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USS President was a 44-gun sailing frigate of the United States Navy, one of the original six frigates that the Naval Act of 1794 had authorized. Her designer was Joshua Humphreys, and she was built in New York City, the last of the six to be completed. Launched in April 1800, President served during the final months of the Quasi-War against France and made two patrols against Barbary Pirates during the First Barbary War of 1801–1805.

Commodore John Rodgers remained her commanding officer for several years. President was at the center of the Little Belt Affair, one of the incidents that led to the War of 1812. During the war President patrolled as far away as the English Channelmarker and Norwaymarker; during these patrols she captured the armed schooner and numerous merchant ships. In January 1815, she engaged the frigate off the coast of New York and was captured by a British squadron after the exchange. The Royal Navy took her into service as HMS President; she was broken up in 1817.

Construction

During the 1790s American merchant vessels began to fall prey to Barbary Pirates in the Mediterraneanmarker, most notably from Algiersmarker. In order to combat this problem, the Naval Act of 1794 was passed. The act provided funds to construct six frigates however, included a clause that if peace terms were agreed to with Algiers, the construction of the ships would be halted. In March 1796 a peace treaty was signed with Algiers and construction was stopped. Originally designated as "Frigate B", and subsequently named President by George Washington, construction resumed in 1798 with the beginning of the Quasi-War with France. Her keel was laid sometime in 1798 at a shipyard in New York City. Forman Cheeseman, Christian Bergh and US Navy Captain Silas Talbot were involved in her construction, but their individual roles are not clear.

Based on experience gained with her sister ships, and during their construction, Joshua Humphreys instructed Cheeseman to make some alterations to President s construction. These changes included raising the gun deck by and moving the main mast further rearward. President was built to a length of between perpendiculars and a beam of .

Armament

Ships of this era had no permanent battery of guns as modern Navy ships carry. The guns and cannons were designed to be completely portable and often were exchanged between ships as situations warranted. Each commanding officer outfitted armaments to their liking, taking into consideration factors such as the overall tonnage of cargo, complement of personnel aboard, and planned routes to be sailed. Consequently, the armaments on ships would change often during their careers, and records of the changes were not generally kept.

President s "rating" as a 44-gun ship by number of guns was meant only as an approximation, as she would often carry over 50 guns at a time. President was originally armed with a battery of 55 guns: thirty-two 24-pounder (10.9 kg) cannon; twenty-two 42-pounder (19 kg) carronades and one 18-pounder (8 kg) long gun.

Quasi and First Barbary Wars

President was launched on 10 April 1800 with Captain Thomas Truxtun in command. She then departed for Guadalupe on 5 August to conduct patrols during the latter part of the Quasi-War with France. This uneventful duty ended in March 1801 when she returned to the United States.

In May 1801, Commodore Richard Dale chose President as his flagship for an assignment in the Mediterranean to protect American merchant shipping from Barbary pirates. Dale's squadron consisted of , , and . The ships arrived at Gibraltar 1 July, with President and Enterprise quickly continuing on to Algiers. The ships' presence in Algiers convinced the regent of Algiers to withdraw the threats made against American merchant ships. Dale was not authorized to commence hostilities against the Barbary States, his role was limited to escorting Mediterranean merchant convoys.

While blockading the harbor of Tripoli, President captured a Greek vessel with Tripolitan soldiers aboard. Dale was then able to negotiate an exchange of prisoners to release Americans held captive. President returned to the United States in December 1801, and Dale's report led the United States to assemble a greater effort against the Barbary States.

Samuel Barron took President as his flagship in 1804 and sailed her for the Mediterranean in company with . The two ships arrived there on 4 September joining the squadron, which included sister ships and Constitution. En route to Malta on 12 September, President collided with Constitution as a result of a sudden change in wind direction. The collision caused the latter much damage to her stern, bow and figurehead. Barron, who was senior in rank, replaced Edward Preble as Commodore while various ships of the squadron maintained a blockade on Tripoli during the winter months of 1804–1805.

