The large land mass in the Western Hemisphere consisting of northern and southern continents originally connected by an isthmus, but now separated by the Panama Canal. Although discovered by Christopher Columbus, America is named for Amerigo Vespucci who first recognized it as a new continent. The term America is often used loosely to designate the United States of America.
On 9 November 1776, the Continental Congress authorized the construction of three 74-gun ships of the line. One of these men-of-war, America, was laid down in May 1777 in the shipyard of John Langdon on Rising Castle (now Badger) Island in the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine.
However, progress on her construction was delayed by a chronic scarcity of funds and a consequent shortage of skilled craftsmen and well seasoned timber. The project dragged on for over two years under the immediate supervision of Col. James Hackett as master shipbuilder and the overall direction of John Langdon. Then, on 6 November 1779, the Marine Committee named Capt. John Barry as her prospective commanding officer and ordered him to ". . . hasten, as much as will be in your power, the completing of that ship . . . ."
Nevertheless, the difficulties which previously had slowed the building of the warship continued to prevail during the ensuing months, and little had been accomplished by mid-March 1780 when Barry applied for a leave of absence to begin on the 23d. However, he did perform one notable service for the ship. In November 1777, after inspecting the unfinished vessel which was slated to become his new command, he strongly recommended against a proposal, then under consideration, to reduce her to a 54-gun frigate. His arguments carried the day, and the Marine Committee decided to continue the work of construction according to the ship's original plans.
All possibility of Barry's commanding America ended on 5 September 1780 when he was ordered to Boston to take command of the finest ship ever to serve in the Continental Navy, the 36-gun frigate Alliance which had recently arrived from Europe. Over nine months later, on 23 June 1781, Congress ordered the Continental Agent of Marine, Robert Morris, to get America, ready for sea and, on the 26th, picked Capt. John Paul Jones as her commanding officer. Jones reached Portsmouth on 31 August and threw himself into the task of completing the man-of-war. However, before the work was finished, Congress decided on 3 September 1782 to present the ship to King Louis XVI of France to replace the French ship of the line Magnifique which had run aground and been destroyed on 11 August 1782, while attempting to enter Boston harbor. The ship was also to symbolize the new nation's appreciation for France's service to and sacrifices in behalf of the cause of the American patriots.
Despite his disappointment over losing his chance to command the largest warship ever built in the Western Hemisphere, Jones remained in Portsmouth striving to finish the new ship of the line. His labors bore fruit on 5 November 1782 when America, held partially back by a series of ropes calculated to break in sequence to check the vessel's acceleration, lest she come to grief on the opposite bank of the river, slipped gracefully into the waters of the Piscataqua. After she had been rigged and fitted out, the ship-commanded by M. le Chevalier de Macarty Martinge, who had commanded Magnifique when she was wrecked-departed Portsmouth on 24 June 1783 and reached Brest, France, on 16 July.
Little is known of her subsequent service under the French flag other than the fact it was brief. A bit over three years later, she was carefully examined by a survey committee which found her damaged by dry rot beyond economical repair, probably caused by her wartime construction from green timber. She was accordingly scrapped and a new French warship bearing the same name was built.
America, a ship-rigged whaler, was purchased by the Navy at New Bedford, Mass., on 8 November 1861 as part of its "Stone Fleet." Filled with stones, she was sailed to Charleston, S.C., and sunk at the harbor mouth on 19 and 20 December 1861 to block the channel into that Confederate port.
(Schooner: tonnage100; length 111'0"; beam25'0"; draft 12'0"; armament 1 12-pounder rifle, 2 24-pounder smoothbores)
The first America was a racing schooner designed by George Steers and built at New York City in the shipyard of William H. Brown. The yacht was constructed for a syndicate headed by John Cox Stevens, the commodore of the New York Yacht Club, and including other prominent sportmen who wished to win recognition for American shipbuilding and sailing skill during Crystal Palace exposition, the first of the great international world's fairs. Launched on 3 May 1851, America sailed for Europe.
During that summer, she won distinction in a number of yacht races and proved herself a match for the fastest sailing craft. Sailing a course around the Isle of Wight on 22 August 1851, she won the Royal Yacht Society regatta and was visited by Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. Her owners now felt that they had achieved their desired demonstration of American shipbuilding and seamanship, and sold her to a British purchaser on 1 September 1851. A subsequent purchaser renamed her Camilla; under British colors she continued to show herself seaworthy as well as fast.In 1860 Henry Edward Decie bought the ship and, after competing in English Channel races, took her to the Cape Verde Islands, ostensibly en route to the West Indies. When the secession crisis in the United States threatened to escalate into civil war, Decie departed St. Vincent in Camilla early in 1861 and headed for the Southern coast, apparently hoping to find in the Confederacy some way of turning a profit from his yacht.
The schooner arrived at Savannah, Ga., on 25 April 1861, shortly after the attack on Fort Sumter. Decie journeyed to Montgomery, Ala., where he met Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He is said to have secretly sold Camilla to the Confederate Government, and she was supposedly renamed Memphis. Documents substantiating this have not been found. In any case, the yacht, still commanded by Decie, was next used to carry a Southern purchasing commission to England where she briefly resumed racing before again sailing for the South around 21 August. The schooner ran through the blockade into Jacksonville, Fla., and was inspected there by a Confederate customs agent on 25 October 1861.
Evidence suggests that she ran the blockade more than once during the next few months. Upon the last occasion, Union warships fired upon her, but she made port unscathed.
