Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Monday, February 14, 2011
Appointed chief constructor at Norfolk for the Chesapeake he famously took several liberties with the design, making his the smallest of the six ships - of which three were to be larger 44-gun ships and three were to be smaller - but still large - 36 gun frigates. Fox fought with Humphries - quite publicly - and challenged his ideas about the huge frigates. Among other things, he argued that they were too long and fine in the ends, meaning they would be more succeptible to hogging and would have a tendency to bury their bows in storms at sea.
The argument was ultimately decided with the finished product. Despite some early success, Chesapeake came to be known as an 'unlucky ship' because of her infamous run-in with HMS Leopard and capture by HMS Shannon. Most books record that Chesapeake was a 'dull sailer' - she was certainly not as fast as the other frigates. But there are many sources to say that she was a fine ship - and quite fast - just not as revolutionary a design as her larger sisters. The failing here was the initial challenge. Because there was so much riding on the success or lack thereof due to the very public argument between the builders, the relative outcomes are magnified and pinned in a very personal way on the respective personalities. There is no doubt that Fox was dejected by the outcome, and felt some need to recover his public reputation.
In the years following the initial Naval buildup, a series of cutbacks were made. President Thomas Jefferson was a huge opponent of the Navy, suggesting that a giant dry dock be built at Washington and all but a few of the Navy's ships put into it and a shed put up over it (!). Instead of a large standing naval force, he proposed to build small coastal gunboats that could be manned by militia forces when needed. Fox was immediately put to work designing gunboats, personally overseeing several designs and acting as constructor in many cases. And then, in the midst of a huge naval cutback and gunboat initiative came an anomaly - an authorization by Congress to build two 16-gun brigs - ocean going ships!
Fox jumped straight into the initiative, laying down preliminary plans for the brigs and submitting his plans in 1804. From the large volume of surviving papers from this period, it seems he dived right in - and why not? he had been designing gunboats and trifling projects for several years when he really wanted to build blue-water ships. This was a golden opportunity. Many of the other constructors had gone back to building merchant ships and seem to have been too thoroughly occupied to bother with a pair of small ships. But not Fox.
Then the Navy department threw him a curve ball. Rather than simply allocating money to build the two ships side by side, the decision was made to have one ship built by a private yard and one by the Navy in the Washington Navy Yard. The outsourcing went to William Price, a prominent Baltimore shipbuilder famous for his swift "pilot schooner" built 'Baltimore clippers'.
As I stated in Part 1 of the ship's history, there is some debate as to who actually produced the design - no drawings have been uncovered that pre-date the contract settled with Price to build Hornet. Still, I think Mr. Footner's assertion that Fox stole credit for the design from Price is highly unlikely. While Price certainly made some changes to Fox's plans, Fox was certainly cognizant of the development of the Chesapeake Bay schooners and their characteristics. The fact that Hornet embodies quite a few of these features cannot be taken as sole evidence that Fox stole the design from someone else - and I've seen nothing about this in any contemporary material.
LEFT: Hornet's birthplace. Price's home and office at 910 Fell St in Baltimore is still there. His ships were built directly behind the building along the waterfront.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
Happy Sunday, everyone! On Friday we wrapped up our summary of the history of the US Sloop of War Hornet and I've promised to start going back and filling in the gaps tomorrow. For now, I think a quick summary of what we're up to is in order.
First, our two vintage 1904 Monomoy Pulling Boats are happy under their covers - work is waiting for warmer, dryer weather to begin the heavy restoration work. No. 2 is now being reported as a "long term" project - the damage done by her fiberglass sheathing now fully realized. No. 3 is in great shape, and while her stabilization is paying tremendous dividends on her actual hull shape restoration, the restoration potential is looking better and better. Estimated launch date for her is July.
Second, we have a great 1:12 scale model of the ship we've been discussing - the Sloop of War Hornet. The waterline model is being made of foam, wood and plaster -and isn't intended to serve as a museum quality 'plank-on-frame accurate' piece. But her sailing rig will be more or less fully functional, and at 16 feet long and 14 feet tall, she'll undoubtedly make a great display piece when completed. Photos are not being released for distribution at this time, but watch for more about this in April, when we're expecting to unveil this and other efforts.
