USS United States and the Capture of HMS Macedonian

United States #791 (1937)

United States #791 (1937)

On October 25, 1812, the frigate USS United States captured HMS Macedonian of the Royal Navy in a naval action fought near Madeira, an island in the north Atlantic, southwest of Portugal. The United States was commanded by Stephen Decatur, and HMS Macedonian was under the command of John Surman Carden. The American vessel won the long bloody battle, capturing and bringing Macedonian back to the United States. It was the first British warship to ever be brought into an American harbor.

The United States had declared war on the United Kingdom on June 18, 1812, for several reasons, including trade restrictions brought about by the British war with France, the impressment of as many as 10,000 American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy, British support for Native American tribes fighting European American settlers on the frontier, outrage over insults to national honor during the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair, and interest in the United States in expanding its borders west. The primary British war goal was to defend their North American colonies; they also hoped to set up a neutral Native American buffer state in the American Midwest that would impede U.S. expansion in the Old Northwest and to minimize American trade with Napoleonic France, which Britain was blockading. While historians in the United States and Canada see it as a war in its own right, the British often see the War of 1812 as a minor theatre of the Napoleonic Wars. By the war’s end in early 1815 the key issues had been resolved and peace returned with no boundary changes.

USS United States was a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy and the first of the six original frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Act of 1794. The Act provided funds for the construction of six frigates. It included a clause stating that construction of the ships would cease if the United States agreed to peace terms with Algiers concerning attacks on American merchant vessels by Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean.

Joshua Humphreys designed the frigates to be the young Navy’s capital ships, and so United States and her sisters were larger and more heavily armed and built than standard frigates of the period. Originally designated as “Frigate A” and subsequently named United States by President George Washington, her keel was laid down in 1795 at Humphreys’ shipyard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Construction slowly continued until a peace treaty was announced between the United States and Algiers in March 1796. In accordance with the clause in the Naval Act, construction of United States was discontinued. President Washington requested instructions from Congress on how to proceed. Several proposals circulated before a final decision was reached allowing Washington to complete the three frigates nearest to completion; United States, Constellation and Constitution were chosen.

On May 10, 1797, USS United States was the first American warship to be launched under the Naval Act of 1794, and the first ship of the United States Navy. She was fitted out at Philadelphia during the spring of 1798 and, on July 3 ordered to proceed to sea. Relations with the French government had deteriorated, starting the Quasi-War which was an undeclared war fought almost entirely at sea between the United States and the French Republic from 1798 to 1800. After the toppling of the French crown during the French Revolutionary Wars, the United States had refused to continue repaying its debt to France on the grounds that it had been owed to a previous regime. French outrage led to a series of attacks on American shipping, ultimately leading to retaliation from the Americans and the end of hostilities with the signing of the Convention of 1800 shortly thereafter.

USS United States spent much of the Quasi-War in the West Indies where she captured several French ships. In October 1799, she delivered Oliver Ellsworth and William Davie as envoys to France to negotiate a settlement. The treaty of peace with France was ratified on February 3, 1801. An act of Congress passed on March 3, 1801, and signed by President John Adams, retained thirteen frigates. Seven of those frigates, including United States, were to be placed in a reserve fleet. Ordered to the Washington Navy Yard, United States was decommissioned there along with Congress and New York. She remained in the Washington Navy Yard throughout the First Barbary War of 1801–1805 and up until 1809 when orders were given to ready her for active service. On June 10, 1810, now under the command of Stephen Decatur, she sailed to Norfolk, Virginia for refitting.

While she was at Norfolk, Captain John S. Carden of the Royal Navy, commander of the new British frigate HMS Macedonian, wagered Captain Decatur a beaver hat that his vessel would take United States if the two should ever meet in battle. Ichabod B. Crane, whose name was appropriated for the main character in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, served under Decatur as a lieutenant in the marine detachment aboard ship.

