The Frigate I

While relatively small sloops were employed in these tasks, the vessel most commonly used for these functions in the Age of Fighting Sail was the frigate, the ancestor of today’s modern cruiser. By the end of the eighteenth century, these were the workhorses in the navies of the world’s major maritime powers.

A frigate was defined by a ranking system that gauged the fighting power of warships. A first rate-those vessels that were the equivalent of a modern battleship-mounted 100 guns or upward; second rate, between 90 and 98 guns; third rate, 64 to 74; fourth rate, 50 to 60; fifth rate, 32 to 44; and sixth rate, 20 to 28 guns. Small frigates normally carried between 24 and 30 guns, while larger ones mounted 50 to 60 cannons. Sloops mounted between eight and 24 guns.

The weapons carried by these vessels were largely cast-iron, smoothbore cannons. The alternative to iron in this age was bronze, which had the advantages of being easier to cast; it also better withstood the shock of firing due to its greater elasticity. Bronze cannons, however, fell out of favor due to the immense cost incurred in producing them. They could be four times as expensive as a piece made of iron. Naval cannons were capable of firing a variety of projectiles that included solid shot for inflicting damage to the hull of an enemy vessel, chain shot to strike at the rigging of an enemy ship with the object of dismasting it, and grapeshot, a short-range weapon designed to kill the crew of the opposing ship. All of these were fired by inserting a charge of gunpowder into the muzzle along with the projectile. Frigates typically mounted their heaviest weaponry on one enclosed gun deck. These guns were placed on carriages and sighted through ports cut into the sides of the hull. The gun carriage employed in a frigate was the truck carriage (so named for its four free-moving wheels that were necessary due to the recoil of the weapon when fired). In order to prevent the guns from recoiling into crews, they were lashed by heavy ropes, known as breeching, to the hull. These ropes were also necessary at times other than combat. The pitching and rolling motion of a frigate in heavy seas necessitated ropes to keep the guns in place. Otherwise, a cannon might roll down the length of a gun deck, wreaking havoc on a vessel’s crew. Lighter antipersonnel guns were placed on the main deck, where they were attached to the bulwarks, or rails, of the hull.

The size of these weapons varied among the great naval powers as officials differed over which type of gun could produce the best results in combat. By the outbreak of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars (starting in 1793 to 1815), frigates of the British Royal Navy largely employed 12-pounder guns. In this age, guns were rated by the weight of the ball they fired rather than the diameter of the bore. A 12-pounder gun, consequently, fired a solid shot that weighed 12 pounds. Vessels in other navies, however, carried larger weapons such as the 18-pounder and the 24-pounder, as in the case of the U. S. frigate U. S. S. Constitution, which mounted the latter type. This vessel mounted 44 of these weapons, which were 10 feet long and weighed 5,824 pounds. The 12-pounder by comparison measured between 9 feet and 6 feet long and weighed some 3,800 pounds. In addition to these guns, some frigates of the late eighteenth century, but especially the early nineteenth century, carried a relatively new weapon called the carronade. This weapon was named after the Carron Company of Scotland, which in 1776 produced a prototype model. These were short pieces that had a large muzzle bore. They were useful in smaller ships like frigates due to their lighter weight compared to regular cannons. In the United States Navy, a 42-pounder carronade weighed only 2,492 pounds, whereas a 42-pounder long gun, mounted in ships-of-the-line, weighed 7,504 pounds. These guns were designed to fire heavy shot at close range in order to smash through the hulls of opposing vessels. Their chief drawback in battle was short range. The largest carronade, a 68-pounder, could fire up to a maximum range of some 450 yards, whereas a 24-pounder long gun could hurl its ball up to 1,200 yards.

As a result of the variety of ordnance available, frigates oftentimes carried a mixed armament. For example, a 32-gun frigate of the British Royal Navy at the beginning of the nineteenth century normally mounted 26 18-pounder guns and six 6-pounders. By contrast, the 32-gun U. S. frigate Essex, launched in 1797, mounted 26 12-pounder guns and six 6-pounder pieces. In 1809, this armament was changed to 40 32-pounder carronades and six 12- pounder long guns.