The Dockyard has weathered the winter well so far, with no major casualties to speak of. Our tarp tents have held up remarkably well, and Monomoy No. 1 remains 'in ordinary' but can be ready for service on 72 hours notice.
I've had several requests to have another Conquer the Chesapeake this year, and if we back up the timeline a bit to July or so we might have two boats to take! If anyone has any suggestions for this please let me know and let's get the ideas moving. Yesterday I had lunch at a great pub in Cape Charles - several miles beyond last year's landing at Kiptopeke State Park - might make a suitable destination this year.
At any rate, I have spreadsheets to attend to. And presentations. I look very forward to being able to say more about what it is we've been toiling in for so long at a future date - it is most definitely worth the wait.
Friday, February 11, 2011
Part 7 - Ebb Tide
In 1828 Hornet was at New York and received a new commanding officer, Commander Otho Norris. Sailing on February 4th 1829, Hornet made her usual cruise to the West Indies Squadron.
However this time, counter-piracy operations were a slightly lower priority. General Santa Anna had kept up an ongoing fight against Spanish authority in Mexico, working to free that country from colonial rule. In September, the Spanish launched an assault against Santa Anna at Tampico, and Hornet was dispatched to stand by to evacuate the American Consul, his family and any other Americans along with their valuables.
Arriving on the scene, Hornet went to anchor outside the bar so as to prevent interference with the ongoing fight in and around the city by entering the harbor. Launching five boats, Hornet’s crew began moving valuables to the ship as people took stock of their homes and prepared for the trip out to the ship. On the evening of September 9th, a sudden gale sprang up, and Norris decided to get underway to weather the storm.“…the boats were suddenly recalled to the ship by signal, and accordingly instantly abandoned their task and repaired to their vessel. The boats were immediately hoisted in, the Hornet weighed her anchors, and, a little before dark, stood off to sea under close reefed topsails” (Rush).
Three other ships anchored nearby likewise made sail, following the general direction of the much faster Hornet. Though her prospective passengers were abandoned on the beach, they surely appreciated the result later on.
As night fell, the storm increased with tremendous fury. One of the three merchant vessels that had gotten underway with Hornet from the beach at Tampico capsized, and her captain and three other crew members spent the night clinging to the overturned hull. That captain later reported:
“…amid the roar of the tempest and the rush of waters, suddenly arose above the storm the shrill sound of a boatswain’s call. I was instantly aware of the proximity of Hornet…and suddenly she appeared. In a moment she had passed into the darkness… She came and went as a phantom ship.” (Rush)
This proved to be the last time anyone saw the ship and lived to tell of it. He goes on to specify that she was scudding under bare poles, that is to say had no sails set, and was running with the wind (Rush). Her upper masts had been run down and ‘housed’ to lower their center of gravity and her yards were lowered to the same effect – all common measures used by sailing ships to weather storms.
The storm was later recorded as one of the worst hurricanes anyone could remember. In the following weeks, pieces of boats and hats with the name HORNET painted on the tallies began washing ashore in Mexico. It is very fitting that the last glimpse of the ship revealed a crew hard at work (as evidenced by the boatswain's calls)– even in desperate odds, the Hornet and her crew fought on until the end.
When the news of Hornet’s demise reached Washington, Congress voted the widows and orphans of her crew payment of the departed sailors’ salaries for a full year after the reported sinking. Songs were written and poems were inked in newspapers and periodicals around the country. Though many other sloops of war and smaller vessels suffered the same fate on different occasions, none had the tremendous outpouring of public sympathy as did the Hornet.
This and the previous six parts about the history of Hornet have been intended as a framework of sorts - next week, I'll start going back and filling in interesting details about her people and some of the unique connections the ship had - which in many instances far surpass the history of the ship itself in longevity and interest.
Standby for some fun entries to come - next week.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
For the rest of you - here's a ball.
Part 6 - Postwar Service
In 1818 the Secretary of the Navy decided to bring Hornet out of ordinary and restore her to active service. Commander George C. Read was assigned as her next commanding officer. Read had previously served as a midshipman, then lieutenant in USS Constitution, accepting the surrender of HMS Guerriere on behalf of Isaac Hull in that famous engagement in 1812. Commanding the brig USS Chippewa during the Second Barbary War, he was promoted from Lieutenant to the new rank of Commander in 1816.
