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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Stephen Decatur and the Frigate Philadelphia
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The close of the Revolutionary War, although it secured the recognition of the United Sates as a sovereign and independent nation, by no means removed all the difficulties in its path to empire. From the very first, sources of complaint existed between the two lately warring countries. Great Britain was accused of carrying away negroes at the close of the war, of illegal seizures of American property, and of retaining military posts in the West on what was now territory of the United States. The United States was charged with withholding the estates of loyalists, and preventing British subjects from recovering debts contracted before the war. It was feared that another war might arise from these disputes, particularly as the Indian outbreaks in the West were known to have been encouraged by British emissaries, while the defeated savages fled to British forts for protection. These difficulties were fortunately settled by a treaty made in 1795.

But new sources of trouble quickly arose. The commerce of America was now increasing with remarkable rapidity. For the protection of the growing commerce the country possessed a very inefficient navy, and it was exposed to perils which quickly brought the country into danger of war with France, and eventually resulted in two wars, one with Tripoli and one with England. The outcome of the French Revolution had now brought all Europe under arms, and England had begun that vast struggle against the power and genius of Napoleon which was destined to become the most remarkable event of modern warfare. At the outbreak of the war the Republican party favored the French, but the administration was in favor of England. Angered at this, and at the treaty concluded between the United States and Great Britain, the French Directory adopted measures highly injurious to American commerce. Envoys were sent to France, who the Directory refused to receive, while an unofficial demand was made for a large sum of money as a preliminary to negotiations. This was refused, and two of the envoys, who were Federalists, were soon afterwards ordered to leave France.

As war now appeared inevitable, the people of the United States being roused to a state of high indignation, measures were taken for raising an army, a naval armament was decided upon, and captures of French vessels were authorized. A few naval encounters took place, in which on one side an American armed schooner and on the other a French frigate were captured, when the directory gave way, and made overtures of peace. Ministers were accordingly sent to France to settle the difficulties by treaty.

Meanwhile, Great Britain had begun that system of impressment of seamen from American merchant-vessels which was destined to result finally in war between the two nations. Seriously in need of men to aid in her struggle with France, and now unable to buy them from the German duchies, as she had done in the American war, she claimed the right to take British seamen wherever found, and to stop and search vessels on the high seas. At first, indeed, the claim was limited to deserters from the British service. But it was soon extended to cover British seamen, and finally to embrace all British subjects. Eventually the seamen on American merchantmen were obliged to prove on the spot that they were to American birth, or be subject to impressment. As early as the years 1796-7 applications were made in London for the release of two hundred and seventy-one seamen thus seized within nine months, most of them American citizens. It was later, however, before this evil grew so intolerable as to demand warlike redress.

The first commercial was of the United States arose from a different cause, the depredations of Moorish pirates upon American merchantmen. For many years past the Barbary Powers of Northern Africa had made the Mediterranean unsafe for commerce, and the weaker mercantile nations of Europe, after some unsuccessful attempts to suppress these outrages, had consented to pay an annual tribute for the security of their commerce. The United States for some time did the same, but a bolder course was soon adopted, and war declared against Tripoli, the most annoying of these piratical powers. This was continued from 1801 to 1804. In 1803, Commodore Preble was sent with a fleet to the Mediterranean. He forced the Emperor of Morocco to adopt pacific measures, and then proceeded to Tripoli. Here one of his squadron, the frigate Philadelphia, while reconnoitring in the harbor, ran on a reef, and was taken by the Tripolitans. This event, and those which succeeded, were of such interest and importance that we select a detailed description of them from Cooper's "Naval History of the United States."]