Due to Barron's failing health, John Rodgers assumed the duties of Commodore, transferring his flag to the Constitution. President s role during the Battle of Derne and the subsequent blockade of Tunis are not recorded, though she is noted as being under the command of James Barron just after the Battle of Derne. Peace treaties were signed with Tripoli on 3 June 1805 and with Tunis in October.

Little Belt Affair

President firing on Little Belt


Following the events of the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, tensions began to grow between the United States and Britain. President was recommissioned in 1809, and began uneventful patrols mainly along the United States' eastern seaboard. In May 1811, the British frigate stopped the American brig Spitfire eighteen miles from New York and impressed a crewman. President, then Commodore John Rodgers' flagship, sailed from Fort Severnmarker on 10 May in search of Guerriere. On the 16th, a lookout spotted a sail on the horizon. Closing to investigate, Rodgers determined the sail belonged to a warship, and raised signal flags to identify his ship. The unidentified ship, later learned to be , hoisted signal flags in return, but the hoist was not understood by President s crew. Little Belt sailed away to the southward and President pursued.

Darkness had set in before the ships were within hailing distance and Rodgers hailed twice only to have the same question returned to him, "What ship is that?" Immediately, Little Belt fired a shot that tore through President rigging. Rogers returned fire, and the enemy promptly answered with three guns, and then a whole broadside. Rodgers then gave the order for President to fire-at-will with several accurate broadsides doing much damage in return. After five minutes of firing Rodgers ordered a halt but soon Little Belt began firing again and President answered with more broadsides. After Little Belt became silent, President stood off and waited overnight. At dawn it was obvious that Little Belt was greatly disabled from the fight. Rodgers sent a boat over from President to offer assistance in repairing the damages she received. Her Captain, Arthur Bingham stated that Little Belt had severe damage, but he declined any assistance and sailed away to Halifax, Nova Scotia. President had one sailor slightly wounded in the exchange, while Little Belt suffered thirty-one killed or wounded.

War of 1812

A cannon explodes during the pursuit of HMS Belvidera


The United States declared war against Britain on 18 June 1812. Three days later, and within an hour of receiving official word of the declaration, Commodore Rodgers sailed from New York City. The commodore sailed aboard President, leading a squadron consisting of United States, Congress, Hornet, and Argus on a seventy day North Atlantic cruise. A passing American merchant ship informed Rodgers about a fleet of British merchantmen en route to Britain from Jamaica. Rodgers and his squadron sailed in pursuit, and encountered what was later learned to be HMS Belvidera on the 23rd. President pursued the ship and in what was recorded as the first shot of the War of 1812, Rodgers himself aimed and fired a bowchaser at Belvidera, striking her rudder and penetrating the gun room. Upon President s fourth shot at Belvidera a cannon one deck below Rodgers burst, killing or wounding sixteen sailors and throwing Rodgers to the deck with enough force to break his leg.

An ensuing period of confusion aboard President allowed Belvidera to fire her stern chasers at President killing six more men. Rodgers kept up the pursuit using his bow chasers to damage the rigging of Belvidera quite severely but his two broadsides had little effect. The crew of Belvidera quickly made repairs to the rigging while simultaneously cutting loose her anchors and boats, and pumping drinking water overboard to lighten her load, thereby increasing her speed. Belvidera soon gained enough speed to distance herself from President and Rodgers abandoned the pursuit. Belvidera sailed on to Halifax Nova Scotia to deliver the news that war had been declared.

Afterward, President and her squadron returned to the pursuit of the Jamaican fleet and on 1 July began to follow the trail of coconut shells and orange peels they had left behind them. President sailed to within one day's journey of the English Channel but never sighted the convoy and Rodgers called off the pursuit on the 13th. During their return trip to Boston, Rodgers' squadron captured seven merchant ships and recaptured one American vessel.

