Frigate USS United States

An overview of the US Navy vessel utilized in the War of 1812

USS United States captures HMS Macedonian
USS United States defeats HMS Macedonian, October 1812. Public Domain

With the United States' separation from Great Britain after the American Revolution, American shipping no longer enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy when at sea. As a result, it became an easy target for pirates and other raiders such as the Barbary corsairs. Aware that a permanent navy would need to be formed, Secretary of War Henry Knox requested American shipbuilders submit plans for six frigates in late 1792. Concerned about cost, debate raged in Congress for over a year until funding was finally obtained through the Naval Act of 1794.

Calling for the building of four 44-gun and two 36-gun frigates, the act was put into effect and construction delegated to various cities. The designs selected by Knox were those of renowned naval architect Joshua Humphreys. Understanding that the United States could not hope to build a navy of equivalent strength to Britain or France, Humphreys created large frigates that could best any similar vessel but were fast enough to escape enemy ships-of-the-line. The resulting vessels were long, with wider than usual beams and possessed diagonal riders in their framing to increase strength and prevent hogging.

Utilizing heavy planking and making extensive use of live oak in the framing, Humphrey's ships were exceptionally strong. One of the 44-gun frigates, to be named United States, was assigned to Philadelphia and construction soon began. The work progressed slowly and briefly came to a halt in early 1796 after peace was established with the Dey of Algiers. This triggered a clause of the Naval Act which stipulated that construction would halt in the event of peace. After some debate, President George Washington convinced Congress to fund construction of the three ships closest to completion.

As United States was one of these vessels, work resumed. On February 22, 1797, John Barry, a naval hero of the American Revolution, was summoned by Washington and given a commission as the senior officer in the new US Navy. Assigned to oversee the completion of United States, he superintended its launching on May 10, 1797. The first of the six frigates launched, work moved quickly through the rest of the year and spring 1798 to complete the ship. As tensions increased with France leading to the undeclared Quasi-War, Commodore Barry received orders to put to sea on July 3, 1798.

Quasi-War Ship

Departing Philadelphia, United States sailed north with USS Delaware (20 guns) to rendezvous with additional warships at Boston. Impressed with the ship's performance, Barry soon found that the expected consorts at Boston were not ready for sea. Unwilling to wait, he turned south for the Caribbean. During this maiden cruise, United States captured the French privateers Sans Pareil (10) and Jalouse (8) on August 22 and September 4. Sailing north, the frigate became separated from the others during a gale off Cape Hatteras and arrived in the Delaware River alone on September 18.

After an abortive cruise in October, Barry and United States returned to the Caribbean in December to lead an American squadron. Coordinating American efforts in the region, Barry continued to hunt for French privateers. After sinking L'Amour de la Patrie (6) on February 3, 1799, he re-captured the American merchantman Cicero on the 26th and captured La Tartueffe a month later. Relieved by Commodore Thomas Truxtun, Barry took United States back to Philadelphia in April. Refitting, Barry put to sea again in July but was forced to put into Hampton Roads due to storm damage.

Making repairs, he patrolled the East Coast before putting into Newport, RI in September. Embarking peace commissioners, United States sailed for France on November 3, 1799. Delivering its diplomatic cargo, the frigate encountered severe storms in the Bay of Biscay and required several months of repairs at New York. Finally ready for active service in the fall of 1800, United States sailed to the Caribbean to again lead the American squadron but was soon recalled as peace had been made with the French. Returning north, the ship arrived at Chester, PA before being laid up at Washington, DC on June 6, 1801.

The War of 1812

The frigate remained in ordinary until 1809 when orders were issued to ready it for sea. Command was given to Captain Stephen Decatur, who had earlier served aboard the frigate as a midshipman. Sailing down the Potomac in June 1810, Decatur arrived at Norfolk, VA for refitting. While there he encountered Captain James Carden of the new frigate HMS Macedonian (38). Meeting with Carden, Decatur wagered the British captain a beaver hat if the two should ever meet in battle. With the outbreak of the War of 1812 on June 19, 1812, United States traveled to New York to join Commodore John Rodgers squadron.

After a brief cruise on the East Coast, Rodgers took his ships to sea on October 8. Departing Boston, they captured Mandarin on October 11 and United States soon parted company. Sailing east, Decatur moved south of the Azores. At dawn on October 25, a British frigate was spotted twelve miles to windward. Soon recognizing the ship as Macedonian, Decatur cleared for action. While Carden hoped to close on a parallel course, Decatur planned to engage the enemy from long-range with his heavier 24-pdr guns before closing in to finish the battle.

Opening fire around 9:20 AM, United States quickly succeeded in destroying Macedonian's mizzen topmast. With the advantage of maneuver, Decatur proceeded to pound the British ship into submission. Shortly after noon, Carden was forced to surrender with his ship dismasted and having taken 104 casualties to Decatur's twelve. After remaining in place for two weeks while Macedonian was repaired, United States and its prize sailed for New York where they received a hero's welcome. Putting to sea with a small squadron on May 24, 1813, Decatur was chased into New London, CT by a strong British force. United States remained blockaded in that port for the rest of the war.

Post-War/Later Career

With the end of the war, United States was fitted out to join an expedition to deal with the resurgent Barbary pirates. Under the command of Captain John Shaw, the frigate crossed the Atlantic but soon learned that an earlier squadron under Decatur had forced peace with Algiers. Remaining in the Mediterranean, the ship ensured an American presence in the area. Returning home in 1819, United States was laid up for five years before joining the Pacific Squadron. Thoroughly modernized between 1830 and 1832, the ship continued regular peacetime assignments in the Pacific, Mediterranean, and off Africa through the 1840s. Returning to Norfolk, it was laid up on February 24, 1849.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the rotted hulk of United States was captured at Norfolk by the Confederacy. Recommissioned CSS United States, it served as a blockship and later was sunk as an obstacle in the Elizabeth River. Raised by Union forces, the wreck was broken up in 1865-1866.

USS United States Quick Facts and Figures

  • Nation: United States
  • Builder: Philadelphia, PA
  • Authorized: March 27, 1794
  • Launched: May 10, 1797
  • Commissioned: July 11, 1797
  • Decommissioned: February 1849
  • Fate: Broken up at Norfolk 1865/6


  • Ship Type: Frigate
  • Displacement: 1,576 tons
  • Length: 175 ft.
  • Beam: 43.5 ft.
  • Draft: 20 ft. - 23.5 ft.
  • Complement: 364
  • Speed: 13.5 knots

Armament (War of 1812)

  • 32 x 24-pdrs
  • 24 x 42-pdr carronades


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Frigate USS United States." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). Frigate USS United States. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Frigate USS United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).