Newly launched vessel honors city naval hero

The Baltimore Sun

The 510-foot destroyer USS Sterett, which was christened at Bath Iron Works in Maine last month, is the fourth such vessel to carry the name of Baltimore-born Andrew Sterett.

The Sterett is the second ship to be named after a Baltimorean in a month.

In May, the Navy announced it had named a new guided-missile destroyer the USS Spruance, also to be built at the Maine shipyard, after World War II Adm. Raymond Ames Spruance, hero of the Battle of Midway.

I didn't know about the Sterett until Terry S. McCormick, an Ellicott City resident who is contract manager for the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, contacted me.

He is also researching and writing a book on David Stodder, who built the frigate USS Constellation at the Sterrett Shipyard in Baltimore.

"During my research, I have often felt that 18th- and 19th-century Baltimore has never gotten its fair due. It's as if Baltimore didn't exist until the British bombardment of Fort McHenry," McCormick said in an interview the other day. "It had been an important port with major shipbuilding activity."

The name of Andrew Sterett surfaced during his research.

"This is a Baltimore guy who no one knows. He lived his entire life here, except when he was away at sea," said McCormick, who contributed credited research for the souvenir launch booklet that was distributed to guests by Bath Iron Works at the Sterett's May 19 christening.

Sterett was born in Baltimore in 1778, the son of a wealthy shipping merchant, foundry owner and Revolutionary War veteran.

He was 20 when he joined the Navy in 1798 and was assigned as third lieutenant aboard the newly completed USS Constellation under the command of Capt. Thomas Truxton. The ship had been launched the year before.

Sterett was aboard the Constellation during what historians have called the Quasi-War with France, which resulted in the capture of the French frigate L'Insurgente in 1799.

While commanding a battery aboard the Constellation during the incident, Sterett "reacted to a panicking seaman by running him through with a cutlass: the only U.S. casualty of the action," according to the launch booklet.

When news of Sterett's actions reached shore, Anti-Federalists denounced what he had done as an "act of arrogance and coldbloodedness."

Not cowed by his critics, Sterett probably inflamed them more when he responded by saying, "We put men to death for even looking pale on this ship."

Rather than seeing his naval career end, Sterett was promoted to first lieutenant and continued sailing with Truxton until the end of the hostilities with France.

In 1800, Sterett was given command of the schooner USS Enterprize, which had been built at the Spencer shipyard in St. Michaels and outfitted in Fells Point.

As threats from France faded, interference to international maritime trade from the Barbary pirates was growing.

For years, buccaneers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya -- the Barbary Coast -- had been raiding and plundering merchant ships from France, England, Spain and Holland.

Attacks on U.S. shipping dated to 1785, when two vessels were seized in Algiers and held for ransom.

When then-ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson protested against ransom payments demanded by Barbary Coast rulers, he was ignored, and seizures by pirates soared between 1785 and 1800. Million-dollar payments were made annually to local rulers in hopes that the attacks on the high seas would end. When they didn't, the Navy began the first of the Barbary wars in 1800, which ended in 1806. The second campaign raged from 1812 to 1815.

To counteract this threat, Sterett sailed from Baltimore on the Enterprize to the Mediterranean in 1801.

While on blockade duty off the enemy coast Aug. 1, Sterett successfully engaged the Tripoli, a warship of 14 cannons.

"Sir, I have the honor to inform you that ... I fell in with a Tripolitan ship of war called the Tripoli, commanded by Rais Mahomet Rous," Sterett wrote of the action in a report to Commodore Richard Dale.

"An action commenced within pistol shot, which continued three hours incessantly. She then struck her colors ... having 30 men killed and 30 wounded. ... We have not a man wounded, and we have sustained no material damage."

The Tripoli's captain and lieutenant were wounded, and "her sails, masts and rigging were cut to pieces. ... I dismantled her of every thing but an old sail and spar with heartfelt pleasure," he wrote.

Sterett also is remembered for saying, "Go tell the Bashaw of Tripoli and the people of your country that in the future, they may expect only a tribute of powder and ball from the sailors of the United States."

When Sterett returned to Baltimore in late 1801, he was honored for his courage and seamanship by a grateful Congress, which authorized President Thomas Jefferson to present him with a sword.

From 1803 to 1805, Sterett sailed with the permission of the Navy as captain of the Canton, a Philadelphia merchant ship, whose 17-month voyage to what is now Indonesia and Oman ended with the ship losing its mast in an Atlantic storm.

The Canton drifted for two months before its crew was rescued by the Minerva and returned to Baltimore.

Sterett resigned his commission in 1805 and returned to the sea as captain of the Warren, whose home port was Baltimore.

While rounding Cape Horn in 1807 on a voyage to the Pacific Northwest and China, Sterett died under what McCormick considers mysterious circumstances.

"He may have died from scurvy or yellow fever, but I think it was possibly murder or suicide. And it happened in Lima, Peru," he said.

After the Sterett entered the cool waters of the Kennebec River last month from the dry dock that had been its home, it was sent on its way by Michelle Sterett, sponsor, and Diana Sterett, matron of honor, both descendants of Andrew Sterett.

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