Read sailed Hornet to Norfolk where she was assigned to the West Indies Squadron to bolster anti-piracy operations that were ongoing in that region. The need for protection of American flagged merchant ships there had become so great that the Secretary of the Navy ordered not only a permanent squadron to the station, but also that any ship going to or coming from the Mediterranean should pass through those waters to lend what assistance they could. Hornet cruised there for a short time before proceeding to Europe on diplomatic missions. In 1819 she cruised into the Baltic, where she brought the US Consul at Copenhagen back to the United States, arriving back at Boston in December.
In June 1820 Hornet was dispatched to West Africa with frigates Cyane and John Adams as well as schooners Alligator and Shark to enforce the 1819 Slave Trade Act. President John Quincy Adams had ordered the Navy to “seize all vessels navigated under our flag engaged in that trade” and clearly Hornet’s speed and shoal draft would be assets in chasing down the typically small, agile slave ships. She clearly had success in her mission, capturing two slavers - the brig Alexander and the sloop Ferret. Making the obligatory patrol through the West Indies on her way home, she also called at Charleston and Hampton Roads before returning to New York in December. In each of these places Hornet’s log records generals and prominent politicians going aboard, which may be some early indication of her fame and popularity not only in military circles, but also the general public.
In January 1821 Hornet was dispatched to Pensacola to assist in the peaceful transfer of West Florida from Spain to the United States. General Andrew Jackson presided over the event, leading US Army elements to ensure a smooth transition. Hornet later transferred several Spanish citizens to Havana Cuba, making four passages. General Jackson, who would of course later become President, dined aboard at Captain Read’s invitation at least twice during this time period (Read).
Returning to New York in September 1821, Read was promoted to Captain and elevated beyond command of Hornet. It is of note that Read went back to USS Constitution as her captain and made several cruises before taking command of the Philadelphia Naval School in 1839. After promotion to commodore, Read led the African Squadron then the Mediterranean Squadron before being appointed to the rank of rear admiral when the rank was created in 1862. He died later the same year after 58 years of Naval service.
Hornet’s next commanding officer was Robert Henley. Another prominent veteran of the Quasi-War and the War of 1812, Henley was a Williamsburg, Virginia native who had been a midshipman aboard Constellation during the First Barbary War. He later would command two squadrons of gunboats that drove three British frigates out of Hampton Roads in 1813 and was given a gold medal by Congress for his role as second in command at the Battle of Lake Champlain in 1814.
Under Henley, Hornet quickly got underway again and returned to cruising the West Indies in search of pirates. Reporting to the West Indies Squadron, Hornet met with familiar leadership – James Biddle, who had won much acclaim (along with a musket-ball permanently lodged in his neck) during his tenure in command of Hornet six years earlier. Biddle was now commodore in command of the squadron.In October 29th 1821 Hornet captured the pirate schooner Moscow, sailing the ship under a prize crew and conveying the pirates as prisoners into Cuba to be dealt with by the Spanish government – as the US had no legal recourse for doing so established at the time. On April 28th 1822 Henley reported running down a “small sloop observed attacking American brig in the offing”. The pirate didn’t get far, and after a warning shot was fired, hove to and sent a boat to Hornet to present her papers.
Hornet’s log records the following: “Rec’d onbd J. Lafitte known pirate with Spanish papers and letters of Marque, proved false.”
“Delivered to Spanish authority at the Morillo, Honda [Cuba] 9 prisoners incl J. Lafitte taken out of pirate sloop 28th inst.” (Henley)
Of course, this was the famous pirate Jean Lafitte who cooperated with American authorities in Louisiana during the Battle of New Orleans, but had returned to piracy soon after. In a confusing turn of events, the Spanish authorities promptly released Lafitte who went on to establish a base along the Colombian shore, and was killed in 1823. It is interesting to note that in an age of anti-piracy operations where the turnover of pirates is required by international law that the Navy of the 19th century was bound by just as many legal procedures.
Hornet returned to the United States at Hampton Roads in August 1822, where Henley was promoted to command the Norfolk Naval Rendezvous (recruit receiving station) until 1824 and transferred to South Carolina on similar duty in 1824. He died there after a bout of sickness in 1828.
