Book Review: The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy

Ever since World War II, most Americans have taken for granted that we should have a strong military establishment befitting a world power.  That wasn’t always the case; in fact, it took some serious reality checks to convince a critical mass of the American body politic that any substantial military establishment was even necessary.  In spite of the fact that the Republic was born with a long coastline (and one that got longer with territorial acquisitions,) this was particularly true with the Navy.  The process by which that perception changed is the backdrop for Frances Diane Robotti and James Vescovi’s The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy.  Through the events of one ship and those who commanded it, the story is told of the U.S.’ earliest forays into both foreign relations and world commerce.

The need for a substantial standing military force wasn’t obvious in the early years of our Republic; in fact, the general consensus was that the whole point of the founding of the U.S. was to get away from large, impressed (drafted) military forces.  (The New York draft riots during the Civil War demonstrate that this opinion persisted for a long time.)  Unfortunately, the French Revolution which began in 1789 and the European conflicts which followed that caught the U.S. between competing powers.  That squeeze was manifested most clearly in the effect it had on U.S. shipping.  In spite of what looks to us now as primitive technology of shipping and communications, international commerce was vital to the welfare of the Republic.  Shorn by independence of the Royal Navy’s protection, American shipping fell victim to interceptions of all kinds.

The trading “establishment” was the first to realise the gravity of the situation.  Salem, Massachusetts, is best known today for witches, but it was in age of sail an important port for international commerce.  As was the case with other leading American ports, the merchants of Salem put up a “subscription,” i.e., contributions, to build a 32-gun frigate, which would be then outfitted by the U.S. Navy.  Built in Salem, the USS Essex was launched on 30 September 1799.  Its shakedown cruise, under the command of Edward Preble, was to what is now Djakarta, Indonesia and back, not an inconsiderable voyage then or now.  In doing so it became the first U.S. Naval vessel to round the Cape of Good Hope.

Although the warring European powers were a serious problem, Essex’s first combat missions would take place in the country’s first round of wars with the Barbary States.  It’s easy to forget this war now, but it was our country’s first foreign war, and it was our first serious contact with the Islamic world.  The lessons learned in that conflict would have been useful in what we have gone through in the last decade, but learning from history—ours and others’—isn’t an American strong suit.

The Barbary States—which are today occupied by Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya—had made a reasonable living for themselves and their rulers by piracy against ships sailing through the Mediterranean.  (The Somalis today have attempted the same thing in the Horn of Africa, albeit without the strong supervision of their government.)  They frequently captured the ships, seized the cargos and enslaved the crews.  The usual European response to this was to pay tribute to these states, and the U.S. followed suit.  In 1800 William Bainbridge, later to command the Essex, had the distasteful mission of delivering tribute to the Dey of Algiers.  Having done this, he was forced to deliver the Dey’s own tribute to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople, along with the Dey’s new ambassador and his retinue.  He made the most of the voyage.  For example, he tacked the ship (put it on a zig-zag course) so that the Muslims were never sure which way they were supposed to orient themselves at prayer time.  When he reached Constantinople, he made a better impression on the Sultan than the Dey’s envoy; the Stars and Stripes had never flown in the Ottoman Empire before.

Unfortunately the Algerian Dey’s success made the neighbours envious, especially the Bashaw of Tripoli.  In 1797 the U.S. had signed a treaty with Tripoli which exchanged tribute for safe passage for American vessels and persons.  This is the treaty that contains the following clause, beloved by American secularists:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

This Masonic flourish (and it needs to be understood in that context) was in response to the Bashaw’s claim that his pirates were conducting what amounted to a holy war in their activity (including the straight shot to paradise if they were killed in battle.)  It should also be compared to George W. Bush’s protestations that the “war against terror” wasn’t a war against Islam.

All of these niceties, however, didn’t stop the Bashaw from declaring war on the United States on 19 May 1801, with the idea that the U.S. would up its tribute.  Unfortunately the next day a squadron of Navy ships (including the Essex, under Bainbridge’s command) sailed for the Mediterranean.  When they arrived they, and the Bashaw, realised they had a fight on their hands.

The war against Tripoli was, in many ways, a desultory affair.  To begin with the rules of engagement laid down by President Jefferson were too restrictive (a mistake the Americans would repeat in Iraq and Afghanistan.)  In spite of this Essex managed to execute its merchant marine escort duties successfully, although the squadron in general was unable to bring the Bashaw to heel.  It came back to the U.S. from its first tour and was put “in ordinary” (mothballed, using the modern terminology.)

