John Paul Jones (1747-1792)
He never commanded a major fleet and lost his flagship in the most celebrated American naval action of the Revolution, yet John Paul Jones embodied the spirit, audaciousness and courage of the nascent Continental navy. Born a Scotsman with America as his adopted country, John Paul (Jones was added after the young captain sought to disguise his identity) received his commission as a captain in the Continental Navy on 14 June, 1777 and given the command of the sloop of war Ranger. Carrying the news to Benjamin Franklin and France of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, Jones was then charged with carrying the war to his estranged Great Britain. This he did with a vengeance, capturing numerous prizes, raiding coastal villages, and even attempting to capture the 4th Earl of Selkirk in his castle. The cruise culminated with the capture of the British sloop of war Drake on 24 April, 1779 in the north Irish Sea. Jones’ exchange of the Drake’s 133 captives for American prisoners established an important legal precedent as until then the British had not officially allowed prisoner exchanges with America.
Jones’ next command catapulted him into lasting fame and legend. Given command of a worn out French East India merchantman Le Duc De Duras, which he rearmed and renamed BonHomme Richard (after benefactor Benjamin Franklin’s occasional pen name “Poor Richard”), Jones assembled a polyglot squadron of French and American ships (only 60 out of 380 of Richard’s crew were Americans) and set upon the shipping lanes around the British isles. On the afternoon of 23 September, 1779 off Flamborough Head near the port of Scarborough, Jones’ squadron encountered a 41-ship convoy escorted by 2 British ships, the Countess of Scarborough and the new 2-deck 44 gun Fifth rate Serapis. In one of the bitterest contests in the Age of Fighting Sail, Jones fought yardarm to yardarm with the Serapis. At the height of the battle when his ship began to sink and with his acerbic and intolerant nature on full display, he reportedly responded to the British captain’s request for surrender with, “Quarter? I have not yet begun to fight!” After a grenade dropped from BonHomme Richard’s fighting maintop caused a explosion on Serapis, the British captain surrendered.
It was his last action as an American captain. Upon returning to America, he was given command of the America, the colonies’ first ship of the line, but was forced to relinquish the post when the Continental Congress presented the ship to France as a gift. He ended his naval career as an admiral in Catherine the Great’s Russian Navy where he served with some distinction. He spent the rest of his short life pressing claims for prize money for his crews, and died poor and alone in Paris on the eve of being appointed American consul to Algeria. One of his letters framed his naval thinking: “Without a respectable Navy- alas America!” In a long overdue tribute to Jones’ legacy, President Theodore Roosevelt interred Jones’ remains at the US Naval Academy in 1905.
Joshua Humphrey (1751-1838)
With increasing foreign depredations on America’s merchant marine in the 10-year period after the Revolution, President George Washington persuaded Congress to adopt its first naval bill in 1794. But what ships were to be built? Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox turned to Philadelphia shipbuilder Joshua Humphrey. Recognizing that America had neither the manpower, financial
resources nor shipyards to build a navy comparable to that of Great Britain or any European power, Humphrey wrote to Knox that “we are to consider what size ships will be most formidable, and be an overmatch for those of an enemy, such frigates as in blowing weather would be an overmatch for double-deck ships…” Humphrey’s solution was the design of the Constitution-class: three 44-gun super-frigates, larger (1,576 tons) and more heavily armed (main battery of 24 pound cannons) than their European counterparts. Expensive and controversial during peacetime, these frigates would ultimately prove their value during the War of 1812, vindicating Humphrey’s judgment. With his reputation established, Humphrey went on to be the principal architect for the US Navy, designing its first class of ships of the line, most notably the Ohio class.
Benjamin Stoddert (1751-1813)
Appointed by second President John Adams on 19 June, 1798, Benjamin Stoddert became the first Secretary of the Navy. Although Stoddert held important posts under the Continental Congress and knew the shipping business, he lacked seagoing experience. Nearly 50 years old at the time of his appointment and reluctant to take the post, Stoddert nonetheless brought considerable administrative skills to bear in dealing with depredations on American shipping by French privateers and Barbary pirates. He inherited the department (formerly a branch of the Secretary of War) without any commissioned warships, only 4 captains with active duty experience, and no naval shipyards.
As the 1800 Presidential campaign neared, and candidate Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy for a reduced navy became public, Stoddert pushed the Peace Establishment Act through Congress, saving what he could of the navy he had so successfully created. After Jefferson took office the navy was reduced, with all but 13 ships, including the 6 original frigates, being sold. When Stoddert left office, the navy had grown to fifty ships, but in the process of his unstinting work, Stoddert became impoverished.6 “A more fortunate selection could not have been made” one of Stoddert’s contemporaries wrote, citing the Secretary’s patriotism, integrity, intelligence, and appetite for hard work: indeed Stoddert, with only 10 or so clerks, nearly did it all, from dealing with strategy and policy, to procuring shipboard supplies.
