We have noted elsewhere that the young United States went to war against the Barbary principalities of northern Africa in 1801. President Jefferson found the continued payment of tribute to these piratical opportunists to be obnoxious, and resolved to punish the corsairs militarily. Tripoli returned the favor by declaring war on the Americans. Sword and bullet would now settle the matter.
Stephen Decatur was part of the first American naval squadron to cross the Atlantic for a mission in the Mediterranean. In 1801 he was the first lieutenant of the USS Essex; in the same squadron (commanded by Commodore Richard Dale) were the USS Philadelphia and the USS Enterprise. Various maneuverings and adventures took place from 1801 to 1802, which we will not relate here as being ancillary to our story. By late 1802, Decatur had proven himself to such an extent that he was entrusted with command of the Enterprise. In December of 1803 he participated in the capture of a Tripolitan ketch (a two-masted vessel), which was brought to the city of Syracuse in Sicily, repaired, and renamed Intrepid.
At the end of October 1803, an incident occurred that would inscribe Stephen Decatur’s name in the rolls of the US Navy’s most valorous commanders. The sequence of events began when, on October 31, the Philadelphia ran aground after hitting a reef in Tripoli’s harbor. She was promptly captured by the corsairs, and her crew was imprisoned ashore. The Philadelphia was a powerful ship, and carried forty guns; she was also blocking the entrance to the harbor, and could thwart American operations against Tripoli. It therefore became a priority to deny her use to the enemy. Commodore Edward Preble came to the inescapable conclusion: destroy the Philadelphia. Decatur was assigned the job; it was what today would be called a commando operation. The Philadelphia’s captured commander, Bainbridge, sent a letter to Preble from his dungeon in Tripoli—penned in lemon juice to make his words invisible to his jailers—suggesting that the ship be blown up.
For the operation, Decatur would make use of his recently captured Tripolitan ketch, renamed (as we noted above) the Intrepid. Commodore Preble’s orders from the Constitution to Decatur are so martial and well-written that they merit quoting in full:
United States Frigate Constitution, Syracuse Harbor
January 31st, 1804.
You are hereby ordered to take command of the prize ketch, which I have named the Intrepid, and prepare her with all possible despatch for a cruise of thirty -five days, with full allowance of water and provisions for seventy-five men. I shall send you five midshipmen from the Constitution, and you will take seventy men, including officers, from the Enterprise, if that number can be found ready to volunteer their services for boarding and burning the Philadelphia, in the harbor of Tripoli; if not, report to me, and I will furnish you with men to complete your complement.
It is expected you will be ready to sail tomorrow evening, or some hours sooner, if the signal is made for that purpose. It is my order that you proceed to Tripoli, in company with the Siren, Lieutenant Stewart, enter that harbor in the night, board the Philadelphia, burn her, and make good your retreat with the Intrepid, if possible, unless you can make her the means of destroying the enemy’s vessels in the harbor, by converting her into a fire ship for that purpose , and retreating in your boats, and those of the Siren.
You must take fixed ammunition and apparatus for the frigate’s eighteen pounders, and if you can, without risking too much, you may endeavor to make them the instruments of destruction to the shipping and Bashaw’s Castle. You will provide all the necessary combustibles for burning and destroying ships. The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance, and I rely with confidence on your intrepidity and enterprise to effect it.
Lieutenant Stewart will support you with the boats of the Siren, and cover your retreat with that vessel. Be sure and set fire in the gun room berths, cockpit, store rooms forward, and berths on the berth deck. After the ship is well on fire, point two of the eighteen pounders, shotted, down the main hatch, and blow her bottom out. I enclose you a memorandum of the articles, arms, ammunition, and fireworks necessary, and which you are to take with you.
Return to this place as soon as possible, and report to me your proceedings. On boarding the frigate, it is probable you may meet with resistance. It will be well, in order to prevent alarm, to carry all by the sword. May God prosper you in this enterprise.
I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,
When Decatur received these orders, he mustered his men on the deck of the Enterprise on February 3rd, and explained the purpose of the mission and its importance. He asked for volunteers for the raiding party; every single man stepped forward. He could not take everyone. In the end he brought his officers James Lawrence, Joseph Bainbridge, and Jonathan Thorn, as well as his surgeon Lewis Herrmann and a midshipman named Thomas Macdonough. To these were added sixty-two crewmen of the Enterprise. These men went to the Intrepid, and were joined there by five midshipmen whom Commodore Preble had promised to send from the Constitution.