Towards the last of the month of October, the wind, which had been strong from the westward for some time previously, drove the Philadelphia a considerable distance to the eastward of the town, and on Monday, October the 31st, as she was running down to her station again, with a fair breeze, about nine in the morning, a vessel was seen in-shore and to windward, standing for Tripoli. Sail was made to cut her off. Believing himself to be within long-range shot a little before eleven, and seeing no other chance of overtaking the stranger in the distance that remained, Captain Bainbridge opened a fire, in the hope of cutting something away. For near an hour longer the chase and the fire were continued, the lead, which was constantly kept going, giving from seven to ten fathoms, and the ship hauling up and keeping away as the water shoaled or deepened. At half- past eleven, Tripoli being then in plain sight, distant a little more than a league, satisfied that he could neither overtake the chase nor force her ashore, Captain Bainbridge ordered the helm aport, 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 forwards, 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 round the ship it was found that she had run up with such force as to lie nearly cradled on the rocks, there being only fourteen feet of water under the fore-chains, while the ship drew, before striking, eighteen an a half feet forward. Astern there were not eighteen feet of water, instead of twenty and a half, which the frigate needed. Such an accident could only have occurred by the vessel's hitting the reef at a spot where it sloped gradually, and where, most probably, the constant washing of the element had rendered the surface smooth, and by her going up on top of one of those long, heavy, but nearly imperceptible swells that are always agitating the bosom of the ocean.

[Strenuous efforts were made to get the vessel off, as some gunboats had appeared from the town. The sails were braced atf, and the guns run astern, but without effect.]

Captain Bainbridge next gave orders to throw overboard all the guns, after reserving a few aft, that were retained for defence; and the anchors, with the exception of the larboard bower, were cut from the bows. Before this could be effected, the enemy came within gunshot, and opened his fire. Fortunately, the Tripolitans were ignorant of the desperate condition of the Philadelphia, and were kept at a respectful distance by the few guns that remained; else they might have destroyed most of the crew, it being certain that the colors would not be struck so long as there was any hope of getting the ship afloat. The cannonade, which was distant and inefficient, and the business of lightening the frigate, went on at the same time, and occupied several hours.

The enemy finally became so bold that they crossed the stern of the frigate, where along they were at all exposed to the fire, and took a position on her starboard or weather quarter. Here it was impossible to touch them, the ship having slewed to port in a way to render it impracticable to bring a single gun to bear, or indeed to use one at all, on that side.

Captain Bainbridge now called another council of his officers, and it was determined to make a last effort to get the vessel off. The water-casks in the hold were started, and the water was pumped out. All the heavy articles that could be got at were thrown overboard, and finally the foremast was cut away, bringing down with it the main-top-gallant mast. Notwithstanding all this, the vessel remained as immovable as the rocks on which she lay.

The gunboats were growing bolder every minute, others were approaching, and night was at hand. Captain Bainbridge, after consulting again with his officers, felt it to be an imperious duty to haul down his flag, to save the lives of the people. Before this was done, however, the magazine was drowned, holes were bored in the ship's bottom, the pumps were choked, and everything was performed that it was thought would make sure of the final loss of the vessel. About five o'clock the colors were lowered.

[The gunboats at once ran alongside and took possession, and the officers and crew were sent as prisoners to Tripoli, after being stripped, in some cases, of nearly all their clothing. The officers were well treated by the bashaw, but the capture of so many prisoners made an instant change in his position. He had taken three hundred and fifteen captives, twenty-two of them quarter-deck officers, from the Philadelphia, for whom he demanded an enormous ransom, while his former supposed inclination to peace disappeared. A few days afterwards the prize was got off the reef, partly by the aid of a high wind, and was taken in triumph to the city, the leaks being stopped. The guns, anchors, and other articles which had been thrown upon the reef were raised, and the ship partly repaired, and moored off the town, about a quarter of a mile from the bashaw's castle, her guns being remounted.

The fleet had been absent during these occurrences, Commodore Preble first learning at Malta of the loss of the Philadelphia. On his return to Tripoli a suggestion was made by Captain Bainbridge of the possibility of destroying the lost vessel, which was slowly being fitted for sea as a Tripolitan cruiser. The suggestion being made to Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, commander of the Enterprise, he at once decided to attempt the perilous undertaking, with the aid of a ketch called the Mastico, which he had recently captured. This vessel was fitted for the purpose, renamed the Intrepid, and on the evening of February 3, 1804, entered the harbor of Tripoli, having on board a crew of seventy-six men.]

