Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hulls & Humphreys

Because R thought he could cram this all into a thread of comments under my last post.  um, no.  I give you his unintentional guest post on live oak and ship building:

I'll fill in the important parts that were curiously omitted from this post.  I'll attempt to be brief. Background: The United States Navy hailed from humble beginnings.  The passage of the Naval Armament Act in 1794 authorized the construction of a combat-capable navy.  Six frigates formed the nucleus of this modest fleet.  Established sea powers of the day, predominantly England and France, showed little regard for these American frigates.  However, ensuing naval action during the early nineteenth century vindicated the frigates’ design and construction with victories over both English and French vessels.  The unconventional design and materials utilized in these ships gave birth to the USS Constitution’s famous nickname ‘Old Ironsides’ -- so given as a result of her durability in naval combat.

The operations of the U.S. Navy’s six original heavy frigates proved their unconventional design to be superior to existing designs used in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and therefore allowed the United States Navy to contend with those of European superpowers.

The Armament Act provided for the construction and commissioning of six frigates; four rated for forty-four guns and two rated for thirty-six guns.  The frigates designed by American craftsman Joshua Humphreys had unconventional aspects that gained immediate criticisms.  However, the outcome of numerous combat actions fought by Humphreys’ frigates later vindicated his concepts.  Before considering his design, it is helpful to understand general classifications of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century warships.

- Ships-of-the-line-of-battle, or battleships, represented the largest class of warship.  Ships-of-the-line mounted a range of guns numbering from seventy-four to 125 on two or three gun decks and additional guns on the top, or ‘spar,’ decks.  These massive ships weighed many tons and moved slowly.  European sea powers regarded them to be the standard vessel to be used in fleet engagements.  The thick sides and large scantlings allowed battleships to endure considerable punishment during engagements. 

- The median class of fighting ships consisted of frigates.  These vessels carried a single, covered gun deck housing between twenty-eight and fifty guns, with additional guns on their spar decks. Frigates most commonly carried twenty-eight to thirty-eight guns.  Frigates operated both in support of battle fleets and individually.  Due to their swiftness and formidable battery, frigates often deployed on solitary raiding expeditions or reconnaissance missions.  

- The terms ‘corvette’ and ‘sloop-of-war’ often referred to the lighter class of tri-mast, unrated ships fitted out for war.  Corvettes could be brigs, schooners or sloops and often mounted twenty or fewer guns; all on their uncovered top decks.

Joshua Humphreys, born in 1751 in what is now Haverford, Pennsylvania, followed many fellow Quakers in woodworking.  Humphreys’ shipbuilding career began in Philadelphia at age fourteen, when he was apprenticed to Jonathan Penrose.  Upon Penrose’s death, Humphreys inherited the shipyard and began building merchant ships and a sturdy reputation.  During the American Revolution, Humphreys received commissions from the Committee of Safety and the Marine Committee to construct and fit out vessels of war for the Continental Navy.  For this involvement in war effort, the Society of Friends ostracized Joshua Humphreys.  

Humphreys recognized that the U.S. fleet’s obvious disadvantage in number and rates to that of England and proposed the construction of very heavy frigates mounting larger guns. Though the immediate purpose of the fleet concerned the North African Corsairs, Mr. Humphreys also considered other naval powers of the day, notably England.  He asserted that the U.S. build large frigates ought to be able to contend with superior adversaries if possible, yet be swift enough to evade a superior force.  Humphreys also contested that the frigates employ scantlings comparable to those used in seventy-four gun battleships and that they be constructed of the “best materials that could possibly be procured.” For his ‘best materials,’ Humphreys recommended the critical elements of the ship use live oak.

Humphreys’ vision of a small, formidable navy took American needs into consideration as well.  The North American coastline contained numerous deep water harbors from which large frigates could sally out, or take refuge in.  Other insightful aspects of Humphreys’ design included mounting a main battery of larger twenty-four, or even thirty-two pounder guns as ships-of-the-line did.  The standard frigate battery called for eighteen-pound guns. The eventual decision to use twenty-four pounder guns allowed U.S. frigates to overpower English and French frigates during engagements.  Additionally, Humphreys implemented a longer keel and deeper draft than traditional English frigates. The beam, or width of the vessel, remained proportionately narrow to the unconventional length to provide faster movement through the water.  