These guns were mounted on an extremely complex weapons system comprising two major parts: the hull and the rigging. In the eighteenth century, the hulls of these vessels could be up to 175 feet long and displace as much as 2,000 tons. Some frigates, like U. S. S. Constitution, were larger, with an overall length of 204 feet and a displacement of 2,200 tons. These ships were constructed entirely of wood, the dominant material being oak due to its extreme strength and, consequently, its ability to resist cannon fire.

The first step in the construction was to lay down the keel, which can best be described as the backbone of a ship. It was the lowest piece of timber in the hull and extended the length of the hull down the centerline. Rather than being one piece of wood, the keel was made of several pieces that overlapped one another and were attached together by joints known as scarphs. Once this construction process was completed, shipbuilders turned to the frame of the vessel, which was composed of giant ribs attached to the keel. These, like the keel itself, were made out of several pieces of timber joined together. The decks were then constructed on longitudinal frames within the ribs.

These frames, as well as the decks themselves, had to be made of the strongest material available to support the ship’s ordnance. This process was followed by the fitting of hull planks to the outside of the hull as the skin of the vessel. The planking was normally the thickest in the area underneath the gun ports given the need for added strength to that portion of the hull. To prevent leaking, these planks were sealed using a combination of rope and pitch inserted into the cracks between the planks. In addition to the construction of purpose-built frigates were the refitting of old ships-of-the-line as frigates. This process entailed removing one or possibly two decks of a ship in order to reduce its number of guns. These vessels were known as razees. Regardless of whether the ship was a purpose-built frigate or a razee, beginning in the 1770s their hulls were fitted with a copper sheathing below the waterline to prevent the wood from rotting. An equally important use for this sheathing was to curtail the growth of marine organisms such as barnacles on the hull that would create excess drag on the ship and impede its speed.

Coupled with the hull was the rigging. Mounted on giant masts, the sails provided propulsion by harnessing the wind. Frigates such as the U. S. S. Constitution carried three masts, being the foremast, or mast in the forward part of the hull; the mainmast located amidships; and the mizzenmast sited in the stern of the ship. These masts were, like the other parts of a sailing ship, made out of several pieces joined together and rested on giant blocks of wood in the bottom of the hull. The largest of these was the mainmast, held in place by rope at first, but in the early nineteenth century this practice gave way to the use of iron bands. Attached to the giant masts were cross yards from which sails were hung to catch wind. Typically, frigates were square-rigged, the sails being set at right angles to the hull. The rigging of frigates could sometimes yield speeds of 14 knots.

Daily life for sailors was demanding and harsh. These intrepid men constantly drilled to ensure maximum efficiency in combat. This practice was necessary given the lack of formal training prevalent among seamen. Although many ordinary sailors during the Age of Fighting Sail were recruited from merchant service, there were also many individuals with no experience at sea. These included foreigners in search of a living in the employ of another country’s navy, prisoners, conscripts (in the case of navies such as that of France), and civilians impressed into service. The work of impressments entailed the use of so-called press gangs composed either of sailors already in naval service or men specifically employed for that job. The unfortunate individuals captured by such groups, as well as all other new seamen, had little or no knowledge of how to operate a warship. Practical experience with drill at sea was also important for officers, as there were few naval schools in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Those that did exist, like Britain’s Royal Naval College at Portsmouth, founded in 1729, lacked many students until the nineteenth century due to the aversion of officers to formal studies.

The conditions under which officers and crew worked and lived offered little comfort at the end of a trying day. The best-disposed of the crew was, of course, the captain, who enjoyed a cabin located in the stern on the upper deck that spanned the beam of the hull and had windows that enclosed the rear, sternmost portion of the cabin. High-ranking officers also had their own cabins, which were small and placed on either side below decks. Aside from such accommodations, frigates were cramped vessels, most of the interior space filled with guns and stores. In small frigates, lesser officers and men slept in hammocks by the guns on the gun deck. On larger vessels, the crew slept on the lower deck, where they also ate meals. The lower deck was largely devoid of natural light.

