On 28 March1814, British frigates HMS Cherub (at left) and Phoebe (at right) captured the U.S. Frigate Essex (center) off Valparaiso, Chile
An example of the usefulness of frigates in the reconnaissance role is the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, the decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic period, between the British (under Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson) and a combined fleet of French and Spanish ships (commanded by Vice Admiral Pierre Charles Villeneuve of France). The core of each fleet was the ships-of-the-line; Nelson had 27 such vessels, Villeneuve 33. Although the Battle of Trafalgar centered on these vessels, the role of frigates was pivotal. At 6:00 A. M. on 19 October 1805, Villeneuve made preparations to sortie from the port of Cadiz, Spain. Sailing within visual range of the harbor were British frigates. One of these, Sirius, signaled that the enemy had topsails hoisted and later communicated that the enemy ships were coming out of port. These messages were conveyed from Sirius to other frigates and larger ships that formed a chain from Cadiz to Nelson’s fleet that lay over the horizon. These messages forewarned Nelson of Villeneuve’s movements and thus provided time to deploy vessels based on his plan of attack, which ultimately led to a smashing victory that ensured British naval dominance for much of the nineteenth century. Nelson, whose fleet was numerically inferior, would have been hard-pressed to secure this triumph had it not been for timely intelligence provided by the frigates outside Cadiz.
Frigates were also useful as raiders in time of war. Frigates were routinely employed by most navies to prey on enemy merchant shipping and thus subject it to economic hardship that might damage its war effort materially or sap its population’s will to fight. An example is the cruise of the U. S. frigate Essex during the War of 1812 against Great Britain. Under the command of Captain David Porter, Essex raided British shipping in the South Atlantic and off the Pacific Coast of South America. From 12 December 1812 to 13 July 1813, Porter captured 15 vessels of varying types that were primarily part of the British Pacific whaling fleet. He used his superior speed to overhaul his prey and then force surrender through superior firepower. The economic distress that resulted from Porter’s actions forced the British to hunt him down and capture his ship on 28 March 1814.
A corollary to commerce raiding was the imposition of blockades. During the Age of Fighting Sail, some naval powers deployed a cordon of warships around the coastline of an enemy power in an attempt to prevent the entrance or exit of merchantmen carrying supplies. Great Britain was the principal user of this tactic and first employed a systematic blockade in the 1756-1763 Seven Years’ War. Certainly by the outbreak of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the blockade was the key strategy of the British Royal Navy. During this period, the British attempted to deny France and its allies the use of the sea through a blockade of the entire coastline of those parts of Europe under the control of French revolutionary forces and later Napoleon. The objectives of the operation were to attempt to starve France’s war effort, and thereby produce hardship for the people under French rule, as well as prevent the warships of France and its allies from leaving port to prey on British shipping. At the opening of the conflict in 1793, the British employed frigates in an open blockade strategy. While Britain’s ships-of-the-line remained in port in a state of readiness, a squadron of frigates sailed within visual range of French ports. Frigates on blockade duty, like raiders, would overhaul any merchantman encountered to ascertain the destination and nature of the cargo. If the cargo was contraband-meaning any goods that could be used for military purposes by the French-both ship and cargo could be seized. In the case of enemy warships leaving port, frigates were ordered to dispatch the information to the battle fleet, which would sortie and attempt to destroy the enemy at sea. This latter duty was later altered by the adoption of a close blockade strategy whereby Britain’s ships-of-the-line sailed at a distance farther out from French ports than the frigates; the objectives remained the same.
Although this tactic did produce economic hardships for France, it did not force it to surrender. Nevertheless, the blockade had outstanding results, as it led Napoleon in late 1807 to establish his Continental System as a reprisal to the British action. This system was an embargo of British goods entering Europe. The Continental System created economic hardship for Europeans under the control of Napoleon and ultimately led to the rebellion of Russia in 1810. Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia to force compliance led to a crushing defeat for the French emperor. The blockade role would become a primary duty for cruisers well into the modern age, with dramatic economic results.
