What Happened to the Continental Navy’s First Thirteen Frigates?
Members of the Continental Congress’ Navy Committee knew that to fight the Royal Navy on anything near equal terms, we needed new, purpose built warships. Our shipyards had the expertise to design and build the ships because many had built small frigates for the Royal Navy.
Thirteen were authorized and be grouped into grouped in three classes. Five were designed to carry 32 cannon. Washington, Warren and Raleigh were all burned to avoid capture. On its first cruise, Warren managed to capture 11 prizes. Raleigh took on two larger Royal Navy frigates and after a seven hour running gun battle, sought refuge in a harbor. Rather than be captured, it was burned. Randolph exploded when a hot 24-pound cannonball set off the powder in its magazine during a battle with H.M.S. Yarmouth, 64 guns. Hancock was captured by the British and renamed H.M.S. Iris.
Another five were rated for 28 guns. Effingham was sunk to avoid capture and later burned by the British. Montgomery was also burned to prevent capture. After taking 11 prizes, Providence was trapped during the siege of Charleston and burned. Trumbull was in a battle with H.M.S. Iris and H.M.S. Monk and was too badly damaged so it was broken up. Virginia ran aground and was repaired and sailed as the Royal Navy’s H.M.S. Virginia.
The smallest of the 13 only had 24 guns. During the 1783 siege of Charleston, Boston was taken and renamed H.M.S. Charlestown. To prevent capture, Congress was set afire and Delaware ran aground running from the British who re-floated, repaired and sailed her as H.M.S. Delaware.
Sadly, all these ships had very short careers that lasted from about 1776 until 1781. The 13 frigates were well designed, built and equipped. They also were faster and had batter sailing qualities than the ships they faced.
Two factors caused these losses. One, we were heavily outnumbered by the Royal Navy who had the ships to trap our ships in ports threatened by the Royal Army as well as hunt our ships. Two, for the most part, our captains and crews didn’t have the training and experience of our enemy. We had a few great captains, but not nearly enough.
However, we did not stop trying and used the lessons learned to build the Alliance, 36 guns that were equal in firepower to the typical 32 gun Royal Navy frigate. In actions with the Royal Navy, Alliance won every engagement it fought and survived the war, only to be sold in 1785.
When the Congress passed the Navy Act of 1794, the new navy was ordered to build frigates that were more than a match for the best the Royal Navy could offer. The result was the construction of probably the finest sailing frigates ever built – Constitution, Constellation, Chesapeake, Congress, United States and President. They were faster, better handling ships that carried 24-pounders to give them the firepower to any British frigate. Their designer was the Kelly Johnson of his era.
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