USS Essex (1799)

For other ships with the same name, see USS Essex and HMS Essex.
United States
Name: USS Essex
Namesake: Essex County, Massachusetts
Builder: Enos Briggs, Salem, Massachusetts[1]
Cost: $139,362
Laid down: 1798
Launched: 30 September 1799
Commissioned: 17 December 1799
Captured: 28 March 1814
United Kingdom
Name: HMS Essex
Acquired: 28 March 1814
Fate: Sold at Public Auction, 6 June 1837
General characteristics [1]
Type: Fifth-rate Frigate
Displacement: 850 long tons (864 t)
Tons burthen: 897 2294(bm)
  • 138 ft 7 in (42.2 m) (overall)
  • 117 ft 2 78 in (35.7 m)
Beam: 37 ft 3 12 in (11.4 m) (keel)
Draft: 12 ft 3 in (3.7 m)
Depth of hold: 11 ft 9 in (3.6 m)
Propulsion: Sail
Sail plan: Full-rigged ship
Speed: 11.4 knots (21.1 km/h; 13.1 mph)
General characteristics American service
  • 40 × 32-pounder carronades
  • 6 × 12-pounder guns
General characteristics British service
Complement: 315 officers and enlisted
  • Upper deck: 26 × 18-pounder guns
  • QD: 12 × 32-pounder carronades
  • Fc:
  • 2 × 9-pounder guns
  • 2 × 32-pounder carronades
Service record
USS Essex with her prizes[2]

The first USS Essex of the United States Navy was a 36-gun [3] or 32-gun[4] sailing frigate that participated in the Quasi-War with France, the First Barbary War, and in the War of 1812. The British captured her in 1814 and she then served as HMS Essex until sold at public auction on 6 June 1837.

Service history

The frigate was built by Enos Briggs, Salem, Massachusetts, at a cost of $139,362 subscribed by the people of Salem and Essex County, to a design by William Hackett. Essex was armed with mostly short range carronades that could not hope to match the range of 18 and 24 pounder naval guns. She was launched on 30 September 1799. On 17 December 1799 she was presented to the United States Navy and accepted by Captain Edward Preble.

With the United States involved in naval action against France on 6 January 1800, Essex, under the command of Captain Preble, departed Newport, Rhode Island, in company with Congress to rendezvous with a convoy of merchant ships returning from Batavia, Dutch East Indies. Shortly after commencement of her journey, Essex became the first US Naval Ship to cross the Equator. Congress was dismasted only a few days out, and Essex was obliged to continue her voyage alone, making her mark as the first US man-of-war to double the Cape of Good Hope, both in March and in August 1800 prior to successfully completing her convoy mission in November.

First Barbary War

Captain William Bainbridge commanded Essex on her second cruise, whereon she sailed to the Mediterranean with the squadron of Commodore Richard Dale. Dispatched to protect American trade and seamen against depredations by the Barbary pirates, the squadron arrived at Gibraltar on 1 July 1801 and spent the ensuing year convoying American merchantmen and blockading Tripolitan ships in their ports. Following repairs at the Washington Navy Yard in 1802, Essex resumed her duties in the Mediterranean under Captain James Barron in August 1804. She participated in the Battle of Derne on 27 April 1805, and remained in those waters until the conclusion of peace terms in 1806.

Returning to the Washington Navy Yard in July, she was placed in ordinary until February 1809 when she was recommissioned for sporadic use in patrolling American waters and a single cruise to Europe.

War of 1812

When war was declared against Britain on 18 June 1812, Essex, commanded by Captain David Porter, made a successful cruise to the southward. On 11 July near Bermuda she fell in with seven British (the Silverside being one) transports and by moonlight engaged and took one of them as a prize. On 13 August she encountered and captured the sloop HMS Alert after an engagement. By September, when she returned to New York, Essex had taken ten prizes. The youngest member of the Essex crew was 10-year-old midshipman David Glasgow Farragut, who would become the first admiral of the US Navy. Farragut, who was Captain Porter's foster son, remained with the ship for the next two years.

Essex capturing Alert.

Essex sailed in South Atlantic waters and along the coast of Brazil until January 1813, decimating the British whaling fleet in the Pacific. Although her crew suffered greatly from a shortage of provisions and heavy gales while rounding Cape Horn, she anchored safely at Valparaíso, Chile, on 14 March, having seized whaling schooners Elizabeth and Nereyda along the way. In the next five months, Essex captured thirteen British whalers, including Essex Junior, (ex-Atlantic) which cruised in company with her captor to the Island of Nuku Hiva for repairs. Porter put his executive officer John Downes in command of that ship.