Decatur cannily brought along a tough, swashbuckling character named Salvatore Catalano. Catalano was a Sicilian native of Palermo, and knew Tripoli’s harbor well from his merchant marine career. He also apparently spoke Arabic. The raiding party then set sail from Syracuse, Sicily, accompanied by the Siren. They arrived outside Tripoli’s harbor on February 7; but the operation was delayed by severe storms that made everyone aboard the Intrepid miserable with seasickness. By February 16 Decatur was ready to begin.
We should note here just how risky the operation was. The captured Philadelphia carried forty heavy mounted guns, and the ship was full of enemy sailors. She was moored within cannon range of several Tripolitan gun batteries. Any hint of an attack on the ship would bring these batteries roaring to life; Barbary shore parties would also immediately row into the harbor to join the fray. Between the Philadelphia and the shore were also three heavily-armed cruisers with twenty-six guns, two galleys, and no less than nineteen gunboats. By contrast, Decatur’s Intrepid displaced only sixty tons and carried four small guns. To have a hope of success, the raiding party had to move swiftly, hit the Tripolitans hard, and escape before reinforcements could be brought up.
Decatur’s original plan was to approach the Philadelphia by the most direct route through the harbor. But it quickly became apparent that a more circuitous route was the better option; the recent storms had heightened the dangers from unseen shoals. By nine o’clock, he and his men had crept very close to the Philadelphia without raising any alarms. Decatur told Catalano to hail the ship and engage the Barbary watchman in conversation. As they moved closer and closer, the Tripolitans told Decatur to keep away; Catalano shouted back with a pre-arranged ruse. He told the corsairs that the Intrepid had lost her anchors in the recent storms, and could not moor herself. He also told them that his ship was a former British man-of-war named the Transfer, a vessel that was expected in Tripoli.
But by this time, the Siren had been spotted near the harbor’s entrance, and the corsair crew of the Philadelphia were alerted to danger. Decatur could hear the enemy running about, and the metallic clatter of weapons being prepared for battle. He could see them taking the tompions out of the guns, which meant they intended to fire. He knew it was now or never; calling out “Board!” to his men, they sprang like cats on the Philadelphia’s ropes, and began to haul themselves aboard.
Had the Tripolitans been able to bring concentrated fire on Decatur and his men, the raid would have ended in complete failure. But they hesitated, perhaps not quite believing what was happening. Once Decatur and most of his men were aboard, a pitched battle took place on deck. Cutlasses flailed here and there in the night; periodically the deck was lit with the flashing of discharged pistols. There were shouts of dismay and agony, as startled corsairs were pushed or leapt into the sea to escape the attacking Yankees. Decatur lost not a single man—only one had suffered a minor wound.
Decatur now gave the order to bring up the combustible chemicals from the Intrepid. He had to move fast and finish the job before shore parties returned to counterattack, or before the shore batteries opened up on him. Soon the task was done; oily clouds of smoke and flame billowed from the doomed Philadelphia’s hatches, and moved steadily up her masts. Decatur ordered his men off the ship, and back on the Intrepid; the goal now was to get out of the harbor in one piece. For now the night was illuminated by the burning yellow vision adorning Tripoli’s harbor. Lifted by a gentle breeze, the Intrepid was slowly brought out of danger. As the Philadelphia’s superheated guns exploded, showers of sparks and debris rose like plumes across the placid waters. The shore batteries now opened fire on the escaping Intrepid; geysers of water erupted around her as cannon shot impacted the waters. But it was too late.
So the deed was done. Commodore Preble wrote as follows in response to the raid’s success:
Lieutenant Decatur is an officer of too much value to be neglected. The important service he has rendered, of destroying an enemy’s frigate of forty guns, and the gallant manner in which he performed it, in a small vessel of only sixty tons and four guns, under the enemy’s batteries, surrounded by their corsairs and armed boats, the crews of which stood appalled at his intrepidity and daring, would, in any navy in Europe, insure him instantaneous promotion to the rank of post captain. I wish, as a stimulus, it should be done in this instance. It would eventually be of real service to our navy. I beg most earnestly to recommend him to the President, that he may be rewarded according to his merit.
As Preble had instructed him, Decatur had carried all by the sword. The operation even won Decatur praise from the British Navy’s most renowned fighter, Admiral Horatio Nelson himself. We are told that, upon hearing the details, Nelson pronounced it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” No other statement from any other man could have been a higher honor.
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