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War of 1812: USS President

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War of 1812: USS President

USS President

Photograph Source: Public Domain

USS President - Overview:

  • Nation: United States
  • Builder: Christian Bergh, New York
  • Launched: April 10, 1800
  • Maiden Voyage: August 5, 1800
  • Fate: Captured, January 15, 1815

    USS President - Specifications

  • Ship Type: Frigate
  • Displacement: 1,576 tons
  • Length: 175 ft. (waterline)
  • Beam: 44.4 ft.
  • Draft: 13.11 ft.
  • Complement: 450
  • Speed: approx. 13 knots

    Armament

  • 32 x 24-pdrs
  • 22 42-pdr carronades
  • 1 x 18-pdr

  • USS President - Design:

    With the United States' independence from Great Britain following the American Revolution, American merchant vessels no longer enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy when at sea. As a result, they were targeted by pirates and other raiders such as the Barbary corsairs. Aware that a permanent navy would need to be created, Secretary of War Henry Knox requested American shipbuilders submit designs for six frigates in 1792. Concerned about the expenditure, debate raged in Congress for over twelve months until funding was finally secured through the Naval Act of 1794.

    Calling for the construction of four 44-gun and two 36-gun frigates, the act was put into effect and building delegated to various cities. The designs selected by Knox were those of noted naval architect Joshua Humphreys. Understanding that the United States could not hope to build a naval force of similar strength to Britain or France, Humphreys created large frigates that could best any other vessel of their class, but which were fast enough to escape enemy ships-of-the-line. The resulting ships were long, with wider than usual beams and utilized diagonal riders in their framing to increase strength and prevent hogging.

    USS President - Construction:

    One of the 44-gun frigates, construction of USS President was assigned to New York City. Though work on its sisters, USS United States and USS Constitution pushed forward, building of President was delayed. As a result, construction had not commenced when peace was achieved with the Barbary states in 1796. The cessation of hostilities triggered a clause in the Naval Act which halted work on the six ships. Approaching Congress, President George Washington successfully obtained funding for the three ships closest to completion: United States, Constitution, and Constellation (38 guns).

    With the beginning of the Quasi-War with France in 1798, Congress directed that the remaining three ships be completed. Laid down that year on the East River, work on President was directed by Christian Bergh and overseen by Captain Silas Talbot. Assessing the performance of its sister ships, Humphreys made some minor adjustments to President's design. These included shifting the main mast slightly aft as well as raising the gun deck. Launched on April 10, 1800, President spent the majority of the summer fitting out and was ready for service in August. On August 5, the ship was ready for sea with Captain Thomas Truxtun in command.

    USS President - Quasi-War & First Barbary War:

    Sailing for Guadeloupe, President began patrols in the Caribbean to protect American commerce from French warships and privateers. Remaining in the area through the beginning of 1801, the frigate returned in March after a peace agreement had been reached with France. Shortly thereafter, a new conflict emerged with the Barbary states. In response, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched a squadron of ships to the Mediterranean under Commodore Richard Dale. A veteran of the Battle of Flamborough Head, Dale selected President as his flagship and departed in May. Touching at Gibraltar, Dale had orders to protect American shipping and to end the conflict with Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Cruising off the Barbary coast, Dale successfully negotiated the release of several American prisoners before sailing for the United States in March 1802.

    In April 1804, President was ordered to return to the Mediterranean to reinforce an American squadron led by Commodore Edward Preble. Sailing in company with the frigates USS Congress (38), Constellation, and USS Essex (36), President served as the flagship of Commodore Samuel Barron. Reaching Gibraltar in August, President and Constellation continued on and rendezvoused with American forces off Tripoli. Taking overall command, Barron soon was plagued by ill health and began spending time ashore at Syracuse, Sicily. During this time, President continued blockading operations off Tripoli under the command of Captain George Cox. In May, American forces with local allies won the Battle of Derna which led to a peace agreement with Tripoli the following month. Still plagued by ill-health, Barron sailed for the United States in July having passing command to Commodore John Rodgers.

    USS President - The Little Belt Affair:

    After being laid up following its return, President returned to active duty in 1809 as the US Navy increased patrols in the wake of the 1807 Chesapeake-Leopard Affair with the British. Operating off the East Coast with Rodgers in command, President worked to protect American shipping from British warships seeking to impress sailors. On May 1, 1811, the frigate HMS Guerriere (38) stopped the merchant vessel Spitfire off New York and impressed a crewman. Ordered to intercept the British ship, President departed Annapolis, MD on May 10. Clearing the Virginia Capes, Rodgers spotted a British warship on May 16. Closing, the two ships conducted a confused exchange of signal flags. Believing the unidentified vessel to be Guerriere, Rodgers began a pursuit.

