By Paul Austin - Dallas, Texas - USA

Our Young Navy - Part Two

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To Part Three

To Part Four

In our Revolutionary War, every ship General Washington had built for war was captured, burned, or destroyed. The British Navy had no fear of any confrontation with colonial vessels. The British knew sail trim, the knew ballast, they knew where to position masts and sails and lines and cannons. By 1761 British naval ships already had copper plating on their hulls. No matter how many merchant ships were converted to armed vessels, the British knew we couldn't sail ships with them.

Our schooners and sloops were merely pests.

The perfect example of this is the famous chase by the HMS Rainbow of our fast frigate Hancock. Captain John Manley took command of the Hancock around 1776, sailing her to Boston to get fitted for guns, rope, sails, and ironwork. The historian H. I. Chapelle says Manley knew the Hancock was fast. There in Boston, Manly also had command of the first frigate built in America for which we have plans, the Boston, a 24 gun three-masted warship.


Manley took the Hancock and Boston to sea. He drew a course south toward Grand Banks. While cruising together, their crow's nest spotters saw on the horizon the shape of a British frigate, the 28-gun Fox. Manley ordered sheets whirled round tight to trim for a course intercepting the Fox. The Fox and Hancock exchanged cannonballs and tacking duels until the British captain lowered his colors. His ship was aflame.

After capturing the crew of the Fox, Manley set Hancock and Boston back to America. They had the Fox with them, a three ship squadron heading home.

However, an ill wind cast them northwest, off their course, into the barrel sight of the HMS Rainbow, all 44 guns of seagoing charging muscle. The Rainbow was commanded by Sir George Collier, who signaled his companion brig Fox to make all sail after Hancock. The veteran crew of the Rainbow, pigtails and coattails flying, scurried up yards, spreading sail out to catch every whirl of wind after Hancock and Boston. The yell of fighting orders bounced off the Rainbow's decks, echoing across the sea. Planks creaked, pulleys spun, ropes whirled in a cold wind, men yelled, the cannons were unchocked with a thud. The game was on. Now night came over the four ships like the inexorable fate of a Greek tragedy, drawing ships and men at each other.

The Rainbow pounded the seas with her stiff bow, the Hancock shouldered a line between waves, searching for an escape. When the winds died at evening, the Hancock and Boston pulled ahead; when the winds rose with the sun, the Rainbow gained. With the sun and wind blaring on high square sails of all ships, the chase began. And this is where the American crew showed their ineptitude. The Fox, Fox and Hancock took different courses, splitting up.

Undoubtedly Captain Collier laughed. Now he had what he wanted, a sailing race against an inexperienced crew of colonial shopkeepers.

The Hancock's superior speed and lines made it a race for a day, but the Rainbow's experienced sailing closed in, like the day of a hanging. Both ships leaned on their bulwarks, bursting seas, tightening sail again and again, shifting ballast, moving cannons around to sail the waterlines, yelling below and up the masts, foaming across the Atlantic in a desperate beat for life. Chapelle says the Hancock had been afloat for a year, with her hull still afoul with grass, while the British ship was as Chapelle puts it - was clean and trim. The darkness of night came again. Manley threw out every weight he could, even his boats and water casks. But the British officers said later that was a mistake, burying the Hancock's bow, lashing waves against the bow as if they were anchors overboard dragging down.

Now, in the night, as crews changed watches, the men on the Rainbow could see the stern quarters of the Hancock, lights flickering through the captain's windows, halyards leaning as the ships tilted forward. The British knew sunrise would be in their favor. As the winds relaxed, the cleaner hull of the Rainbow eased on toward the Hancock.

Collier called on Manley to surrender. When Captain Manley felt the wind freshen, he sent men aloft to set studding sails, hoping. Collier's response was a broadside into the Hancock's hull. The American colors came down.

The Hancock should never have been caught by a heavier Rainbow, but the American crew didn't know how to sail for their lives. This was the state of the American Navy in 1777.


When the Revolutionary War ended, President Washington sought most of all to keep this new little country out of the European wars. He turned his attention west, toward settling disputes among the states and discovering the rich, luxurious forests and streams he saw through the Smoky Mountain mists. He had no interest in a navy, but he knew he'd seen great men in the Continental Navy. Men like John Manley, John Barry and John Paul Jones.

What the President didn't know was how much he'd need the Federal Navy. Since colonial merchants no longer had the Royal Navy to protect their vessels overseas, the American merchant ships became prey to the French and Spanish privateers and pirates. The Royal Navy kidnapped American seamen, the French took our ships, American goods were taken and sold, the Barbary pirates kidnapped our men, infuriating everyone at home.

