DECATUR'S CAPTURE AND BURNING OF THE "PHILADELPHIA"
At half-past eleven, Tripoli then being in plain sight, distant a little more than a league, satisfied that he could neither overtake the chase, nor force her ashore, Captain Bainbridge, of the Philadelphia, ordered the helm a-port, to haul directly off the land into deep water. The next cast of the lead, when this order was executed, gave but eight fathoms, and this was immediately followed by casts that gave seven, and six and a half. At this moment, the wind was nearly abeam, and the ship had eight knots way on her. When the cry of "half-six" was heard, the helm was put hard down, and the yards were ordered to be braced sharp up. While the ship was coming up fast to the wind, and before she had lost any of her way, she struck a reef forward, and shot up on it, until she lifted between five and six feet.
This was an appalling accident to occur on the coast of such an enemy, at that season of the year, and with no other cruiser near! It was first attempted to force the vessel ahead, under the impression that the best water was to seaward; but on sounding around the ship, it was found that she had run up with such force, as to lie nearly cradled on the rocks; there being only 14 feet of water under the fore-chains, while the ship drew, before striking, 18½ feet forward. Astern there were not 18 feet of water, instead of 20½, which the frigate needed. . .
The ship had no sooner struck than the gunboats ran down alongside of her, and took possession. The barbarians rushed into the vessel, and began to plunder their captives. Not only were the clothes which the Americans had collected in their bags and bundles, taken from them, but many officers and men were stript half-naked. They were hurried into boats, and sent to Tripoli, and even on the passage the business of plundering went on. The officers were respected little more than the common men, and, while in the boat, Captain Bainbridge himself was robbed of his epaulets, gloves, watch, and money. His cravat was even torn from his neck. He wore a miniature of his wife, and of this the Tripolitans endeavored to deprive him also, but, a youthful and attached husband, he resisted so seriously that the attempt was relinquished. . .
Means had been found to communicate with Captain Bainbridge; and several letters were received from that officer, pointing out different methods of annoying the enemy. In a letter of the date of the 5th of December, 1803, Captain Bainbridge suggested the possibility of destroying the Philadelphia, which ship was slowly fitting for sea, there being little doubt of her being sent out as a cruiser, as soon as the mild season should return. Commodore Preble listened to the suggestion, and being much in the society of the commander of the vessel that was most in company with the Constitution, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, he mentioned the project to that spirited officer. The expedition was just suited to the ardor and temperament of Mr. Decatur, and the of the possession of the prize at once afforded the means of carrying it into effect. . . .
It is scarcely necessary to say that the accommodations were none of the best, with so many persons cooped up in a vessel of between forty and fifty tons; and to make the matter worse, it was soon found that the salted meat put on board was spoiled, and that there was little besides bread and water left to subsist on. The weather, however, was pleasant, and the wind favorable, and the two vessels got in sight of Tripoli on the afternoon of the 9th. To prevent suspicions, the Intrepid now went ahead of the Siren.
The orders of Lieutenant-Commandant Decatur were clear and simple. The spar-deck was first to be carried, then the gun-deck; after which a distribution of the party was made, in order to set fire to the ship. . . .
As the ketch drew in with the land, the ship became visible. She lay not quite a mile within the entrance, riding to the wind, and abreast of the town. Her foremast, which had been cut away while she was on the reef, had not yet been replaced, her main and mizzentopmasts were housed, and her lower yards were on the gunwales. Her lower standing rigging, however, was in its place, and, as was shortly afterward ascertained, her guns were loaded and shotted. Just within her lay two corsairs, with a few gunboats, and a galley or two. . . .
About 10 o'clock the Intrepid reached the eastern entrance of the bay, or the passage between the rocks and the shoal. The wind was nearly east, and, as she steered directly for the frigate, it was well abaft the beam. There was a young moon, and as these bold adventurers were slowly advancing into the hostile port, all around them was tranquil and apparently without distrust. For near an hour they were stealing slowly along, the air gradually failing, until their motion became scarcely perceptible.
