact barrier of ice blocked further progress, forcing the vessel to heave to for the night. In the morning, she sailed westward, following the barrier as closely as possible. On the 16th, Vincennes' officers all agreed that what lay to the south could only be land; and, continuing west, Vincennes discovered Piner's Bay on 30 January. Wilkes reported that from this bay he ". . . saw the land gradually rising beyond the ice to the height of three thousand feet ... It could be seen extending to the east and west of our position fully sixty miles . . . and now that all were convinced of its existence, I gave the land the name of the Antarctic Continent."

 

Vincennes continued westward, attempting to land, but was prevented from doing so by ice floes and raging seas. Finding her way blocked by an immense wall of ice on 17 February, Vincennes set sail for Sydney and arrived there on 11 March to replenish her stores. The coast along which the American vessel sailed is today called Wilkesland, a name given it on German maps as early as 1841.

 

Vincennes left Sydney on 19 March, bound for the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, and arrived there on the 30th to the relief of the other squadron vessels anxiously awaiting her overdue appearance. The vessel spent the next six months surveying the Fiji Islands and put into Honolulu, Oahu, in the Sandwich Islands, on 23 September. Once again, the officers and scientists on board Vincennes surveyed and explored the islands, making special observations of the volcanoes on Hilo. During their stay in the Sandwich group, the entire crew was lavishly entertained by Hawaiian King Kamehameha III.

 

Vincennes concluded her Hawaiian visit with a period of repairs and provisioning at Honolulu from 18 March to 6 April 1841. On the latter day, she sailed for the mouth of the Columbia River in the present state of Washington. Arriving at Cape Disappointment on 28 April, the squadron prepared to enter the river but found it impossible to cross the formidable bar without a skilled pilot. Since none was available, Vincennes set her course for the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where she arrived on 1 May. After anchoring at Port Discovery the next day, the expedition conducted surveys in the Vancouver Island area until 11 May, when Vincennes anchored off Fort Nisqually. Following additional experiments on land and expeditions into the interior, Vincennes returned to the strait on 20 June, anchoring at New Dungeness Roads. Thorough surveys of the creeks and inlets of the bay continued until 3 August, when the vessel weighed anchor and sailed for the mouth of the Columbia, arriving on 6 August.

 

Vincennes was dispatched to San Francisco, Calif., on 8 August with orders to survey the Sacramento River while awaiting the arrival of the remainder of the squadron. She dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay off Sausalito on 14 August and commenced her investigations. The remainder of the squadron presented itself on 19 October and aided Vincennes in completing the survey. The ships sailed for Oahu on 1 November, anchoring at Honolulu on the 17th. Vincennes again put to sea on the 27th and sighted Wake Island on 19 December. This important trio of islets now includes one named for Wilkes, and another for his chief scientist, naturalist Titian Ramsay Peale. Continuing westward, the survey vessel anchored in Manila Bay on 11 January 1842.

 

Vincennes stood out of Manila on 21 January, bound for the Strait of Mindoro. She anchored off the island of Sulu on 2 February and, after concluding a treaty with the reigning sultan, sailed on to visit and survey the various islands of the Sulu Sea. The vessel put into Singapore Roads on 19 February to take on water and supplies for the long, westward trip home. She left Singapore on 26 February and touched at Capetown on 13 April and St. Helena on 1 May before arriving off Sandy Hook, N.J., on 10 June 1842, almost four years after the beginning of the expedition.

 

Vincennes was next assigned to the Home Squadron and placed under the command of Comdr. Franklin Buchanan, a distinguished officer destined to become the first Superintendant of the Naval Academy. She sailed to the West Indies and cruised off the Mexican coast protecting American interests until the summer of 1844. Though this duty proved relatively uneventful, Vincennes did rescue two grounded English brigs off the coast of Texas and received the thanks of the British government for this service. Buchanan was also ordered to prevent any attempted invasion by Mexico of the new Republic of Texas. Fortunately, this eventuality never materialized; and Vincennes returned to Hampton Roads on 15 August to enter dry dock.

 

On 4 June 1845, Vincennes sailed for the Far East under command of Capt. Hiram Paulding. She was accompanied by the ship-of-the-line Columbus, under the command of Capt. Thomas Wyman; and the two vessels formed a little squadron under the command of Commodore James Biddle, who carried a letter from Secretary of State John C. Calhoun to Caleb Gushing, American commissioner in China, authorizing Gushing to make the first official contact with the Japanese Government.

