United States was the first American warship to be launched under the naval provisions of the United States Constitution, four months before the launching of her sister ship Constellation at Baltimore, Maryland, and five and one-half months before that of Constitution at Boston, Massachusetts. She was fitted out at Philadelphia during the spring of 1798 and, on 3 July, was ordered to proceed to sea.
Ten days later, the new frigate, in company with Delaware, a former merchantship which had been acquired by the Government and fitted out for naval service, rounded Cape Henlopen and stood out to sea. The two ships quickly set a course for Boston where they were to add the newly purchased 20-gun ship Herald and the revenue cutter Pickering to their little fleet. During her voyage north, United States performed admirably, constantly pulling ahead of Delaware and exceeding Barry's most sanguine expectations. However, when he reached Boston, Barry learned that Herald and Pickering would not be ready to sail for several weeks. The Commodore decided that the need for American naval power in the Caribbean Sea was too great to permit him to wait for them, so United States and Delaware departed Nantasket Roads on 26 July and headed for Barbados.
The voyage south was enlivened by encounters with several ships, but none proved to be French. The two warships reached Bridgetown, Barbados, on 21 August but stood back out to sea only some three hours later. At dawn the next day, a lookout spotted a strange sail; and the Americans gave chase. During the pursuit United States quickly outstripped Delaware and, by early afternoon, was within range of the fleeing ship. Two rounds from the frigate brought the quarry to, and she proved to be the French, ten-gun privateer Sans Pareil of Guadaloupe.
The frigate continued to hunt for French vessels in ensuing weeks but did not take her next prize until 4 September when a day-long chase was rewarded by eight-gun privateer Jalouse`s surrender. At noon on 7 September, United States, escorting the latter prize, and Delaware, shepherding Sans Pareil, got underway for home. Three days later, Delaware and her prize set off in pursuit of a strange sail; and, on 13 September during a gale at night, United States became separated from Jalouse. Thus, she was alone when she entered the Delaware River on 18 September.
After almost a month in home waters, the frigate put to sea again on 17 October with orders to cruise between Cape May, New Jersey, and the New England coast. However, a fierce storm arose the following day and battered United States as it forced her south to a point some 250 miles off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. When the tempest abated, the frigate painfully began working her way back north; but she did not anchor in the Delaware River until the evening of 30 October.
More than a month and one-half ensued as the ship underwent repairs. On 18 December, she put to sea again and headed back to the West Indies where Barry was to command the American squadron. She reached the Caribbean a fortnight later and began cruising among the islands of the West Indies. On the morning of 3 February 1799, United States sighted a strange sail near Martinique and set out in pursuit. Over five hours later, she pulled within range of the fleeing vessel and opened fire. Her third round struck the schooner and went through the unfortunate vessel from stern to stem, leaving her in a sinking condition. The frigate then attempted to close the foundering ship, but her victim sank before United States could reach her. The men on the frigate rescued the schooner's survivors and learned that the sunken vessel had been L'Amour de la Patrie, a six-gun privateer.
On 16 February, the frigate arrived in waters off Guadaloupe and attempted to negotiate an exchange of prisoners under a flag of truce. However, shore batteries opened fire on the boat carrying Barry's envoy, forcing it to return to the frigate. Six days later, a similar effort met with better luck, and Barry arranged to exchange his 58 prisoners from L'Amour de la Patrie for an equal number of American sailors.
On 26 February, Barry sighted two unknown sails east of Marie Galente and overtook one, the 430-ton Cicero which had been taken by the French privateer Democrat. He put a prize crew on her and resumed his pursuit of Democrat. However, by dark, the privateer escaped into shoal water off Maria Galente.
Meanwhile, more commissioned ships of the United States Navy had been arriving in the Caribbean so that by mid-March Barry's squadron contained two frigates, three ships, and four revenue cutters. The venerable commodore displayed great skill in deploying these warships throughout the West Indies so that he could afford maximum protection to American merchant shipping while discouraging French aggression. On 26 March, United States took the French privateer schooner La Tartueffe and its prize American sloop Vermont southeast of Antigua.
On 19 April off St. Christopher, Barry turned over command of the squadron to Commodore Truxtun; and United States sailed for home escorting a convoy of some 30 merchantmen. Barry wanted to be back in waters near Philadelphia so that he could discharge the members of her crew whose enlistments were expiring and so that he could protect shipping from Europe expected to be approaching the American coast during the late spring and summer. The frigate reached New Castle, Delaware, on 10 May.
At the end of some two months in home waters, United States got underway from New Castle unexpectedly during a storm on 6 July when her cable parted. Since Barry had already received sailing orders, he let the ship move right on downriver. She emerged from the Delaware Capes that night and sailed down the coast to Hampton Roads where she anchored on 22 July.
After receiving a new bowsprit, the frigate got underway on 13 August in company with Insurgent. Sometime after she got out to sea, the ships parted, and United States sailed south along the Atlantic coast to the mouth of the St. Mary's River. She then turned north and moved back up the seaboard and anchored off Newport, Rhode Island, on 12 September. There, Barry received orders to wait for further instructions. When they arrived, they sent Barry and his ship across the Atlantic to Europe.
On 3 November 1799, United States sailed for France with American commissioners appointed by President of the United States John Adams to negotiate a settlement of the issues dividing the two erstwhile allies. She returned to New York City in April 1800 and was laid up for repair of the damage she had suffered during a severe storm in the Bay of Biscay. In the fall, the frigate received orders to resume duty as flagship of the West Indies Squadron but, because a treaty of peace with France had been signed, she was recalled soon after she reached the Caribbean and returned to Chester, Pennsylvania, on 28 April.