    Though President quickly closed on the British ship, night arrived before the two vessels were in hailing distance. Nearing in the darkness, Rodgers requested that the unknown ship identify itself. In response, Rodgers stated that the British ship fired a shot through the frigate's rigging. Rodgers returned fire and continued for five minutes until realizing that the opponent was much smaller than President. Though he ordered his men to cease fire, the British vessel continued the battle. Rejoining, President pounded its opponent until it was quiet. Pulling away, Rodgers waited until morning when he discovered the enemy to be HMS Little Belt (20). Though Little Belt had suffered thirty-one killed and was badly battered, its commander, Arthur Bingham, refused aid. In the wake of the incident, both commanders claimed the other had fired first. Known as the Little Belt Affair, the incident further worsened Anglo-American relations.

    USS President - War of 1812:

    In June 1812, the United States formally declared war on Great Britain and opened the War of 1812. In response, Rodgers led President, United States, Congress, USS Hornet (18), and USS Argus (18) into the North Atlantic. During the cruise, the squadron unsuccessfully chased HMS Belvidera (36) and pursued a convoy from Jamaica across the Atlantic. Failing to catch it, Rodgers turned for home and reached Boston, MA after capturing seven British merchant ships. Returning to sea, President failed to catch HMS Nymphe (38) on October 10, but succeeded in capturing the packet Swallow a week later. Sailing in company with Congress, President spotted and pursued HMS Galatea (36) on October 31 which was escorting two merchant ships. Though Congress captured one of the merchant vessels, Galatea escaped during the night. Sailing west, the two frigates arrived at Boston on December 31 having captured nine British ships.

    Blockaded at Boston until April 1813, President and Congress escaped to sea at the end of the month. Parting ways on May 8, Rodgers crossed the Atlantic in the hope of attacking British ships in the Gulf Stream. Failing to locate any targets, he put into Bergen, Norway on June 27. Operating around the British Isles, President soon captured two prizes, but was forced to endure an eighty-hour pursuit by HMS Alexandria (32) and HMS Spitfire (16). After loitering in the Irish Channel, Rodgers sailed for home after taking several prizes. Nearing the American coast in September, he used trickery to capture HMS Highflyer (8) when he lured the British captain aboard President after convincing him that the frigate was HMS Tenedos (38). After a short time in port, Rodgers conducted a cruise to Barbados. Making few captures, President arrived in New York in February 1814.

    USS President - Capture

    After being blockaded in New York for most of 1814, Rodgers turned command over to Commodore Stephen Decatur in December. A hero of the First Barbary War, Decatur had earned further glory in 1812 with his capture of HMS Macedonian (38). Eager to put to sea and unaware that the Treaty of Ghent had ended the war on December 24, he sailed during a snow storm on January 14, 1815 in the hope that the weather would allow him to slip through the blockade. Shortly after leaving the harbor, President struck a sand bar due to an error by the harbor pilots. Though Decatur was able to free the frigate, the grounding had sprung its masts and damaged its hull. Initially intending to return to New York for repairs, unfavorable winds forced Decatur to put to sea. Though seeking to avoid the blockading ships, President was spotted the next day. With his ship badly slowed due to the damage from the grounding, Decatur was unable to escape.

    The first British ship to arrive was HMS Endymion (40). As the enemy neared, Decatur initially sought to close and take British frigate by boarding. This done, the wounded President would be scuttled. Soon finding that the damage prevented him from making the necessary maneuvers, Decatur changed tactics and sought to disable Endymion so that he could escape. Exchanging fire with Endymion, President succeeded in putting the enemy out of action. Pulling away, President's crew began to repair battle damage before spotting the remainder of the British squadron on the horizon. By evening HMS Pomone (44) and Tenedos were closing and opening fire. Sparring with the British ships, Decatur realized the situation was hopeless and surrendered shortly before midnight. Repaired and taken into the Royal Navy as HMS President, the frigate remained in service until being condemned in 1818.

    Selected Sources

  • DANFS: USS President
  • Capture of USS President
  • Military History Online: Capture of USS President

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