Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Apologies all for that sudden break in writing. Unfortunately it'll have to continue a while as I am absolutely slammed.

Thanks to our dedicated volunteers who keep writing, calling, and stopping me on the street and waterfront - I appreciate all of your offers to help, and we'll need you when the time comes. But right now - with the meetings, emails, planning, drafting - there isn't much need for physical labor in the Dockyard.

For everyone reading, whether you know what it is we're up to or are still in the dark, we are making great progress and intend to release our plans once they're sufficiently developed to be more than just a great idea - we want this to be a goal we are certain of attaining before we pass it to you. Anything else would be improperly spending your enthusiasm and dedicated efforts.

Thanks for hanging in there!


Monday, February 14, 2011

The Designers

The sloop of war Hornet is not only interesting for her own history, but also for the remarkable people that designed, built, sailed, fought and came in contact with her. Today, we start a look at the 'six degrees of separation' with a look at her designer and builder.

Before we start, I have to say there is a lot of information I have yet to collect about our two primary subjects - Josiah Fox and William Price. Despite being people you can easily Google and find information about, biographies are rare or non-existant. In other places, sources are skewed and little of the detailed information is readily available. When I get the sources I am waiting on, I'll be sure to provide an update and more detailed information.

Hornet's design is attributed to Josiah Fox (1763-1847). Fox was born in Cornwall UK and completed an apprenticeship at the Royal Navy Dockyard at Plymouth before emigrating to the United States in 1794. When the US Navy was created in that year, Secretary of War Henry Knox sought recommendations for qualified people to design its ships. Fox was recommended as draftsman by Andrew Ellicott - Surveyor General of the City of Washington DC - then under construction on a marshy patch of ground along the Potomac. Fox went on to work with Joshua Hunphries to lay down the plans for the now famous six frigates - Constellation, Constitution, President, United States, Congress and Chesapeake. Although most modern sources claim that Fox was a mere draftsman, there is a multitude of evidence - recently uncovered - that suggests he was far more involved with the design process than a mere draftsman would have been.

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.

He went on to build other very famous ships during the naval buildup of the 1790s, including frigates John Adams and Philadelphia among several others. He clearly viewed each of these an opportunity to prove that his ideas regarding ship design were correct and superior to the Humphrey's designs. Some of these ships, such as John Adams went on to fairly standard careers, while Philadelphia met her end aground and captured by Tripolitan pirates.

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!
These seem to have been worked into proposals by suggesting craft to fill the need for light-draft ships for inshore work, the need for which was realized in the First Barbary War. It doesn't seem too much of a stretch that - in a period where inshore gunboats are being built wholesale - that two ships for inshore work might be shoe-horned into the budget as well.

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.

What is known by the facts are that Hornet came in ahead of schedule and under budget. Wasp had dramatic cost and time overruns. The discrepancy in time between the launching of both ships can hardly be attributed to the separation of eight months in the laying of their keels when they were launched 19 months apart - neither ship with a major break in construction.

Price certainly had a reputation for fast ships, and for producing quality ships for the Navy. Aside from being considered one of the foremost builders in Baltimore's Fells Point and a primary developer of the 'Baltimore clipper' schooner model, he built the schooner Experiment (1799) the brig Vixen (1803) and is believed to have been contracted to work on the frigate Constellation. The contract to build Hornet seems rather expected then, that Price should be engaged to build a fast, light-draft ocean-going brig for the Navy.

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.

Assertions that Price had made mistakes in building Hornet abound - everything from placement of channels to catheads, gunports and even placement of masts. But these seem to be rather unfounded, and Fox's original specification of a brig rig for Hornet and Wasp seem to have caused many of her initial problems - the rig being too ponderous to deal with blue-water storms in the North Atlantic. Fox himself clearly saw this as a problem and changed Wasp to a ship rig before commissioning - but not before he'd already stepped her masts as a brig. Why then is Price laid with blame for this? Because he changed the mast placement by a few inches? Changed the channel heights from the original draft (another problem that Fox himself saw and changed in Wasp)? No. The answer seems more likely to be that the design was ambitious, modern, and in a degree more than Fox's other designs - and there were kinks that needed to be worked out. Critics point out that Hornet underwent major repairs at Charleston in 1807-08 and again in Washington in 1810-11. They seem to omit that Wasp herself was alongside Hornet at the Washington Navy Yard in 1810-11 - for the same type of repairs.
Ships of that type - simply put - suffered accutely from the effects of sea and weather, and most sloops of war had very short life spans, were lost at sea, or required frequent and costly repairs. Sorry, critics, but you simply can't point to Hornet and say that Price screwed her up - in fact the marvel ought to be that after her 1810-11 refit and later in her career she spent some very extended periods in service without overhaul.
Price would go on to design and build ships well into the 1820s. He seemed to have a knack for building sucessful merchant ships with the right blend of cargo capacity, seaworthiness and speed. His home and shipyard office still stands at 910 Fell St. in Baltimore. I visited the site last week and I have to say there are fewer historical neighborhoods so well preserved or where I'd like to live - if anyone wants to make a trip and marvel at the remarable preservation of this great neighborhood and the actual site of Hornet's construction let me know and I'll send you some notes (crickets.... crickets). Okay, whatever.

