It’s time for great moments in now-obscure American military history; the foundation of the US Navy, and our war against France.
One day I was traveling - I happened to think,Since 1777 the Continental Congress had operated under the Articles of Confederation, a marvelous document. The Articles had many virtues, but one thing that they lacked was the power to tax. And while the Continental Congress could make decisions it lacked the power to enforce them.
“My pockets are empty, I can’t buy a drink.
I am an old bummer, completely dead broke,
And there’s nothing to do but go mauling live oak.”
cho: Derry down, down, down, derry down.
Since armies and navies are expensive, once the Revolution was over and the immediate threat of British arms was alleviated, and since the Congress relied on voluntary contributions from the states for the militaries’ continued operation, both dwindled. The Continental Army went down to about 700 soldiers. The Continental Navy sold its last warship, the frigate Alliance (John Barry, commanding), in 1785 and was disbanded. The sailors returned to civilian life.
British troops refused to leave the frontier forts on US soil, in violation of the Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the revolution. Formerly, American vessels had sailed under the protection of the British crown. After the Revolution, not so much, and in 1785 the Barbary States began taking American ships and holding their passengers and crews captive.
The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were broken. Enter the Constitutional Convention called by President St. Clair. The new Constitution (ratified 1787, taking effect 4 March 1789) allowed the Federal government “To provide and maintain a Navy,” and did so by granting that “the Congress shall have power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” (Article 1 Section 8) Still, up until 1793, the only Naval service of the United States was the Revenue Cutter Service (which later became the US Coast Guard).
What happened in 1793 was the beginning of the wars between Britain and France surrounding the French Revolution. British ships began taking neutral American ships trading with France, while French ships began taking neutral American ships trading with Britain. Worse for American shipping, in 1793 the Dey of Algiers signed a treaty with the Portuguese that allowed Algerian corsairs to move out through Gibraltar into the Atlantic. By the end of the year over 100 US sailors were being held by the Barbary States.
In early January of 1794 the House of Representatives resolved “that a naval force adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States, against the Algerine corsairs, ought to be provided.”
By the end of the month a resolution authorizing the construction of ships passed, with votes in the affirmative coming mainly from coastal regions, the east, and the north, and opposition coming from rural areas, the south, and the frontier. It was signed by President Washington in March of 1794. Construction on six frigates, built from their keels up to be superior to any ship in Europe of the same class, commenced in 1795. They had long, narrow hulls and raked masts, designed both for speed and to carry an impressive broadside. Where European frigates might have hull planking eighteen inches thick, these frigates’ hulls were twenty-four. The ships were to be built in six different yards from Virginia to New Hampshire, in order to spread the economic benefits and reward those who had voted for their construction.
Also in 1794, the US signed Jay’s Treaty between the US and Britain (which fixed the problem of those frontier forts left over from 1783 and regularized trade between the two countries). The French were outraged: They saw Jay’s Treaty as violating the 1778 Treaty of Alliance between France and the US. (The Treaty of Alliance with France may well have been what President Washington was alluding to when he warned, in his Farewell Address, against “foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues.”)
Construction of the new frigates proceeded slowly, partly because of the specification (included to get votes from Southern congressmen) that the ships were to be constructed of live oak that only grew in Southern forests.
The frigates had hardly been framed, however, when disaster struck the program. The act authorizing the construction of the fleet called for the halt of construction in the event of peace with Algiers. In early 1796 the United States reached a negotiated settlement with the Dey of Algiers; the return of the captive American seamen in return for a ransom of one million dollars and the construction of a thirty-two gun frigate, Crescent, for the Dey’s fleet.
President Washington argued for continuing construction of the vessels. Congress, however, could only be persuaded to authorize funds for the three that were closest to completion. One of Washington’s final acts in office was to commission John Barry, the last officer of the Continental Navy, as the first officer of the United States Navy with lineal number 1 (and with his date of rank backdated to 4 June 1794). So it was that the frigates United States (James Barry, commanding), Constellation (Thomas Truxtun, commanding), and Constitution (Samuel Nicholson, commanding) were launched in 1797, soon after the inauguration of President John Adams.
The Barbary States were no longer a problem. But summer of 1797 saw the French intensifying operations against neutral vessels trading with Britain and the British forbidding all neutral trade with the French West Indies. Congress voted to furnish the three frigates with fittings, sailors, and supplies.
