The first USS Cumberland was a 50-gun sailing frigate of the United States Navy. Cumberland began in the pages of a Congressional Act. Congress passed in 1816 'An act for the gradual increase of the Navy of the United States.' The act called for the United States to build several ships-of-the-line and several new frigates, of which Cumberland was one of them. Money issues, however, prevented Cumberland from being finished in a timely manner. It was not until Secretary of the Navy Able Parker Upshaw came to office that the ship was finished. A war scare with Britain led Upshaw to order the completion of several wooden sailing ships and for the construction of new steam powered ships.
Designed by famed American designer William Doughty, Cumberland was one a series of frigates in a class called the Potomac-class. The design borrowed heavily from older American frigate designs such as Constitution and Chesapeake. Specifically, Doughty liked the idea of giving a frigate more guns than European designs called for. As a result, he called for Cumberland and her sister ships to have a fully armed spar deck, along with guns on the gun deck. The result was a heavily armed, 50-gun warship.
She was launched 24 May 1842 by Boston Navy Yard. Her first commanding officer was Captain S. L. Breese, and her first service was as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron from 1843 to 1845 where she had among her officers men like Foote (who served as executive officer) and Dahlgren (who served as a flag aide to Commodore Joseph Smith). The ship sailed to several parts of the Mediterranean including Port Mahon (homeport for U.S. Navy ships operating in the Mediterranean at this time), Genoa, Naples, Toulon, Jaffa, and Alexandria. The cruise was largely uneventful, though there was a diplomatic scuffle with the Sultan of Morocco who refused to recognize the newly appointed American ambassador. The incident possibly was the result of the Sultan being misled by the outgoing American ambassador who did not want to leave his post. Smith cleared up the misunderstanding and the new ambassador assumed his duties. The most notable event was Foote's successful effort to ban the grog ration. He believed it was a grand success in turning sailors into harder working, upstanding men. It later became Department policy in 1862 and it is still in effect to this day (with some exceptions.)
As the ship was being made ready for a second trip to the Mediterranean, the Secretary of the Navy ordered the vessel to Mexico to assist in a show of force off the coast of Vera Cruz. Here she was flagship of the Home Squadron between February and December 1846, serving in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican-American War under the command of Commodore David Conner and Captain Thomas Dulay. Captain French Forrest later took command when Dulay fell ill. Other notable officers in this cruise were future Civil War rivals Raphael Semmes and John Winslow. The ship oversaw the blockade of the eastern Mexican coast for most of the war. She participated in several aborted attacks on Mexican ports, before running aground on July 28 off the coast of Alvarado. The ship was freed and her ship's company later participated in a raid on Tabasco. The grounding damaged her enough to force her to retire to Norfolk for repairs. Her crew, however, stayed behind and swapped ships with the crew of the sister frigate USS Raritan, which had been at sea for three years. The old crew participated in the siege of Vera Cruz as part of the Naval battery.
Cumberland returned to Mexico just as a cease fire was in place. Commodore Matthew C. Perry took over as flag officer from Conner. From Cumberland, Perry was instructed by the Polk Administration to assist settlers fleeing a major Mayan insurrection (known as the Caste War of Yucatán). Perry was also ordered to enforce the Monroe Doctrine and keep Spanish and English forces from interfering. With no realistic way to assist the setters Perry partially ignored the order when Spanish warships arrived from Cuba loaded with guns, bullets, and money. Perry left the region when he read that the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo had been ratified.
Cumberland made her second cruise to the Mediterranean from 1849 to 1851. Notable officers on board during the second and third cruises to the Mediterranean included Louis Goldsborough, John Upshur, Silas Stringham, Andrew Hardwood, John Worden (future commanding of officer of USS Monitor), and naval surgeon Dr. Edward Squibb (co-founder of the company now known as Bristol Myers Squibb)
Cumberland's primary mission during these two cruises was to uphold American neutrality during a very turbulent period in European history by assisting American diplomats, merchants, and increasingly large number of American missionaries. The ship made visits to La Spezia (the U.S. Navy's new overseas homeport after being expelled from Port Mahon), Naples, Trieste, and Brindisi. At one point police in Naples boarded the ship based on a false rumor that Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi was on board. The ship also sailed to the eastern half the Mediterranean and visited Athens, Beirut, and Alexandria.
During the third cruise, the ship worked closely with diplomat and early environmentalist George Perkins Marsh who was serving as American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Marsh needed Cumberland's help in dealing with zealous Greek priests who were harassing American missionaries, notably Rev. Jonas King. Commodore Stringham and Marsh met with Greek monarch King Otto and stopped the harassment. Marsh needed Cumberland a second time when the powers of Europe were about to clash in the Crimean War. Stringham invited any American on board who felt they needed protection or assistance. Abd-ul-Mejid I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, invited Stringham and Marsh for an official visit to determine the position of the United States in a possible war with Russia. Both Stringham and Marsh expressed their sympathies to the Sultan but maintained American neutrality on the subject.
