Share This Article


  • Overall length: 141 feet
  • Beam: 37 feet
  • Depth of hold: 12 feet 3 inches
  • Displacement: 850 long tons
  • Complement: 300 officers and enlisted
  • Armament in 1799: Twenty-six 12-pounders, ten 6-pounders
  • Armament in 1801: Twenty-eight 12-pounders, eighteen 32-pound carronades
  • Armament in 1812: Six 12-pounders, forty 32-pound carronades

Funded by public subscription in Essex County, Mass., laid down in Salem on April 13, 1799, launched on September 30 and commissioned on December 17, USS Essex was one of six frigates the perennially slow-acting Congress had ordered five years earlier. It proved the most successful.

During the 1798–1800 Quasi-War with France, Essex, armed with 32 12-pound long guns and commanded by Capt. Edward Preble, escorted convoys in the Pacific Ocean. On its return the frigate underwent an armament refit, short-range carronades replacing the 12-pounders on the forecastle and quarterdeck. It next sailed in 1801 under Capt. William Bainbridge to fight Tripolitan pirates in the Mediterranean during the First Barbary War. After returning stateside in 1802, Essex returned to the Mediterranean under Capt. James Barron from 1804 to ’06.

While laid up in the Washington Navy Yard through early 1809 Essex underwent a more extensive refit, with 40 carronades and six 12-pounders split between the forecastle and forward gun deck. Though technically more of an outsized sloop of war, it retained its rating as the Navy’s only operational light frigate when war broke out with Britain in June 1812. That same month, with Capt. David Porter at the helm, Essex departed on the first of two voyages during which it would capture the sloop of war HMS Alert and some two dozen British merchant ships. Then, off Valparaiso, Chile, on March 28, 1814, the frigates HMS Phoebe and Cherub captured Essex after a bitter fight that cost the Americans 58 men killed. Essex served the Royal Navy as a troopship and prison ship till auctioned off in 1837. Its ultimate fate is unknown. MH

Ordered by Congress in 1794, Essex launched just in time for the 1798–1800 Quasi War with France.
Ordered by Congress in 1794, Essex launched just in time for the 1798–1800 Quasi War with France. (Illustration by Tony Bryan, from American Light and Medium Frigates, 1794–1836, by Mark Lardas, Osprey Publishing)

This article was published in the July 2020 issue of Military History.