Built by the citizens of Essex County, Massachusetts, who presented her to the US Government, USS Essex was commissioned under command of Captain Edward Preble. On her first voyage in 1800, during the Quasi-War with France, Essex helped convoy a fleet of Dutch East Indiamen through the Indian Ocean. In 1801 she was one of several ships sent to the Mediterranean to contain the Barbary Corsairs harassing American shipping. She sailed first under Captain William Bainbridge and then under Captain James Barron. Following the war, she was laid up from 1806 to 1809.
At the beginning of the war of 1812, under command of Captain David Porter, Essex captured ten prizes, including HMS Alert (18 guns) between July and September. On October 28,1812, Essex left Delaware River to rendezvous with USS Constitution and Hornet for a cruise into the South Pacific. After waiting in vain on the coast of Brazil, in January 1813 Porter took initiative and continued on his own way. By way of encouragement he told his crew that the "unprotected British commerce, on the coast of Chilli, Peru and Mexico, will give you an abundant supply of wealth and the girls of the Sandwich Islands, shall reward you for your sufferings during the passage round Cape Horn.
The passage was bleak, but the rewards matched Porter's promise. During the course of 1813 Essex virtually destroyed Britain's South Pacific whale fishery, and took fifteen prizes, including the whale ship Atlantic, which was armed with ten 6-pdr. long guns and ten 18-pdr. carronades and renamed Essex Junior. In October, the two ships sailed to Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands. On February 3, 1814, the ships returned to Valparaiso where the ships were blockaded by Captain James Hillyard's HMS Phoebe (36) and Cherub (18), which had been dispatched to the Pacific for the purpose. On March 28, Porter attempted to break out of Valparaiso, but Essex lost her main topmast in a gale. Disregarding Chilean neutrality, Hillyard attacked and, taking advantage of his guns' superior range, slowly but surely reduced Essex, whose primary armament consisted only of short-range carronades. Three hours later Porter was forced to strike; one of the last flags flying was one proclaiming "Free trade and sailors' rights" the slogan that had impelled the United States to war. Essex lost 58 killed, 31 drowned, and 70 wounded. Essex was taken into the Royal Navy as a 42-gun frigate. In 1823 she was made a convict ship, and she was sold in 1837. Essex Junior sailed to New York as a cartel ship, where she was sold.
Izak J H Hough
Member of The Nautical Research Guild