Thomas Truxtun (1755-1822)
Born into an English lawyer’s family living in New York City, Truxtun entered the merchant marine at a young age, and by twenty, was captain of his own ship. Before the Revolution he was pressed into the Royal Navy, but turned down a midshipman’s commission. During the Revolution Truxtun successfully commanded several privateers, victorious in all encounters. In 1798 with tensions increasing with France, newly appointed Navy Secretary Benjamin Stoddert ordered that work on the first six frigates be resumed with Constellation’s construction in Baltimore to be supervised by her builder and Truxtun. Due to his energetic efforts, the Constellation (38) was the first of the original six frigates to sail. Under his taut command, the swift Constellation (nicknamed the “Baltimore Race Horse”) became the smartest ship in the navy. Already a superb navigator, Truxtun devised a signal flag system and wrote a set of ship regulations for the fledgling navy. Truxtun achieved his greatest glory when his Constellation defeated in succession the French frigates L’Insurgente (1799) and La Vengeance (1800) during the Quasi War with France. Always seeking improvement, Truxtun after the first engagement with L’Insurgente, replaced Constellation’s main battery of 24 pounders in favor of lighter and handier 18 pounders, while switching out the upper deck 12 pounder long guns with 32 pound carronades. The effect of the short range carronades proved devastating against the La Vengeance.
An excellent captain, organizer, and motivator, Truxtun ranks as one of the Federal navy’s foremost leaders.
Edward Preble (1761-1807)
Preble began his naval career as a midshipman during the Revolution in the Massachusetts State Navy, but suffered the misfortune of being captured and imprisoned by the British in a Royal Navy prison hulk. During the Quasi War with France, he was quickly appointed lieutenant and then captain, serving as commander of the frigate Essex. Small and wiry and afflicted with ulcers, Preble’s violent temper made him a firebrand to crew and foes alike. Taking command of the USS Constitution and a squadron in 1803 with instructions from President Jefferson to wage war on the Barbary states, Preble proved to be a dynamic and aggressive commander. In contrast to previous commanders sent to the Mediterranean, Preble’s gunboat attacks on Tripoli and its fortifications, his unremitting campaign against Barbary corsairs, the burning of the captured US frigate Philadelphia by Stephen Decatur, and the efficient way he maintained his fleet on station, made him popular with Congress and his countrymen. Preble’s one error in judgment occurred (perhaps due to his impending replacement as commander) was to assent to sending the small ship Intrepid loaded with explosives into Tripoli harbor and detonate her amidst the Tripolitan shipping. Probably discovered during her approach, the Intrepid blew up prematurely, taking her crew with her. Preble’s lasting legacy to the navy was his stern but skillful apprenticeship of a young group of rising officers, chiefly Decatur, Isaac Hull, and Charles Stewart, who achieved fame during the War of 1812 and were forever known as “Preble’s Boys”.
Stephen Decatur, Jr. (1779-1820)
The American embodiment of C.S. Forester’s fictional British captain Horatio Hornblower, Stephen Decatur, Jr. was America’s most charismatic naval hero in age of sailing ships. Born in Sinepuxent, Maryland to a naval family (his father was credited with capturing the first prize in the Quasi-War), Decatur earned an appointment as midshipman in the new frigate United States in 1797, and earned promotion to lieutenant less than 2 years later. In a harbinger to his later demise, the prideful Decatur shortly after promotion became involved in a non-fatal duel with a seaman who had made offensive remarks about Decatur and the navy. His name caught the public eye during the First Barbary War when he led a cutting out expedition that re-captured and burned the American frigate Philadelphia. The frigate grounded on an uncharted reef 31 October, 1803 and despite feverish attempts to free her, the ship was captured by Tripolitan sailors, refloated and moored within the fortress harbor of Tripoli. Five months later, Decatur was appointed by Commodore Edward Preble to command the recently captured Tripolitan ketch Mastico, renamed Intrepid. Retaining the disguise of a Tripolitan merchant ship, the Intrepid hailed the Philadelphia, claiming a lost anchor and requesting to be moored alongside of the frigate. The Intrepid’s crew quickly overwhelmed the startled Tripolitan crew, and Decatur, deciding that it was too risky to sail the recaptured prize out of harbor, gave orders to burn the Philadelphia. The American sailors completed the task in short order, re-boarded the Intrepid and made good their escape. No less than British Vice Admiral Lord Nelson praised the action as “the most bold and daring act of the Age.”
