The Unusual History of the First U.S.S. America

Some may remember the Kitty Hawk class aircraft carrier named U.S.S. America (CV-66). Others may have heard of the current U.S.S. America (LHA-6), a 45,000 ton amphibious assault ship. But how many know about the first U.S.S. America, a 74-gun ship of the line?

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress and the Continental Navy wanted a ship that could go toe-to-toe with Royal Navy ships. In 1776, the Congress authorized John Langdon’s shipyard in Kittery, Maine (just across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth, NH) to build three 74 gun, ships-of-the-line. The ships were to be based on a design by James Hackett.

The Congress didn’t have money to pay for the ship so construction a “hurry up and wait” affair. Hurry when we have the money to make a payment, wait when we don’t. The process forced Hackett to use “green” wood instead of properly dried and seasoned timber.

John Barry, appointed to be its first commanding officer was sent to Kittery to help “speed” America’s construction, had to fight off Congressional efforts to reduce its size and armament from 74 guns to 54. Robert Morris from the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress replaced Barry in the effort to hasten America’s construction.

Morris picked John Paul Jones as its captain who pushed the yard to complete the ship. On September 2, 1782, with the ship almost ready to be fitted out, the Continental Congress decided to give the ship to France as a gift to replace Magnifique, a ship-of-the-line that ran aground in Boston Harbor.

Disappointed, Jones continued to supervise the fitting out of the ship and in November 1782, it sailed for France with a French crew. America’s main armament of 12 and 18-pounders was lighter than typical French ships-of-the-line which carried 18 and 24-pounders. Nonetheless, the French Navy used it until 1785 when she was brought in for a refit. Because so much green wood was used in its construction, wood rot had set in and the ship was scrapped.

The story of didn’t end here. The French named a Téméraire-class ship-of-the-line America. Completed in 1788, it had the “standard” French armament of twenty-eight 36-pounders on the gun deck, thirty 18-pounders on the main deck along with sixteen 8-pounders and four 36-pound carronades on the quarterdeck and raised forecastle.

America was captured by the Royal Navy in June 1794 and renamed H.M.S. Impétueux because there was a British ship named already an H.M.S. America. H.M.S. Impétueux served until she was broken up in 1813, but not before she became the prototype for a new America class of two 74-gun ships-of-the-line. H.M.S. Northumberland served until 1850 and H.M.S. Renown was broken up in 1835.

Despite the U.S. Navy using the name only three times, America is a popular name for a ship. The first winner of the America’s Cup was a yacht named America and at least ten merchant ships or ocean liners and one spacecraft named were America. The command module for the Apollo 17 whose crew made the last of the moon landings was named America.

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