The United States declared war against Britain on June 18, 1812. Three days later Decatur and United States sailed from New York City within a squadron under the command of Commodore John Rodgers in USS President on a seventy-day North Atlantic cruise. Other ships of the squadron were Congress, Hornet, and Argus. A passing American merchant ship informed Rodgers about a fleet of British merchantmen en route to Britain from Jamaica. Rodgers and his squadron sailed in pursuit, and on  June 23 encountered what was later learned to be HMS Belvidera.

USS United States and the squadron returned to pursuing the Jamaican fleet and on July 1 began to follow the trail of coconut shells and orange peels the Jamaicans had left behind them. United States sailed to within one day’s journey of the English Channel but never sighted the convoy. Rodgers called off the pursuit on July 13. During their return trip to Boston, the squadron captured seven merchant ships and recaptured one American vessel. After some refitting, United States, still under Decatur’s command, sailed again on October 8 with Rodgers but on the 12th parted from the squadron for her own patrol.

Three days later, after capturing Mandarin, the United States parted company and continued to cruise eastward. At dawn on October 25, five hundred miles south of the Azores, lookouts on board United States reported seeing a sail twelve miles (nineteen kilometers) to windward. As the ship rose over the horizon, Captain Decatur made out the familiar lines of HMS Macedonian, which was on its way to its station in the West Indies.

Both ships were immediately cleared for action and commenced maneuvers at 0900. Captain Carden elected not to risk crossing the bows of United States to rake her, but chose instead to haul closer to the wind on a parallel course with the American vessel. For his part, Decatur intended to engage Macedonian from fairly long range, where his 24 pounders would have the advantage over the British 18 pounders, and then move in for the kill.

The actual battle developed according to Decatur’s plan. USS United States began the action at 0920 by firing an inaccurate broadside. This was answered immediately by the British vessel, bringing down a small spar of the United States. Decatur’s next broadside had better luck, as it destroyed HMS Macedonian‘s mizzen top mast, letting her driver gaff fall and so giving the maneuvering advantage to the American frigate. United States next took up position off Macedonian‘s quarter and proceeded to riddle the hapless frigate methodically with shot. She hailed Macedonian demanding the name of her antagonist and whether or not she surrendered.

By noon, HMS Macedonian was a dismasted hulk. When USS United States closed for another broadside, Carden was forced to strike her colors and surrender. She had had over 100 round shot lodged in her hull and suffered over one hundred casualties, one third of her crew, while United States only suffered twelve casualties. Because of the greater range of the guns aboard the American frigate, she got off seventy broadsides to Macedonian‘s thirty, and emerged from the battle relatively unscathed.

The two ships lay alongside each other for over two weeks while Macedonian was repaired sufficiently to sail. United States and her prize arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, on December 4, amid tumultuous national jubilation over the spectacular victory. Wherever they went, Captain Decatur and his crew were lionized and received special praise from both Congress and President James Madison. HMS Macedonian was subsequently purchased by the United States Navy, and was renamed USS Macedonian. It had a long and honorable career under the American flag.

After repairs, United States sailed from New York on May 24, 1813, accompanied by USS Macedonian and the sloop Hornet.  A noteworthy event of this mission is documentation of two women among the crew of the United States. Seaman Marshall and veteran British seaman William Goodman (enlisting as John Allen to protect himself from British retaliation) were encouraged by Commodore Decatur to bring their wives, Mary Marshall and Mary (Humphries) Allen, on the voyage as nurses to care for the wounded if the ship engaged the enemy. They are believed to be the first women to serve aboard a United States warship.

On June 1, 1813, the three vessels were driven into New London, Connecticut, by a powerful British squadron. United States and Macedonian were kept blockaded there until the end of the war. However, Decatur was transferred to the frigate President in the spring of 1814, and he took the officers and crew of United States with him to his new command. Hornet managed to slip through the blockade on November 14, 1814, and escaped to sea.

