‘All sail set to the best advantage,” wrote Midshipman Harry Ingersoll in his journal for 10 September 1825 as the 54-gun frigate Brandywine stood out into the rough waters of the Atlantic bound for France with 68-year-old Gilbert du Motier, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette, embarked. The voyage had begun auspiciously, with the majestic new man-of-war “traversing the center of a rainbow, one of whose limbs appeared to rest on the Maryland shore, the other on that of Virginia.”
The Brandywine, under the command of Captain Charles Morris, had shortened sail to drop the pilot, but then, as young Ingersoll penned later, the frigate’s sailors scrambled aloft in the wind to repeat the evolution “in consequence of a report that the ship was making water at the rate of 12 inches per hour.” The stormy weather continued unabated, with the midshipman from Philadelphia writing that the frigate was “laboring very much.” The discovery that the Brandywine was taking on water “was not more unexpected than it was unpleasant,” Captain Morris would record in his memoirs.
Despite the captain’s ordering 1,000 32-pound rounds hove overboard to lighten the ship, her travail continued. Auguste Levasseur, Lafayette’s secretary, lamented that “all the agonies of rolling and pitching horribly combined . . . sea-sickness . . . attacked nearly all of us,” including Lafayette himself, who never had been a good sailor even on a Channel crossing. Experienced tars in the ship’s company fell victim as well, and the Reverend George Jones, the schoolmaster and captain’s clerk, observed that “it seems as if a pestilence had passed on the ship . . . the main deck is flooded . . . the water ever and anon, comes dashing into the steerage [the midshipmen’s quarters] and down the berth deck . . . every timber is creaking as if to start from its place.”
The Potomac-class frigate experiencing deep rolls in the Atlantic swells originally had been named the Susquehanna, in keeping with the convention of naming ships of her type for American rivers, and she had been laid down in September 1821 at the Washington Navy Yard. As construction proceeded, however, and Lafayette’s 13-month tour of the United States was nearing its end, President John Quincy Adams decided that the Frenchman, who as a young man had journeyed to America and served as a general during the Revolutionary War, should be persuaded to return to his native land in a naval vessel.
Adams seized on an event from that conflict, when Lafayette had been wounded in the leg by a British musket ball while trying to rally retreating American troops at the 11 September 1777 Battle of Brandywine. “To perpetuate a name that recalls that glorious event of our revolutionary war,” Adams informed Lafayette, “in which you sealed with your blood your devotion to our principles, we have given the name Brandywine to the new frigate, to which we confide the honourable mission of returning you to the wishes of your country and your family.”
When the Brandywine was launched on 16 June 1825, President Adams took part in the christening ceremony from the deck of the new frigate. Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard, along with his wife and daughter, looked on from a gunboat nearby, while Captain Thomas Tingey, the yard’s commandant, and his consort watched from a wharf. “The ship,” recounted an observer from the Washington Gazette, “smote the water in fine style.” Fitting-out proceeded ahead, supervised by Lieutenant Francis H. Gregory. Renowned for his exploits in the destruction of the Philadelphia in 1804 and on board the Constitution during the War of 1812, Morris assumed command on 1 September as the final preparations unfolded to embark Lafayette; his son, George Washington Lafayette; and a small entourage.
In keeping with the Brandywine’s special mission, her complement of 26 midshipmen, drawn from every state of the union, and, as far as practicable, from descendants of “persons distinguished in the Revolution,” was more than twice the size normally embarked in a frigate. Among them were the future oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury and a son of Commodore David Porter, William D. Porter.
Eventually, the Brandywine’s maiden voyage drew to a close at Le Havre on 4 October 1825. There Captain Morris sent Lieutenant David Glasgow Farragut to ascertain the attitude of French officialdom to Lafayette’s return. During his absence, King Louis XVIII had died and been succeeded by his more conservative brother, Charles X. With all well, Lafayette disembarked, as one observer recalled, “big, fat, rosy, happy, showing no signs whatever of having gone several months without sleep, talking, writing, travelling and drinking literally ten hours out of every twenty-four.” The general asked only for the Brandywine’s colors as a memento of the voyage. The midshipmen pooled their resources and paid for a handsome engraved silver urn that was later presented to him. As the Brandywine stood out to sea, Levasseur wrote that she left “with the majesty of a floating fortress.”
After having delivered Lafayette to his homeland—along with “two cows, a bull, and a sow from Baltimore, a wild turkey and several chickens from Virginia, as well as American deer, tortoises, terrapins, and even a woodpecker” and enough other items to outfit a museum, all gifts from grateful Americans—Captain Morris turned over command to Lieutenant Gregory. The frigate sailed thence to England, where her caulking was renewed, then joined the Mediterranean Squadron, where Lieutenant Farragut recorded that the Brandywine “was perhaps one of the fastest vessels in the world. I have seen her, when sailing with the Mediterranean Squadron, spare them twelve, fourteen, and even sixteen sails.”
Over the ensuing decades, punctuated by inactive periods for refitting, the Brandywine sailed to the Mediterranean, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific, ranging as far as China in support of the United States’ expansion of its diplomatic and commercial endeavors. As the Navy increased the caliber of its weapons, the ship’s main battery changed as well, incorporating four 8-inch shell guns in 1840, added to 28 32-pounders and 22 32-pounder carronades. In 1847 she added four more 8-inchers and her 32-pounders, including the carronades, were replaced by 40 42-pounder long guns.
Eventually, the Brandywine, housed over, became a storeship and a receiving ship in Hampton Roads, being towed out of harm’s way when the Confederate ironclad Virginia wreaked havoc in 1862. She returned to those waters once that threat had been eliminated, but on 3 September 1864, just shy of 39 years after the Brandywine had sailed for France with her distinguished passenger, a fire broke out in the ship’s paint room, in the fore hold, as she lay at the Gosport (Norfolk) Navy Yard and “almost wholly destroyed” the principal storeship for the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter described the impact of that loss in a 10 October letter to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles: “A large amount of engineer’s, paymaster’s, boatswain’s, and sailmaker’s stores are required here for immediate use, everything having been burned up on the Brandywine.”
Disposition of the ship, however, waited until 26 March 1867, when all that remained of the once-formidable man-of-war was raised and sold to Maltby & Company for $13,700.
Historian Howard I. Chappelle eulogized the Brandywine as “a noted sailer and a favorite ship,” and she and her eight sisters represented U.S. wooden fighting-ship design quintessence. While the Brandywine never fired her guns in anger, she had—by her powerful presence, and what the Reverend Jones, her schoolmaster, had once described as the “dark and threatening character of her hull”—commanded respect for the United States on its eventful odyssey to becoming a world power.
Length (between perpendiculars): 175 feet
Beam (extreme): 46 feet
Depth of hold: 14 feet, 5 inches
Draft (maximum): 33 feet
Armament (1825): 30 32-pounders, 24 32-pounder carronades
Complement: 480 officers, enlisted men, and Marines