The American Revolution created as many questions as it answered, perhaps more. The United States was now free from the rule of Great Britain. But what would it do with that freedom? How would it redefine
itself internally and as a sovereign entity on the international stage? Indeed, how would it now protect itself in a world of nations that fought
among themselves largely on the high seas?
An answer to the question lay in the determination by president George Washington and the Congress in 1794 to build six frigates that would defend American interests at sea, and ultimately form the foundation of the U.S. Navy. The Chesapeake was one of those six – along with Constellation, Constitution, Congress, President and United States – but some called her the runt of the litter, the odd duck, the unlucky ship. Her name was the only one of the six not associated with a symbol of the new American democracy. The two shipbuilders most responsible for her design and construction – Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox -
despised each other. She often found that building materials meant for her construction were given instead to the other frigates. And all of the bad attitude about her seemed to be confirmed when, in 1807, she was attacked by the British as they sought deserters. In perhaps a final insult, they refused to take her as a prize of battle.
Launched in 1799
The USS Chesapeake entered the Elizabeth River between Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia on December 1, 1799 and embarked on her first sailing as a fully fitted U.S. Navy frigate on May 22, 1800. “She fired a salute of 13 guns, which was handsomely returned by every vessel that mounted a gun . . . the wharves and houses next to the river were lined with people, who with three cheers welcomed her as she passed the town point.”
Like the other five of the Navy’s first “six frigates," she had been built in uncertain times. Alliances between the US, Great Britain and France following the American Revolution were shifting, and challenges to American shipping were constantly posed by the pirates of the Barbary States beyond the Straits of Gibraltar.
The Unlucky Ship
In the minds of many there was always the quality of an outsider to the Chesapeake. The names and adjectives assigned to her were “the odd duck,” “the unlucky ship,” “the accursed ship,” or the ship that sailed beneath a “malevolent star” in the words of the 20th century historian Edward Beach. Those attributes arose from the death in the Gosport Shipyard at Portsmouth that was alleged to have occurred at her launching in 1799. They continued with key events in the course of her history until she was taken as prize by the British in the War of 1812.
The Time Traveler
It turned out, in the fullness of history into the 21st century, that, whatever the nature of the star that hovered above the Chesapeake, she was also a time traveler, and a marker of the mileposts of the history of the three great nations of the Atlantic Community, the US, UK and Canada. Built of wood from coastal America she sailed in an arc from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia, England and the Mediterranean. In 1807 she was involved in a confrontation at sea that shocked the new American nation into a realization that it was now sovereign in the world and needed to be able to defend itself.
In 1813, the Chesapeake entered one of the most storied sea battles in naval history, gave birth to the enduring slogan “Don’t give up the ship!”, and was taken in defeat to Halifax where she seemed to disappear into history. Broken up in 1820, her timbers gave form and size to an English watermill that functioned for 160 years. At the end of the 20th century she seemed to unfurl her sails once again as historians, preservationists, government officials and plain citizens had to ask and answer these questions: What are these pieces of Chesapeake timbers and planks, actually? What is our responsibility to them? What do they mean to us, if anything?
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