Frigates were also deployed to protect commerce. A prime example of the importance of this task is evident in the events that led to the establishment of the United States Navy in 1794. In the late eighteenth century, Barbary corsairs from North Africa frequently attacked U. S. merchantmen; French ships also preyed on them for violating trade restrictions while France was at war with Great Britain and continental powers. On 27 March 1794, the U. S. Congress responded by passing an act that called for the construction of four 44-gun frigates and two that mounted 36 guns. These vessels proved their worth during the 1798-1800 Quasi-War with France, an undeclared war that resulted from the French practice of preying on neutral shipping during the French Revolution. While French commerce raiders had succeeded in seizing more than 300 U. S. merchantmen in the Caribbean Sea in the summer of 1797, their fortune declined drastically upon the outbreak of conflict. U. S. overseas trade increased until the end of the war in 1801 as these frigates, combined with a collection of lightly armed vessels, escorted merchant convoys in the West Indies and engaged French raiders. Ten significant naval battles took place, the most notable being 9 February 1799, with the capture of the 40-gun French frigate L’Insurgente by the 38-gun frigate U. S. S. Constellation. By the end of the conflict, U. S. naval forces had captured more than 80 French vessels of varying types. Frigates in this capacity used high speed and moderate armament to hunt down raiders.
The lives of sailors in battle while employed in these roles bordered on the horrific. Solid shot damaged a ship and killed and badly wounded crew members. The wooden sides and fittings of a ship, when hit by solid shot, would splinter, thus creating a hail of additional projectiles. A direct hit on a human being by such shot was almost always fatal.
An example from the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar is the mortal wounding of the Spanish Commodore Cosme Damian Churruca, whose right leg was nearly severed when a cannonball swept him off his feet as he directed action. Other examples are equally as horrid. In the same engagement, a British sailor manning a gun was struck in the head by a cannonball, which decapitated him. Along with this form of destruction was added the effect of grapeshot. This antipersonnel weapon was composed of several iron balls that were smaller than solid shot; oftentimes it swept a ship’s main deck of personnel, some being almost obliterated by the multiple shot. Sailors also faced chain shot, two balls connected by a chain designed to slice through masts. If fired too low, chain shot could slice several men in half rather than the masts that they were intended to destroy. In the case that it did slice through a mast, the crew had to contend with huge pieces of wood plummeting to the main deck that could crush them.
Adding to these threats was the possibility of fire, as shot could be heated before being fired. The potential effect on a wooden warship was devastating. Not only could the crew be incinerated; the ship’s magazine-the area where the powder and shot were stored-could blow up and obliterate everything aboard. All told, the decks of a frigate in the Age of Fighting Sail might literally have blood running on the decks as a result of combat. The experience is best summed up by Samuel Leech, a seaman who was on board the British frigate Macedonian when it engaged the U. S. frigate United States in the War of 1812:
The whole scene grew indescribably confused and horrible; it was like some awfully tremendous thunderstorm, whose deafening roar is attended by incessant streaks of lightening, carrying death in every flash and strewing the ground with the victims of its wrath: only, in our case, the scene was rendered more horrible than that, by the presence of torrents of blood which dyed our decks.
Even if they survived, many still had to face the possibility of being permanently crippled or eventually dying from wounds suffered in the line of duty. Wounded personnel were taken to the ship’s orlop deck, being below the waterline and the lowest in a vessel’s hull. Surgeons labored in the relatively dark, dank surroundings of this area to save as many lives as possible. Procedures included extract ing splinters, setting broken bones, and amputation. In many cases, the impact of an object would so mangle the limbs of a sailor that amputation was the only way to provide any chance for survival. Aside from such horrors, seamen had to contend with the fact that medical science had not progressed far enough to effectively fight infection; many died as a result of common infections.
Sailors, of course, also suffered if their ship sank. Sinkings were rare, as the buoyancy of wood permitted a large amount of flooding before a warship was in danger of foundering. When sinking did occur, many never made it off the vessel, trapped below decks. Others died in the water through exposure to the elements.
The 1793-1815 period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars as well as other conflicts like the 1798-1800 Quasi War and the War of 1812, are testimony to the grisly nature of naval combat during the Age of Fighting Sail. They also exhibit the importance of the frigate to naval warfare. The high use of frigates is evident from the numbers lost in this period. Great Britain, which emerged as the great naval power after the Napoleonic Wars, suffered the loss of 16 frigates while its enemies suffered the loss of 172 frigates. France alone lost 154 frigates, and 22 Spanish frigates were either captured or destroyed. The Netherlands lost 16 frigates from all causes, and Denmark’s navy counted nine frigates as destroyed at sea or captured. The United States Navy lost three vessels, all captured in battle.