 

The squadron sailed for Macao by way of Rip de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope. Commodore Biddle arrived safely in Macao only to find that Gushing had already left for home and that his successor, Alexander H. Everett, was too ill to make the trip. Therefore, Biddle determined to conduct the negotiations himself. Accordingly, Vincennes and Columbus sailed for Japan on 7 July 1846 and anchored off Edo (Tokyo) on 19 July. The Japanese surrounded the vessels and allowed no one to land. Otherwise the visitors were treated with courtesy. However, Commodore Biddle's attempts to discuss the opening of feudal Japan to foreign trade were politely rebuffed, and the vessels weighed anchor on 29 July. Columbus returned to the United States by way of Cape Horn, but Vincennes remained on the China Station for another year before returning to New York on 1 April 1847. Here, she was decommissioned on the 9th, dry-docked, and laid up.

 

Vincennes remained in ordinary until 1849. Recommissioned on 12 November 1849, she sailed from New York exactly one month later, bound for Cape Horn and the west coast of South America. On 2 July 1850, while lying off Guayaquil, Ecuador, she harbored the Ecuadoran revolutionary General Elizalde for three days during one of that country's frequent civil disturbances. Sailing on to San Francisco, the vessel lost 36 members of her crew to the gold fever sweeping California at the time. Turning south, Vincennes cruised off South America until late 1851, closely monitoring the activities of revolutionaries ashore. She made a courtesy call to the Hawaiian Islands at the end of the year and proceeded thence to Puget Sound where she arrived on 2 February 1852. She anchored briefly there and returned via San Francisco and the Horn to New York where she arrived on 21 September and was decommissioned on the 24th.

 

Following repairs and a period in ordinary, Vincennes was recommissioned on 21 March 1853 and sailed into Norfolk on 13 May to join her second exploratory expedition, serving as flagship to Comdr. Cadwalader Ringgold's survey of the China Seas, the North Pacific, and the Bering Strait. Comdr. Ringgold was a veteran of the Wilkes expedition. The squadron stood out of Norfolk on 11 June 1843, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and charted numerous islands and shoals in the Indian Ocean before arriving in China in March 1854. Here Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry relieved Ringgold for medical reasons and gave command of the expedition to Lt. John Rodgers. Vincennes sailed on to survey the Bonin and Ladrone Islands and returned to Hong Kong in February 1855. The expedition sailed again in March and surveyed the islands between the Ryukyu chain and Japan, and then the Kurils. Vincennes left the squadron at Petropavlovsk, Russia, and entered the Bering Strait, sailing through to the northwest towards Wrangel Island. Ice barriers prevented the vessel from reaching this destination, but she came closer than any other previous ship. Vincennes returned to San Francisco in early October and later sailed for the Horn and New York, where she arrived on 13 July 1856 to complete yet another circumnavigation of the globe.

 

Decommissioned four days later, the ship was laid up more than a year before being reactivated on 3 November 1857. Assigned to the African Squadron, Vincennes patrolled along the coast of the "Dark Continent," doing hot, difficult, and exhausting duty in the suppression of the slave trade. She returned home in the spring of 1860, was decommissioned on 3 April, and placed in ordinary at the Boston Navy Yard.

 

After the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, Vincennes was recommissioned on 29 June and assigned to duty in the Gulf Blockading Squadron. She arrived off Fort Pickens, Fla., on 3 September, and was ordered to assist in the occupation of Head of Passes, Mississippi River, and remain there on blockade duty. Though the Federal warships did successfuly deploy, on 12 October 1861 the Confederate metal-sheathed ram CSS Manassas and armed steamers Ivy and James L. Day drove the Union blockaders from Head of Passes, forcing Richmond and Vincennes aground. Vincennes was ordered abandoned and destroyed to prevent her capture, and a slow match was set to the vessel's magazine while her men took refuge on other ships. However, the magazine failed to explode; and, after the Confederate vessels withdrew early in the afternoon, Vincennes was refloated.

 

After the Confederate attack, the Union sloop-of-war continued on blockade duty off the Passes of the Mississippi, capturing the blockade-running British bark Empress, aground at North East Pass with a large cargo of coffee on 27 November. On 4 March 1862, she was ordered to proceed to Pensacola, Fla., to relieve Mississippi and spent the next six months shuttling between Pensacola and Mobile, Ala., performing routine patrol and reconnaissance duty. On 4 October, she was ordered to assume command of the blockade off Ship Island, Miss., and to guard the pass out of Mississippi Sound. While so deployed, boat crews from the vessel and Clifton captured the barge H. McGuin in Bay St. Louis, Miss., on 18 July 1863. Vincennes also reported the capture of two boats laden with food on 24 December.

 

Vincennes remained off Ship Island for the duration of the war and was laid up in ordinary at the Boston Navy Yard on 28 August 1865. The veteran world traveler was sold at public auction at Boston on 5 October 1867.

 

 

USS Vincennes in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica, during the Wilkes exploring expedition. (NH83178)