Most of the officers and men of the ketch had been ordered to lie on the deck, where they were concealed by low bulwarks, or weather-boards, and by the different objects that belong to a vessel. As it is the practise of those seas to carry many men even in the smallest craft, the appearance of ten or twelve would excite no alarm, and this number was visible. The commanding officer, himself, stood near the pilot, Mr. Catalano, who was to act as interpreter. The quartermaster at the helm, was ordered to stand directly for the frigate's bows, it being the intention to lay the ship aboard in that place, as the mode of attack which would least expose the assailants to her fire.
The Intrepid was still at a considerable distance from the Philadelphia, when the latter hailed. The pilot answered that the ketch belonged to Malta, and was on a trading voyage; that she had been nearly wrecked, and had lost her anchors in the late gale, and that her commander wished to ride by the frigate during the night. This conversation lasted some time, Mr. Decatur instructing the pilot to tell the frigate's people with what he was laden, in order to amuse them, and the Intrepid gradually drew nearer, until there was every prospect of her running foul of the Philadelphia, in a minute or two, and at the very spot contemplated. But the wind suddenly shifted, and took the ketch aback. The instant the southerly puff struck her, her head fell off, and she got a stern-board; the ship, at the same moment, tending to the new current of air. The effect of this unexpected change was to bring the ketch directly under the frigate's broadside, at the distance of about forty yards, where she lay perfectly becalmed, or, if anything, drifting slowly astern, exposed to nearly every one of the Philadelphia's larboard guns.
Not the smallest suspicion appears to have been yet excited on board the frigate, tho several of her people were looking over the rails, and notwithstanding the moonlight. So completely were the Turks deceived, that they lowered a boat, and sent it with a fast. Some of the ketch's men, in the mean time, had got into her boat, and had run a line to the frigate's forechains. As they returned, they met the frigate's boat, took the fast it brought, which came from the after part of the ship, and passed it into their own vessel. These fasts were put into the hands of the men, as they lay on the ketch's deck, and they began cautiously to breast the Intrepid alongside of the Philadelphia, without rising. As soon as the latter got near enough to the ship, the Turks discovered her anchors, and they sternly ordered the ketch to keep off, as she had deceived them; preparing, at the same time, to cut the fasts. All this passed in a moment, when the cry of "Amerikanos" was heard in the ship. The people of the Intrepid, by a strong pull, brought their vessel alongside of the frigate, where she was secured, quick as thought. Up to this moment, not a whisper had betrayed the presence of the men concealed. The instructions had been positive to keep quiet until commanded to show themselves; and no precipitation, even in that trying moment, deranged the plan.
Lieutenant-Commandant Decatur was standing ready for a spring, with Messrs. Laws and Morris quite near him. As soon as close enough, he jumped at the frigate's chain-plates, and while clinging to the ship himself, he gave the order to board. The two midshipmen were at his side, and all the officers and men of the Intrepid arose and followed. The three gentlemen named were in the chains together, and Lieutenant-Commandant Decatur and Mr. Morris sprang at the rail above them, while Mr. Laws dashed at a port. To the latter would have belonged the honor of having been first in this gallant assault, but wearing a boarding-belt, his pistols were caught between the gun and the side of the port. Mt. Decatur's foot slipped in springing, and Mr. Charles Morris first stood upon the quarter-deck of the Philadelphia. In an instant, LieutenantCommandant Decatur and Mr. Laws were at his side, while heads and bodies appeared coming over the rail and through the ports in all directions.
The surprize appears to have been as perfect as the assault was rapid and earnest. Most of the Turks on deck crowded forward, and all ran over to the starboard side, as their enemies poured in on the larboard. A few were aft, but as soon as charged they leapt into the sea. Indeed, the constant plunges into the water gave the assailants the assurance that their enemies were fast lessening in numbers by flight. It took but a minute or two to clear the spar-deck, tho there was more of a struggle below. Still, so admirably managed was the attack, and so complete the surprize, that the resistance was trifling. In less than ten minutes Mr. Decatur was on the quarter-deck again, in undisturbed possession of his prize.
There can be no doubt that this gallant officer now felt bitter regrets that it was not in his power to bring away the ship he had so nobly recovered. Not only were his orders on this point peremptory, however, but the frigate had not a sail bent, nor a yard crossed, and she wanted her foremast. It was next to impossible, therefore, to remove her, and the command was given to pass up the combustibles from the ketch.
