The Unfortunate Career of the Frigate Chesapeake

Joseph C. Mosier

The Norfolk-built frigate Chesapeake has been called by one leading historian an "odd duck". From the refusal of the ship to go down the ways on the first attempt to launch her to her capture by HMS Shannon in the War of 1812, the frigate was a hard-luck ship. The calamities of the ship were paralleled by the misfortunes of her commanders. Her disgrace was so great that the only other U.S. Navy ship to carry the name did so only briefly.

Six frigates were authorized in 1794 for use against the Barbary regimes of North Africa. In a move to spread economic benefits and hence political support throughout the new nation, the government decided each frigate should be built in a different locale. The Virginia State Shipyard at Gosport was leased by the Federal government for the purpose of constructing the Chesapeake. Portsmouth-native Captain Richard Dale was to superintend her building, and Norfolk merchant William Pennock was appointed as Navy Agent. By the fall of the following year, peace was achieved with some of the Barbary states. With the rationale for their construction gone, Congress canceled three of the frigates including Chesapeake. Pennock put the timbers thus far collected into storage. Captain Dale requested furlough for a merchant voyage to China.

A new naval foe soon appeared. Revolutionary France began using the Jay Treaty signed between England and the US in 1794 as an excuse to seize American merchant shipping. President John Adams saw rapid expansion of the navy as an absolute necessity. In August 1798, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert ordered to Pennock to recommence building efforts on Chesapeake. Josiah Fox assumed the role of Naval Constructor at Gosport. On 10 December 1798, the ship's keel was laid. With a small work force (the number of carpenters never exceeded 20) Fox completed the ship in only 265 working days. Chesapeake immediately showed her contrary nature. The 3 December 1799 issue of the Norfolk Herald reported, "Yesterday, at half past one o'clock, in the presence of a great concourse of people was safely launched into her element the United States frigate Chesapeake, of 44 guns, commanded by Samuel Barron, Esquire. Every preparation was made for launching this Ship the preceding day, but the tallow on her ways being frozen and the weather extremely cold...the blocks being removed from under her, she started and went a only few feet but slowly." Tradition, as reported in an 1896 article in the Virginian-Pilot, made this unfortunate beginning still more ominous by including the death of a workman in the first attempt.

In February 1800, the newly built Congress, having lost her masts while on her maiden cruise, limped into Hampton Roads. Stoddert ordered Fox to stop his work on Chesapeake and transfer his workmen to the job of repairing Congress. Captain Thomas Truxtun, senior officer present at Norfolk, had a better idea. Never shy about assuming authority, Truxtun, acting on his own, transferred about half of Congress' crew to Barron's ship and restored priority to the work on Chesapeake. He justified his actions to the Secretary by pointing out that Chesapeake could in this way be got to sea by May. Stoddert was grateful to have any ship available that soon. Complaints were flowing in of French privateers along the Carolina-Georgia coast. Barron's orders were to patrol south to the St. Marys River in Georgia (then the southern extremity of the United States). Chesapeake would then make a side trip to deliver specie from Charleston to New Castle, Delaware. That completed, Barron was to cruise off Puerto Rico returning to Norfolk no later than December when the ex-Congress seamen's enlistments would expire. Chesapeake left Hampton Roads on her first wartime cruise on 24 May 1800.

In the course of this cruise Barron called at St. Kitts, the American replenishment base in the West Indies. There he again fell into the grasp of Truxtun who promptly countermanded the Navy Secretary's orders for a December return. On 23 October, Truxtun wrote Barron that since the enlistments of most of his men would not expire until June, "it would be highly improper for you to leave this station." The response of the half of Chesapeake's crew which had enlisted the previous December for Congress was predictable. Truxtun solved the ensuing rebellion by ordering Barron to put the worst offenders ashore in St. Thomas after a flogging. By January 1801, word of a treaty ending hostilities reached the West Indies, and in early March Chesapeake arrived back in Hampton Roads. Although her convoy and patrol duties were valuable, the ship captured only one prize during her wartime service. The Peace Establishment Act of 3 March retained Chesapeake in the Navy, but as a cost-cutting measure she wasplaced in ordinary at Gosport.

