Thirty-six colorful streamers honoring the heroic sacrifices of U.S. sailors since the Revolutionary War are affixed to the official U.S. Navy flag. The streamers, some of which are adorned with embroidered bronze and/or silver stars, commemorate campaigns, wars, or theaters of operations. The bronze stars denote special recognition for individual battles or operations, while the silver ones represent five such actions. The streamer for the brief 1798–1800 Quasi-War with France bears three bronze stars: one for anti-privateering operations and two for combat—all involving the USS Constellation.
The 36-gun ship was one of the first six frigates of the new U.S. Navy, which was created in 1797. President George Washington selected the names of five of the vessels. Four represented principles of the U.S. Constitution—the Constitution, United States, President, and Congress—while the source for the fifth was the 14 June 1777 Flag Resolution of the Second Continental Congress that in part stated “that the Union be 13 stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.” The sixth frigate remained nameless until 1799, when Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert named her for the Chesapeake Bay.
Construction of the Constellation, whose design is generally credited to Joshua Humphreys, began at the Baltimore, Maryland, shipyard of David Stodder in 1796. Navy Captain Thomas Truxtun supervised the work. Truxtun was pivotal not only to the new ship, which he would command, but also to the nascent Navy. He had already published a book on navigation and naval lore, which included a piece on the general duties of officers. His second book focused on organization and training. He wrote that naval officers are generally “uninformed men, who mostly have an aversion to reading and studious application.” He urged them to study their profession. Truxtun also recognized a lack of such substantive material to assist them and suggested the founding of a national marine academy and the study and advancement of naval architecture.
The frigate was launched on 7 September 1797 “without the least appearance of the smallest accident happening.” This was a backhanded comment by Stodder aimed at the Philadelphians who had launched the first frigate, the United States, and incurred damage to her hull. By late June 1798, the ship was manned, fitted out, and provisioned to go to sea. Her captain, upset with Congress for its recalcitrance in declaring war against France, turned against his own nature. During the Revolutionary War, Truxtun had been a privateer, and he remained so at heart. However, when he accepted Washington’s commission, he “put aside for all time what he called ‘the Privateering Principle.’” His concern now was for “national honor,” and his actions turned to “the Good of the Service.”
After a two-month shakedown cruise and convoy duty to and from the Caribbean, Truxtun had spent all but three days of six months on board the Constellation working the crew to be the equal of any in the service. In January 1799, he set sail once again for the West Indies to patrol the Leeward Islands for French ships. He reported that on 9 February off Nevis “At Noon saw a Sail standing to the Westward, gave Chase. I take her for a Ship of War.”
As the chase progressed, a squall blew up, which cost the prey her main topmast. After three hours, the Constellation fired her first broadside, which began an hour and a quarter of close action. By 1630, the French captain had struck his frigate’s colors, and the 40-gun L’Insurgente was captive, with 70 of her crew dead or wounded. Despite the closeness of the action, the Constellation’s only casualties were three men in the ship’s fighting tops, one of whom died the next day. However, there was another death on her gun deck during the battle. Seaman Neal Harvey, a gunner’s mate, had run from his station, and his gun captain, Lieutenant Andrew Sterett, ran him through with his sword “and so put an end to a coward.” Truxtun later praised Sterett, while Harvey was simply recorded as killed in action.
L’Insurgente was claimed to be the fastest in the French fleet and just a year earlier had been commanded by American Joshua Barney, who had taken a French commission. (In a bit of irony, after the Constellation’s later encounter with La Vengeance, the French dubbed the U.S. frigate “The Yankee Racehorse” because of her speed and power.) L’Insurgente’s captain was mystified that his ship had been attacked. The United States and France were not at war. Truxtun wrote to the Secretary of the Navy: “The french Captain tells me, I have caused a War with France, if so I am glad of it, for I detest Things being done by Halves.”
It took until the end of April for repairs to be completed to both ships for their trip north; they arrived in Hampton Roads on 20 May. The French frigate was condemned by an admiralty court in Norfolk, and the officers and crew of the victor divided up $84,500 for their efforts.
