Design and construction
American merchant vessels began to fall prey to Barbary Pirates, mainly from Algiers, in the Mediterranean during the 1790s. Congress responded with the Naval Act of 1794. The act provided funds for the construction of six frigates, and directed that the construction would continue unless and until the United States agreed peace terms with Algiers.
Joshua Humphreys' design was long on keel and narrow of beam (width) to allow for the mounting of very heavy guns. The design incorporated a diagonal scantling (rib) scheme to limit hogging (warping) and included extremely heavy planking. This gave the hull greater strength than those of more lightly built frigates. Since the fledgling United States could not match the number of ships of the European states, Humphreys designed his frigates to be able to overpower other frigates, but with the speed to escape from a ship of the line.
Originally designated as "Frigate D", the ship remained unnamed for several years. Her keel was laid down in December 1795 at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, where Josiah Fox had been appointed her naval constructor and Richard Dale as superintendent of construction. In March 1796 a peace accord was announced between the United States and Algiers and construction was suspended in accordance with the Naval Act of 1794. The keel remained on blocks in the navy yard for two years.
The onset of the Quasi-War with France in 1798 prompted Congress to authorize completion of "Frigate D", and they approved resumption of the work on 16 July. When Fox returned to Norfolk he discovered a shortage of timber caused by its diversion from Norfolk to Baltimore in order to finish Constellation. He corresponded with Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert, who indicated a desire to expedite construction of the ship and reduce the overall cost. Fox, always an opponent of Humphreys' large design, submitted new plans to Stoddert which called for utilizing the existing keel but reducing the overall dimensions substantially in length and partially of beam. Fox's plans essentially proposed an entirely different design than originally planned by Humphreys. Secretary Stoddert approved the new design plans.
When construction finished, Chesapeake had the smallest dimensions of the six frigates. A length of 152.8 ft (46.6 m) between perpendiculars and 41.3 ft (12.6 m) of beam contrasted with her closest sisters, Congress and Constellation, which were built to 164 ft (50 m) in length and 41 ft (12 m) of beam. The final cost of her construction was $220,677—the second-least expensive frigate of the six. The least expensive was Congress at $197,246.
During construction, a sloop named Chesapeake was launched on 20 June 1799 but was renamed Patapsco between 10 October and 14 November, apparently to free up the name Chesapeake for "Frigate D". In communications between Fox and Stoddert, Fox repeatedly referred to her as Congress, further confusing matters, until he was informed by Stoddert the ship was to be named Chesapeake, after Chesapeake Bay. She was the only one of the six frigates not named by President George Washington, nor after a principle of the United States Constitution.
Chesapeake's nominal rating is stated as either 36 or 38 guns.[Note 1] Originally designated as a 44-gun ship, her redesign by Fox led to a rerating, apparently based on her smaller dimensions when compared to Congress and Constellation. Joshua Humphreys may have rerated Chesapeake to 38 guns, or Secretary Stoddert may have rerated Congress and Constellation to 38 guns because they were larger than Chesapeake, which was rated to 36 guns. The most recent information on her rating is from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, published in 2011, which states she was rerated "from 44 guns to 36, eventually increased to 38". Her gun rating remained a matter of confusion throughout her career; Fox used a 44-gun rating in his correspondence with Secretary Stoddert. In preparing for the War of 1812 Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton directed Captain Samuel Evans to recruit the number of crewmen required for a 44-gun ship. Hamilton was corrected by William Bainbridge in a letter stating, "There is a mistake in the crew ordered for the Chesapeake, as it equals in number the crews of our 44-gun frigates, whereas the Chesapeake is of the class of the Congress and Constellation." When sold for scrap by the Royal Navy in 1819, she was rated as a 48-gun ship.
Gun ratings did not correspond to the actual number of guns a ship would carry. Chesapeake was noted as carrying 40 guns during her encounter with HMS Leopard in 1807 and 50 guns during her engagement with HMS Shannon in 1813. The 50 guns consisted of twenty-eight 18-pounder (8 kg) long guns on the gun deck, fourteen on each side. This main battery was complemented by two long 12-pounders (5.5 kg), one long 18-pounder, eighteen 32-pounder (14.5 kg) carronades, and one 12-pound carronade on the spar deck. Her broadside weight was 542 pounds (246 kg).
The ships of this era had no permanent battery of guns; guns were completely portable and were often exchanged between ships as situations warranted. Each commanding officer modified his vessel's armament to his liking while taking into consideration factors such as the overall tonnage of cargo, complement of personnel aboard, and planned routes to be sailed. Consequently, a vessel's armament would change often during its career; records of the changes were not generally kept.