Soon after the United States declared war against Britain in 1812, Algiers took advantage of the nation’s preoccupation with Britain and began intercepting American merchant ships in the Mediterranean. On March 2, 1815, at the request of President James Madison, Congress declared war on Algiers. Work preparing two American squadrons promptly began — one at Boston under Commodore William Bainbridge, and one at New York under Commodore Steven Decatur. USS United States was assigned under Bainbridge but required repairs and refitting from her period in port for the latter part of the War of 1812. She was not ready for sea when Bainbridge departed Boston on  July 3.

USS United States finally departed for the Mediterranean two months later under the command of Captain John Shaw; arriving at Gibraltar on September 25. Soon after, Shaw learned that Commodore Decatur had already secured a peace treaty with Algiers. Now part of a large gathering of U.S. Navy ships, United States was chosen to remain behind with Constellation, Erie, and Ontario. They were later joined by John Adams, Alert and Hornet. The senior American naval officer in the region, Captain Shaw became commodore and commanded the squadron consisting of Constellation, Java, Erie and Ontario until Commodore Isaac Chauncey arrived on July 1, 1816, and took overall command. Nevertheless, United States, despite losing her position as flagship, continued to serve in the Mediterranean until she sailed for home in the spring of 1819 and reached Hampton Roads on May 18. The frigate was decommissioned on  June 9, 1819, and laid up at Norfolk.

United States returned to active duty in November 1823 under the command of Commodore Isaac Hull. After repairs and preparation she sailed on January 5, 1824, to relieve Commodore Charles Stewart in the Pacific. Accompanying Hull was his wife and sister-in-law Jeanette Hart. United States made a stop en route to the Pacific at Rio de Janeiro and reached Valparaiso, Chile by March 7. Commodore Hull found that Chile was now independent and had been acknowledged by Spain, though hostilities still continued with Peru; Callao was held by the Spaniards and blockaded by the Peruvian fleet. The United States’ position was one of strict neutrality in the war and Hull’s orders contained the main objective of overseeing and protecting American commerce. USS United States sailed for Callao, arriving on April 4. Commodore Stewart, in command of USS Franklin was relieved by Hull and sailed for home. Under Hull’s command, a squadron of U.S. Navy ships consisted of Vincennes, Peacock, and Dolphin.

United States remained in the vicinity of Peru and her duty there was mostly uneventful. In the autumn of 1825, Hull placed Lieutenant John Percival in command of USS Dolphin and tasked him with searching for mutineers from the American whaling ship Globe. Percival found only two of the mutineers but discovered an uncharted island that he named “Hull’s Island”; now known as Îles Maria. Percival continued on to Hawaii and reportedly caused discontent with the tribal chiefs and missionaries. Hull placed Thomas ap Catesby Jones in command of Peacock and dispatched him to Hawaii to ascertain the behavior of Percival. However, upon Jones’ arrival, Percival had already departed. With Hull’s tour of duty now expired, United States departed from Callao on December 16, 1826, and arrived at the New York Navy Yard on April 24, 1827.

She put into the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1828 for extensive repairs and remained there until 1830 when she was placed in reserve at the New York Navy Yard. The frigate remained at New York through 1832 and was thoroughly modernized. On July 3, 1832, USS United States sailed under Captain J. B. Nicholson to join Commodore Patterson’s squadron in the Mediterranean, returning to New York on December 11, 1834. From 1836 to 1838, under Captain J. Wilkinson, the United States was again in the Mediterranean, and from 1839 to 1840 she was in the Home Squadron under Captain Lawrence Kearney.

United States was repaired at Norfolk in 1841 and was designated the new flagship of the Pacific Squadron of Thomas ap Catesby Jones, now a Commodore. On January 9, 1842, she sailed from Norfolk via Cape Horn under Captain James Armstrong. On the night of September 6, 1842, while lying in Callao, the British frigate HMS Dublin, flagship of Rear Admiral Richard Darton Thomas, appeared off the port, and, seeing the American fleet, at once put to sea. The suspicions of Commodore Jones were immediately aroused, and, having heard that war was about to be declared between the United States and Mexico, the Commodore suspected Dublin intended to run up the coast and take possession of California, a country that England had long had her eye upon. United States got under way, and in company with Cyane Jones hastened north. They captured Monterey on October 16, 1842, when Jones demanded a surrender. The next day he realized that the United States and Mexico were still at peace, so tried to make amends for his action.