After Union combined forces began taking control of the Florida coast early in March 1862, the schooner was scuttled in Dunn's Creek, a tributary of the St. Johns River, to avoid capture. She was found there on 18 March 1862 by a Union expedition; raised after a week's labor; and towed to Port Royal, S.C., where she was repaired. Thought was given to sending her to the Naval Academy for use as a practice ship. Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont wrote to Washington to learn the Navy Department's intentions in the matter. He never received a reply to this query, and had the former yacht outfitted as a dispatch vessel and blockader.
Acting Master Jonathan Baker began the yacht's service in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron when he sailed her to Florida waters with dispatches for warships operating along the coast. America then took station in the inner line of blockaders off Charleston. From time to time she fired upon ships as they attempted to run into or to escape from that port. Her first success came on the night of 13 October 1862 when she captured the schooner David Crockett which was trying to slip out to sea with a cargo of turpentine and rosin to be delivered at Bermuda.
On 26 October 1862, Du Pont ordered America to New York for repairs which lasted until late in the year. The yacht returned to Port Royal on 3 January 1863 and took station in Charleston waters. On 29 January, she was one of the warships that cooperated in forcing the iron screw steamer Princess Royal aground. Boat crews from America assisted in refloating that valuable prize whose cargo included rifled artillery, small arms, ammunition, and steam engines for ironclads being constructed at Charleston.
Near midnight on the night of 18 and 19 March 1863, America fired the first rounds into the large British iron-hulled steamer Georgiana which was endeavoring to run into Charleston with a much-needed military cargo including rifled cannon. Her gunfire and signals to other Union warships were instrumental in forcing the blockade runner aground where she was destroyed.
On 25 March 1863, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles finally ordered America to sail in May for Newport, R.I., the wartime site of the Naval Academy. Before going north, the yacht scored one last time on the morning of 31 March when she sighted Antelope and brought that salt-laden British topsail schooner to with a shot across the blockade runner's bow, enabling boat parties from Memphis to seize her.
America got underway on the afternoon of 4 May 1863 headed for Newport, and reached the Academy in time to participate in that summer's training cruise. Manned by midshipmen and commanded by Lt. Theodore F. Kane, she sailed to New York with the Academy's other practice ships which that year were sailing for the first time as a squadron. They headed south along the New England coast and maneuvered off the entrance to Long Island Sound before proceeding to Gardener's Bay where they conducted various evolutions including the stripping of the sloop of war Marion.
While America was at the New York Navy Yard, Kane received orders to put to sea in search of CSS Tacony, a bark recently captured by the brig Clarence which had, in turn, been taken and manned by the Confederate commerce raider CSS Florida. Deeming Tacony a superior ship to Clarence, the commander of her Southern prize crew transferred his men to the bark, put the torch to Clarence, and headed north in Tacony on a 12-day rampage in which he captured 15 Northern merchant ships.
America put to sea on the afternoon of 15 June 1863 seeking the already notorious Tacony. As she searched to the southward during the ensuing 10 days, the yacht encountered extremely rough weather before, somewhat the worse for wear, she returned to New York without having had even a glimpse of her elusive quarry.
After landing her midshipmen at Norfolk late in the summer, America proceeded to the Portsmouth (N.H.) Navy Yard for repairs. While she was there, the commandant of the yard sent her to sea on 30 August 1863 to search for the lumber-laden merchant schooner Medford whose mate had run away from the port with her ". . . probably with the intention of going South." Reinforced by 10 men from Fernandia, America stood out to sea and hunted for the runaway. After returning to port empty-handed, she departed Portsmouth and sailed back to Newport.
The yacht served at the Academy through the end of the Civil War and participated in the summer cruise of 1864. When the midshipmen returned to Annapolis following the collapse of the Confederacy, the schooner accompanied Constitution on the voyage back to the mouth of the Severn. After the midshipman training cruise of 1866, America was laid up at Annapolis and remained there, inactive, until sent to the Washington Navy Yard in the autumn of 1869 for a complete overhaul. The following spring, she moved to the New York Navy Yard to prepare to resume international racing. On 8 August 1870, she competed for the cup which she had won in the famous race around the Isle of Wight, 19 years before, in a race which bore its name. Although past her prime, America finished fourth out of the fleet of 19 entries in the first America's Cup race.
In 1873, the Navy sold the yacht to Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler who used her both for racing and for cruising. She remained in his hands and those of his family until put up for sale for commercial use in 1917.
Thinking that such a fate was unworthy of a ship with her distinguished record, Charles Foster purchased America and had her overhauled. In 1921 she was towed to Annapolis and presented to the Naval Academy. In 1941, soon after the start of another major overhaul of the schooner, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States into World War II. The Navy immediately halted work on all construction and repair projects not directly related to the war effort, and the yacht was left under a shed in the Annapolis Yacht Yard across the Severn from the Naval Academy. This makeshift structure collapsed under the weight of deep snow during the surprise blizzard that hit Annapolis on 29 March 1942, crushing America's hull. Her name was stricken from the Navy list on 11 October 1945 and the remains of the yacht were scrapped.
James L. Mooney
Updated, Robert J. Cressman
14 September 2022
Sometime after she was purchased by the Union Navy on 9 December 1864 for service in the Civil War, and probably before she was commissioned early in January 1865, screw tug America was renamed Periwinkle (q.v.).