In January 1814, Essex sailed into neutral waters at Valparaíso, only to be trapped there for six weeks by the British frigate, HMS Phoebe (36 guns), under Captain James Hillyar, and the sloop-of-war HMS Cherub (18 guns). On 28 March 1814, Porter determined to gain the open sea, fearing the arrival of British reinforcements. Upon rounding the point, Essex lost her main top-mast to foul weather and was brought to action just north of Valparaíso.[5][6]

Engraving by Abel Bowen
Main article: Battle of Valparaiso

For 2 12 hours, Essex, armed almost entirely with powerful, but short range carronades, which Porter had complained to the Navy about on several occasions, resisted the superior British fighting power and longer gun range. Fires twice erupted aboard Essex, at which point about fifty men abandoned the ship and swam for shore, only half of them landing; the British saved sixteen.[7] Eventually, the hopeless situation forced Porter to surrender. Essex had suffered 58 dead and 31 missing of her crew of 154.[5] The British lost four men dead and seven wounded on Phoebe, and one dead and three wounded on Cherub.[7][Note 1]

British service and fate

Because Essex was stored and provisioned for six months, and capable of sailing to Europe without "the slightest cause for alarm",[7] Captain Hillyar placed Lieutenant C. Pearson in command of her for the voyage to England, supported by acting lieutenant Allen Francis Gardiner. The Essex arrived in England in November.[11] There, the Admiralty had her repaired and taken into the Royal Navy as HMS Essex.

The Royal Navy never fitted her for sea, but re-classed her as a 42-gun ship. She served as a troopship on 7 July 1819. She was hulked at Cork to serve as a prison ship in Ireland in October 1823,[1] and between 1824 and 1834 served in this capacity at Kingstown.[11] On 6 June 1837 she was sold at public auction for £1,230.[1]

During early 21st century resurfacing work on the east pier of Dún Laoghaire harbour, Essex's permanent mooring anchor was discovered embedded in the pier.[12]

Herman Melville wrote about Essex in "Sketch Fifth" in The Encantadas, focusing on an incident off the Galápagos Islands with an elusive British ship. The story was first published in 1854 in Putnam's Magazine.

Patrick O'Brian adapted the story of Essex's attack on British whalers for his novel The Far Side of the World.

The 1950 American film Tripoli is a fictionalized account of the Battle of Derne and USS Essex is shown in it.

See also


  1. A first-class share of a portion of the prize money for Essex was worth £619 17s; a sixth-class share, that of an ordinary seaman, was worth £7 13s 6d.[8] The second distribution occurred on 24 October 1815 for which the value of a first-class share was worth £299 2s 9d; a sixth-class share was worth £3 2s.[9] A first-class share of the final distribution was worth £153 6s 6d; a sixth-class share was worth £3 2s.[10]


  1. 1 2 3 4 Winfield (2008), pp.188-189.
  2. Lossing, Benson (1868). The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812. Harper & Brothers, Publishers. p. 729.
  3. "Historic Sites and Museums: National Museum of the United States Navy". The Official War of 1812 Website. Retrieved 2013-06-12.
  4. Robotti, Francis Diane; Vescovi, James (1999). "Essex and the Young American Navy". The USS Essex And the Birth of the American Navy. Books. The New York Times. Avon, MA: Adams Media. ISBN 978-1593371920. line feed character in |title= at position 14 (help)
  5. 1 2 "Title unknown" (msdoc).
  6. "Diagram of Commodore David Porter's Exploits Against British in 1812–1814". The Vidette-Messenger. 10. Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana. 18 August 1936. p. 4.
  7. 1 2 3 The London Gazette: no. 16919. pp. 1485–1846. 23 July 1814.
  8. The London Gazette: no. 16977. p. 110. 21 January 1815.
  9. The London Gazette: no. 17072. p. 2130. 21 October 1815.
  10. The London Gazette: no. 17059. p. 1840. 6 September 1815.
  11. 1 2 "NMM, vessel ID 366410" (pdf). Warship Histories, vol i. National Maritime Museum. Retrieved 30 July 2011.
  12. "The Essex 1824 – 1837". Dún Laoghaire. Retrieved 2013-06-12.


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