While waiting for further orders, Jones heard British Captain Lord George Paulet had claimed the Hawaiian Islands. He sailed there, arriving on July 22, 1843. Admiral Thomas arrived a few days later, and restored the government of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Herman Melville, the future author of Moby Dick, enlisted as an ordinary seaman on board USS United States at Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 17, 1843. His novel White Jacket, published in 1850, is a fictionalized account of his experiences on board and is highly critical of the captain of the United States and of naval customs in general. Melville observed that Armstrong often appeared on deck intoxicated. From Hawaii, United States (which Melville refers to as the USS Neversink) proceeded to the Marquesas Islands and lost a man overboard en route. From the Marquesas she visited Valparaiso, Chile; Lima and Callao, Peru.

United States remained at Callao for ten weeks and the crew was denied shore leave while Commodore Jones was in port with his flagship Constellation. Jones inspected every ship under his command during the ten weeks expecting formal ceremonies at each inspection. The only break in the crew’s boredom came when United States challenged Constellation and the British ship HMS Vindictive to a race out of the harbor. United States handily defeated both of them.

Setting a course back home in mid-1844, United States arrived at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for resupply. Departing on August 24 for Boston she challenged and won a race with the French sloop Coquette. United States arrived in Boston on October 2 and was decommissioned there on the 14th. On May 18, 1846, United States was recommissioned in Boston and detailed to the African Squadron to suppress the illicit slave trade under command of Captain J. Smoot as the flagship of Commodore George C. Read. United States joined the Mediterranean Squadron in 1847 and served in European waters until ordered home late in 1848. She returned to Norfolk on February 17, 1849, was decommissioned on February 24 and placed again in reserve.

The frigate rotted away at Norfolk until April 20, 1861, when the navy yard was captured by Confederate troops. Before leaving the yard, Union fire crews failed to burn the vessel along with other abandoned ships, thinking it unnecessary to destroy the decayed relic. The Confederates, pressed for vessels in any condition, thought otherwise. They pumped her out and commissioned the frigate CSS United States (though they often called her Confederate States) on April 29.

On June 15, 1861, United States was fitted out as a receiving ship with a deck battery of 19 guns for harbor defense. In this role, she served her new owners well but was ordered sunk in the Elizabeth River, Virginia, to form an obstruction to Union vessels when the Confederates abandoned the navy yard in May 1862. The old timbers of the frigate were so strong and well-preserved they ruined one whole box of axes when attempts were made to scuttle her, and it was necessary to bore through the hull from inside before she was sunk.

Shortly after the destruction of ironclad ram Virginia on May 11, 1862, and the surrender of the Norfolk Navy Yard to Union troops, United States was raised and towed to the yard by federal authorities. She remained there until March 1864, when the Bureau of Construction and Repair decided to break her up and sell the wood. This was delayed until the Bureau ordered on December 18 that the frigate be docked at Norfolk and finally broken up.

On March 6, 1936, an article in the Washington Evening Star reported on a series of planned stamps to pay “homage to the memory of famous soldiers and sailors” which would be released that summer, following on the success of the National Parks series. An open letter to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared the same day in STAMPS offering suggestions for a set to “fill up the gaps in the long sequence of events and personalities beginning with the earliest Viking discovery of the New World and coming forward to so recent a date as that of the Armistice of November 11, 1918.” Among the suggestions was “10c — The United States captures the Macedonian, from painting by Thomas Birch, with medallion of Capt. Stephen Decatur and inscription: ‘My country, right or wrong!'”