On the last day of his administration, President Adams signed a bill authorizing his successor, Thomas Jefferson, to dispose of all naval vessels except the frigates. Accordingly, United States departed Chester on 17 May and proceeded to the eastern branch of the Potomac River, where the Federal government was establishing the Washington Navy Yard. United States was decommissioned there on 6 June 1801 and was laid up with four other frigates built under the legislation of 27 March 1794: President, Constellation, Congress, and Chesapeake.
United States remained in the Potomac until 1809 when orders were given to ready her for active service. On 10 June 1810 the frigate, now under the command of Captain Steven Decatur, Jr., who had been a midshipman aboard her first cruise, 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.
The United States declared war on the United Kingdom on 19 June 1812. United States, the frigate Congress, and the brig Argus joined Commodore John Rodgers' squadron at New York City and put to sea immediately, cruising off the east coast until the end of August. The squadron again sailed on 8 October 1812, this time from Boston. Three days later, after capturing Mandarin, United States parted company and continued to cruise eastward. At dawn on 25 October, five hundred miles south of the Azores, lookouts on board United States reported seeing a sail 12 miles to windward. As the ship rose over the horizon, Captain Decatur made out the fine, familiar lines of HMS Macedonian.
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 18-pounders of the British, and then move in for the kill.
The actual battle developed according to Decatur's plan. United States began the action at 0920 by firing an inaccurate broadside at Macedonian. This was answered immediately by the British vessel, bringing down a small spar of United States. Decatur's next broadside had better luck, as it destroyed Macedonian's mizzen top mast, letting her driver gaff fall and so giving the advantage in maneuver to the American frigate. United States next took up position off Macedonian's quarter and proceeded to riddle the hapless frigate methodically with shot. By noon, Macedonian'\' was a dismasted hulk and was forced to surrender. She had suffered 104 casualties as against 12 in United States'', which 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 entered New York Harbor on 4 December 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. Macedonian was subsequently purchased by the United States Navy, repaired, and had a long and honorable career under the American flag.
After repairs, United States -- accompanied by USS Macedonian and the sloop Hornet -- sailed from New York on 24 May 1813. On 1 June, the three vessels were driven into New London, Connecticut, by a powerful British squadron, and United States and Macedonian were kept blocked 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 14 November 1814 and escaped to sea.
After the end of the War of 1812, the American government turned its attention back to the Mediterranean Sea where Algiers had resumed preying upon American shipping while the United States was preoccupied by its recently concluded war with the UK. On 23 February 1815, President Madison requested that Congress declare war on Algiers; and it voted favorably on his recommendation on 2 March.
Work fitting out two American squadrons promptly began - one at Boston under Commodore William Bainbridge and one at New York under Commodore Steven Decatur, Jr.
United States was assigned to the former but required, after being bottled up in port for the latter part of the War of 1812, some repairs and refitting. Thus, she was not ready for sea when Bainbridge departed Boston on 3 July. Exactly two months later, the frigate, under the command of Captain John Shaw, departed that port and headed for the Mediterranean. When the frigate reached Gibraltar, Shaw learned that a treaty of peace with Algiers had been signed; but, since the Barbary states had made a habit of changing their minds when no longer under duress, it seemed prudent to keep an American squadron in the Mediterranean. Thus, after both Decatur and Bainbridge had sailed for home, United States remained behind, within easy reach of the North African coast and ready to remind Barbary rulers of their treaty commitments. The senior American naval officer in the region, Captain Shaw became commodore and commanded the squadron until Commodore Isaac Chauncy arrived on 1 July 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 18 May of that year. The frigate was decommissioned on 9 June 1819 and laid up at Norfolk.
United States did not sail again until 1824. From 1824 to 1827, she was deployed with the Pacific Squadron under Commodore Isaac Hull and protected American shipping and commercial interests. She put into the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1828 for extensive repairs and remained there until 1830 when she was placed in ordinary at the New York Navy Yard. The frigate remained at New York through 1832 and was thoroughly modernized. She served in the Mediterranean Squadron from 1833 to 1838 and was deployed with the Home Squadron during 1839 and 1840.
United States was repaired at Norfolk in 1841 and was designated the new flagship of the Pacific Squadron in January 1842. She left Hampton Roads on 9 January, bound for the Pacific via Cape Horn. Herman Melville, the future author of Moby Dick, enlisted as an ordinary seaman on board United States at Honolulu, Hawaii, on 17 August 1843.
The vessel returned to the United States in 1844 and was placed out of commission at Boston on 14 October. She was recommissioned there on 18 May 1846 and was detailed to the African Squadron for duty helping to suppress the illicit slave trade. United States joined the Mediterranean Squadron in 1847 and served in European waters until ordered home late in 1948. She was decommissioned on 24 February 1849 and placed in ordinary at Norfolk.
United States rotted away at Norfolk until 20 April 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 kind of condition, thought otherwise and; after pumping her out, commissioned the frigate CSS United States (though they often called her Confederate States) on 29 April. On 15 June, she was ordered to be fitted out as a receiving ship and was provided 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 ancient timbers of the frigate were found to be so strong and well-preserved as to ruin 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 settled to the muddy bottom of the river.
Shortly after the destruction of ironclad ram Virginia on 11 May 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 work was delayed until late 1865, when the Bureau ordered on 18 December that the gallant old frigate be docked at Norfolk and immediately broken up.