Within two months the Barbary state of Tripoli had declared war on the United States. By early 1802, the ship was being prepared for service in the Mediterranean. On 27 April, Chesapeake departed Hampton Roads as the flagship of Commodore Richard V. Morris commanding the second Med squadron. The care the frigate received while in ordinary had been bad. Four days out of Hampton Roads, the mainmast sprung and Morris was forced to complete the Atlantic crossing under jury rig. On arriving at Gibraltar, Morris wrote Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, "It certainly was a Shameful neglect in the Carpenter employed at Norfolk, not to have discovered the defect in that mast...The Ballast of the Ship is most injudiciously stowed also, my motives for supposing that to be the case is from her laboring. I never was at Sea in so uneasy a Ship." Injudicious is an excellent description of Morris' performance as commodore. He seldom went to sea and even more seldom communicated with the Navy Secretary.

Most of the next ten months was spent at Gibraltar, Leghorn or Malta. Chesapeake showed herself before Tripoli for only five days throughout this period. On 6 April 1803, the frigate, carrying men from other ships whose enlistments had expired, left Gibraltar for the United States. Captain James Barron, Samuel's younger brother, was given command for the return trip while Morris shifted his flag to the New York. On arrival at Washington on 1 June, Chesapeake again went into ordinary.

In early 1807, Captain James Barron was appointed to command the Mediterranean squadron. Chesapeake was taken out of mothball status and moved down to Hampton Roads to finish fitting out as his flagship. Barron did little to oversee the preparations for the voyage, joining the frigate only the day before she was to sail. As Chesapeake passed through the Capes on June 22, she was hailed by HMS Leopard, a 50-gun frigate from the British squadron anchored in Lynnhaven Bay. Her captain demanded three supposed British deserters believed now to be serving onboard the American ship. Barron refused to muster his men for identification and tried to stall for time as his crew was called to quarters. At this point Chesapeake's manifest unreadiness for action became obvious. Leopard fired three broadsides into the American ship with no effectual reply. A British officer then boarded and took off four of Chesapeake's crew. Barron returned to Norfolk with three dead and 18 wounded including himself. In the national uproar that followed, a court martial found Barron guilty of failing to clear his ship for action and suspended him from all naval command for five years.

Command of the wounded Chesapeake passed to Captain Stephen Decatur, jr. Under Decatur's supervision the damage to hull and rigging was quickly repaired. The damage to national prestige was not so easily fixed. America was caught in the middle in the struggle between England and France. Unwilling to side with either power and unable to force acceptance of the neutral status of U.S. shipping, President Thomas Jefferson decided to withdraw from the arena. On 22 December 1807, Congress, at Jefferson's suggestion, passed the Embargo Act which prohibited any American merchant vessels from sailing to foreign ports. As violations of this ill-considered legislation grew, Jefferson authorized the use of U.S. Navy ships to enforce the embargo restrictions. In early June, Navy Secretary Robert Smith ordered Decatur to take Chesapeake on an enforcement patrol along Long Island Sound and the New England coast. The frigate cruised in that area from mid-July to early November capturing at least seven American embargo-breakers before returning to Norfolk. On 11 February 1809, Decatur turned over command of Chesapeake to Captain Isaac Hull who immediately took the ship to Boston to continue enforcement patrols. The Embargo was repealed, however, on 4 March, and Hull was ordered to place the ship in ordinary at the Boston Navy Yard.

