USS Constellation (1797)

USS Constellation (1797)

USS "Constellation" was a 38-gun frigate, one of the six original frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Act of 1794. She was distinguished as the first U.S. Navy vessel to put to sea and the first U.S. Navy vessel to engage, defeat, and capture an enemy vessel. Constructed in 1797, she was decommissioned in 1853.


On 27 March 1794, the United States Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794, which provided for building the US Navy its first new ships: the frigates "Chesapeake", "Congress", "Constellation", "Constitution", "President", and "United States". "Constellation" was the first to be commissioned.

"Constellation" was built at Harris Creek Shipyard in Baltimore's Fells Point according to a design by Joshua Humphreys and launched on 7 September 1797, just as the United States entered the Quasi-War with France.


Joshua Humphreys was a Quaker apprenticed to ship builder John Warton and assumed his shipyard upon Warton's death in 1771. He had risen to become Philadelphia's premier shipbuilder and his shipyard was one of the busiest in Philadelphia at that time. He was appointed Master Constructor of the United States charged with the construction of 6 frigates. Toll p52] There were two designs one for a 44 gun frigate that would become the USS "Constitution", USS "President", and USS "United States". The second of the two designs were 38 gun frigates USS "Congress", USS "Chesapeake", and USS "Constellation". Both designs were controversial for their time being long on keel and narrow of beam and mounting very heavy guns. Again they were unusual in that they used a diagonal scantling (rib) scheme that was intended to restrict hogging (sagging of the ship at the ends from the middle) while giving them extremely heavy planking. This gave the hulls a strength that other more lightly built frigates simply couldn't match. This was done as Humphreys realized that the under populated United States could not begin to match the European states in the size of their navies. This being so, these Frigates were designed to overpower other frigates and be able to run away from ships of the line. In as such they were the pocket battleship of their day. Toll p50]


USS Constellation vs. L'Insurgente

On 9 February 1799, under the command of Captain Thomas Truxtun, "Constellation" fought and captured the frigate "L'Insurgente" of 36 guns, the fastest ship in the French Navy. The battle started about 18 miles NE of the island of Nevis about midday when USS "Constellation" spotted "L'Insurgente" who cracked on studsails and attempted to run. Toll p114 ] "L'Insurgente" had recently captured USS "Retaliation", a schooner, in November of 1796 and three weeks previous had been chased by the USS "Constitution" and had escaped. "L’Insurgente’s" job was that of commerce raiding; she wanted nothing to do with another warship and tried to flee "Constellation". Within an hour of hauling in chase Truxtun was close enough to make private signals to identify if the ship he was pursuing was British or not. With no answer, he proceeded to chase "L'Insurgente" down, clearing for action and beating to quarters. Truxtun made private signals for the US Navy and again received no answer.Toll p115] "Constellation" crowded on all sail despite a rising squall that threatened to tear a sail or throw a spar.Toll p116] Reefing sail just long enough to weather the short squall, "Constellation" hardly paused but the same was not to be for "L'Insurgente" as her topmast snapped and slowed her to the onrushing "Constellation". Captain Barreaut ordered "L'Insurgente" to lay up and prepared to fight. USS "Constellation" was outfitted with 24 pounder gun that caused her to lean too much to lee due to topweight and thus had to surrender the weather gauge to "L'Insurgente". She would be refitted with 18 pounder guns in her next refit. "L'Insurgente" raised the French Tricolor and Captain Barreaut tried to ask for parley. Captain Truxtun refused to answer as his orders were to attack any French warship or privateer and answered when his last gun could be brought to bear.Toll p117] American warships of this period fired for the hull as did the British and each of the 24 pounders had been double shotted. "L'Insurgente" fired as per her training at the "Constellation's" masts and rigging." Constellation's" masts were saved when her sail was reduced taking pressure off the damaged mast. "L'Insurgente" was devastated by "Constellation's" first broadside with many dead and others deserting their guns. "L'Insurgente" tried to board and slowed to close but this allowed "Constellation" to shoot ahead and crossed her bows for a bow rake with another broadside. "Constellation" crossed to windward and "L'Insutgente" turned to follow with both crews now exchanging port broadsides instead of starboard.Toll p118] One of "Constellation's" 24 pounders smashed through the hull of "L'Insurgente"; unfortunately for "L'Insurgente", her 12 pounders were not equal to the same task against "Constellation's" hull. Captain Barreaut had been shown one of "Constellation's" 24 pound cannon balls and understood that he was in a completely unequal contest with sails down and nothing comparable to reply with many already dead and wounded. He struck colors— the first major victory by an American-designed and -built warship.Toll p119]

