Saratoga is a seminal American ship name that virtually spans the nation’s existence. Six ships have carried the name in the commissioned service of their country, although one—the first—was not a U.S. Navy warship. She served the Continental Navy.
That first Saratoga is a bit of a mystery. Her existence spanned but 15 months, from being laid down in Philadelphia in December 1779—and even this date is surmise—to being lost in a storm in March 1781. Little documentation exists, and there are no known construction drawings or other depictions of her. To envision what she looked like is confounded by the nomenclature of her time.
Various histories record her as a sloop, ship sloop (the Navy’s official Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships refers to her as both), brig, brigantine, ship, and sloop-of-war. She was the latter, often truncated to simply “sloop.” And that’s where the confusion lies. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a sloop-of-war mounted 18 or fewer guns on a single deck. The definition says nothing about the ship’s rig. The Saratoga was ship-rigged carrying square sails on three masts along with headsails. That she carried this rig on a hull with only a 68-foot keel gives one the sense that she was built for speed, if not over-rigged.
Equally mysterious, or at least as forgotten in general U.S. Navy history, is her one and only skipper, Captain John Young. Historian William Bell Clark noted that “Passing reference to him may be found in few histories and biographies. He has been called James Young, J. Young, Captain Young, but seldom his proper Christian name.” Like his ship, there are no known contemporary images of him. But we find that at sea he had an admirable career, capturing seven prizes between 1776 and 1779 and a dozen more with the Saratoga. Politically, he moved in lofty circles that included two signers of both the Articles of Confederation and Declaration of Independence and who held considerable sway over the Navy: Francis Lewis of New York and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania. Young was a “confidant” of John Paul Jones, had provided direct service on two occasions to George Washington, and was “intimately” associated with John Barry, Seth Harding, the Nicholson brothers, and other Continental Navy captains.
There are parallels between captain and ship that extend far beyond their mutual obscurity. Their service began at around the same time. On 10 October 1776, Young was commissioned 23rd on the list of Continental Navy captains. Slightly more than a month later, on 20 November, a resolution passed by the Continental Congress authorized construction of an unnamed sloop-of-war. Because of funding issues, little was done for three years until 1 July 1779, when the Navy Board then directed the construction of a “Brigantine of 67 feet Keel to Carry 16 Six pounder Cannon” at the Southwark, Pennsylvania, shipyard of Joshua Humphreys and his cousin John Wharton.
That October, the 39-year-old captain—Young is assumed have been born in 1740—was cleared of charges relating to his loss of the small Continental Navy 10-gun converted sloop-cum-brig Independence the previous year at Okracoke, North Carolina. Young was now a captain in search of a new command, and the under-construction Saratoga, not far from his Laurel Street home, needed one.
Humphreys, who had designed and built the frigate Randolph in 1776 and is generally credited with later designing the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy in 1794, took full advantage of the Navy Board’s direction for the brigantine to be “Constructed in Such manner as Mr Humphreys the Master Builder May think proper.” He built a ship on a 68-foot keel, rather than the brigantine with two masts on a 67-foot keel.
On 22 February 1789, Young appeared before the Navy Board of the Middle District and was assigned command of the Saratoga. Their lives thereafter are forever intertwined.
The sloop-of-war was launched barely two months later on 10 April with Young in attendance and little fanfare. During fitting out, the captain suggested to Humphreys substituting 9-pounders in place of the 6-pounders with which the ship had been designed. Humphreys agreed that the Saratoga could bear the extra weight, and she was completed with 16 9-pounders and 2 4-pounders.
As the ship fitted out, Young selected his crew. Among them was his first lieutenant, Joshua Barney. Just 21 when he shipped aboard the Saratoga, Barney already had five years of service in the Continental Navy; two stints as a prisoner of war accounted for 15 months of that time. With a crew of 84 others, Young and the Saratoga departed Philadelphia for their first cruise on 13 August 1780 to escort the packet ship Mercury. The packet was carrying Henry Laurens, the first president of the Continental Congress, on a European finance mission.
Once at sea, it was discovered that the Saratoga was woefully light in ballast and could not maintain a heavy spread of canvas. She left her charge on 23 August, and Young worked his crew in seamanship and gunnery. Barely two weeks later, on 9 September, the Saratoga saw her first enemy and tried to intercept the Royal Navy brig Keppel off South Carolina. After an inconclusive three-hour battle in which a gale forced ineffectual gunnery on both sides, the Saratoga broke off the combat.
Three days later, she made her first capture, the snow Sarah, an unarmed merchantman transporting about 80 barrels of rum. Both arrived off Chester, Pennsylvania, the next day, where little time was wasted before the snow and her cargo were sold to provide much-needed funds for outfitting the frigate Confederacy.
After three days of replenishing stores and loading the iron ballast, the Saratoga headed back to sea. Off New Jersey on 25 September, she captured the Elizabeth, an American sloop that had been taken by the British several weeks earlier. And in short succession thereafter from 8 to 11 October, Young and his crew captured five more vessels: two ships, two brigs, and a sloop, along with their cargoes of rum, sugar, coffee, corn, and spars.
It was at this time, with the capture of the ship Charming Molly, that Joshua Barney and the Saratoga parted company. The Molly had been damaged during capture and was minimally seaworthy, with her pumps in constant operation to keep her afloat. With Barney in charge of the prize crew of eight, the Charming Molly limped to port, only to be recaptured by the British on 11 October. Barney was once again a prisoner of war.
After refitting in Philadelphia, on 15 December the Saratoga and her crew headed south for Hispaniola to escort a convoy of French supplies. En route to Cap-Français (present-day Cape Haitian, Haiti), she captured another ship, the Tonyn, on 9 January 1781, and a brig, the Douglass, a week later. Young sent the brig and her cargo of wine to Philadelphia, while retaining the ship. At Hispaniola, a brief foray with three Continental ships and one French vessel resulted in the capture on 15 February of the slaver Diamond.
On the Ides of March, the convoy was finally assembled and departed Cap-Français for the Continent. On the 18th, the Saratoga sped off in pursuit of two sails in the west. At mid-afternoon, in a windy and choppy sea, she caught up with one of the fleeing ships, which surrendered without a fight. Midshipman Nathaniel Penfield and a prize crew were put over in a long boat and told by Young to “make sail and follow us.”
In the worsening weather, at around 1600, Penfield had just stepped aboard the snow when he glimpsed the Saratoga as she continued the chase. Penfield immediately sent his crew aloft to make sail when the “wind leaped suddenly to almost hurricane velocity.” The snow heeled and barely righted herself as the crew fought to reef what sail they could. Once all was secure, they looked to observe the chase. They saw the quarry, but not the pursuer. The Saratoga, Young, and his crew were nowhere to be seen.
The Saratoga is the first ship listed by the U.S. Navy among its ships missing and presumed lost at sea (see “‘Missing and Presumed Lost,’” p. 56).
Continental sloop-of-war Saratoga
Displacement: 150 tons
Length (keel): 68 feet
Beam: 25 feet, 4 inches
Depth (hold): 12 feet
Armament: 16 9-pounders; 2 4-pounders
Complement: 86 officers and enlisted men