The Information Service of the United States Post Office Department issued a news release on May 5, 1936, announcing the approval of designs for a total of ten stamps — five for the Army and five for the Navy. The two-cent Navy stamp was announced as including portraits of Thomas MacDonough and Stephen Decatur. Detailed information was provided in a press release issued on December 14, 1936, stating they would be placed on sale at the Washington, D.C., post office on January 15, 1937, and would be distributed to other post offices as soon as stocks could be printed. Dimensions were given as 0.84 x 1.44 inches, enclosed in double-line borders printed in red ink.

The 2-cent stamp of the Navy series has for the central subject portraits in large oval frames that touch the top and sides of the stamp of Stephen Decatur at the left, and Thomas MacDonough at the right. On curved panels with white ground at the base of the portraits are the names ‘Decatur’ and ‘MacDonough’ in dark gothic. Below the ovals, in dark gothic lettering, are the names of the historic war vessels, ‘United States’ at the left, and ‘Saratoga’ at the right, representing famous commands of these naval heroes. In the space between the portrait ovals is depicted a warship of that period under full sail. At the center, near the upper edge of the stamp, is the inscription ‘United States Postage’ in dark gothic. In each lower corner within square panels with white edges and dark ground is the numeral ‘2’ in white. At the center of a narrow panel with dark ground at the base of the stamp are the words ‘Two Cents’ in white roman. On either side of this inscription is a small white five-pointed star.”

On December 2, 1936, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had submitted a design for the two-cent Navy stamp prepared by A. R. Meissner which was approved the following day by S. W. Purdum, Acting Postmaster General. In his design, Meissner used a photograph of Stephen Decatur from an engraving by G. R. Hall, now in the possession of the United States Department of the Navy. The portrait of Thomas MacDonough was from an engraving by J. B. Forest, from the original by J. W. Jarvis. John Eisler engraved the portraits on the master die with Carl T. Arlt engraving the vignette and border, and E. M. Weeks engraving the lettering.

On December 4, the BEP was instructed to print the 2 cent Navy stamps with an original order of 75,000,000. Four plates were made and all went to press — 21612, 21613, 21614, and 21615. Printing was started on January 4, 1937, and delivery was made to the Post Office Department on January 6. The interest in the new stamps was considerable and first day sales on January 15, 1937, amounted to 2,220,802 with 292,750 first day covers cancelled bearing the 2 cent Army and Navy stamps. No official figure is available as to how this quantity was divided into Army and Navy stamps.

Scott #791 is listed in the Scott catalogue with the color of carmine and is perforated 11×10½. Stephen Decatur, born on January 5, 1779, on the eastern shore of Maryland, in Worcester County, was the son of a U.S. naval officer who served during the American Revolution. He is the youngest man to reach the rank of captain in the history of the United States Navy, served under three presidents, and played a major role in the early development of the American navy. In almost every theater of operation, Decatur’s service was characterized with acts of heroism and exceptional performance. His service in the Navy took him through both Barbary Wars in North Africa, the Quasi-War with France, and the War of 1812 with Britain. He was renowned for his natural ability to lead and for his genuine concern for the seamen under his command. His numerous naval victories against Britain, France and the Barbary states established the United States as a rising power. Decatur’s distinguished career came to an early end when he lost his life in a duel with a rival officer. Decatur emerged as a national hero in his own lifetime, becoming the first post-Revolutionary War hero. His name and legacy, like that of John Paul Jones, became identified with the United States Navy.

Thomas Macdonough, Jr. was an early nineteenth-century American naval officer noted for his roles in the first Barbary War and the War of 1812. Born on December 21, 1783, he was the son of a Revolutionary War officer, Thomas Macdonough, Sr. who lived near Middletown, Delaware. He entered naval life at an early age, receiving a midshipman’s commission at the age of sixteen.Serving with Stephen Decatur at Tripoli, he was a member of “Preble’s Boys”, a select group of U.S. naval officers who served under the command of Commodore Preble during the First Barbary War. Macdonough achieved fame during the War of 1812, commanding the American naval forces that defeated the British Royal Navy at the Battle of Lake Champlain, part of the larger Battle of Plattsburgh, which helped lead to an end to that war.

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