Truxtun then sailed the Constellation to New York for refitting and rearming. Because the battle had proved that her heavy battery of long 24-pounders made her “tender,” he replaced those guns with lighter 18-pounders. The long 12s on the quarterdeck were supplanted by 32-pounder carronades on sliding carriages. In effect, this lowered the ship’s center of gravity without affecting the weight of her broadside.
Then, on 1 August, Truxtun delivered his own broadside by resigning from the Navy in a dispute over rank. In a complex tango that involved former President Washington, the temporary halt on construction of three of the six frigates, the prospective captains of those ships, President John Adams, and Navy Secretary Stoddert, Truxtun felt he had been demoted. Only after a stay at Mount Vernon did Truxtun feel the desire for “another touch at these Frenchmen.” Face was saved; he became commodore of the squadron at Guadeloupe station with the whole of the Windward Islands to patrol. He returned to the Constellation and set sail for his new command on Christmas Eve 1799.
Arriving at St. Kitts, he found at anchor three frigates and two brigs of the eight ships assigned to his command. Upset with their crews’ apparent laissez-faire attitude toward their mission, the next day he began dispatching the vessels along with the Constellation to begin independent cruises searching for French prey. Early on the morning of 1 February 1800, off Guadeloupe, Constellation lookouts spotted the sail of a ship that responded to an inquiry by putting up every bit of canvas she could to increase her distance. A pursuit began that lasted late into the evening, with the U.S. frigate’s crew at quarters for more than 12 hours. At 2000, the Constellation had closed near enough to hail the large French frigate, later identified as La Vengeance. The call was answered by a shot from a long 18-pounder.
Truxtun’s change of weaponry proved providential; his ship was able to retain the weather gage. General firing began at 300 yards with the American captain’s orders to not waste powder or shot, “take good aim and fire directly into the Hull of the enemy.” The gun crews were instructed to load their weapons with two round shot and “now & then” a round shot with a stand of grape. They were to “load and fire as fast as possible, when it could be done with certain effect.” This they did. Balls smashed through the French ship “between wind and water” with great ferocity.
For nearly four hours the battle raged, with the ships almost, but never quite, side-by-side. By the fifth hour, the French had had enough, firing ceased, and their colors were struck at least twice. The enemy wore away to gain some relief, while Truxtun, unaware of the surrender, struggled with the impending loss of his mainmast, which eventually fell, taking all but one of the topmen with it. By 0200, the wreckage had been cleared and focus returned to the enemy, which was nowhere to be seen. Assuming the French ship had sunk, Truxtun pointed his now virtually dismasted but still seaworthy ship toward Jamaica. On 4 February, he encountered the recently commissioned USS Insurgente, his prize from the year before, and ordered her to accompany him to a safe haven.
At Port Royal, Jamaica, he jury-rigged yards and rigging to get his ship back to Hampton Roads, where he anchored nearly two months after the action. It was only then that he learned the name and fate of his opponent. She was the 54-gun La Vengeance and had made port at Curaçao. Her ultimate survival depended on 36 American prisoners of war on board who refused to fight against their colors but once the shooting stopped willingly manned the pumps to keep the frigate afloat.
Truxtun went on to command the President and retired after the Quasi-War. The Constellation, however, sailed on and fought battles off Tripoli in the Mediterranean in 1802. During the War of 1812, after two years of repairs, she was effectively blockaded at Hampton Roads by the British. She saw her last combat in 1815 during the Second Barbary War, when she helped capture the Algerian 46-gun frigate Mashouda and 22-gun brig Esledio.
The Constellation later served in the South Atlantic, Pacific, West Indies, Mediterranean, Gulf of Mexico, and Far East, as well as participating in the 1835–38 Seminole War. She was laid up from 1845 to 1853 and finally broken up in 1854 at Norfolk. That same year, a new Constellation was launched there, a sloop-off-war, which is now a museum ship in Baltimore Harbor.