Command of Hornet next passed to Commander Sydney Smith, who made another voyage to the Gulf of Mexico and captured three more pirate craft and a pirate shore base near Galveston, TX in a daring small boat operation. Returning to Norfolk the following year, Smith was also promoted and turned over command of Hornet to Commander Stephen Cassin.
Cassin was another veteran of the Battle of Lake Champlain who had been specifically charged to carry the captured battle flags to Washington. He had previously commanded sloops Ticonderoga and Peacock, and on assuming command of Hornet, Cassin promptly set to sea – keeping to Hornet’s usual busy schedule. He sailed back to join the West Indies where he led a small squadron in Hornet consisting of the schooner Grampus and four gunboats to attack pirate vessels on the North Coast of Cuba. Returning to Norfolk later the same year, he learned of his promotion, and turned over command to Edmund P. Kennedy to begin a general refit of the ship at what is now the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
Making four more cruises to the West Indies Squadron from 1826 to 1829, Hornet continued on under the command of Samuel Woodhouse and Alexander Claxton. Notably from this time period, Midshipman Horatio Nelson Cady kept a series of journals that still survive today. His entry on reporting to Hornet in 1826 offers a glimpse into the character of the ship’s crew:
“I could not have asked for a more perfect ship. The men all know tiny bits of hidden damage from the late war…they look after them as trophies. For all my excitement and enthusiasm I find myself completely eclipsed by the alacrity and pride of Hornet’s people.” (Cady)
Tomorrow, the last installment - the death of Hornet.
Cady, Horatio Nelson. "Cady, Horatio N. Papers, 1823-1831." Logbook kept by Midshipman Horatio Nelson Cady, U.S.N. Also contains "Remarks on board the USS Hornet," Samuel Woodhouse, commanding. National Archives Manuscript Division Room LM101.
Footner, Goeffrey M. Tidewater Triumph - The Development and Worldwide Success of the Chesapeake Bay Pilot Schooner. Centerville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1998.
Henley, Robert. Logbooks of USS Hornet, July 1821 - November 1822. 28 April 1822.Read, George C. "Log of USS Hornet, November 1820 to August 1821." National Archives Main Branch, Washington DC..
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
When James Lawrence was promoted to Captain and deemed too senior to command Hornet, command passed to newly promoted Master Commandant James Biddle. Biddle had been First Lieutenant of Hornet’s sister Wasp when she fought HMS Frolic and was subsequently captured by a British ship of the line. Earlier, he had also been aboard the USS Philadelphia when she ran aground and was captured in Tripoli. He spent several months in captivity following both occasions. He had seen a great deal of action, but not much success, and it can be safely assumed that he looked upon his command of Hornet as a chance to achieve what he must have felt was long overdue.
After some refitting and re-provisioning, Hornet sailed with Commodore Stephen Decatur’s squadron consisting of United States and Macedonian on May 24th 1813. To evade the British ships watching the southerly approaches to New York near Sandy Hook, Decatur led his squadron north through Hell Gate and up the East River into Long Island Sound – a daring maneuver of itself, considering the treacherous currents and rocks that lined the passage.
Making his way up Long Island Sound, Decatur anchored his squadron in Gardner’s Bay to wait for an opportunity to slip past the British blockading squadron. On June 1st, he decided to make a break for the open sea. However the timing was imperfect, and they were soon discovered and chased by superior forces into New London. Working their way up the Thames River, Decatur in United States and the Captain of Macedonian positioned themselves for what they were sure would be a long wait. Biddle, however, had different ideas for Hornet.
Biddle immediately applied to Decatur for permission to run the blockade. But the two British 74-gun ships and frigate that had chased them into the Thames were soon augmented by another frigate and several smaller ships. Commanding the British squadron was Sir Thomas Hardy, Lord Nelson’s Flag Captain at the Battle of Trafalgar seven and a half years earlier. His ships were now anchored across the mouth of the river, ready to thwart any attempt to escape.
In the following months, local militias and the three blockaded ships prepared for the British assault they knew must surely follow. The city of New London emptied its banks of hard currency and sent women and children away. Several times, the British made sail and appeared to be standing up the river, but anchored instead five miles below the city. The American forces remained in constant vigilance for the British onslaught.
