Thirty-four days out of Newport, Rhode Island, on 1 November 1803, the brig-of-war Argus reached Gibraltar. She “sails well,” her captain, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr., reported to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, “and possesses a number of excellent qualities.” Commodore Edward Preble, commanding the U.S. Mediterranean Squadron, penned a letter to the secretary on 9 November, expressing almost fatherly pride: “The Argus is arrived and is without exception the handsomest vessel of her rate that I have ever seen. She is very much and very justly admired by every officer. . . . The order she is in does great credit to her commander.”
Congress had authorized the brig on 23 February 1803, and the Navy contracted for the Merrimack (as she was originally known) on 29 April. Workmen laid her keel at the Boston shipyard of Edmund Hartt on 12 May. Edmund’s brother Joseph drafted the plans for a flush-decked brig whose lines were drawn very fine to enable her to operate in the peculiar sailing conditions in the Mediterranean. Then-Captain Preble was to superintend her construction.
Two days after work began, however, Secretary Smith ordered Preble to take command of the frigate Constitution, then at Boston, in addition to directing construction of the brig. Then, on 21 May, Smith informed him that he was to command a squadron, which would include the Constitution and Merrimack, that was being assembled for service in the Mediterranean.
Much work lay ahead for the conscientious new commodore. Preble’s first report concerning the Merrimack, written only the day after the keel-laying, had delighted Smith. “[I] am very happy,” the secretary replied, “that you are progressing with such rapidity in building the Brig, and it will afford me great satisfaction if the Brig building under your superintendency, being the last ordered, shall be the first ready for sea.”
But it soon became evident that the Constitution would require more of Preble’s exertions and another officer should direct construction of the brig. On 27 May, Secretary Smith wrote 24-year-old Decatur that he was to command the Merrimack. Meanwhile, Smith learned that the name of the brig was not popular. “The officers of the Navy have solicited me in such an earnest manner to change the name proposed for the Brig,” Smith wrote Samuel Brown, the Navy agent in Boston, on 4 June, “that I have consented to it and we will call her the Argus instead of the Merrimack as heretofore proposed.”
A little over a month later, Preble reported: “The Brig is planked up on the outside and goes on well—she will do Credit to the builder.” But on 11 July, soon after his arrival in Boston, Decatur wrote Smith that “the Argus [was] not in that state of forwardness . . . I am induced to believe you expected she be in at this period.” The brig was indeed planked up, and her spars, rigging, sails, and boats were nearing completion, but the bottom remained to be coppered. The builders promised Decatur that the ship would be launched later that month, and he assured Smith that he would “use every endeavor to expedite the equipment of the Argus.”
While some officers, the non-commissioned officers, and 20 privates of the Marine detachment had already been assigned to the ship, on 14 July the Navy secretary instructed Decatur to recruit “40 Able seamen, and 30 Ordinary seamen and boys.” The former were to be signed on at no more than $10 a month, the latter “from 5 to 8 dollars according to merit.” A sailor was to agree to serve for two years “from the time the Brig weighs anchor for a cruise.”
“Almost incessant rains,” Decatur wrote on 1 August, had delayed the launching of the Argus for almost a fortnight, but word that the brig’s armament, a set of carronades, had been procured at Providence, Rhode Island, cheered him. Solve one problem, though, and another arose. On the scheduled launch date, 20 August, the Argus refused to budge. After the ways’ degree of incline was increased, the ship launched the next day, but labor issues slowed completion. Ultimately, after being delayed more than a day by contrary winds, the Argus finally got under way for the Mediterranean on 8 September.
Soon thereafter, however, the ship suffered a badly sprung bowsprit in what Decatur called “a remarkable heavy sea” and put in to Newport for repairs on 18 September. In reporting the delay to Smith, he concluded: “The Argus sails fast. Is very stuff & scuds [sails swiftly and easily] well, but in lying to she pitches remarkably heavy.” Given the difficulty of procuring spars in the Mediterranean, Decatur reasoned that the repairs had better be done closer to home. She resumed her voyage on 28 September.
After the Argus reached Gibraltar, Decatur exchanged commands with Lieutenant Isaac Hull, with Decatur taking charge of the schooner Enterprize. Preble assigned the Argus to watch affairs in Morocco until the spring, his choice of that vessel made “more particularly on acc’t of the judgment prudence and firmness of her Commander, Lieu’t Hull on whose discretion I rely with confidence.”
On board the Constitution lying off Syracuse, Sicily, Midshipman Henry Wadsworth wrote on 17 March 1804, “The Argus is universally allowed to be the finest vessel floating” in the Mediterranean. “The envy & jealousy of the British officers is excited by our fine Ships & handsome manoevering [sic].” If young Wadsworth had lived to witness America’s second conflict with Great Britain (he died in the cataclysmic September 1804 explosion of the ketch Intrepid in Tripoli Harbor) he might have also noted that the Argus excited a different emotion in Britons—deep concern. During the War of 1812, the brig wreaked havoc on their shipping at their very doorstep.
The Argus took at least 20 prizes in just 19 days until 13 August 1813, when off St. David’s Head, Wales, the British brig Pelican stood toward her, her captain noting that the Argus had “made herself clear for an obstinate resistance.” The Pelican also cleared for action and gave her worthy foe three cheers. In 45 minutes, the British ship prevailed and took the Argus into Plymouth as a prize.