By Mike Manning, Chair of the Friends of the Boston HarborWalk
In Volume I – Article I recounted that the USS Constitution was not built in the Boston Navy Yard (in Charlestown) but at Edmund Hartt’s family-owned shipyard in Boston’s North End. So what was the first warship designed and built in the Boston Navy Yard? The USS Independence was launched on June 22, 1814 as the Boston Navy Yard’s first vessel and the US Navy’s first-ever commissioned “ship-of-the-line.”
Ships-of-the-line were a class of warships designed and built with three masts (fore, main, and mizzen), square-rigged sails, and at least two covered gun decks. Armament typically consisted of 74 cannon – most being 32-pounders. Ships in this class were considered battleships of their day – relatively slow-moving, very heavily-armed, and an extremely dangerous opponent in any encounter.
The US Navy, in the person of former USS Constitution captain William Bainbridge, hired Edmund Hartt and his son, Edward to build the Independence. The Hartt father-son duo had built the Constitution at their family shipyard from 1794 to 1797.
However, all did not go smoothly. During the warship’s construction, Bainbridge (now commandant of the Navy Yard) physically threw the younger Hartt out of his office. (The cause of the melee has been lost to history.) The older Hartt did not appreciate his son’s treatment, and he and his son walked away from the project. Bainbridge was forced to find another shipbuilder willing to complete the Independence.
Though launched in June of 1814, desertions, financial and outfitting delays, along with the British naval blockade of Boston Harbor (during the War of 1812), the Independence was kept bottled up in the Navy Yard until mid-1815. Finally, on July 5th, Bainbridge, now a commodore, led a squadron of ships from Boston to the North African coast to deal with the Barbary States (present day Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia) and their pirates. The Independence was manned by a crew of nearly 800 officers and enlisted men.
However, by the time Independence arrived in the Mediterranean, another US naval squadron, under the command of Stephen Decatur, had enforced a peace settlement. With no further need for her presence, Independence sailed for America. Her first stop was a layover in Newport, Rhode Island and then she returned to Boston.
For the next 10 years, the Independence remained docked in Boston Harbor – leading a dreadful and solitary life in the Navy Yard. Finally, in 1835, she was mobilized for her next phase in service. She was razeed – a French term meaning that an entire deck was removed from the ship. This work was completed at the Navy Yard’s Dry Dock #1 and significantly lightened the ship’s weight and improved her speed. The Independence was now re-rated as a 54-gun frigate. In time, she would prove to be one of the Navy’s fastest and deadliest.
In March of 1837, the newly down-sized Independence was recommissioned. Two months later, she set sail for multiple European ports-of-call, including Portsmouth, England; Copenhagen, Denmark; and St. Petersburg, Russia. At St. Petersburg, she was berthed at the Kronstadt naval base and her crew was personally welcomed by Emperor Nicholas I and his entourage.
From Europe, she sailed for South America. In Rio de Janeiro, Independence became the flagship of the Brazil Squadron in a mission to protect U.S. commerce along the eastern seaboard of South America. She returned to New York City in the spring of 1840 and remained in port through 1842. For the next five years, Independence divided her time between stays in New York City and Boston.
In August of 1846, the Independence departed Boston to participate in naval action during the Mexican War. She engaged Mexican ships in a blockade along the western coast of Mexico. The Independence also landed an occupation force of sailors and marines on Mazatlan in mid-November of 1847. Late in the war, she sailed for Hawaii and visited many of the islands in the chain. In May of 1849, she arrived at Norfolk, Virginia and was unceremoniously decommissioned.
However, not quite ready to retire, the Independence was recommissioned in July of 1849 to serve as the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron under Commodore Charles Morgan. She spent nearly two years at various Mediterranean ports before returning to Norfolk in June of 1852. A month later in NYC, she was once more decommissioned and spent another passive two years in port.
In September of 1854, the Independence was recommissioned for the last time. As the flagship of the Pacific Squadron, her first port-of-call was Valparaiso, Chile, in early 1855. From there, she cruised to San Francisco and eventually Hawaii. She entered the Mare Island Navy Yard (just north of San Francisco) in October of 1857.
Ironically, this once powerful warship was stripped of her sails and cannon and converted to a receiving ship. This stoic duty lasted through 1912. The following year her name was struck from the Navy List.
Independence never set sail again. She was towed southward from Mare Island to San Francisco in 1914 and sold to a private citizen who planned to transform her into a dock-side restaurant. Unfortunately, this plan never materialized. Eventually, the pig iron and ballast were extricated from her hold and all worthwhile hardwood was stripped from her decks.
Tragically, on the evening of September 15, 1915, the Independence was purposely set ablaze in order to recover her metal fittings and hardware. Her 100 years of exceptional naval service, along with her planking and timbers, disintegrated into the mud flats of Hunter’s Point – never to be seen again.