Sailing Warships

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Sailing Warships. The infant U.S. republic was blessed in that the premier naval weapons system of the day was one it could produce well and use effectively. Modern designers might well pine for a vessel with the nearly unlimited range, comparatively low construction cost, and ease of repair and resupply offered by the sailing man‐of‐war. Sailing vessels needed only the wind to move them and the food and water to support their crews. Range and endurance depended on how much food and water a given ship needed to get to the next source of supply. Effective repairs of even the most severe damage to a wooden vessel could be and often were carried out on the beach, with tools of the crudest sort.

Building Sailing Warships.

The technology of the sailing warship itself was relatively stable from 1775 to 1862, requiring no expensive research and redevelopment each decade or so. Sails, ropes, timber, and guns were the components of the vessels themselves. Hemp for cordage and sails was an early crop in the colonies, and one useful for more than warship construction. Timber, the most basic and vital component of the wooden sailing warship, was present in profusion. Cannon were the most difficult component to produce in the colonies, but the United States produced simple iron smoothbore tubes and round shot as early as 1777. Stable gunpowder would prove most difficult to manufacture, but at least that was a commodity widely available on the international market.

British naval architects quickly realized that the naval stores to be found in the New World were of superior quality to the gleanings centuries of deforestation had left in the British Isles themselves. New England pines and cedars offered masts and spars of such great strength and height as often to negate the need to construct the composite masts that His Majesty's larger ships otherwise required. Moreover, North America produced over seventy‐five species of oak, which offered the greatest strength and damage resistance to wooden vessels. The squat and hardy southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) offered more advantages for wooden ship construction than many British shipwrights were equipped to employ. The wood grew in useful shapes and was fantastically strong—so much so that it discouraged the builders whose tools it dulled and who found it difficult to work. American shipwrights would come to understand that it could be soaked in brine and made workable, and it soon became apparent that salt water had a tremendous preservative effect on the wood. Thus, after two centuries of naval service, the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” retains 20 percent of her original timber: a remarkable fact given that the life span of a man‐of‐war might be considered long at forty years.

The timber itself prompted strains that would contribute to the independence of the United States and play a role in the nature of its earliest navy. British law dictated that prime trees would be marked with the “broad arrow” of the crown and could not be used except for naval construction. It made considerably more economic sense to construct completed vessels in the colonies, as soon became the case for merchant vessels. Colonial shipwrights came to resent the preemption of the finest local timber for the Royal Navy and the British policy of constructing vessels no larger than the welterweight frigates of the era in American yards. In at least subordinate ways, these forces would contribute to American resentment of the crown in the 1760s and 1770s.

The nurturing environment that had led to the construction of the very large colonial merchant marine allowed the Continental navy, and its successor, the U.S. Navy, to build or convert functional vessels effectively and quickly. Even the earliest vessels of the fleet could be tremendously effective. The tiny sloop Providence, built as Katy and armed with cannon stolen from a British fort in 1774, would bedevil the British until 1779, raiding British commerce until finally trapped and burned in the face of overwhelming force. American shipwrights during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 constructed entire fleets of warships on Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes from imported fittings and standing timber, in as little as nine weeks. The relationship of civilian to military ship technology was sufficiently close to allow privateers—armed vessels outfitted by merchants—to wage a devastating campaign against the British merchant marine in two wars. The Americans built well. The frigates authorized by the Continental Congress in 1775 would perform as creditably as conditions and the varying skills of the commanders allowed, and their designers would be available when the U.S. Navy placed its first orders for purpose‐built men‐of‐war in 1794.

The skills of the wooden shipwright were largely a matter of genius and intuition. Once again, the infant country was fortunate. Joshua Humphreys of Philadelphia designed frigates in the Revolution and had observed their fates when overhauled by powerful British squadrons or larger vessels. The designs he submitted to Congress embodied Secretary of War Henry Knox's brilliant concept that a ship should be able to outrun any opponent it could not outfight, and influenced American naval architecture until well past the advent of steam. Among Humphrey's other creations was the Constitution. Humphrey's son, Samuel, and rivals such as Henry Eckford and Adam and Noah Brown were profitable civilian designers and successful military naval architects. Costs stayed low enough for the cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia to build ships with local contributions and present them gratis to the infant navy.

Types and Performance of Sailing Vessels.