Meanwhile three men came forward. These three men headed toward the destiny of another war with Britain in 1815, although they didn't know it. First comes Joshua Humphreys, a Quaker from the rough country of western Philadelphia, who made a radical decision. He was born in 1751. When he was 14 he listened to the 'inner light' all Quakers were taught to believe in, the Holy Spirit of Christian doctrine. Impelled, he left home for the docks of Philadelphia with no sailing background. Why did he leave home with no prospects in Philadelphia? It's one of those life-changing decisions which Americans make because we had no strict state borders, only streams and valleys and dirt roads into cities.

Who knows what Humphreys might have done, had he not gone to Philadelphia. According to historian Ian Toll, Humphreys apprenticed himself to Jonathan Penrose, a leading shipwright. Humphreys must have talked himself into the apprenticeship, sort of like Norm on THIS OLD HOUSE. And then he made a fateful decision. He switched his apprenticeship to John Wharton, in another yard. No one knows why. Suddenly Wharton died in 1771, leaving the yard to Humphreys. Two momentous decisions, positioning himself for the history which had called his name.

While Joshua Humphreys ran the Wharton-Humphreys yard, the country was angered by the American ships taken by the British. In December, 1775 the Continental Congress ordered 13 ships be built, ready to be launched in the spring, three months of cold weather away. Two ships were to be built in Massachusetts, two in Rhode Island, two in New York, one each in New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Maryland. Four were built in Pennsylvania-Philadelphia, right where Joshua Humphreys had moved and become a shipwright.

The decision of Humphreys to switch his apprenticeship to Wharton might have been facilitated by Wharton being Humphreys' cousin. What was waiting for Humphreys in Wharton's yard was that John Wharton was a politician. His connections in the federal government gave Humphreys an entrance into naval ships, the secret to his success and fame.

The committee which supervised the construction of the 13 ships was the Marine Committee, meeting in Philadelphia. Plans were large in those days, too large to be mailed. They could only be carried by courier. Some plans were minimal in directions: simply length, breadth, depth of hold, number of cannons and masts, etc. Some plans were drawn with lines. Evidently Humphreys had a gift for looking at plans, seeing overall sailing characteristics, what needs to be done and telling his men how to do it.

He had the conceptual approach. He could stand there, stare at frames and keel, knowing things about this particular ship. He may have been the first builder in America to know wood and how it affects the ship. He'd grown up walking the backwoods of Pennsylvania so he'd felt wood with his fingers. He knew oak was for framing and strength. Carolina pine for decks and beams, red cedar for planks and only live oak-75 pounds per foot-for futtocks, knight heads, hawse pieces, bow timbers, knees and transoms. Certain woods for bulkheads, other wood for masts, other wood for planking.

But most of all he could present his case to committees, politicians, naval boards, and convince decision makers he was the man they needed. Humphreys could talk to his men in the yard, impelling them to do what he wanted. He could talk to politicians and decision makers the same way, with the same result. This is why he gained the fame of being the best designer when he didn't draw plans. And we now know the freedom of America would hang on Humphrey's ability to win one particular argument.

That argument would be with one Englishmen and the Department of War. Joshua Humphreys may have had the premonition that the United States wouldn't be free unless we could somehow drive the British away from our commercial ships and shore. He may have had the insight a war was coming with Britain.


While Joshua Humphreys had the lines drawn for the Randolph, and the basic plans for Raleigh, Hancock, Warren, Washington, George Washington was in the White House. His Secretary of War, John Knox knew of the threat to American commercial shipping. He appointed Alexander Stoddert to be the first Secretary of the Navy in 1798.

Joshua Humphreys brought a model of a new frigate to the Department of War office, in 1794. At that time, the British monster ships were called ships-of-the-line, up to 200 feet long carrying the overwhelming sight of 74 guns. Even standing next to one on its waterline these ships were huge, big-bellied, hungry monsters feeding on fleet fights. Tactics were based on the fleet fights of the ancient Greeks and Romans - one hundred ships entangled with one hundred ships, cannons blazing with mouths of fire, hooks thrown across the air, screaming men and screeching wood, splinters whirling like knives, men dying in blood across the deck. The British loved to read the ancient Greek and Roman literature, they believed they were just like the ancients.

But while the British man-o-war monsters lumbered through the oceans, they couldn't keep up with the American fore-and-aft schooners, sloops, and ketches. So the British and European navies built smaller ships, frigates, at 150 feet and 25-30 guns. These ships were fast, maneuverable, with gun crews drilled for rapid fire-shoot, recoil, shoot again. These British frigates were a menace to American commercial shipping.

And then the Barbary pirates attacked our commercial ships, demanding ransom for our sailors and captains.