After some refitting, President, still under the command of John Rodgers, sailed again on 8 October in company with Congress, United States, and Argus. On the 12th United States and Argus parted from the squadron for their own patrols. On the 10th, President chased after but failed to overtake her. On the 17th President captured the British packet ship Swallow which carried a large amount of currency on board. On the 31st, President and Congress began to pursue which was escorting two merchant ships. The chase lasted about three hours, and in that time Congress captured the merchant ship Argo. Meanwhile, President kept after Galatea and drew very close. However, in the dark night, President lost sight of her quarry. Congress and President remained together but during November they did not find a single ship to capture. On their return to the United States they passed north of Bermuda, proceeded towards the Virginia capes, and arrived back in Boston on 31 December, having taken nine prizes. President and Congress found themselves blockaded there by the Royal Navy until April 1813.

On 30 April President and Congress sailed through the blockade on their third cruise of the war and on 2 May they pursued but she outran them both and escaped. President parted company with Congress on the 8th and Rodgers set a course along the Gulf Stream to search for merchant ships to capture. By June, not having come across a single ship, President turned north and put into North Bergen, Norway on the 27th to replenish her drinking water. Sailing soon after, President captured two British merchant ships which helped to replenish her stores. About this time two Royal Navy ships, and , came into view. President set all sails to escape in a chase that lasted eighty hours before she outran them. Rodgers reported that his decision to flee the ships was based on identifying them as a ship of the line and a frigate. Royal Navy records later revealed that Alexandria and Spitfire were actually a 32-gun frigate and a 16-gun fireship respectively.

Spending a few days near the Irish Channelmarker, President captured several more merchant ships. She then set a course for the United States. In late September President encountered HMS Highflyer along the east coast of the United States. Rodgers used his signal flags to trick Highflyer into believing that President was actually HMS "Seahorse". In reality no such ship existed but the Captain of Highflyer came aboard "Seahorse" only to discover that he had walked into a trap. President captured Highflyer without a shot being fired. President s long cruise had netted her eleven captured merchant ships in addition to Highflyer.

Capture

President vs Endymion


On 4 December President sailed from Providence, Rhode Island. On the 25th she encountered two frigates in the dark, one of which fired at her. Rodgers thought the ships were British, but they were actually two French frigates, Meduse and Nymphe. Afterward, Rodgers headed toward Barbados for an eight week cruise in the West Indiesmarker, reportedly making three small captures. Returning to New York City on 18 February 1814, she encountered which turned to evade President once realizing she was a 44-gun frigate. President remained in New York for the duration of 1814 due to the blockade of the harbor by a British squadron consisting of HMS Endymion, Majestic, Pomone and Tenedos. In January 1815, President, now under the command of Stephen Decatur, began her run out of New York Harbor on the evening of the 14th facing gale force winds. The failure of harbor pilots to mark the passage resulted in President running aground. President finally floated off about an hour later but the grounding had twisted her timbers causing hogging to the hull and her masts had been sprung. With the wind direction not favorable for return to the harbor, President was forced to head out to sea.

Decatur set a course that he hoped would take them away from the enemy squadron, but within two hours their sails were spotted on the horizon. President changed course and attempted to outrun them but the damage she had suffered the night before significantly reduced her speed. Decatur ordered any expendable cargo thrown overboard but by late afternoon, HMS Endymion had come alongside and began firing broadsides into President. Decatur quickly devised a plan that would have President brought in close to Endymion; President s crew would then board and capture Endymion and sail her back to New York. The engagement began a short while later, during which Endymion s rigging and sails were greatly damaged. Before Decatur ordered his crew to board Endymion, a lookout spotted two more enemy ships en route. President tried to escape but by nightfall HMS Pomone and Tenedos had caught up to her and began firing broadsides. Realizing his situation, Decatur surrendered President just before midnight.

Aftermath

Although the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on 24 December 1814, it was not ratified by the United States until 18 February 1815 and the capture of President had occurred in the meantime. Endymion and President were ordered to proceed to Bermuda but along the way they encountered a dangerous gale. The storm completely destroyed President s masts and strained Endymion s timbers so badly that all of her upper-deck guns had to be thrown overboard to save her from sinking. Decatur and his crew were briefly held prisoner in Bermuda, but were subsequently released and acquitted of any wrongdoing in their surrender of President.

