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.