USS Constellation vs. La Vengeance

Other victories followed. In February 1800 "Constellation" fought a night encounter with the frigate "La Vengeance" of 54 guns, of the "La Résistance" class (design by Pierre Degay, with 30 x 24-pounder guns and 20 x 12-pounder guns). "La Vengeance" was out weighed by the "Constellation" but had the heavier broadside, 559 lbs to 372 lbs. Toll p135] "La Vengeance" attempted to run and had to be chased down.Toll p132] An hour after sunset "Constellation" came into hailing range and when "La Vengeance" was ordered to stand to and surrender, she answered with a broadside. After an hour "Constellation's" foresails failed and had to be repaired; she then overtook "La Vengeance" and a running battle exchanging broadsides continued.Toll p133] Twice the ships came close enough that boarders were called for on both ships, the second occasion was quite bloody as US Marines in the "Constellation" shot up the deck of "La Vengeance" leaving her deck covered in bodies of the dead and wounded, and forcing her boarding party to seek cover. A young Lieutenant standing next to Captain Pitot of the "La Vengeance" had his arm taken off at this time.Toll p134] "Constellation" was victorious after a five-hour battle. "La Vengeance" was so holed in the hull and her rigging so cut up that she grounded outside of the port of Curaçao rather than attempt to sail into port for fear of sinking. The French commander just managed to save his ship from capture and - upon returning to port - was so humiliated he later boasted that the American ship he had fought was a much larger and more powerful ship of the line. Despite a lighter broadside Captain Pitot of the "La Vengeance" accounted that she had fired 742 rounds in the engagement while Captain Truxtun of the "Constellation" reported 1,229 rounds expended. "Constellation's" rigging and spars were so damaged she dare not try to sail upwind and so went to port in Jamaica. Unable to complete a refit she limped home on a jury rig. After the encounter, the "Constellation's" incredible speed and power inspired the French to nickname her the "Yankee Racehorse."Constellation" served in the Barbary Wars against Tripoli and in the War of 1812 against Great Britain. In 1840, "Constellation" completed a voyage around the world, which included becoming the first U.S. warship to enter the inland waters of China.


In 1853 "Constellation" was struck and broken up for scrap at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia. At the same time, the keel was laid for what became known as the second USS "Constellation". In the later half of the 20th Century, the 1854 version was thought to be the 1797 version as the city of Baltimore promoted the ship as the original and some naval historians believed the Baltimore ship to be the rebuilt original. The paper "Fouled Anchors: The "Constellation" Question Answered", by Dana M. Wegner, "et al.", published by the Navy's David Taylor Research Center in 1991, concludes that they are different ships. The conclusive proof came during the renovation of the ship in Baltimore concluding in 1999 in which all evidence pointed to the construction of an entirely new sloop-of-war from the 1850s era and not the 1797 ship. However, there is no evidence in the US Naval Registry from the time period for a complete destruction or for an appropriation for an entirely new ship. There is a notation that the original ship was remodeled instead, using the original building materials to construct an entirely new sloop-of-war.


* Toll, Ian W. (2006) "Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of The U.S. Navy". New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-05847-5
* [ USS "Constellation"] from DANFS

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