The ratings system most widely used in all navies of the period depended on the number of cannon a given vessel could carry into battle, whether she carried them or not. The system was inexact. The Constitution's official rating was 44, the number that followed her name in contemporary records and histories. In fact, the vessel carried a mixed battery of up to fifty guns, including a main battery of long 24‐pounders and short carronades, which could fire a heavier 32‐pound ball for a much shorter distance. The Royal Navy's somewhat more accurate system never became established in the U.S. Navy since that arm's ships did not conform to its standards, but it provides perspective on the range of vessels in use of the time.

Ships “of the line,” expected to participate in the battle line at fleet actions, ranged as low as “5th Rate,” such as HMS Serapis, which fell victim to John Paul Jones, rated at forty‐four guns but classed as a small ship of the line because she carried them on two gun decks, unlike the heavy frigate Constitution, which would have made short work of her. The larger, workhorse “seventy‐fours” celebrated during the Napoleonic era were “3rd Rates” under this system; among these, the U.S. Navy boasted Henry Eckford's beautiful USS Ohio of 1820. Nelson's Victory, 103 guns, was officially a 1st Rate, although a monster larger than she would appear in the U.S. Navy, Humphrey's Pennsylvania, of 1840, designed to carry 132 long “32‐pounders.”

Lighter vessels ranged upward from the cutter, a single‐masted schooner with as little as one cannon on the open deck, or nothing but swivel guns mounted on her railings. Thomas Jefferson's navy experimented with gunboats, colloquially named Jeffs, of one or two heavy guns—tiny ships that had little to offer in terms of seakeeping ability and endurance. The term sloop was used to denote almost any sort of vessel, from the single‐masted Providence with her battery of twelve 4‐pounders to the formidable Cumberland of 1862, with a three‐masted “ship” rig, armed with a battery of twenty‐four tremendous cannon. A corvette was a sloop with her guns mounted on an open spar deck. One tremendously successful ship design was the two‐masted brig of war, with two masts and varying battery, easy to work and fight with a smaller crew. Niagara, a restored veteran of the Battle of Lake Erie (1814), remains today a superb vessel of this type, with a single battery of carronades on her spar deck and a shallow, fresh‐water hull.

Larger still were the famous frigates, the commerce‐raiding cruisers and scouts of the era. These vessels had a full set of square‐rigged sailing, three masts, weapons as heavy as “long” 32‐pounders or the massive Dahlgren guns of the Civil War era on a heavy gun deck.

The range of even the smallest sailing vessel was practically unlimited, given basic seaworthiness and intact stores. A fast sailer such as Constitution could make as much as 14 knots (16 miles per hour) under sail, but heavier vessels tended to be much slower, a fact to which the Constitution owed her life on more than one occasion.

The Sailing Ship in U.S. Service.

Privateers, commissioned as warships by the government, made both the Revolution and the War of 1812 tremendously costly to British commerce and so performed a great service to the new nation before massive British blockades reduced their ability to operate. The early challenges faced by the U.S. Navy included chastising raiders sent from France in the Quasi‐War of 1798–1800, and the suppression of Muslim corsairs operating out of North Africa in the decade following. The celebrated U.S. frigate victories of the War of 1812 did much for the navy and the country's prestige, while the twin fleet victories by Americans on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain effectively forestalled British advances from Canada and led to the stabilization of the northern frontier.

The great endurance and qualities of sailing vessels proved useful in the U.S. Navy's sporadic efforts to suppress the African slave trade at its source, starting in 1820. In 1820–33, U.S. vessels worked to suppress piracy in the Caribbean, while ships of the fleet also operated off the coast of revolutionary South America and off the Chinese coast.

The age of the sailing ship as a warship began to end with Robert Fulton's development of steam‐powered ships beginning in the War of 1812. Yet sailing ships as well as combination steam and sail frigates remained part of the U.S. Navy for several decades. During the Civil War, the destruction of the becalmed Cumberland and Congress by a steam‐only ironclad in 1862 did not prevent other sailing vessels from effective service in Abraham Lincoln's blockade, but unmistakably signaled the end of the sailing warship in American service. In the decades of decline after the Civil War, the navy would emphasize sail (combined with steam propulsion) for reasons of economy and range; but the last sail‐only vessel for the U.S. Navy was constructed in 1855.
[See also France, Undeclared Naval War with; Dahlgren, John; Privateering.]

Rob S. Rice