Before the revolution, our merchant ships flew under the British flag and during the war, the French flag. Both were now gone once we won our independence and after the Continental Navy was disbanded in 1784, in the Mediterranean, the results were predictable. The Barbary Pirates – a collection of fiefdoms in Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis – began seizing our ships and holding them and the crews for ransom.
At first, the men who led these duchies wanted money and small gifts such as engraved firearms with gold and silver hammered into the designs. Every year, the pirates wanted more money and more gifts.
In 1796, the Dey of Algiers demanded a frigate and several smaller ships. We offered a frigate with 24 guns, they wanted one with 40 plus and we settled on a ship with 36. Ultimately, we agreed to provide the frigate, a brig and two schooners!
Think about this for a second. At the time, the Dey of Algiers was using galleys and large dhows to capture merchant ships and by giving them a frigate capable of challenging one in the Royal, French or Spanish navies, we were about to significantly increase his combat power.
Josiah Fox was commissioned by Congress to design the frigate and John Hackett, one of the best shipbuilders of his era, was contracted to build the Algerian frigate in his yard in Philadelphia. It was constructed in the same yard at the same time as one of the six large frigates – United States – authorized in the Navy Act of 1794 was being built.
According to William Prom’s excellent article in the August 2020 issue of Naval History, on June 29th, 1797, the 600 ton, 122 foot-long frigate named Crescent was launched. While capable of carrying 36 guns, a mix of 6- and 9-pounders, it would not have been a match for a Royal Navy ship with the same armament that usually displaced around 800 tons nor the large 1000 ton, 44-gun frigates like United States being built for the new U.S. Navy.
In 1798, Crescent sailed for Algiers with a full load of ammunition, Richard O’Brien, our new ambassador to Algiers, and $180,000 (~$3,633,931 in 2020 dollars) in newly minted silver dollars in tribute. On February 17th, the ship was officially delivered and three American merchant ships and their crews were freed.
Crescent not maintained well by the Algerians. In March 1800, O’Brien discovered dry rot. Five years later, his replacement – Tobias Lear – noted that the ship was leaking badly and in March 1806, Crescent was broken up.
When Crescent was being built during the administration of John Adams, shipyards in up and down the U.S. coast were building ships to equip a new U.S. Navy. While the famous six frigates – Chesapeake, Constitution, Constellation, Congress, President, and United States – are the best known, other ships that served the new navy were also being constructed. Before the 18th Century ended, they would prove their worth. In many ways, we can thank the Barbary Pirates for providing the impetus to creating the modern U.S. Navy.