It was a mild evening for the season, and the sea and bay were smooth as in summer. Perceiving that he was likely to get in too soon, when about five miles from the rocks Mr. Decatur ordered buckets and other drags to be towed astern, in order to lessen the way of the ketch, without shortening sail, as the latter expedient would have been seen from the port and must have awakened suspicion. In the mean time the wind gradually fell, until it became so light as to leave the ketch but about two knots' way upon her, when the drags were removed.

About ten 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 a 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 practice of those seas to carry a number of men even in the smallest craft, the appearance of ten or twelve would excite no alarm, and this number was visible.

[The Philadelphia hailed the ketch, when sufficiently near. Answer was returned that it was a Maltese vessel, which had lost its anchors in a gale, and wished to ride by the frigate during the night. The pilot, who could speak the Tripolitan language, continued to converse with the Moors, until the ketch came so near as nearly to run afoul of the frigate.]

Not the smallest suspicion appears to have been yet excited on board the frigate, though several of her people were looking over her 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 fore-chains. 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 former 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 movement 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-Commander 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 chainplates, 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-Commander 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. Mr. Decatur's foot slipped in springing, and Mr. Charles Morris stood first upon the quarter-deck of the Philadelphia. In an instant Lieutenant-Commander 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 surprise 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 leaped into the water. 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, thought there was more of a struggle below. Still, so admirably managed was the attack, and so complete the surprise, that the resistance was but trifling. In less than ten minutes Mr. Decatur was on the quarter-desk again, in undisturbed possession of the 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 cockpit and after-store-rooms before the fires were lighted over their heads. When the officer intrusted 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 burnt 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 risks 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-galley, and her boom foul. The fire showed itself in the windows 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 no time to look for an axe, 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, thought 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 mean, 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 [which lay close within the Philadelphia] 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 merrily down the harbor.

The spectacle that followed is described as having been both beautiful an 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 towards Fort English. The most singular effect of the conflagration was on board the ship, for 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 Intrepid continued her course outward, unpursued, and unhurt by the shot that was sent after her, until she reached the Siren, which had lain outside the harbor during the enterprise. Setting sail, they made their way to Syracuse, where the fleet lay.]

The success of this gallant exploit laid the foundation of the name which Mr. Decatur subsequently acquired in the navy. The country applauded the feat generally; and the commanding officer was raised from the station of a lieutenant to that of a captain..

In whatever light we regard this exploit, it extorts our admiration and praise, - the boldness in the conception of the enterprise having been surpassed only by the perfect manner in which all its parts were executed. Nothing appears to have been wanting, in a military point of view; nothing was deranged, nothing defeated. The hour was well chosen, and no doubt it was a chief reason why the corsairs, gunboats, and batteries were, in the first place, so slow in commencing their fire, and so uncertain in their aim when they did open on the Americans. In appreciating the daring of the attempt, we have only to consider what might have been the consequences had the assault upon the frigate been repulsed. Directly under her guns, with a harbor filled with light cruisers, gunboats, and galleys, and surrounded by forts and batteries, the inevitable destruction of all in the Intrepid must have followed. These were dangers that cool steadiness and entire self-possession, aided by perfect discipline, could alone avert. 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 of the Intrepid's crew.

[The war with Tripoli continued until 1805, when a land-expedition was undertaken which captured Derne, a Tripolitan city. The army of the bashaw was also defeated in two engagements, after which he offered terms of peace, which were accepted. The fleet next anchored in the Bay of Tunis, and forced the monarch of that country into peaceful measures. War subsequently broke out in the same region, with Algiers. From 1795 to 1812 an annual tribute had been paid to the dey of this country, but he took advantage of the war of America with England to begin a piratical warfare on American vessels. In 1815, Commodore Decatur was sent to Algiers with a fleet, and, after capturing several of the largest vessels of the dey, compelled that potentate to release all American prisoners in his possession, and to give up all future claims of tribute from the United States. Tunis and Tripoli were also humbled, and the long-continued piracies of the Barbary Powers finally suppressed.]

J. Fenimore Cooper

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