Joshua Humphreys had the idea to built our frigates larger, faster, and better armed than the British and French frigates but smaller, lighter and shallower in draft than the big ships. A remarkable idea on design paper, but this had never been done. Long ships made of wood creak and take on ocean water. Their keels curve with time, called hogging. Where the masts stand and how the sails are shaped can make a fast hull into a slow ship. That could cost a man his life, captain on down to the lowest cabin boy. So the shipyards which had build commercial vessels wouldn't take on any frigate jobs.

But Joshua Humphreys saw with a different eye. He had run the Wharton-Humphreys yard repairing hundreds of commercial vessels. He had crawled into the holds, into the bilge quarters, into the cargo joinery places to inspect frames, keels, old timbers, rotted wood. So he knew how to make wood ship joinery work. Humphreys had a vision, but he needed help.


When Alexander Stoddert took over as Secretary of the Navy, he took control of the Navy. The commercial shipyards up and down the American coast had spent the last days of the Revolutionary War building privateers and 20 gun warships. These were our first attempt at a frigate, smaller, fast, shoal draft, but not capable of long voyages.

Stoddert was a bean counter. He kept exact records of paint, nails, screws, linear feet of wood, masts, cannons, feet of rope, buckets of calk, and man hours. Stoddert had a small staff of six clerks, and an accountant who had seven clerks himself. In addition they had the shipyards on the East Coast, the shipwrights, constructors, and Revolutionary War captains and ensigns who had served briefly. He liked Humphreys because the Wharton-Humphreys yard also kept meticulous records of expenses and labor.

When Humphreys arrived at the War office, the argument that settled the War of 1812 began. It was Humphreys against the American past in ships, and Humphreys against two rivals who had no idea a war was coming.

His biggest shipbuilding rival was Jonathan Penrose-son of the man who trained Humphreys at first. Penrose leaned on Knox to choose a traditional design, one that reflected the Colonial past, a light 36 gun frigate, a coastal cruiser. In later years Humphrey wrote that Penrose said Humphrey's ships would be, 'extravagant, and that the ships if built by them would be useless, as they could not be built sufficiently strong.'

But Humphreys' real rival was Josiah Fox. A young Englishman claiming to also be Quaker, Fox was impressive. He was a dandy, dressing luxuriously, with elaborate manners and gestures, and a gift for drawing finely detailed plans-a quality Humphreys didn't have. Knox needed Fox-rhyme intended-and Know needed Penrose and Humphreys both to build ships. Humphreys had vision, Fox had expertise, Penrose had facilities.

Josiah Fox had credentials. He had served an apprenticeship in England at the Royal Dockyard of Plymouth where the big beast ships were built. He said he came to American to buy timber for England, an odd story given the manner in which Washington had humiliated the crack British grenadiers at Yorktown. Fox claimed he was the only ship designer living in the Colonies who could produce a model combining buoyancy and speed.

Both Penrose and Fox were looking back to previous models. The British had not changed their lines and forms for 50 years, why should they, the French and Spanish couldn't handle the Royal Navy anyway. But the British Navy had not seen Humphrey's models, nor had they seen the USS Constitution built from that model, in action.

The historian Ian Toll says Humphreys asked Fox for his assessment of the new frigates Humphreys proposed. Fox answered in specifics, assuming details would impress Humphreys. But remember, Joshua Humphreys was not a man concerned with precise lines; it was strength, speed, firepower, and sail handling qualities he was after. Fox said the gunwales were too low, the ends were too hollow, the lines came too close to the keel rabbet, which would weaken the hull. These are the same things, exactly, British ship constructors had said about the French ships 30 years ago-except for one thing. Humphreys was going to build the Constitution with the scantlings of a British ship-of-war. Fox summarized by saying the Constitution was too long for its beam, it would crack open upon launching.

This half-breadth view might give you some idea of how long and narrow the Constitution really is.

But Humphreys defended his model with urgency. These meetings went on for a while. According to Toll, Secretary Knox was troubled by the differing opinions. This may indicate Knox didn't know if Humphreys really could solve the hogging and the strength verses speed dynamic. Knox wrote to John Wharton, Humphrey's partner about the new model. Humphrey's response was to say that he had no interest in designing frigates along the lines of the British or French, or anyone else.

On March 10 Congress passed a bill to provide the money to build the frigates, by a vote of 50-39. One of the historical oddities of the vote was that if James Madison of Virginia had found 6 more nay votes, the frigates would not have been built, so that when Madison was President he would have lost the war to England. But now it was time for Secretary of War Knox to decide on a model.