Starting with the first Barbary War, Decatur commanded each of the three large 44-gun frigates, beginning with the Constitution in 1804. Decatur commanded the 44-gun United States at the outset of the War of 1812, earning fresh laurels when he defeated the 38-gun British frigate Macedonian on October 25, 1812 and brought her back to America as a prize. In May, 1814, Decatur transferred his command to the 44-gun frigate President, the fastest of the Big Three frigates lying blockaded by a British squadron in New York harbor. In January, 1815 Decatur took advantage of bad winter weather to attempt to break the blockade and sail to the East Indies. Due to a pilot’s error, the President grounded hard on Long Island Sound, and furious efforts to refloat her caused severe damage to her hull and one mast. Once free, Decatur engaged the British squadron, first severely damaging the 40-gun frigate Endymion, but ultimately surrendering to the British.
In May 1815, Decatur was appointed to command a 10-ship squadron, flying his flag in the new frigate Guerriere, with the mission to conduct a second Barbary War and end the international practice of paying tribute to the Barbary states. During the conflict, Decatur encountered and defeated the Algerian 44 gun frigate Mashouda. Feted upon his return to the United States, Decatur uttered an after-dinner toast that would become famous: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”
Decatur met an untimely and tragic death in 1820 in a duel with fellow officer Commodore James Barron, whom Decatur in his capacity sitting on Barron’s court-martial had held responsible for conduct in the Chesapeake-Leopard affair of 1807.
Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1819)
Born into a naval family, Perry served as a midshipman in the undeclared war with France (1789-1800) and then as midshipman and acting lieutenant against the Barbary pirates (1801-1805). In 1812 at age 27, Perry was appointed Commodore and given command of a small fleet on Lake Erie consisting of two 20-gun brigs, a 4-gun schooner and six boats mounting 1 or 2 guns each. He took command of the brig Lawrence named after Perry’s close friend Captain James Lawrence who had perished in the frigate duel between HMS Shannon and the Chesapeake. After considerable effort to get his fleet over a shallow sandbar, Perry set out to search for the British fleet. On 10 September, 1813, the British fleet was sighted. Despite a combined fleet broadside advantage of 1,200 pounds to 850 for the British, the Lawrence fought the larger British squadron almost single-handed, suffering damage so severe that Perry transferred his flag to the sister ship Niagra. The victory, which helped secured American control of Lake Erie and the northwest territory was immortalized by Perry’s message to William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana territory “We have met the enemy and they are ours”.
Perry’s younger brother Matthew led the ground-breaking naval expedition that opened trade relations with Japan in 1853.
David Glasgow Farragut (1801-1870)
Born James Glasgow Farragut in 1801 in Knoxville, Tennessee of Spanish immigrant parents, Farragut served as a young midshipman aboard Commander David Dixon Porter’s Essex during the South Pacific cruise during the War of 1812. Porter, one of the Navy’s finest officers, befriended the Farragut family through an unusual chain of events in which the Farraguts rescued Porter’s unconscious father from the deck of a drifting boat. James Glasgow Farragut came under the guardianship of David Porter and changed his name to David G. Farragut. Faced with a difficult test of loyalty, Farragut, southern born and raised, joined the Union and was named Flag Officer in command of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. He first won distinction with his aggressive forcing of the Confederate defenses at the Battle of New Orleans. His ‘blue-water’ naval forces then made a decisive contribution to the success of U.S. Grant’s 1863 Vicksburg campaign. Despite heavy losses against the entrenched Confederate defenders along the Mississippi, Farragut’s deep draft frigates and sloops fought their way up to Vicksburg to effect a junction with Grant’s forces coming down river. Farragut’s crowning moment came when as Rear Admiral, he led a mixed fleet of outmoded wooden ships and modern ironclad monitors against a well-prepared Confederate fleet led by the new ironclad Tennessee and fortifications at Mobile Bay in August, 1864. At a critical moment when the Union monitor Tecumseh struck a torpedo-mine and began to sink, Farragut bellowed his famous battle cry “Damn the torpedoes”, and then turning to his flag captain in the Hartford, “Drayton! Go ahead! Full speed!” Charging through the minefield, Farragut’s fleet captured the Tennessee, blasted Ft. Morgan into submission, and captured the city of Mobile Bay.
In 1866, Farragut became the first Admiral of the Navy. His funeral procession in 1870, presided over by President U.S. Grant included 10,000 soldiers and sailors.