The duty of setting fire to the prize appears to have been executed with as much promptitude and order, as every other part of the service. The officers distributed themselves, agreeably to the previous instructions, and the men soon appeared with the necessary means. Each party acted by itself, and, as it got ready. So rapid were they all in their movements, that the men with combustibles had scarcely time to get as low as the cock-pit and after storerooms, before the fires were lighted over their heads. When the officer entrusted with the duty last, mentioned had got through, he found the after-hatches filled with smoke, from the fire in the ward-room and steerage, and he was obliged to make his escape by the forward ladders.
The Americans were in the ship from twenty to twenty-five minutes, and they were literally driven out of her by the flames. The vessel had got to be so dry in that low latitude that she burned like pine; and the combustibles had been as judiciously prepared, as they were steadily used. The last party up were the people who had been in the store-rooms, and when they reached the deck they found most of their companions already in the Intrepid. Joining them, and ascertaining that all was ready, the order was given to cast off. Notwithstanding the daring character of the enterprise in general, Mr. Decatur and his party now ran the greatest risk they had incurred that night. So fierce had the conflagration already become, that the flames began to pour out of the ports, and the head-fast having been cast off, the ketch fell astern, with her jigger flapping against the quarter-gallery, and her boom foul. The fire showed itself in the window at this critical moment; and beneath was all the ammunition of the party, covered with a tarpaulin. To increase the risk, the stern-fast was jammed. By using swords, however, for there was not time to look for an ax, the hawser was cut, and the Intrepid was extricated from the most imminent danger by a vigorous shove. As she swung clear of the frigate, the flames reached the rigging, up which they went hissing, like a rocket, the tar having oozed from the ropes, which had been saturated with that inflammable matter. Matches could not have kindled with greater quickness.
The sweeps were now manned. Up to this moment, everything had been done earnestly, tho without noise, but as soon as they felt that they had got command of their ketch again, and by two or three vigorous strokes had sent her away from the frigate, the people of the Intrepid ceased rowing, and as one man they gave three cheers for victory. This appeared to arouse the Turks from their stupor; for the cry had hardly ended when the batteries, the two corsairs, and the galley poured in their fire. The men laid hold of the sweeps again, of which the Intrepid had eight of a side, and favored by a light air, they went rapidly down the harbor.
The spectacle that followed is described as having been both beautiful and sublime. The entire bay was illuminated by the conflagration, the roar of cannon was constant, and Tripoli was in a clamor. The appearance of the ship was, in the highest degree, magnificent; and to add to the effect, as her guns heated, they began to go off. Owing to the shift of wind, and the position into which she had tended, she, in some measure, returned the enemy's fire, as one of her broadsides was discharged in the direction of the town, and the other toward Fort English. The most singular effect of this conflagration was on board the ship, where the flames having run up the rigging and masts, collected under the tops, and fell over, giving the whole the appearance of glowing columns and fiery capitals. . . .
The success of this gallant exploit laid the foundation of the name which Mr. Decatur subsequently acquired in the navy. The country generally applauded the feat; and the commanding officer was raised from the station of a lieutenant to that of a captain. Most of the midshipmen engaged were also promoted, and Lieutenant-Commandant Decatur received a sword.
In the service the enterprise has ever been regarded As one of its most brilliant achievements; and to this day it is deemed a high honor to have been one among the Intrepid's crew. The effect on the squadron then abroad can scarcely be appreciated; as its seamen began to consider themselves invincible, if not invulnerable, and were ready for any service in which men could be employed.
1 From Cooper's "Naval History." The Tripolitan War was the last struggle by Europeans or Americans with the notorious corsairs or pirates of North Africa, who had made war on commerce in the Mediterranean for several centuries. Their depredations had become particularly atrocious in the late years of the Eighteenth Century, merchant ships being subjected to capture unless tribute was paid. It was common in those days for governments to pay tribute, but when an increase in such payments was demanded about the end of the century, the United States refused to pay. Tripoli in consequence, in 1801, declared war against us. The whole country was aroused over this declaration, the common battle-cry being "Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute." Actual war did not begin, however, until two years after the declaration had been made. The American frigate Philadelphia, while chasing corsairs into the harbor of Tripoli, in that year, struck on a sunken rock and, being unable to use her guns, was captured by the enemy. Decatur's exploit here described relates to what followed this accident.
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