Months passed. Winter fell on New England. After several small skirmishes along the shoreline and a failed attempt by Decatur to run the blockade with his three ships, it was decided that United States and Macedonian would be dragged up the river and be dismantled, their military stores removed and shipped overland. Hornet remained at New London, waiting for an opportunity to escape. A previous attempt to escape at night had been thwarted by a series of mysterious blue lights on shore, which Biddle thought must surely be the work of treasonous elements ashore. Breaking out, even in the best of circumstances, would not be easy if the British had warning. Or would it?
According to a letter written by a Rev. Jarvis of New London, Biddle at one point sent a letter by boat down the river. “Captain Biddle indicated that he intended to sail and should any ship wish to object he would gladly receive their applications the following day.” (Jarvis) Though this specific event is not documented elsewhere, Hornet did in fact escape on November 18th 1814 passing less than a quarter mile from and between the anchored British ships. Though Hornet’s log records “two sail in chase” she reached New York in safety two days later (Biddle).
Hornet arrived in New York in time to sail in squadron with President under command of Stephen Decatur, who had escaped from the blockade at New London with his crew by travelling overland. Also assigned the squadron was USS Peacock, a new sloop of war named after the vessel Hornet had sunk the year before. The intention of the cruise was to hunt for British merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean. President had gone ahead and, unbeknownst to Biddle, had been captured. The rest departed New York on January 22nd in the throes of a violent gale that caused the British blockaders to heave to and ‘hunker down’. Hornet and Peacock with store ship Tom Bowline sailed out under storm canvas within sight of the helpless British ships, and headed for the South Atlantic. Agreeing to rendezvous at Tristan d’Acunha, a small island in those waters, Hornet parted company to sail independently and search for British shipping. She found her prey, capturing the British merchant ship William. Biddle put a prize crew aboard and sent her back to the United States.
Hornet arrived off the island on March 23rd 1815 and prepared to anchor north of the island when a sail was spotted. This proved to be HMS Penguin, a new British brig-sloop under the command of Captain James Dickenson. Penguin was armed and manned almost identically to Hornet, having 32-pounder carronades but heavier 18-pounder long guns. And in contrast to her previous fight with HMS Peacock, Hornet was downwind of Penguin, giving her enemy the maneuvering advantage. At about 1:40 pm, Peacock caught up with Hornet and the two exchanged heavy broadsides as they sailed parallel courses. Inching closer and closer together, Penguin’s captain suddenly threw his helm over and rushed Hornet, intending to board her. At that moment, Captain Dickenson was killed by small arms fire from Hornet’s marines, and Penguin’s bowsprit became entangled in Hornet’s aft starboard rigging. Thinking he heard something in the way of surrender shouted from Penguin’s deck, Biddle jumped up onto the bulwark and was shot through the neck by the British marines aboard Penguin (Roosevelt 432). American marines immediately took down the perpetrators, and Hornet lunged forward pulling clear of Penguin’s bowsprit, ripping it from the ship as she went. Penguin’s foremast fell at the same time, and the now freed Hornet turned and began pummeling the crippled Penguin with broadside after broadside. Just after two o’clock, after 22 minutes of action, Penguin hauled down her colors.
Penguin had lost 42 dead to 11 aboard Hornet – nearly a four to one disparity. Her hull was so badly cut up that she had to be scuttled, and after removing her crew and useful stores, began to effect her demise when two strange sail were sighted to windward. Measures to scuttle the ship were expedited but as Penguin slipped beneath the waves the two sail proved to be Peacock and Tom Bowline. The Penguin’s crew were transferred to the Tom Bowline which was sent to Rio de Janeiro while Hornet and Peacock waited for President.
On April 13th the two ships ended their vigil, assuming quite correctly that President had been captured. Setting out northward, the two planned to cruise in company as they made their way south. On April 27th near the Cape of Good Hope, Peacock spotted what appeared to be a large merchantman. Sailing closer Biddle sensed a hesitation, and soon Peacock was setting all sail running away from the strange ship, signaling ‘man of war’ and ‘enemy’.