John Erricson (1803-1889)
Arguably the greatest technological contributor to the birth of the modern US Navy and father of a worldwide naval revolution, was a Swedish-born army engineer captain and inventor, John Erricson. Erricson’s talent for invention first came to public attention in 1829 when his locomotive “Novelty” reached a speed of 50 miles an hour. He next turned to naval technology, ultimately convincing the British navy of the superiority of his screw propeller (with a circular shroud) over the paddle-wheel. The famous tug-of-war in 1843 between the paddle-wheel steamer Alecto and the screw-driven Rattler, forever ended the debate in favor of screw propulsion. Frustrated by the conservative British Admiralty, Erricson turned his energies to the United States Navy, but had the misfortune of developing a new ship and ordinance design in partnership with a self-promoting former naval officer and influential scion of a prominent American family, Robert Stockton. The new screw-propelled ship named Princeton featured many naval innovations and became the intended platform for a revolutionary new Erricson-designed cannon, nicknamed “The Orator”, capable of firing a 225 pound shot 5 miles. Jealous of Erricson’s technological skills and eager to claim credit, Stockton without consulting the inventor, ordered a similar cannon but of inferior construction, dubbed the “Peacemaker”. The Princeton set sail down the Potomac in February, 1844 with President Tyler, several members of his cabinet and other dignitaries (but without the snubbed Erricson). At the climatic moment, Stockton’s “Peacemaker” exploded into a mass of jagged iron, killing several in the presidential party including the Secretary of the Navy. Ultimately acquitted of responsibility for the matter, but with his reputation with the Navy under a cloud for the next 16 years, Erricson in 1861 overcame conservative naval prejudice by persuading Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to award him the navy’s first ironclad design contract. Completed in a mere 118 days, the Monitor was not the first ironclad warship (Britain’s Warrior and France’s Gloire claimed that honor 2 years before, and the CSS Manassas and Virginia immediately before) but was the first ironclad to feature a revolving twin-gun turret combined with all-steam propulsion for motive power. With numerous other patented inventions, the Monitor in its brief career revolutionized naval warfare for the next 80 years. After the Civil War, Erricson pioneered the development of a warship capable of firing underwater torpedoes, as well as a successful shipboard depth finder, surface condensers for marine engines, and an early solar-powered hot-air engine. He died in 1889 on the anniversary of the battle between the Monitor and the Virginia.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
Under Roosevelt’s leadership first as Under Secretary of the Navy in 1897 and then as President from 1901-1909, the U.S. Navy finally emerged from its post-Civil War doldrums to become one the world’s leading maritime powers by the outbreak of World War I. A disciple and confidant of Alfred T. Mahan, Roosevelt developed a strategic vision of America’s role in the world, and built a navy capable of power projection.
Born into a wealthy New York Dutch merchant family, young Roosevelt became fascinated with the navy, inspired by stories told by his maternal uncles James and Irvine Bulloch who served with distinction in the Confederate navy. For his honors thesis at Harvard, Roosevelt eschewed traditional topics for his favorite theme: the sea and its influence on national power. Turning his thesis into a book, The Naval War of 1812 presented an operational history of the naval campaign between the United States and Great Britain. The book won immediate critical acclaim and within four years of publication, Navy regulations required each ship to carry a copy. In 1897, after previously serving in the New York State Assembly, Roosevelt at age 38 was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration, reporting to former congressman John Long whose philosophy of a limited navy clashed with his restless and reform-minded subordinate. Taking advantage of Long’s frequent absences from Washington, Roosevelt began to prepare the navy for imminent war with Spain, and (with Long’s approval) selected George Dewey for command of the Asiatic squadron. He also began to court and encourage many reform-minded naval officers such as William Sims and Bradley Fiske. At the outbreak of war with Spain, Roosevelt resigned his position and as lieutenant colonel led a volunteer regiment of “Rough Riders” on the famous charge to capture San Juan Hill near Santiago, Cuba. His growing fame catapulted him to the governorship of New York in 1898 and then as McKinley’s Vice President in 1900. Taking office as President after President McKinley’s assassination in 1901 at age forty-two, Roosevelt employed the new navy in defense of the Monroe Doctrine, thwarting British and German intervention during the Venezuelan crisis of 1902-1903, following that with the deployment of naval elements to block Colombian suppression of the Panamanian revolt in 1903. The latter action paved the way for American takeover of the Panama Canal project, giving the United States the ability to effectively project naval power in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Acting for all practical purposes as his own Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt won congressional approval for the rapid expansion of the capital fleet to sixteen battleships, including new dreadnoughts (with some classes considered among the world’s best), and an increase in the naval budget by 39% percent by his fourth year in office. In 1905, he won the Nobel Peace Prize by brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War. In a dramatic gesture of Mahanian power projection, Roosevelt dispatched his Great White Fleet of sixteen battleships on a 46,000 mile world cruise. At the turn of the century, the United States Navy ranked sixth among world powers but by the time Roosevelt left office in 1909, the navy was third only to Great Britain and Germany.
Belying his popular image as a toothy, ebullient “bully” soldier/politician, Theodore Roosevelt was a noted author, intellectual, reformer, naturalist, diplomat, strategist and naval thinker.