The French had been the noble allies of the United States during the Revolution, supplying money, men, and military aid. (In the mid-1980s, at the US SOUTHCOM headquarters at Quarry Heights in Panama, a painting of the Battle of the Virginia Capes hung in the lobby, labeled “French Interference in the Internal Affairs of Great Britain.”) Now there was a falling out between revolutionary governments. The United States felt that French commerce raiding on American shipping was out-of-bounds.
The French had grievances of their own. Rather than side with their revolutionary brothers in their conflict with their mutual enemy Great Britain, the US had declared neutrality. Jay’s Treaty continued to rankle. The US had also decided to stop repayment of the debts incurred during the Revolution on the grounds that those debts were owed to the French crown, and the French crown was no more. (The US had already used a similar argument to abrogate its treaties with the Native Americans of the Northwest Territories, on the grounds that their treaties had been made with the British crown, not with the US. The natives had had much the same reaction as the French: “Quel merde!” The difference being that the French had a world-class army and navy, while the Native Americans did not.)
In March of 1798, at the request of Secretary of War James McHenry (after whom a famous fort would be named) Congress created the Department of the Navy, split off from the War Department, under the first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddart.
Then came the XYZ Affair (so-called because the intermediaries involved were referred to in dispatches as Monsieur X, Monsieur Y, and Monsieur Z). The French refused to recognize the US Minister to France, and demanded major concessions, a personal bribe to Talleyrand, and a formal apology from President John Adams just in order to continue negotiations. (This, not the Barbary wars, was what gave us the saying, “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute!”)
Congress, when it learned of the XYZ Affair in April 1798, voted to allowed public vessels of the United States to capture armed French vessels hovering off the coast of the USA. Congress also approved the purchase and outfitting of vessels to be converted into warships. On 24 May 1798, the Ganges (Richard Dale, commanding), formerly a merchantman of Philadelphia, put to sea as the first armed vessel of the United States Navy.
On 30 June 1798 Congress gave the president the power to accept the loan of private vessels in return for interest-bearing government bonds. On 7 July Congress unilaterally rescinded the Treaty of Alliance with France. (It would be a hundred and fifty years before the US again entered an alliance with another nation.) On that same day came a single-ship engagement of USS Delaware (a converted merchantman, Stephen Decatur, Sr., commanding) against La Croyable*, a French privateer, off the coast of New Jersey. Then on 9 July Congress expanded the new-minted Navy’s authorization to capture armed French vessels from US coastal waters to anywhere on the high seas and allowed the Secretary of the Navy to issue privateering licenses. On 11 July 1798 the president signed an act authorizing the creation of the United States Marine Corps. And on 16 July Congress appropriated funds to finish construction and equip the remaining three frigates.
The United States was, for all that it lacked a declaration, at war with France.
The Back Story is now complete.
We are now going to tell of the first engagement between a US Navy warship and a warship of another nation.
We will leave USS Constitution patrolling the east coast of the United States between New York and New Hampshire, and Commodore Barry cruising the West Indies in United States, to follow the adventures of Thomas Truxtun aboard Constellation.
The name Constellation referred to the flag of the United States, as defined by the Continental Congress: “That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes alternating red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
Truxtun himself was a Long Island man who had gone to sea at the age of twelve, rising to command of his own vessel by the age of twenty. Still in his early twenties he became an undefeated privateer captain on the Continental side during the Revolution. After the Revolution he continued as a merchant captain, where he was one of the first Americans to join the China trade.
With the creation of the US Navy, Truxtun accepted a commission as one of its first six officers. He oversaw the construction of Constellation at Baltimore.
The quasi-war with France started in July 1798 and the US Navy had great success against French privateers. The Navy had not, however, come up against a French (or any other) naval warship. That was due to change on 9 February 1799.
On 9 February, off the island of Nevis in the Lesser Antilles, around noon, Truxtun sighted a frigate flying American colors. He turned toward to investigate. Unknown to him, the vessel was the French frigate L’Insurgente (Michel-Pierre Barreaut, commanding), reputedly the fastest ship in the French fleet.
Once in sight of one another, Truxtun hauled up a Royal Navy recognition signal, to discover if the vessel he was pursuing was British. At that period, flying false colors was a common ruse of war and, as long as the vessel showed her true colors before firing the first cannon, perfectly legal. The US Navy and the Royal Navy did not operate together at that time, although the British were selling naval stores and munitions to the Americans, and they were both patrolling the same waters with the same objective. They had, however, devised a set of private signals to avoid unfortunate mistaken-identity episodes.
