US frigate Chesapeake

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US frigate Chesapeake
The US frigate Chesapeake was a 36-gun frigate of the United States Navy during the Quasi-War with France and the War of 1812. Along with United States, Constitution, President, Constellation, and Congress, Chesapeake was one of the six original United States frigates authorized by the Armament Act of 1794, and was launched in December 1799.

Chesapeake was the smallest of the original six frigates; thirteen percent smaller than her 44-gun sisters (United States, Constitution, and President) and seven percent smaller than her 38-gun sisters (Constellation and Congress). Although nominally designed by Joshua Humphreys, who also desgined her five sisters, Chesapeake was the only ship of the original six frigates that was not constructed under Humphreys' supervision. The ship's construction at Norfolk was instead supervised by Humphreys' former friend and protege, Josiah Fox, who may have made as-built alterations to Humphreys' design. Humphreys is said to have been made aware of the changes, and to have explicitly disowned the Chesapeake as being one of his designs.

Chesapeake acquired a reputation among contemporary sailors as an "unlucky" or "unhappy" ship, mostly because of the 1807 incident in which she was forced to strike colors to the British fourth-rate HMS Leopard after Leopard had fired into her while enforcing a search for British deserters. Her poor reputation may also have been partially a product of her officers' dislike of her sailing qualities, which had been described by one of her commanding officers, Stephen Decatur, as "dull."


Ship's Name

Chesapeake was the only frigate of the original six that was not named for some feature or symbol of the new American government. Both the historical Chesapeake and the Chesapeake depicted by O'Brian pre-date the U.S. Navy's exclusive use of the prefix "USS" (meaning "United States Ship") when referring to commissioned vessels in the U.S. Navy. The use of the prefix "USS" by the U.S. Navy appears as early as the 1790's, and came into more and more frequent use in the 19th century. The "USS" prefix, however, was not an official Naval practice until 1907. Before that time, the U.S. Navy and other officials referred to Naval vessels with a variety of prefixes, including, for example, "U.S. Frigate (ship name)," or "United States Flagship (ship name)."[1].

O'Brian's works, when referring to American naval vessels, employ both the prefix "USN" (presumably meaning "United States Navy") and the "USS" prefix that is in use today. More often, O'Brian uses no prefix at all when referring to either American or other naval vessels that were foreign to the Royal Navy.

The Quasi-War with France

Chesapeake sailed in 1800 to join the squadron patrolling off the southern coast of the United States and in the West Indies during the Quasi-War with France. During this cruise, she took a French privateer as a prize. One of the few ships retained in the Navy at the close of the war, Chesapeake was sent to the Mediterranean Sea in 1802 as flagship for Commodore Richard V. Morris. Here she led in the blockade of Tripoli and convoyed American merchantmen until 1803, when she returned to America.

Chesapeake - Leopard Affair

As tension mounted over the practice of impressment of American seamen by the British, Chesapeake was prepared for patrol and convoy duty, and late in June 1807 put to sea, passing a British squadron operating to intercept French ships then at Annapolis. British officers had first-hand knowledge that the Chesapeake's crew included at least some deserters from British men-of-war. The British, as a result, were under orders from their commander-in-chief on the North American Station that if Chesapeake was encountered at sea, she was to be stopped and searched for the known deserting British sailors.

One of the British squadron anchored in Lynnhaven Bay, HMS Leopard, followed Chesapeake as she exited Hampton Roads. On 22 June, Leopard stopped Chesapeake off the Virgina capes, and ordered Chesapeake's crew mustered on deck to allow a search for the British deserters. The senior officer aboard Chesapeake, Commodore James Barron, refused. Leopard fired on the Chesapeake, killing three men, wounding 18 (including the captain) and seriously damaging the ship before Barron ordered the colors struck. A lieutenant from the Leopard boarded Chesapeake with a company of sailors, ordered Chesapeake's crew mustered, and carried off four men identified as British deserters. Chesapeake returned to Norfolk, Virginia for repairs.

Both Commodore Barron and his flag captain were severely criticized for the incident, and were blamed for Chesapeake's inability to make any substantive response to the humiliating attack. Chesapeake had not been cleared for action in time for her guns to be prepared to return hostile fire. The ship's weaponry was obstructed by the presence of extra cargo, passengers, and convalescing ill crewmembers whose hammocks were slung between the guns of the ship's 18-pound main battery. Barron was court-martialed and excluded from naval service for a period of five years following his trial.

Following repairs, Captain Stephen Decatur took command of the Chesapeake, and cruised off the New England coast. In effort to rehabilitate the frigate's crew following the Leopard incident, and to shame them into fastidious observation of their duties, Decatur initially would not allow Chesapeake to either fire or return salutes. He reasoned that a "ship without honor" was incapable of performing honors.

The anger and public outcry generated in the United States following the Chesapeake-Leopard affair is often cited as one of the aggravating factors that led to the War of 1812.

War of 1812

With the outbreak of the War of 1812, Chesapeake was outfitted at Boston for a lengthy Atlantic cruise. Between December 1812 and April 1813, she cruised from the West Indies to Africa, taking five British merchantmen as prizes.

Commodore Perry's Flag, bearing the words of Capt. James Lawrence of USN Chesapeake
At Boston, Captain James Lawrence took command of Chesapeake on 20 May 1813. At the time of his appointment to command of Chesapeake, Lawrence was the most junior captain on the U.S. Navy list. Lawrence put to sea on 1 June 1813 to meet the waiting Shannon (38) -- a British frigate of roughly equal strength -- commanded by Philip Broke, whose written challenge to Captain Lawrence had just missed Chesapeake's sailing.

A substantial percentage of Lawrence's crew was new to the ship and undrilled. Lawrence himself had little experience with the ship. He nonetheless chose to engage Shannon, a ship with a much more experienced and well-drilled crew than the Chesapeake. The Chesapeake suffered early in the exchange of broadsides, having its wheel shot away and losing maneuverability. A large percentage of the officers and crew stationed on the spar deck, including Lawrence himself, were either killed or wounded in the initial exchange of broadsides and small arms fire. Lawrence was carried below, mortally wounded. The crew struggled to carry out Lawrence's last order, "Don't give up the ship! Fight her until she sinks!", but were boarded by the Shannon's crew and overwhelmed. Chesapeake was taken to Halifax for repairs, and was later taken into the Royal Navy. She was sold at Plymouth in 1820 and broken up. Some of her timbers were used to build Chesapeake Mill, a water mill in Wickham, Hampshire.

SPOILER WARNING:  Plot or ending details for "The Fortune of War and The Surgeon's Mate"  follow.

In the Canon

In The Fortune of War, while a prisoner-of-war recovering from wounds received in the action between Constitution and HMS Java, Jack Aubrey observes Chesapeake's arrival in Boston a few weeks prior to the action with the Shannon. During Aubrey's escape from Boston harbor with Maturin and Diana Villiers, it appears that they are pursued by a boat from the Chesapeake, but the pursuing boat turns out to be on a training exercise. The final chapter describes the battle between Shannon and Chesapeake. In The Surgeon's Mate, the arrival of Shannon and her prize, the Chesapeake in Halifax is described. O'Brian also alludes to the British Navy's burial of Captain James Lawrence in Halifax with full military honors.


• Toll, Ian W., (2006) Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, New York, W.W. Norton.

  1. For more reading on U.S. Naval ship names, including discussion of the "USS" prefix, see the discussion at the U.S. Naval Historical Center, at the following link: [1]
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