Adding to the discomfort was the state of the vessel itself. Crewmen lived in a damp and dirty environment where rats and vermin were commonplace. Many of these unwelcome passengers revealed themselves when crew members ate their meals. Oftentimes, bread, stored in casks below decks, was moldy and inundated with weevils. These insects were so prevalent that crews took it as commonplace to break apart a biscuit at its center, where most of the weevils were, and simply scrape them out with a knife. Equally poor was the meat, often procured from local slaughterhouses before the ship set sail, stored in casks. Meat became infested with worms over the course of a voyage and, though edible, was certainly no comfort to the crew. Salting the meat before packaging, a common practice to make it last, could extend its life, but crewmen oftentimes could not taste the meat as a result of the salt. Indeed, poor diet was a major reason for illnesses, some potentially fatal. Among these was scurvy, which resulted from a lack of vitamin C in the diet and persisted through most of the Age of Fighting Sail. This disease quickly produced bleeding gums and would oftentimes open previously healed wounds.

Hygiene was sometimes a problem during the Age of Fighting Sail. Toilets, known as heads, were originally made up of planks with a hole in the center that were located at the sides along the bow. Later, heads were placed in the bow below decks with sluices that led out of the ship. Officers and men alike used these facilities, which were uncomfortable as pitching and heavy winds made them difficult to use. The result was that in periods of heavy seas the bilge of a frigate, being the lowermost portion of the hull, might be covered with human excrement, as the men could not relieve themselves in the heads.

Only the captain, who sometimes had a toilet within his cabin, was better off than the rest. Even he, however, had to endure the foul stench that sometimes arose from the ship while at sea. This was a problem when frigates, like any other vessel, were in stormy seas and men could not relieve themselves in the head due to the pitching motion. The smell could also be terrible when the ship was at anchor in a harbor after protracted periods at sea, as in the case of cruising warships like frigates. Ships that were not well-cleaned did not benefit from the wind generated from the ship’s movement through the seas. Consequently, the odor was not carried away. Bathing amid these conditions offered little comfort. Due to the lack of fresh water aboard, officers and men alike washed with salt water. The sailors, however, did not bathe frequently, which added to poor hygiene. When they did bathe, sometimes it was limited to hands and faces. This contributed to the spread of fleas and lice. As with the lack of a nutritional diet, this problem could prove deadly, as lice carried typhus.

Some poor conditions were alleviated with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Food became more tolerable owing to better storage, and hygiene improved. Medical problems like scurvy were also being addressed, as in the case of the British Royal Navy in 1795 when lemons and oranges became a mandated part of every sailor’s diet (citrus helps prevent scurvy). Even so, conditions in cruising warships remained harsh well past the Age of Fighting Sail. In addition to such hardships, sailors had to endure a rigid system of discipline, where infractions were often dealt with through a variety of painful, sometimes fatal punishments. Many of these were given to officers and men through a court-marital in port, where a panel of officers deliberated the fate of an individual accused of breaking the captain’s disciplinary code, in the case of lesser officers and ordinary seamen, or of behaving poorly during battle. One common punishment resulting from a court-marital was flogging, where an individual was tied down and whipped on his back. In the British Royal Navy at the end of the eighteenth century, convicted people could be sentenced to between 100 and 1,000 lashes. These lashings could injure a person to the point of death. This practice was also common while at sea, where offenses that warranted flogging included drunkenness, sleeping on duty, neglect of duty, disobedience, and theft.

Another punishment at sea was keelhauling, whereby an individual was tied to a rope, weighted down, and dragged underneath the keel of the ship from one side to the other. The chances of recovery from keelhauling were poor. In addition to flogging and keelhauling, officers and men alike had to be wary of the death penalty. Such punishment followed cowardice in battle and mutiny. The method of execution varied by rank. Seamen were hanged from the rigging; officers were shot.

Despite the rigid discipline and poor conditions, a well-trained crew ensured that the frigate would have the speed and firepower to accomplish its vital roles. Perhaps the most important role was reconnaissance during time of war. Frigates were deployed ahead of the battle fleet to sight the enemy. When a frigate operated as a scout, speed was critical. First, once an opposing force was identified, these ships would rely on their great speed to escape destruction or capture. Second, the speed with which a frigate could sail back to its main battle force was crucial, as the admiral of the fleet needed to know the enemy’s location and to group ships into combat formation. Fleets employed a tactic called the line of battle, whereby battleships would group into lines and engage their opposite number in the opposing force. The success of this tactic necessitated preparation as the commander attempted to place his vessels to the windward side of the enemy, known as attaining the weather gauge, and thus gain the advantage to choose when and how to attack.