Many of Mr. Humphreys’ peers criticized a frigate of such unprecedented size, citing that the size and weight would render it both unstable and weak.  Yet Humphreys’ remained confident in the strength of the live oak he intended to use.

What later most astonished the captains and crews of enemy vessels was the seemingly disproportionate amount of damage suffered by their own vessels in comparison to Humphrey's big American frigates.

During the summer of 1804, the USS Constitution lay off the northern coast of Algiers.  She sailed to the Mediterranean to carry out the mission for which the original six frigates had been built.  Repeated failures in negotiating with the Bashaw of Tripoli resulted in the expiration of American patience.  Constitution and her squadron under Commodore Preeble had remained on station, blockading Tripoli’s harbor, for nearly a month when, on August twenty-seventh, Humphreys’ frigate performed as he’d designed her to.  On this day, American gunboats serving with the squadron bombarded Tripoli under orders from Preeble.  As danger presented itself to the gunboats, Preeble’s flagship, USS Constitution, stood in toward the harbor and provided covering fire in the form of nine consecutive broadsides against the Bashaw’s fortress.  Preeble sailed Constitution directly under seventy-two fortress guns in order to provide the gunboats with much needed support.  

After the battle, the crew discovered that the Constitution’s hull had received nineteen shot impacts, none of which did the Constitution, or her crew, any notable damage, (thanks to her live oak construction.)

USS Constitution’s strength served her well yet again at the outset of the War of 1812.  In mid-August 1812, Constitution engaged British frigate HMS Guerrière in a single ship action.  This engagement ended with the U.S. capture of its first British frigate. Guerrière offered no prize for Captain Hull and the crew of Constitution, as she sustained great damage and was allowed to sink. For his opening action, Captain Hull ordered fire withheld until all Constitution’s guns could be brought against her opponent. Constitution’s gun crews loaded double shot for her opening broadside; Guerrière felt Constitution’s force. Hull’s initial broadside knocked out Guerrière mizzenmast and brought down a great deal of rigging; as well as demolished Guerrière’s hull.  

During the course of the engagement, Constitution’s live oak repelled an eighteen pound shot. A sailor who happened to witness it bounce into the sea declared of the USS Constitution: ‘Her sides are made of iron!” 

The nickname ‘Old Ironsides’ grew amongst the crew and public; this perhaps was the ultimate testament to Joshua Humphreys and his frigate design.

The battle between the USS United States and HMS Macedonian became one of the best known engagements between a British and an American frigate. The outcome resulted in the American capture of a British ship intact enough to return to port as a prize from the Royal Navy. The ship’s captains, their tactics and maneuvering heavily influenced the outcome of this particular battle.  Once engaged at close range, the United States twenty-four pound broadsides decimated the Macedonian.  The British frigate became a scene of destruction and death. Captain Decatur of the United States broke off his pummeling attack and sailed to a position out of Macedonian’s range. The crew conducted the minor repairs needed and returned to the Macedonian; by now a floating wreck. All her topmasts had been shot away, as well as the mainmast, and she retained no ability to maneuver.  Carden, in disbelief, accepted that he had no option but to strike the colors.  For its part, the United States, barely suffered a scratch compared to the damage received by the Macedonian. 

Casualties again represented the ratios of damage on both sides.  According to Carden, British casualties totaled 104, thirty-six of which were killed in action. For the men of the United States, behind Humphreys’ live oak scantlings, casualties amounted to five dead and seven wounded. Humphreys’ design afforded its crew unrivaled protection in comparison to their adversaries yet again.

So much left out, but these are some brief points.



  1. Whew! I'm going to have to go back and peruse this a bit better when I'm not at work.

  2. This is hilarious, because when you mentioned it all so briefly and casually in that post, I thought, "Wow, I'm surprised R would let her get away with that."
    Looks like he didn't! : )

  3. Well, damnit. If I'd known it would get it's own damn post, I'd have made it more thorough. Now I'm angry.

  4. Also, this stuff.

    Brewington, Marion V. “Maritime Philidelphia: 1607 – 1837.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 63, No. 2 (1939): 93-117. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20087176 (Accessed: March 25, 2012).

    De Kay, James Tertius. Chronicles of the Frigate Macedonian, 1809 – 1922. 1995. Reprint, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000.

    Humphreys, Henry H. “Who Built the First United States Navy?” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 40, No. 4 (1916): 385-411. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20086282 (Accessed: March 21, 2012).

    Toll, Ian W. Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. 2006. Reprint, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008.