Hornet, already at full sail, turned to run, but the newer Peacock soon pulled ahead. The strange ship was in fact the British 74-gun ship of the line Cornwallis, and was now bearing down on Hornet. Biddle began to jettison the stores taken from Penguin, and as Cornwallis pressed on canvas and began gaining, the situation began to look quite serious. Suddenly the winds shifted, then again, both times in favor of Cornwallis and soon she began shooting. Hornet, in running away, actually navigated a complete circle around Cornwallis. Three shots from the chasing man-of-war found Hornet’s hull, and Hornet’s ammunition, anchors and cables were thrown overboard to further lighten the ship. Cornwallis continued to gain, but Hornet’s crew pushed harder. One by one the guns and boats followed, going overboard, leaving only one solitary carronade on the bow. After more than three days, the chase continued. Then, on the morning of April 30th, Cornwallis gave up and turned away. (Aimone) The determination of her crew had paid off.
No longer useful as a warship and having thrown most of her provisions overboard, Hornet made for home via Brazil, where she stopped to take on provisions, new anchors, cable and boats. On a slightly humorous note, Biddle recorded in the ship’s log, “exercised the crew at the great gun” – a notation frequently seen in the plural, but for Hornet’s one remaining piece of artillery. (Biddle) On crossing the equator, the crew were allowed to proceed with the traditional ceremony, a surviving account of which provides a fascinating glimpse of this practice in the age of sail (Aimone), but need not be recounted here.
But what nobody at the time could know was that Hornet had not yet seen even half of her useful service life. More to follow tomorrow.
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
At Boston, Hornet reprovisioned and prepared for an extended cruise. She next sailed on October 23rd 1812 with USS Constitution under Commodore Bainbridge on a cruise to harass British shipping and resources in the South Atlantic. The frigate Essex was to also join the squadron, though was already underway with the intention of meeting Constitution and Hornet en route.
Arriving on the Brazilian coast at San Salvador, and still without any sign of Essex, Hornet made a critical discovery. HMS Bonne Citoyenne, a British brig with nearly the exact same heavy armament as Hornet, was loading half a million pound of specie (by other reports $1.6 million, yet others $30,000) – a vast fortune – for carriage back to England. Brazenly sailing into the neutral harbor and sailing completely around the anchored Bonne Citoyenne, Hornet stood back out to sea to report the finding to Bainbridge before returning to wait for the British ship to depart. Lawrence decided to challenge his opponent head on – sending a formal challenge letter. But even with Bainbridge’s personal assurances that Constitution would not interpose in the fight, Captain Pitt Barnaby Greene of Bonne Citoyenne refused to fight, citing his responsibility to the money and not fear of defeat. To reinforce the point, Bainbridge sailed Constitution southward in search of other quarry while Hornet maintained the blockade. Only the arrival of a British 74-gun ship of the line on January 24th finally drove Hornet off.
Meanwhile, Constitution continued her search southward where she came upon and famously defeated HMS Java. Hornet, on leaving San Salvador, had similar luck. On Valentine’s Day 1813 she fell in with and captured the British brig Resolution, carrying $23,000 in gold. Continuing the cruise toward the mouth of the Demerara River, she sighted HMS Espiegle (also carrying nearly the same armament as Hornet) and chased her into shoal water where Lawrence turned seaward for fear of going aground on the bar near the mouth of the river.
At the same moment another sail appeared, and proved to be HMS Peacock approaching the port. Clearing for action, Hornet quickly closed the distance and hauled up her colors. Peacock hauled up hers and at 5:25 pm the ships opened fire with full broadsides at a range of less than 20 yards. Passing each other, Peacock quickly came about only to find Hornet had maneuvered to a position close aboard on her bow, firing broadside after broadside into the British ship which was in turn unable to respond by virtue of Hornet’s position. Peacock, severely damaged, hauled down her colors at 5:39, just 14 minutes after the first shots were fired (Roosevelt 216).
Lawrence, now with a reported 277 souls onboard – including his own crew numbering 138 with the rest being made up of prisoners from her various prizes – decided to make for home. On March 19th 1813 Hornet dropped anchor off Martha’s Vinyard, one of the few locations known to be frequently ignored by the British blockaders, and discharged their prisoners. She then proceeded to New York, where the crew was wined and dined by New York society and Lawrence learned of his promotion to Captain. The promotion rendered him too senior to command Hornet, and he was reassigned to take command of the frigate Chesapeake then refitting at Boston.