The third was long even by 19th century standards. Due to a lack of sailors to man a replacement ship, Secretary of the Navy James C. Dobbin did not recall Cumberland until the ship had been at sea for three years. The ship returned home to Boston in 1855.
Between 1855 and 1857, Cumberland was razeed at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. From his office in Washington, D.C., John L. Lenhart, the chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair, directed the changes to the ship. The Navy gave her new weapons in the form of 24 Dahlgren smoothbore cannons (22 IX-inch and 2 X-inch). By razeeing the ship, Cumberland got an extension of life. The Navy made her a lighter ship and thus slightly faster. Specifically, the shipyard workers removed the top deck, removed the quarter galleries, removed all guns from the spar deck, and removed several of sections of wood.
This move was assisted by the revolution in naval weapons that provided more powerful guns (and thus needing fewer guns). While steam powered ships were entering the fleet, there was still a need for all the sail ships. As late as 1860, Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey suggested that all Potomac-class frigates be razeed.
From 1857 to 1859 she cruised on the coast of Africa as flagship of the African Squadron patrolling for the suppression of the slave trade. Like many U.S. Navy ships in Africa, Cumberland employed a number of Krooman (indigenous Africans who lived on the western coast) to serve as scouts, interpreters, and fishermen. The ship's surgeons had to deal with a number of issues, including an outbreak of smallpox.
Cumberland boarded several dozen merchant ships. Her crew almost seized one, the schooner Cortez, after shackles and known slave trading items had been found on the deck of the schooner, a slave trading holding pen had been spotted in the distance, the ship's papers were highly suspect, and the ship was far from any port. Cumberland's boarding officer, however, chose not seize the ship possibly realizing the legal difficulty of bringing slave traders to trial without overwhelming evidence. Cortez was later captured by HMS Arrow in 1858 off the coast of Cuba.
Otherwise, the ship served as the squadron's supply vessel providing supplies to the other three ships in the squadron, the sloops-of-war Dale, Vincennes, and Marion and served as roving diplomat along the three thousand mile coast line.
After her return from Africa, Cumberland became flagship of the Home Squadron in 1860. She made a return trip to Vera Cruz Mexico, which was in the middle of a civil war. The Navy recalled her to Hampton Roads, VA when domestic issues in the United States took a turn for the worse.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Cumberland was at the Gosport Navy Yard, with orders to monitor the situation in Norfolk and Portsmouth. After the attack on Fort Sumter, the ship's company was ordered to gather up or destroy U.S. Government property. This included several crates of small arms and possibly (not yet confirmed) gold from the U.S. Customs House in Norfolk. The company was also ordered to spike all 3,000 guns at the Navy Yard within just a few hours. This latter task was impossible, given that only 100 sailors were assigned to the task. Sailors from the Yard and the barracks ship USS Pennsylvania boarded Cumberland as a part of the evacuation.
She was towed out of the yard by the steam sloop USS Pawnee, escaping destruction when other ships there were scuttled and burned by Union forces 20 April 1861 to prevent their capture. She sailed back to Boston for repairs. The aft X-inch Dahlgren was removed and replaced with what many officers referred to as a 70-pounder rifle. This gun did not exist in the Navy's inventory at the time. It was possibly a 5.3-inch, 60-pounder Parrott Rifle.
She sailed back to Hampton Roads and took up station as a blockader. She served as one several ships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron until 8 March 1862. The sloop-of-war engaged Confederate forces in several minor actions in Hampton Roads and captured many small ships in the harbor. Additionally, Cumberland was a part of the expedition that captured the forts at Cape Hatteras.
Cumberland was rammed and sunk in an engagement with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) at Newport News, Virginia on March 8, 1862. The engagement known as the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads between the two ships is considered to be a turning point in the history of world naval affairs as it showed the advantage of steam powered, armored ships over sail powered wooden hulled ships. It should be noted that because of Cumberland, Virginia lost two of her guns, her ram, and suffered some internal damage. Congress later recognized that Cumberland did more damage to Virginia than the U.S. Navy's ironclad USS Monitor, which did battle with Virginia the next day.
USS Cumberland is currently a ship wreck under the protection of several Federal laws including the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2005, the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, and the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution (which gives the U.S. Government exclusive rights to its own property). Federal courts have upheld these laws and the U.S. Government's exclusive rights to its own ships.
Since her sinking, the ship has been the subject of many expeditions. Some of these expeditions have been in violation of Federal law and artifacts were seized by Federal agents. Many artifacts from these expeditions (both legal and illegal) are at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.