The U.S. sent another squadron under Preble’s command, with broader rules of engagement.  Bainbridge, commanding the Philadelphia, managed to run it aground off of Tripoli; he, his ship and his crew were captured.  The Bashaw began reconditioning the ship for his own fleet, but on 16 February 1804, in a daring raid under Stephen Decatur, the Philadelphia was burned.  While in prison, Bainbridge was also witness to a “suicide bombing,” but the bombers were in this case Americans: thirteen were killed when the ketch Intrepid, filled with explosives and floated in under the command of Richard Somers, blew up in Tripoli harbour.  (The original plan was to light the fuses and escape in small boats, but the escape plan went awry when the Tripolitanian harbour guns opened fire.)

The Americans’ third squadron, under the command of Commodore Samuel Barron, included the Essex.  The Americans got down to business in good Middle Eastern style, including recruiting the Bashaw’s brother as a power challenger.   This last squadron managed to make a sufficient impression on the Bashaw that he sued for peace.  On 27 May 1805 the Essex, near “the shores of Tripoli” immortalised by the Marines, raised a flag of truce and fired off two shots, answered from the shore.  The following month an agreement was struck between the U.S. and the Bashaw and this phase of the war was over.  (There was one more round of hostilities with the Barbary States after the War of 1812.)

Much of the book is spent chronicling the Essex’s performance during the War of 1812, under the command of David Porter.  The U.S. entered this conflict with a navy that was literally dwarfed by the Royal Navy.  She had no first rate ships of the line and was badly outnumbered.  Nevertheless the U.S. Navy, a volunteer force that was better trained and had higher morale than the Royal Navy (much of which was impressed) scored some significant victories against the world’s greatest navy.  Porter, bending his orders a bit, rounded Cape Horn (another U.S. Naval first) and entered the Pacific.  He wrought havoc amongst the British whaling ships; in the days before petroleum, whale oil was a vital fuel and lubricant for an emerging industrial Britain.  He captured so many and had such a large number in his “fleet” that he was forced to do another U.S. Navy first: place his chaplain in command of one of the captured ships! He attempted to claim the Marquesas Islands for the U.S., a claim that did not stick, and he helped to inspire the Chileans, engaged in their own revolution against Spanish rule.

Although Porter’s damage to British interests was significant, it was spoiled by another good American trait: impetuosity and the desire for a good fight.  He had the option of sailing west to the East Indies and continuing to damage British commercial interests.  A century later, Karl von Müller did just that with the Emden in the age of steam, and Porter didn’t have the radio communications that Müller had to contend with.  But Porter was no von Müller; he wanted a one-on-one sea battle, and got it (sort of) on 28 March 1814, when near Valparaiso, Chile, he took on the HMS Phoebe, under the command of James Hillyar.

Everything that could go wrong for Porter did.  First his main topmast was lost in his attempt to escape into open water.  The “one-on-one” battle didn’t quite materialise because Hillyar also had under his command the HMS Cherub.  Porter’s biggest problem, however, was that, when last under repairs, the Essex was fitted out (over Porter’s strenuous objections) with carronades, cannons with larger bores and ammunition than usual but shorter ranges.  If an enemy ship was in range, the carronades could turn an opposing ship into splinters in short order.  If, on the other hand, the opposing ship had longer range guns, the carronades were useless.  Hillyar was able to force Porter to strike his colours by staying out of the Essex’s carronades’ range, and with that Porter’s dream of victory at sea was at an end.

Porter and the remainder of his crew (including his stepson, David Glasgow Farragut, of Civil War fame) were paroled to return to the U.S.  The British took the Essex back to the UK, where it was turned into a prison ship and eventually scrapped.  With the French defeated, the British could have probably done in the U.S., but decided that discretion was the better part of valour and signed the Treaty of Ghent.

In spite of Porter’s loss at Valparaiso, he was regarded as something of a hero.  He literally opened up new vistas both for his country and the navy, vistas that would continue to expand (especially when the U.S. acquired a Pacific coast) during the next two centuries.  And the U.S. would finally commit to a consistent development of its Navy, which would bear fruit in every war it has fought from then onward.  (The book also outlines the difficulties the Navy had had in obtaining funding from a Federal government that was struggling to pay off its Revolutionary War debts.)

The book is a straightforward read, with good explanations of the age of “iron men and wooden ships.”  It’s amazing how many expressions from the age of sail have survived in our vocabulary, including “first rate” (and second, and third…) and “loose cannon.”  I also saw some expressions I heard growing up in a family of “old salts,” such as “stem to stern” and “powder monkey.”  The book also does a good job illustrating the state of admiralty law in those days and how it affected the conduct of war and merchant ships alike.

Our country is in need of a refresher course in the early history of this Republic if we are ever to understand its purpose. The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy is an excellent and easy to read narrative of one important aspect of that history, one that is too often neglected.

Note: the illustrations are obviously not of the Essex, but depict ships in the age of sail.  They were drawn by William H. Warrington; more of his drawings are here.


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