More about Hornet under her new commanding officer and the cruise of 1813, tomorrow.
The reverse of the medal authorized by Congress for James Lawrence and officers of the Hornet for the sinking of HMS Peacock.
Monday, February 7, 2011
But this seemingly routine mission was anything but – tensions between the United States and Great Britain were the hottest they had ever been since the revolution. The Royal Navy’s continuing impressment, that is essentially seaborne kidnapping, of American seamen to fill its ships had caused a nationwide tumult. Now, negotiations to end the practice were underway, and the result would mean life or death for many Americans.
At 6 A. M., got under way. At 5/2 past 2: nearly abeam of the Hook, frigates "President," "Congress" and "United States" in company. At 6 p. M., discharged pilot. At 6 P. M. called all hands to muster, when Captain Lawrence informed the ship's company that war was declared against England and was received by three cheers. (Gleaves 103)
Friday, February 4, 2011
After an exhaustive fitting-out, Hornet was commissioned in October 1806 under the command of Master Commandant Isaac Chauncey. Chauncey was no stranger to command, having his first at age 19 in the merchant service and also commanding the frigate USS John Adams for a portion of her service in the Mediterranean against the Barbary Pirates in 1803. After taking command of the new Hornet at Baltimore he sailed to New York, then back to Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads where he received orders to cruise the waters off Charleston to protect merchant shipping against privateers working in those waters. Of Hornet’s performance he noted “The Hornet… is one of the finest vessels of her class I ever saw. She sails uncommonly fast, steers and works well, and is an excellent sea boat.”
But before long, problems had begun to arise with respect to Hornet’s rigging. Chauncey reported taking considerable damage in heavy weather due to the disposition of the ship’s two ponderous masts supporting her large sailing rig. Distributing the large sail area over three masts, he argued, would alleviate this. Following commanders John Dent and Theodore Hunt both also reported difficulties in foul weather on cruises to Europe and the Mediterranean, forcing nearly a year of repairs at Charleston, South Carolina starting in late 1807. Aside from her high level of activity including a half-dozen transatlantic crossings, Hornet’s career was off to a rocky start.
Meanwhile, in the same year that Hornet put in for repairs at Charleston, a sister ship was launched. Superintended by Josiah Fox himself, the sloop of war Wasp was built to the same plan used to build Hornet. But while Hornet had been built by a contracted shipyard, Wasp had been built at the Washington Navy Yard by government workers. While she was being rigged, Fox – probably in response to Hornet’s difficulties in bad weather – changed Wasp’s rigging and added a third mast of square sails and better distributed her sail area. Wasp’s excellent performance after commissioning was proof positive that Hornet had not yet achieved her full potential, and she was called up the Potomac herself, to begin her conversion.
Arriving at the Washington Navy Yard in late 1810, Hornet was unrigged and her masts hauled out. Work then began on her hull. Originally built with 18 gun ports, the bulwarks were rebuilt and the ports shifted to accommodate another pair aft, giving her a new potential to carry 20 guns. The main mast step (base) was shifted forward and a small third or ‘mizzen’ mast was added. A new suit of sails and spars distributed the load of her sail area over all three masts in the standard ‘ship’ configuration. And to top off the overhaul, she was armed with 18 thirty-two pounder carronades – short barreled large-bore weapons capable of throwing a heavy ball weighing 32 pounds more than three quarters of a mile. Two conventional twelve pounder ‘long guns’, positioned forward for use when chasing, rounded out her battery. In contrast to her previous armament of standard nine-pounder conventional guns totaling 81 lbs in weight of broadside – the total weight of cannon balls she could fire at a single enemy at once - Hornet now carried firepower that raised her broadside weight to 302 lbs of iron. Labeled “smashers” by sailors at the time, these carronades would show their power in the years to come.