Given the parsimonious approach to naval expenditures taken by President James Madison's administration, it is not surprising that the outbreak of war with England in June of 1812 found Chesapeake in a terrible material state. The commandant of the Boston Navy Yard felt she could be ready to cruise by October, but it was not until 17 December that her new commander, Captain Samuel Evans was able to get under way. His orders were to patrol the Atlantic between the Cape Verde Islands and Brazil for British merchant ships. The patrol proved largely uneventful. Evans seized three prizes (one of which was deemed sufficiently unimportant to be burned on the spot) and sighted what may have been two British men-of-war (promptly lost in a rain storm). Chesapeake returned to Boston on 9 April 1813. On 20 May, Evans was relieved for health reasons by Captain James Lawrence.

Lawrence, thirty-two and newly promoted to Captain as a result of his victory over HMS Peacock while in command of Hornet, did not want the job. His wife was ill, and he pleaded to be given Constitution instead which would have given him a few more months at home. Secretary Smith was firm, however, and ordered Lawrence to sea as soon as ready. Off shore waited the 38-gun frigate, HMS Shannon, under the command of Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke. On 1 June 1813, he sent a boat with a challenge to Captain Lawrence. Even before the boat made it ashore, lookouts announced what Broke had hoped to hear. Chesapeake was coming out of Presidents Road. The ensuing battle was short, furious and unequal from the start. Broke had commanded Shannon for more than six years and had the best trained crew in the Royal Navy. Lawrence had only just taken over Chesapeake, and his men had refused to fight unless paid overdue prize money. Less than half an hour after the opening gun, the pile of dead or wounded in Chesapeake numbered 146; in Shannon, 85. Lawrence, mortally wounded, had uttered the famous phrase, "Don't give up the ship!" Broke survived although wounded by a cutlass stroke that had opened his skull to the brain. (Go to the official letters on the action) Chesapeake was taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia under the command of Capt. Alexander Gordon, and, after repairs, on to England. She served in the Royal Navy under the command of Capt. Francis Newcombe, until placed in ordinary in 1816. The ship was sold in 1820 to a cooper, Mr. Holmes, for �500. He in turn sold Chesapeake's timbers as building material for houses in Portsmouth, England. Her gun deck timbers were used in the construction of Chesapeake Mill. Which still stands at Wickham in Hampshire. Go to the Chesapeake Mill page

Lawrence's death was not a unique event. Of the officers who commanded Chesapeake, all but Isaac Hull met a precipitous end to their life or career. Samuel Barron became ill while serving as commodore of the Med squadron in 1804. Forced to turn over command to John Rodgers, he returned to Hampton where he died in 1810 at the age of 45. Richard V. Morris' injudicious conduct in command in the Med led to his recall and court-martial. He was dismissed from the service by President Jefferson on 16 May 1804. Samuel Evans had suffered a wound to the face during the Barbary Wars which left him partially blind in his left eye. While in command of Chesapeake during the War of 1812, he began losing the sight of his right eye as well. After turning over the frigate to Lawrence, he was given command of the New York Navy Yard but never served at sea again before dying in 1824. The court-martial and suspension of James Barron affected both his and Decatur's careers. Barron was in Europe at the time of the outbreak of the War of 1812. His failure to return to the United States during that conflict put him in even lower esteem among his former comrades. The focus of his resentment was Decatur who had sat on his court-martial and superseded him in command of Chesapeake. The two fought a duel at Blandensburg, Maryland on 22 March 1820. Decatur was killed and Barron seriously wounded. Instead of restoring Barron's honor, the duel further estranged him from the senior officers of the navy. He would never again command at sea, and was given command ashore only at the demand of influential Virginia politicians. The curse was not passed on to her two Royal Naval captains. They completed successful careers in command of other ships.

Only one other regular navy vessel was named Chesapeake; a Naval Academy training ship launched on 30 June 1899. In 1905, Captain Seaton Schroeder, the Director of Naval Intelligence, was wary of the ignominious reputation of the namesake. He petitioned the Secretary of the Navy to have the ship's name changed. On 15 June, she was renamed Severn. No American warship since has been christened Chesapeake.

Joseph Mosier writes and does research for The Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

© Copyright 1997 Joseph C.Mosier.

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