What’s In A Name?

There are the names of certain American warships that even the minimally-versed will immediately recognize – Arizona, Maine, Intrepid, Missouri, Bonhomme Richard. And when you find a good name, you stick with it, right? A number of vessels have been christened with these monikers more than once since the U.S. Navy was founded in the late 18th century.

One source maintains that there are over 1400 ships’ names that our nation has used at least twice in the past two centuries; 470 used at least three times; 182 used at least four times; 83 used at least five times; and 30 used at least six times. The titles Enterprise, Hornet, Niagara, and Washington have each been used eight times. Wasp has been used nine times, and Ranger comes in at ten.

What about Chesapeake? It’s a rather all-American name. There’s a reason, though, that you won’t be seeing that nomenclature employed very often or anytime soon.

President Washington asked that the first six frigates of our embryonic navy be named patriotically but generically, in ways that wouldn’t inflame any regional rivalries. His directive resulted in USS Constitution, USS United States, USS President, USS Congress, and USS Constellation. Leave it to Sec’y of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert, though, to stir the bucket and name the sixth frigate, once Washington was out of office, USS Chesapeake (for my foreign readers, that is the name of this country’s largest estuary, located entirely within the boundaries of Virginia and Maryland, the latter being Stoddert’s home state).

Going against the wishes of the Father of the Country proved an inauspicious start; the ship was saddled with bad luck almost from its launch.

Chesapeake was a 40-gun heavy frigate. She was supposed to have 44-guns, but material shortages and budget overruns necessitated last minute changes. After some initial success – capturing in 1801 the privateer La Jeune Creole during the undeclared war with the French being the most significant – she was decommissioned and put into reserve because of a shortage of crew. Once tempers flared with the Barbary Pirates, though, she was re-commissioned and sent to the Mediterranean, arriving off Gibraltar just as her main mast split and her bowsprit was noted to be rotting. The ship remained laid-up in Malta for months while repairs were undertaken. Seeing no action against the pirates, Chesapeake returned to the U.S. in 1803 and was once more put into mothballs. The ship’s captain, Richard Morris, was then court-martialed for his relative inactivity; it seems he brought his wife along on the voyage – derisively referenced as ‘the Commodoress’ by the crew – and allegations that the ship remained at Malta far longer than necessary for repairs while the couple conceived another of their growing brood onboard were never satisfactorily explained to the subsequent board of inquiry.

In 1807, the ship was re-re-commissioned but needed lengthy repairs because of her long period of inactivity. Sailing finally from Norfolk VA in June of that year, she was almost immediately intercepted by HMS Leopard, which demanded to search onboard for Royal Navy deserters. The captain, James Barron, refused, the British let loose a devastating broadside, and Chesapeake struck her colors after only a single harmless retaliatory shot. The Royal Navy was apparently unimpressed with the vanquished, refusing to even take her as a prize, and instead carting off four suspected deserters and leaving behind three dead and eighteen wounded Americans.

Barron was court martialed for this embarrassing outcome, the second of Chesapeake’s commanding officers to suffer the indignity in less than four years.

The ignominy of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair contributed to the United States’ decision to declare war on Britain five years later. Chesapeake set sail for the Mediterranean, and during the first few months of 1813, did in fact capture six British merchantmen. But the crew became restive, wanting prize money, and mutiny was whispered. The captain paid cash out of his own pocket to keep everyone happy.

Shortly thereafter, off Boston, Chesapeake was confronted by the similarly-sized HMS Shannon. The battle-hardened crew of Shannon, however, was vastly superior to the disgruntled hodgepodge on board the American ship. Broadsides were exchanged, riggings, masts, and gun crews were decimated, and when the smoked cleared, the American captain lay mortally wounded, uttering his now-famous words, “Don’t Give Up The Ship!” That was not to be; the British this time did take the frigate as a prize, heading to Halifax in Nova Scotia and imprisoning the surviving Americans until the War of 1812 was over.

The hapless warship was repaired and became HMS Chesapeake. But before she could rejoin the fight against her country-of-origin, the war ended and the British, still unimpressed with her design and construction, decided to put the colonists’ frigate up for sale. A Portsmouth UK timber broker purchased her for £500, totally dismantling her and making a tidy profit when he resold her timbers to a Hampshire merchant, one Joshua Holmes, for £3,450. Chesapeake’s blood stained and bullet-ridden flag, kept by descendants of the British captain, was eventually sold at auction in London in 1908 and now resides at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. And several of Chesapeake’s cannons now guard Province House, that of the legislature of Nova Scotia.

The Chesapeake Mill

The Chesapeake Mill

And the timbers? They were used by Holmes to build what he called the Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, a small town southwest of London. After a long and productive industrial life, the grainery went out of business in the 1970s, and is now an antique shop. It sells overpriced tchotchkes, mostly to American tourists, those likely clueless of the history of the heavy wooden beams overhead.

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