For his part, Captain Barreaut thought that the vessel approaching him was a British corvette. He had no interest in getting involved in a ship-to-ship duel with anyone; he was out doing commerce raiding against United States merchantmen. He turned east and attempted to break off. Constellation pursued.
At this point a squall blew up. Constellation came through undamaged; L’Insurgente lost her main top mast, limiting her speed. Truxtun hauled up another private signal, this time to determine if the vessel he was approaching was American. Again, L’Insurgente did not know the proper response.
Around 1500 (3:00 pm) Constellation came up under L’Insurgente’s port quarter. At this point L’Insurgente broke French colors and attempted to hail Constellation to arrange a parley. Truxtun had loaded his guns with double shot and, instead of parleying, responded with a broadside at the range of a pistol-shot, into L’Insurgente’s quarterdeck.
You must understand that while L’Insurgente carried more cannon than Constellation, they were lighter guns. The Frenchman mounted primarily 12-pounders in her main battery, while the American primarily mounted long-24s. Force being mass times acceleration, and the acceleration of black-powder muzzle-loaders being roughly the same, the vessel with the higher throw-weight is able to exert greater force on the other.
L’Insurgente attempted to close and board; Constellation maneuvered away, and passed up L’Insurgente’s port side, exchanging broadsides with her the whole way. Once forward of L’Insurgente, Truxtun came hard right and crossed in front of Barreaut. As he crossed ahead, he caught her in a bow rake.
A rake is this: When one vessel passes ahead of or astern of another, all of the crossing vessel’s guns can bear on the vessel being crossed, while none of that vessel’s guns can reply. Also, while bearing is easy to figure in naval gunnery, range (determined by elevation of the gun) is a bit more tricky. A shot that falls short, or one that falls long, are both misses. But with a rake, short and long shots are still hits, and a single ball can travel the length of the deck, doing damage the whole way. If you’re in a sea fight, you want to take a raking position. You want to do whatever you can to avoid being raked.
Constellation was now on L’Insurgente’s starboard quarter. She came left, and passed up L’Insurgente’s starboard side, again exchanging broadsides the whole way. Then, coming left and sailing close into the wind, Truxtun came across the other frigate’s bow and raked Barreaut again.
To picture this: The wind was out of the north. L’Insurgente was headed east with the wind on her port beam (i.e. left side). Constellation was essentially doing a sine wave around her as she ran along the X axis.
This put Constellation back on L’Insurgente’s port quarter. Again she ran forward, exchanging broadsides, and was setting up to rake L’Insurgente a third time when Barreaut struck his colors.
This was the correct decision. He was being out-sailed by a vessel with significantly heavier guns. His hull had been holed, his 18-pounders were out of service, he had suffered heavy casualties (29 dead, 41 wounded), and his rigging was significantly damaged.
The significance was that in its first engagement with a vessel of the same class from a major European navy, the US Navy had won. The entire engagement from first shot to Barreaut striking his colors had taken about an hour and a half.
It was only when Truxtun sent over a longboat to board the other frigate that he found out who he had been fighting. The story that the exchange went like this:
Barreaut: “But sir! Our countries are not at war!”
Truxtun: “By G_d, sir, they should be!”
is almost certainly false. For one thing, Barreaut was the one who had recaptured the luckless La Croyable under her new name USS Retaliation a month and a half before, which should have been a clue.
To conclude briefly: The quasi-war continued. The US Navy took over 80 French vessels, with the loss of only one of their own, the above-mentioned Retaliation. For their part, though, the French had taken over two-thousand US merchant ships. The matter sputtered out with what could only be termed relief by both sides in 1800, ended by the Treaty of Mortefontaine. The US sent a new Minister to France, who was received without the necessity of paying a bribe to Talleyrand.
Truxtun’s victory was celebrated by a song, Brave Yankee Boys, which begins:
Come all you Yankee sailors, with swords and pikes advance
‘Tis time to try your courage and humble haughty France
The sons of France our seas invade, destroy our commerce and our trade
‘Tis time the reckoning should be paid to brave Yankee boys
Now here’s a health to Truxtun, who did not fear the sight,
And all those Yankee sailors who for their country fight
John Adams in full bumpers toast, George Washington, Columbia’s boast
And here’s to the girls that we love most, my brave Yankee boys.
Truxtun retired from Naval service and sat out the Barbary War. USS Constellation was broken up in 1853; her timbers and fittings were used to build a sloop of war also named USS Constellation, which currently sits in Baltimore’s inner harbor.