The Royal Navy commissioned the damaged ship as HMS President. She was taken into drydock and inspected. The inspection revealed damage too severe to repair, and she was ultimately broken up in 1817. As a testament to the frigate's seaworthiness, the British built the next to President s design. In September 1897, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt heard a rumor that the British had offered to return President to the United States. This prompted him to write to Secretary of State John Hay, stating what an "intolerable humiliation" it would be to the United States to request the return of the ship. Only later did Roosevelt learn the rumor was false.

Notes

References

  1. Allen (1909), pp. 41, 42.
  2. Sources do not agree on the roles of those involved in her construction. Toll claims Forman Cheeseman was the builder; DANFS claims it was Christian Bergh; the New York Times article written by Bergh's son Henry, claims that Bergh was Naval Constructor appointed by Cheeseman. The more recent Naval History & Heritage Command article claims Cheeseman as Naval Constructor and Talbot as Superintendent but it is known from the article on that Talbot was in command of that ship by July 1799. It is possible that the cancellation of her construction in 1796 led to others being assigned when her construction resumed in 1798.
  3. Roosevelt (1883), pp. 55, 56.
  4. Allen (1909), p. 217.
  5. Cooper (1856), p. 151.
  6. Abbot (1896), Volume I Part I Chapter XV.
  7. Cooper (1856), p. 153.
  8. Cooper (1856), pp. 215, 216.
  9. Toll (2006), p. 251.
  10. Cooper (1856), pp. 217–220.
  11. Cooper (1856), pp. 221, 222.
  12. Abbot (1896), Volume I Part II Chapter III.
  13. Cooper (1856), pp. 233–235.
  14. Beach (1986), p. 69.
  15. There was a US Navy ship named in service at that time but sources are not clear if the Spitfire mentioned in this article was a US Navy ship. The Spitfire of this article is invariably described as "a merchant brig" or "American brig". The DANFS article on the US Navy ship Spitfire makes no mention of the incident however, the descriptions of the ships are very similar.
  16. Cooper (1856), p. 235.
  17. Toll (2006), p. 322.
  18. Beach (1986), p. 70.
  19. Rodgers' version of the encounter was that Little Belt had fired the first shot while Bingham's version was that President had fired the first shot. Both Captains forever maintained their position of the encounter.
  20. Roosevelt (1883), p. 73.
  21. Abbot (1896), Volume I Part II Chapter IV.
  22. During the War of 1812 there was another ship named that served on Lake Champlain and was captured in 1814.
  23. Cooper (1856), pp. 244, 245.
  24. Roosevelt (1883), p. 74.
  25. Roosevelt (1883), p. 75.
  26. Cooper (1856), pp. 246, 247.
  27. Roosevelt (1883), p. 76.
  28. Roosevelt (1883), p. 77.
  29. Roosevelt (1882), p. 106.
  30. Cooper (1856), p. 262.
  31. Roosevelt (1883), p. 107.
  32. Abbot (1896), Volume I Part II Chapter VIII.
  33. Roosevelt (1883), p. 174.
  34. Roosevelt (1883), p. 175.
  35. Roosevelt (1883), p. 176.
  36. Roosevelt (1883), pp. 176, 177.
  37. Cooper (1856), p. 332.
  38. Roosevelt (1883), p. 217.
  39. Roosevelt is the only source to mention this encounter and his description on p. 217 reads thus: "On the 25th, in lat. 19° N. and long. 35° W., the President, during the night, fell in with two frigates, and came so close that the head-most fired at her, when she made off. These were thought to be British, but were in reality the two French 40-gun frigates Nymphe and Meduse, one month out of Brest."
  40. Roosevelt (1883), p. 286.
  41. Roosevelt (1883), p. 401.
  42. Abbot (1896), Volume II Part II Chapter XIV.
  43. Cooper (1856), p. 429.
  44. Abbot (1896), Volume II Part II Chapter XVI.
  45. Cooper (1856), p. 430.
  46. Cooper (1856), p. 431.
  47. Roosevelt (1883), p. 403.
  48. Cooper (1856), p. 432.
  49. Roosevelt (1883), p. 400.
  50. Cooper (1856), p. 433.
  51. Beach (1986), p. 135.
  52. Toll (2006), p. 469.
  53. Toll (2006), p. 478.


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