The Frigate USS Chesapeake Lives On

There are only a few ships left from the Age of Sail and the Napoleonic Wars. Two, the USS Constitution (36 guns) launched in 1797 and the ship-of-the-line HMS Victory (104 guns) Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar – launched in 1765 are still in commission.

Next oldest still in existence is HMS Trincomlee (38 guns) which was built in India and launched in 1817 and HMS Unicorn which was built in 1824 and never had its masts and rigging installed. The remaining warships still afloat – USS Constellation, the Portuguese Dom Fernando II e Glória and others – were built decades later.

All the rest were broken up and their wood used for everything from firewood to building homes. Where it all went is difficult, if not impossible to trace, except for one ship, the USS Chesapeake.

The Naval Act of 1794 authorized building six large frigates – Chesapeake, Congress, Constitution, Constellation, President and the United States. Congress stipulated the ships would be built to one design in shipyards in six cities –Baltimore, MD; Boston, MA; Gosport, VA; New York, NY; Philadelphia, PA; and Portsmouth, NH.

All had distinguished careers during the Quasi War against France in 1799, the First Barbary War in 1802 and the War of 1812. Chesapeake’s captured six prizes on her first cruise during the War of 1812.

Unfortunately, she was not fully prepared for war when she set sail from Boston on June 1, 1813 and met HMS Shannon (38 guns). In the battle that ensued, Chesapeake’s captain – James Lawrence is mortally wounded. As he is carried below, he utters his famous words – “Don’t give up the ship.”

The captured Chesapeake was sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia where it was repaired and renamed HMS Chesapeake. The loss so moved Oliver Hazard Perry that he named his flagship Lawrence after the Chesapeake’s captain and used his words as a rallying cry when he beat the British on Lake Erie on September 13th, 1813.

In July 1819, the Royal Navy no longer wanted Chesapeake and Joshua Holmes bought the wood from a British timber merchant who acquired the ship. Holmes used the ship’s wood to build a water-powered gristmill in Wickham, Hampshire County, England. Named the Chesapeake Mill, it operated until 1976. Today, the building is a shopping mall for antique sellers and gift sellers. The ship’s wood still makes up the building’s structure two hundred and ten years after they were part of the Chesapeake.

A fragment from the mill was donated to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum and other artifacts from the Chesapeake are in museums outside the U.S. The ship’s blood stained flag was bought by William Waldorf Astor in 1908 and is on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. One of its 18-pounder guns is mounted next to Province House, in Halifax and Canada’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has an officer’s sea chest, a kettle and other items.

So USS Chesapeake sails on, just in a different shape!

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