Fox seemed to get tangled in the complicated politics of the time and was subsequently not appointed to Navy work after 1811. He moved west, first to Wheeling WV and then to what is now Colerain OH where he bought a farm and settled down for many years before his death in 1847. I'm looking forward to reading a biography of him I just ordered from Xlibris - hopefully it will shed more light on his fascinating life and contributions.

LEFT: the only photo of Josiah Fox I've found, from his later life in Ohio.

More to follow tomorrow, when I'll outline Hornet's early Commanding Officers and the story of a murdered Midshipman.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Weekend update

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

US Sloop of War Hornet, Part 7

Last night I attended a lecture and book signing at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. So let me take this moment to plug the new book Perilous Fight - America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas 1812-1815 by Stephen Budiansky. The author had some interesting views on the subject matter and I look forward to examining the book in greater detail this weekend.

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

US Sloop of War Hornet Part 6

This week we've been tracking the remarkable service history of the little Sloop of War Hornet. Despite the interest for some, I fully realize that this can get a little dry - don't worry, next week I'll start going back and filling in the framework and we'll get to play a little six degrees of separation - that is going to get REALLY interesting. I've been removing most personal details from this week's narratives, but today I'll leave a few of them in there to give you a small sample of the fun to come (yes, I am a history nerd - there's no escaping it).

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

US Sloop of War Hornet, Part 5

Part 5: A New Commander

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.

Arriving back at New York on July 30th 1815, Biddle learned of the declaration of peace. Voted a gold medal for his capture and destruction of Penguin, Biddle was promoted to Captain and ordered to discharge Hornet’s crew and place the ship in ordinary – the 19th century version of moth balls – as many other ships were ordered at the end of their lives. Her performance in the war had been spectacular, capturing the first prize of the war and five others later in the war, sinking two enemy naval combatants, and making several runs of a blockade that kept many of the larger frigates bottled up. Now, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, her guns were stripped, her masts housed and she was put aside for posterity – or, as more likely, to await dismantling as had been the case with so many other vessels.

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

US Sloop of War Hornet, Part 4

Welcome back for the next exciting episode in our narrative. We've so far followed Hornet through design, construction, initial service, refitting at Washington, her diplomatic mission in 1812 and her first cruise. Today, Part 4: Hornet's 1812-13 cruise.

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).

Sending a boat, Lawrence ordered both ships to anchor. Peacock had settled by the stern and her mainmast had fallen, hanging over the side of the ship. The returning boat crew reported that Peacock was sinking fast and requested assistance. Sending some of Hornet’s men to evacuate Peacock’s crew, the ship sank rapidly, taking three of Hornet’s crew and nine of her own with her. In the entire action Hornet only lost one sailor, the three victims of the sinking Peacock added made a total of four dead and two wounded. Meanwhile Peacock lost eight dead – including her captain – and 30 wounded. The remaining prisoners were brought onboard and treated very kindly. They would later publish a letter of thanks to Hornet’s officers and crew:

“We ceased to consider ourselves prisoners; and everything that friendship could dictate was adopted by you and the officers of the Hornet to remedy the inconvenience we would otherwise have experienced from the unavoidable loss of the whole of our property and clothes owing to the sudden sinking of Peacock.” (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

US Sloop of War Hornet, Part 3

I must be getting more difficult to please because that Super Bowl was crap. 1) CA forgot the words to the National Anthem, 2) Pop Warner games are more fearsome than that 3) Fergie should be retired to Skinnemax and 4) I'd already seen all the best commercials thanks to YouTube. But at least I was working while I watched so it wasn't a total loss.

But I digest.

Last week we began a cursory overview of the history of the third USS Hornet. We briefly outlined her design, construction, early service and conversion to ship-rig at Washington in 1810-1811. Today, we'll start off the week with her service in 1812.

Part 3 - Free Trade and Sailor's Rights

The only thing that could add icing to the cake of Hornet's recent overhaul was a brilliant new commander, and he joined the ship at Norfolk in October 1811. At 30 years old, Master Commandant James Lawrence had seen considerable Naval service over his short career. He served in Enterprise in the Mediterranean and was second in command of Stephen Decatur’s successful expedition to destroy the captured frigate USS Philadelphia. By the time he set foot on Hornet’s quarterdeck, he had commanded the smaller ships Vixen and Argus, as well as Hornet’s sister Wasp. Now, in Hornet, he made sail for New York and from there crossed the Atlantic to France and Great Britain with emissaries to the French and British governments.

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.

