The Jamestown was one of the typically handsome U.S. sloops-of-war of the antebellum Navy. There was nothing remarkable about her form, construction, or armament to set her apart from the other six 20-gun sloops laid down from 1841 to 1843. But she was the longest of the seven—which were not deemed a class—by 15 feet. This may have contributed to her reputation as a speedy but difficult to trim warship. The Boston Post noted, “She is sharper forward than any sailing ship in the country and fuller aft in proportion to her size than any ship of the line.”
The sloop was laid down in 1843 at the Gosport Ship Yard at Portsmouth, Virginia, and commissioned there on 12 December 1844. The following June she entered active service off the west coast of Africa to suppress the slave trade. Over her 70 years of service, she had three slave-trade cruises and cruises with the Mediterranean, Brazil, Pacific, North Pacific, and Home squadrons. The vessel also served as a warship, flagship, transport, and store, apprentice-training, and hospital ship.
The Jamestown acquitted herself quite handily in the early days of the Civil War as part of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron. From 5 August 1861 to 1 May 1862, she captured or destroyed a bark, three schooners, and a brig. That October the sloop sailed for the Pacific, where she served through the end of the war protecting U.S. interests from Confederate privateers. Later, while serving as a guard and store ship at Sitka, Alaska, she was present at the hoisting of the U.S. flag on 18 October 1867 after the United States’ purchase of Alaska from Russia. On 3 January 1913, the Jamestown was destroyed by fire at the Norfolk Navy Yard.
With one exception, her service had been fairly routine. The sloop’s high-water mark came on her second cruise, when she participated in a significant—if not the earliest—manifestation of the U.S. Navy’s projection of “soft power.” A contemporary Boston Post article noted, “This vessel is associated with one of the noblest charities on record.”
While the Jamestown was moored at the Boston Navy Yard for refitting after her first voyage, news arrived that for the second consecutive year, blight had decimated the Irish potato crop. On 22 February 1847, Boston merchants forwarded a petition asking Congress to lend a ship of war for Irish relief.
On the last day of the session legislators voted to loan the sloop-of-war Jamestown from Boston and frigate Macedonian from New York to the relief effort and authorized civilian command of the ships to Robert B. Forbes and George C. DeKay, respectively. They would be the first civilians to captain U.S. Navy warships. A joint resolution of Congress, the President, and Secretary of the Navy soon followed authorizing the ships to be sent at the expense of the United States.
The Jamestown was placed in the custody of the Boston Committee for Irish Relief. By the time of loading on 17 March, the group, along with other towns, individuals, and societies, had amassed 800 tons of foodstuffs and clothing.
The sloop was stripped of her armament save for two guns, and on St. Patrick’s Day, the Laborers Aid Society of Boston, in the words of Captain Forbes, “composed principally, if not entirely, of poor Irishmen, put their hands and minds to the holy work, and in the course of that day, one-seventh part of the cargo was stowed away.” Ten days later, the weight of cannon had been replaced by the bulk of 8,000 barrels of wheat, rice, oats, rye, corn, flour, meal, beans, peas, potatoes, ham, pork, fish, bread, and dried apples.
The “sloop-of-mercy” set sail on 28 March, and Forbes noted, “After a succession of rainy, dirty, weather, and variable winds, we cast anchor in Cork, outer harbor, on the 12th April, [author’s emphasis] exactly 15 days and 3 hours from the Navy Yard, Charlestown, without having lost a rope yarn.” This was an unheard of time, so much so that many years later the captain published the Log of the Jamestown, Out and Home 1847, detailing the round-trip voyage.
After docking at Cork on 12 April, the ship and her crew were greeted with great celebration by local citizens. For ten days, the crew remained in Cork and were treated as honored guests. After unloading her life-saving cargo, the sloop returned to Boston on 17 May.
In a letter to Forbes, the Reverend R. C. Waterston wrote that he “consider[s] the mission of the Jamestown as one of the grandest events in the history of our country. A ship of war changed into an angel of mercy, departing on no errand of death, but with the bread of life to an unfortunate and perishing people. She carried with her the best wishes of millions, and it seemed as if Heaven particularly smiled upon you in your speedy passage out and your safe return.”
USS Jamestown Sloop-of-War
Displacement: 1,168 tons
Length: 163 feet, 6 inches
Beam: 32 feet, 2 inches
Depth: 17 feet, 3 inches
Armament: 18 32-pounders