When Hornet left Washington in 1811, she had been completely re-worked. She was sailed south by her First Lieutenant to Norfolk, where she was to meet her next, and possibly her most famous commanding officer.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Some people have noticed a new project that went up online - a call for general research about the sloop of war USS Hornet (1805-1829). If you've been following pictures and the blog, you'll know that this is a subject I've been interested in for some time now. As I put the pieces together, I'm building a picture of a ship that was very famous in her day - possibly as famous as any of the big frigates. And yet many historians - amateur and professional - don't seem to be able to recount much of her history off hand the same way they can for the larger, more popularized counterparts.
And what makes our project all the more exciting - I never seem to meet the end of the primary source material (written by contemporaries of the original ship) in the National Archives, museum collections and in the Navy's own library. Remember, we're talking about RESEARCH here, and though you'll find the sources in the following more or less readily available, there is SO much more waiting to be discovered in dusty isles and damp basements...
So without further adieu, Part 1: Namesake, Design & Construction
Hornet is a name interwoven not only in the Navy’s history but also its modern culture. Of course, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the current mainstay of our combat aviation, the F/A-18. Many of us are likely familiar with the two venerable World War II aircraft carriers that bore this name, and some may even have heard of a tiny, short-lived ship that landed Marines on the shores of Tripoli giving a line to the Marine Corps hymn.
This longevity is appropriate for the name itself – during the American Revolution the symbol of the bee or the hive can be found on several flags and in printed material. The idea behind the symbolism is that bees labor collectively to produce a tangible heritage for their offspring (the hive), strike only when provoked and can produce a potent sting. And though this symbolism is largely forgotten in the conscious sense, these examples show that it has pervaded Navy culture throughout our history. The F/A-18 fighter has certainly demonstrated that even in the present day the hornet image – conceived by the revolutionaries who won our nation’s freedom – is still doing our nation’s work.
The third ship to bear the name Hornet proved to be one of the most long-lived and celebrated ships of her day, though little of her fascinating history is handily realized, even among naval historians. Built at Baltimore in 1805, she was originally conceived as a brig – that is, she had two masts. She was part of an initiative to build vessels suitable for inshore operations in direct response to a noted shortage of these in the First Barbary War (Canney 120). Her design is attributed to Josiah Fox, a British ex-patriot who emigrated to the United States after learning his trade in Royal Navy dockyards. There is some debate in that her form, based on what Fox referred to as an “English cutter” (Chapelle 210), more closely conforms to shipbuilding developments in the fast Chesapeake Bay pilot, or ‘clipper’ schooners, and might have actually been the work of Hornet’s builder William Price, a Baltimore native and well-known builder of ships of that type (Footner 143-144). Regardless of who may have actually set down her lines first, they reflected a ship that was built for speed and great seaworthiness combining many of the most modern (for 1805) advances in ship design.The site of her construction is still marked in Baltimore. William Price’s home at 910 Fell Street was at one time situated at the head of a parcel of land reaching down to the water’s edge where Price built his ships. It was in this shipyard that Frederick Douglass worked as a slave before escaping to freedom – although he never had any contact with Hornet. Today this building still stands in the historic Fells Point District in Baltimore, though the ‘shipyard’ that used to exist behind it is now covered with other structures. It is situated on the City of Baltimore’s Historic Walking Tour route, just over a block away from Market Square.
When finished, Hornet was reportedly a very handsome ship. She was given an eagle figurehead that could be unshipped and replaced with a plain billet head in winter or in foul weather (Canney 121) and her lines are certainly graceful. About her launching, the Baltimore Evening Sun printed “with a general cheer the ship met the water and instantly was recognized by all to be one of the most handsome ships yet to grace our harbor” (Launching of the New Hornet).
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Canney, Donald L. Sailing Warships of the US Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001.
Chapelle, Howard I. The History of the American Sailing Navy. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1949.
Footner, Goeffrey M. Tidewater Triumph - The Development and Worldwide Success of the Chesapeake Bay Pilot Schooner. Centerville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1998.
"Launching of the New Hornet." Baltimore Evening Sun 29 July 1805.
If you have Hornet research that you'd like to include or discuss, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com. I plan on publishing little truncated snippets of the research one day at a time, and then continually going back and filling in the fine detail over the following weeks. Enjoy!
BTBy the way, my friends over at Chris and Pac Take on Hollywood found this today, reminds me of our 'behind the scenes' project lately: