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 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:


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