Humphreys had written to Fox, saying,

Frigates will be our first object, and none ought to be built less than 150 feet keel; to carry twenty-eight 32-pounders or thirty 24-pounders on the gun deck; and 12-pounders on the quarter-deck. These ships should have the scantlings equal to a 74 (gun ship), and I believe may be built of red cedar and live oak for about twenty-four pounds per ton, carpenters' tonnage, including carpenters, smith's bill, including anchors, joiners, block makers, mast makers, riggers and rigging, sail makers, and sail cloth, suits and chandlers' bill... the beams of their decks should be of Carolina pine. and the lower futtocks and knees of live oak.

Listing materials and costs per pound would naturally appeal to Stoddert. He could go to Congress and present these estimates, to procure funding for frigates. Since the frigates were built in navy yards, not commercial yards, Congress could believe they had some control over the ships. Stoddert could then appoint 'navy constructors' to make sure the ships were built to plans and specifications, for certain purposes and situations.

In the same letter Humphreys plants a seed-thought in the thinking of Stoddert and the Continental Congress about a coming war:

Greatest care should be taken in the construction of such ships, and particularly all of her timbers should be framed and bolted together before they are raised. Frigates built to carry 12 and 18-pounders, in my opinion, will not answer the expectation contemplate for them; for if we should be obliged to take part in the present European war, or at a future day we should be dragged into a war with any powers of the Old Continent, especially Great Britain. (that it should be) an equal chance by equal combat that we lose our ships...

What Humphreys is saying is that if we are dragged into a war with Great Britain we should have the opportunity to be on equal terms with their ships in battle.

Finally, Stoddert did chose the Humphreys' model. I think he felt a war with England was coming. Powerful ships were needed. They'd have to control not just our territorial waters, but those where our commercial vessels sailed and did business. He rolled the dice. Boston built the Constitution. It did have trouble sliding down its stays into the Boston harbor but its' heavy keel protected it.`


The third man is William Doughty. He was the yard clerk in Joshua Humprheys' yard. Chapelle says Doughty was from Baltimore, a man who had grown up along the docks and yards there. Fox has said in writing that Doughty was also a trained shipwright and draftsman. This may indicate he had an apprenticeship in another yard before coming to the Wharton - Humphreys yard.

Doughty was the man who drew up plans for the 36 gun frigates and for Fox's 44 gun frigates. He also made copies of the plans. What this means is that Doughty knew what Fox was proposing to the Marine Committee, and he knew what Humphreys was proposing to the same committee. At first, both Humphreys and Fox claimed credit for the plans which were finally approved for the Constitution.

Fox claims to have made the first complete lofting of ship sterns in America. He may have introduced bow to stern buttock lines on ship plans. But Humphreys had the yard which had already built frigates, and repaired hundreds of ships. Chapelle says Doughty at first favored Fox's plans but changed his mind. If when Knox consulted Wharton, Doughty's recommendation of Humphreys was made, this may have swayed Wharton to convince Knox to go with Joshua Humphreys' plans of big, strong frigates.

This decision was not just about size, scantlings, power and speed. In 1799 the American cannon manufacturers were not good enough for a war with England. Our forging of tackle, rudder hardware, and arms were not quality. Ships of 50 guns or more would not have stood up to a fleet action against the Royal Navy. But now frigates of 35-40 guns, cannons and carronades with swivel arms and sharpshooters was a different matter. Our understanding of how to alter a ship for sailing characteristics was not nearly as precise as the British, although we were catching up.

The decision concerning masts, sails, and arms were not in the hands of the designer, such as Humphreys; they were in the hands of the ship's captain. The expression of the day was that a piano should be judged by the player, not the manufacturer and by the same token the captain who will risk his life and his crew should decide how ships were rigged and armed. Unfortunately, captains don't always know what is best. They tend to 'overspar and overgun' the ships, trying to squeeze more and more weight upon the keel than it can hold. It turns out that with his long experience at repairing and restoring commercial vessels, Joshua Humphreys was actually a master at adjusting rig and the weight of arms to a design.

The ships he designed and built bear out his superior touch with frigates. In fact, in 1798 William Doughty went to New York to design a 44 gun frigate, the President. This is the same number of guns as the Constitution. The lines of the President are nearly identical to the Humphreys' lines for Constitution, with two changes. The weight of President was much less than Constitution, with a lower sheer. Evidently Doughty had accepted Humphreys' ideas for big heavy frigates as the right course in a war with England, while creating lighter scantlings for speed. The President was well-known among American officers and British officers as the fastest frigate in the 44 gun class.

Joshua Humphreys won the argument against Fox, and the United States won the War of 1812, establishing our navy as the best in the west.

USS President


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