Getting underway from New York on December 6th 1811, she made the passage from North America to Europe in eighteen days - a very fast passage for her time. Arriving at Cherbourg on New Year's Eve 1811, Lawrence only remained long enough for the French emissary to land his dispatches and return to the ship before Hornet was again underway, bound for England. (Lawrence I)

Passing the Royal Navy anchorage at Spithead, Hornet dropped anchor near Cowes on the Isle of Wight and sent her two diplomats to Portsmouth by boat. All Lawrence could do was wait while the diplomats made their way to London. The wait did not pass without incident.

In early January, a sailor from Hornet deserted from one of the ship's boats. It was later learned that he had somehow ended up in the Royal Navy (whether he went voluntarily or not is not clear). Furious, Lawrence sent his first lieutenant in to ask the British to return the Sailor - but was rebuffed by a British claim that the man had been a deserter from HMS Implacable and could not be returned to the American ship. Implacable's Captain, George Cockburn personally confirmed the claim. Lawrence decided that in light of his diplomatic mission further action was not prudent. (Gleaves 85)

For the next several months, Hornet ferried messages between US Diplomats in Britain and France. Tensions built, mounting in the near constant interaction with Royal Navy ships, both of the Home Squadron and the forces blockading France (Hornet was allowed through as she was on a diplomatic mission). On several occasions, Hornet cleared for action as Royal Navy ships came bearing down as though to fight, only to turn away. Lawrence was fully aware that if war were declared, he might be caught at sea ignorant of that fact, and so remained constantly on guard.

On April 27th 1812, Lawrence set sail for home. Making another speedy passage, Hornet returned to New York in early May 1812 with unpleasant news – negotiations were not progressing well, and the British had refused yet again to cease their policy of impressment of American sailors. To the "War Hawk" dominated government in Washington, this proved all they needed.

"The 'Hornet' has at last arrived. On the rumor of this news the avenues of the State Department were thronged by a crowd of members of both Houses of Congress, as well as by strangers and citizens, impatient to know what the long expected vessel had brought. Soon it was learned that the 'Hornet' had brought nothing favorable, and that Mr. Barlow had as yet concluded nothing with your Excellency. On this news the furious declamations of the Federalists, of the commercial interests, and of the numerous friends of England were redoubled; the Republicans, deceived in their hopes, joined in the outcry, and for three days nothing was heard but a general cry for war against France and England at once. . . ." (Gleaves 87-88)

On June 1, President Madison sent a letter to Congress requesting a declaration of war, which he received on June 18, 1812 and announced the following day:

“I do specially enjoin on all persons holding offices, civil or military, under the authority of the United States, that they be vigilant and zealous in discharging their duties…in supporting and invigorating all the measures which may be adopted by the constituted authorities, for obtaining a speedy, a just, and an honorable peace.” (Davison 10-11)

Among the first to answer this charge was Hornet herself. Her logbook records:

June 21st, 1812.
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)

Sailing with Commodore John Rodgers’ squadron on June 22, 1812, she departed New York in company with President, Congress and United States – three of the six “original” frigates – and the brig Argus. Despite the general lack of success that ensued, including a tragic event where a gun exploded and injured the commodore himself, Hornet captured the British privateer Dolphin on July 9th (Roosevelt 46) –the first prize of the war made by a US Navy ship. Later, she captured the privateer John (16 guns) and the merchant vessel Argus - not to be confused with the Navy brig of the same name (Gleaves 105).

Returning to Boston in August, Lawrence prepared Hornet for another extended cruise. She was to sail to the East Indies by way of the Indian Ocean in a raiding expedition under the command of Commodore William Bainbridge in Constitution.

More to follow about Hornet's 1812-13 cruise - and her rise to national fame - tomorrow.

Works Cited:

Davison, Gideon M., Williams, Samuel. Sketches of the war, between the United States and the British isles. Rutland VT: Fay & Davison, 1815.
Gleaves, Albert. James Lawrence, captain, United States navy, commander of the Chesapeake. G. P. Putnam & sons, 1904.
Lawrence, James et al. "Log of USS Hornet, May 1810 - December 1811." National Archives Main Branch, Washington DC.
Lawrence, James. "Log of USS Hornet, December 1811 - November 1812." National Archives Main Branch, Washington DC.
Roosevelt, Theodore. The Naval War of 1812. New York: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.


Friday, February 4, 2011

US Sloop of War Hornet, Part 2

Yesterday we discussed the construction of Hornet at Baltimore. Today - Part 2: Pre-war Service and Refitting.

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.

The original draught of lines for Wasp and Hornet drawn by Josiah Fox, 1804. William Price took several liberties in building Hornet, including a slight lengthening and narrowing of the hull and reduction of her draft, among others.

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.

More to follow, next week.

Drawing showing changes to USS Wasp, Hornet's close sister ship built at Washington. Hornet's alteration to ship rig would have looked very similar to this.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

US Sloop of War Hornet, Part 1

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).

* * *
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 dockyard@navalheritage.org. 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!


By the way, my friends over at Chris and Pac Take on Hollywood found this today, reminds me of our 'behind the scenes' project lately: