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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Short History of the United States Navy

George R. Clark et al.

published by
J. B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia & London 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p76  V
The War with Tripoli (continued)

The Destruction of the Philadelphia

The news of the capture of the Philadelphia immediately suggested the idea of cutting her out or destroying her. Bainbridge outlined a plan in one of his secret letters to Preble, and, even before this was received, Preble and Decatur had been discussing a similar course of action. As soon as the subject was mentioned by the commodore, Decatur eagerly volunteered to cut out the Philadelphia with his ship, the Enterprise; so when Lieutenant Stewart arrived in the Siren and offered to perform the same service, Preble informed him that Decatur was already promised the honor. The commodore, believing that it was impossible to save the frigate, decided not to try to cut her out but to destroy her at her moorings. The scheme was greatly helped by the capture of Tripolitan ketch, the Mastico, whose Mediterranean rig would enable her to slip into the harbor without raising the suspicion that the Enterprise would have been sure to create.

When Decatur assembled the officers and men of the Enterprise, told them of the intended expedition, and called for volunteers, every officer, man, and boy stepped forward. From this number, five officers — Lieutenants James Lawrence, Joseph Bainbridge, and Jonathan Thorn, Surgeon Lewis Hermann, Midshipman Thomas Macdonough — and sixty‑two men were chosen. To these were added five officers from the Constitution — Midshipmen Ralph Izard, John Rowe, Charles Morris, Alexander Laws, and John Davis — and a Sicilian pilot, Salvatore  p77 Catalano,​1 who was familiar with the harbor of Tripoli. On February 15, the day before the destruction of the frigate, Lieutenant Stewart sent a boat to the Intrepid with Midshipman Thomas O. Anderson and six men. The boat party remained on board the Intrepid, and shared in the attack on the Philadelphia. The following story of the expedition has been taken from the Autobiography of Charles Morris,​2 one of the midshipmen detailed from the Constitution:

"The brig Siren, Lieutenant Stewart, was to accompany us, to assist with her boats, and to receive the crew of the ketch (which had been named the Intrepid) in case of her destruction, which was considered probable. The officers were told to take only a single change of linen, and no time was allowed to prepare stores, as we embarked within an hour after receiving notice and sailed immediately, on the evening of the 3d of February, 1804. Combustibles had been previously prepared and placed in the vessel, with ship's provisions for two or three weeks' supply. A Maltese had also been obtained to accompany us as pilot into the harbor, with which he was well acquainted. We arrived in sight of Tripoli about the 10th, but the wind was fresh from the westward, with strong indications of an approaching gale." . . . [Because of the heavy sea the entrance was decided to be unsafe.] "The attempt was abandoned for the time, and the vessels weighed again to get beyond the view of the town before daylight. This was not done without some difficulty, as the gale increased rapidly. It continued for four or five days with great violence, and drove us considerably to  p78 the eastward, and at one time nearer the coast than was agreeable.

"Our situation on board was far from comfortable. The commander, three lieutenants, and the surgeon occupied the very small cabin. Six midshipmen and the pilot had a platform laid on the water-casks, whose surface they covered when they lay down for sleep, and at so small a distance below the deck that their heads could reach it when seated on the platform. The marines had corresponding accommodations on the opposite side, and the sailors had only the surface of the casks in the hold. To these inconveniences were added the want of any room on the deck for exercise, and the attacks of innumerable vermin, which our predecessors, the slaves, had left behind them. The provisions proved to be decayed and offensive. . . .

"On the morning of the 16th, we again obtained sight of Tripoli, with light winds, pleasant weather, and a smooth sea, and stood in for the town. By arrangement, the Siren kept far without us during the day, and her appearance had been so changed as to lull all suspicion of her being a vessel of war. The lightness of the wind allowed us to keep up all appearance of an anxious desire to reach the harbor before night, without bringing us too near to require any other change than the use of drags, which could not be seen from the city. All the crew were also kept below, excepting six or eight persons at a time, that suspicion might not be awakened by unusual numbers; and such as were visible were dressed as Maltese.

[image ALT: A schematic map of the port of Tripoli in Libya, showing a walled and fortified city on a promontory, and several small islands and a larger number of shoals close to it.]

"As the evening advanced, our drags were taken in, so that we were within two miles of the eastern entrance at dark, the Siren being some three miles without us. The concerted arrangements were for the ketch to wait for the boats of the Siren to join us after dark, that they might accompany us to the attack; but as the sun descended, the  p80 wind grew fainter, and there was good reason to apprehend that any delay in waiting for the boats might render it very difficult for the ketch to reach the ship. Decatur, therefore, determined to proceed without waiting, and accompanied his decision with the remark, 'the fewer the number, the greater the honor.' One boat from the Siren, with six men, had joined us a few days before, and was still with us.

"The final arrangements were now made, and the respective duties of the several officers, which had been previously allotted, were again specified and explained. The presumed number of our enemy was stated, and the necessity for our utmost exertions enjoined upon us. The watchword 'Philadelphia' was issued to be used as a means of recognition; and as we advanced into the harbor, strict silence was enjoined and observed. The injunction, however, appeared to be unnecessary. No one appeared to be disposed to enter into conversation, but [each] to be absorbed by his own reflections. My own thoughts were busy, now reverting to friends at home, now to the perils we were about to meet. Should I be able to justify the expectations of the former by meeting properly the dangers of the latter? . . . The officers and crew were directed to conceal themselves as much as possible, excepting some six or eight. Most of the officers could be distinguished by their dress, and they required concealment more than the sailors. Fortunately, owing to the loss of some articles, which had been replaced by loan from the crew, my own dress corresponded to theirs, which enabled me to keep near Decatur, who I supposed would naturally be among the first to leave the ketch. The wind wafted us slowly into the harbor, the water was smooth, and the young moon gave light enough to distinguish prominent objects. One battery was passed, and the Philadelphia was in view near several smaller vessels, and  p81 the white walls of the city and its batteries were before us. We steered directly for the frigate, and at last the anxious silence was broken by a hail from her, demanding our character and object. Then might be seen the eager movement of the heads of the officers and crew who were stretched on the deck, ready to leap forward at the word of their commander, but still resting in silence. The conversation was kept up between the frigate and the ketch through our pilot, acting under the dictation of Decatur. We alleged the loss of our anchors during the last gale, which was true, as a reason for wishing to make fast to the frigate till morning, and permission was obtained; but just as the ketch was about coming in contact with the frigate, the wind shifted, blowing lightly directly from the frigate, and it left us at rest abeam and about twenty yards from her. This was a moment of great anxiety. We were directly under her guns, motionless and powerless, except by exertion which might betray our character. The Siren's boat was, however, in tow, and was leisurely manned and took a rope to make fast to the ship. She was met by a boat with another rope, when both were united, and each boat returned to its vessel. This rope was passed along the deck and hauled upon by the crew as they lay stretched upon it, and the vessels brought gradually nearer each other. When nearly in contact, the suspicions of the enemy appeared to be aroused, and the cry of 'Americanos!' resounded through the ship. In a moment, we were near enough, and the order 'Board!' was given; and with this cry our men were soon on the decks of the frigate. The surprise had been complete; there was no time for any preparation, and the enemy made scarcely a show of resistance. A few were killed, one was made prisoner, and the remainder leaped overboard and probably reached their cruisers which were anchored near the ship. . . .

 p82  "The plan of attack, prescribed by our commander, was for united action to obtain possession of the ship, with the exception of a boat to intercept communication with the shore, and for the surgeon and a few men to secure the ketch to the ship. When possession was secured, each lieutenant, with a midshipman and specified men, was to receive a portion of the prepared combustibles, and distribute them in designated parts of the berth deck, and in the forward store rooms, and a smaller party under a midshipman to do the same in the cockpit, and there await orders to set fire, that all might be done at the same time, and give all a chance for safe retreat. The party for the cockpit was assigned to my charge. My object in keeping near Lieutenant Decatur when we were approaching the ship was that, by watching his actions, I could be governed by these rather than by his orders when the boarding would take place. It was well that this course was taken, for Decatur had leaped to the main chain plates of the frigate, before the order to board was given. I had leaped with him, and, probably, more favored by circumstances, was able to reach the deck by the time he had gained the rail. The enemy were already leaping over the opposite side, and made no resistance; but Decatur, under the supposition that he was the first on board, was about to strike me, when I accidentally turned and stayed his uplifted arm by the watchword and mutual recognition. On my way to my station, after examining the cabin, and when passing forward, we met again under similar circumstances. Passing through the wardroom, which I found deserted, I awaited in the cockpit the men who had gone for the combustibles. These were so delayed that we had none when the order was given to set fire; but as they came a moment after, they were distributed, and fire communicated before we left our station. In the meantime, the fire on the deck above  p83 us had communicated so rapidly that it was with no small difficulty and danger that our party reached the spar deck by the forward hatchways. All the others had already joined the ketch, except Decatur, who remained on the rail till all others were on board; and the bow of the ketch had already swung off from the ship when he joined us by leaping into the rigging of the ketch. . . . In less than twenty minutes the ship had been carried, the combustibles distributed and set on fire, and all our party were again on board the ketch. By great exertions the two vessels were separated before the fire, which was pouring from the ports of the ship, enveloped the ketch also.

"Up to this time, the ships and batteries of the enemy had remained silent, but they were now prepared to act; and when the crew of the ketch gave three cheers, in exultation of their success, they received the return of a general discharge from the enemy. The confusion of the moment probably prevented much care in their direction, and though under the fire of nearly a hundred pieces for half an hour, the only shot which struck the ketch was one through the topgallant sail. We were in greater danger from the ship, whose broadside commanded the passage by which we were retreating, and whose guns were loaded and were discharged as they became heated. We escaped these also, and while urging the ketch onward with sweeps, the crew were commenting upon the beauty of the spray thrown up by the shot between us and the brilliant light of the ship, rather than calculating any danger that might be apprehended from the contact. The appearance of the ship was indeed magnificent. . . . Favored by a light breeze our exertions soon carried us beyond the range of their shot, and at the entrance of the harbor we met the boats of the Siren, which had been intended to co‑operate with us, whose crews rejoiced at  p84 our success, while they grieved at not having been able to participate in it. . . . The success of this enterprise added much to the reputation of the navy both at home and abroad."

In confirmation of this final remark of Morris, it may be added that Nelson, who was then blockading Toulon, generously described the exploit as "the most bold and daring act of the age."

The Bombardment of Tripoli

During the winter and spring of 1804, Commodore Preble maintained as strict a blockade on Tripoli as the weather would allow, and kept two or three of his vessels cruising the Mediterranean in search of any Tripolitan that might have taken advantage of a gale to escape. Meanwhile, he arranged with the King of Sicily for the use of six small, flat-bottomed gunboats and two bomb vessels, together with some extra guns and ninety‑six Neapolitan seamen. As soon as these vessels were ready, he proceeded to bombard Tripoli with his entire force. Aside from the gunboats, which carried one long 24‑pounder apiece, and the bomb-ketches, each of which mounted a 13‑inch mortar, the American attacking force consisted to frigate Constitution, the brigs Siren, Argus, and Scourge, and the schooners Vixen, Nautilus, and Enterprise. The schooners and brigs, however, mounted nothing but carronades, and the only guns fit for the purpose of bombardment were the long guns of the Constitution and of the unwieldy gunboats. Against this force was a walled city, strongly fortified, having 115 guns, most of them heavy. Besides these, the Tripolitans had a navy of a brig, two schooners, two large galleys, and nineteen gunboats. The complement of men  p85 on these vessels alone amounted to more than all under Preble's command.

It was not till August 3 that the weather permitted an attack. Under cover of the bombs and the fire from the heavier vessels, the six gunboats, in two divisions, advanced to attack the two divisions of Tripolitan gunboats which had advanced beyond the line of rocks that sheltered the harbor. The rest of the enemy's shipping and the batteries opened at once in reply. Of the two divisions of American gunboats, Lieutenant Richard Somers commanded the first division, Nos. 1‑3; and Lieutenant Stephen Decatur the second, Nos. 4‑6.

The following from Preble's report to the Department describes the attack:

"In an instant the enemy's shipping and batteries opened a tremendous fire, which was promptly returned by the whole squadron at grape shot distance; at the same time, the second division of three boats, led by the gallant Captain​3a Decatur, was advancing with sails and oars to board the eastern division of the enemy, consisting of nine gunboats. Our boats gave the enemy showers of grape and musket balls as they advanced; the Tripolitans, however, soon closed, and the pistol, sabre, pike, and tomahawk were made us of by our brave tars.

"Captain​3b Somers, being in a dull sailer, made the best use of his sweeps, but was not able to fetch far enough to windward to engage the same division of the enemy's boats which Captain Decatur fell in with; he, however, gallantly bore down with his single boat on five of the enemy's western division, and engaged within pistol shot, defeated and drove them within the rocks in a shattered condition and with the loss of a great number of men.

 p86  "Lieutenant [James] Decatur, in No. 2, was closely engaged with one of the enemy's largest boats of the eastern division, which struck to him, after having lost a large proportion of men; and at the same instant that that brave officer was boarding her to take possession, he was treacherously shot through the head by the captain of the boat that had surrendered; which base conduct enabled the poltroon (with the assistance received from other boats) to escape. . . . Captain Decatur, in No. 4, after having with distinguished bravery boarded and carried one of the enemy of superior force, took his prize in tow and gallantly bore down to engage a second,​4 which, after a severe and bloody conflict, he also took possession of. . . . Lieutenant Trippe, of the Vixen, in No. 6, ran alongside one of the enemy's large boats, which he boarded with only Midshipman Henley and nine men — his boat falling off before any more could get on board; thus was he left to conquer or to perish, with the odds of thirty‑six to eleven. The Turks, however, could not withstand the ardor of this brave officer and his assistants — in a few minutes the decks were cleared and her colors hauled down. . . . Lieutenant Trippe received eleven sabre wounds, some of which were very severe; he speaks in the highest terms of Mr. Henley, and those who followed him. . . .

"Lieutenant Decatur was the only officer killed, but  p87 in him the service has lost a valuable officer. . . . The enemy must have suffered very much in killed and wounded, both among their shipping and on shore. Three of their gunboats were sunk in the harbor, several of them had their decks nearly cleared of men by our shot, and a number of shells burst in the town and batteries, which must have done great execution."

On the 7th of August, four days later, the squadron again bombarded Tripoli, but on this occasion none of the enemy's vessels advanced to attack at close quarters. During this attack, gunboat No. 9​5 blew up, killing and wounding eighteen of her crew. Among the killed were Lieutenant Caldwell and Midshipman Dorsey.

The same day brought the frigate John Adams with the new commissions of the officers connected with the destruction of the Philadelphia, and with the unwelcome news that Preble would be superseded by Captain Samuel Barron. This was apparently unavoidable, as the Secretary of the Navy was careful to point out to Commodore Preble, because Barron was senior to him; but the fact hurt Preble, and aroused the indignation of every officer under him. The outcome more than justified their feeling.

Meanwhile, Preble pushed his operations with all vigor. Under a hundred difficulties such as lack of water, lack of men, insufficient or worthless stores, and scurvy, Preble maintained his blockade, and three times again bombarded the city with all his guns. This policy so greatly disturbed the Bey, that he began to moderate very decidedly his terms of ransom and peace.

 p88  The Intrepid Disaster

The summer campaign of 1804, however, closed with a melancholy episode.

"Desirous of annoying the enemy by all the means in my power," wrote Commodore Preble to the Department in his report, "I directed to be put in execution a long contemplated plan of sending a fire ship, or infernal, into the harbor of Tripoli in the night for the purpose of endeavoring to destroy the enemy's shipping and shatter the Pasha's castle and town. Captain Somers, of the Nautilus, having volunteered his services, had, for several days before this period, been directing the preparation of the ketch Intrepid, assisted by Lieutenants Wadsworth and Israel. About 100 barrels of powder and 150 fixed shells were apparently judiciously disposed on board her. The fuses, leading to the magazine where all the powder was deposited, were calculated to burn a quarter of an hour.

"September 4, the Intrepid being prepared for the intended service, Captain Somers and Lieutenant Wadsworth made choice of two of the fastest rowing boats in the squadron for bringing them out after reaching their destination and firing the combustible materials which were to communicate with the fuses. Captain Somers' boat was manned with four seamen from the Nautilus, and Lieutenant Wadsworth's with six from the Constitution. Lieutenant Israel accompanied them. At eight in the evening, the Intrepid was under sail and standing for the port with a leading breeze from the eastward. The Argus, Vixen, and Nautilus convoyed her as far as the rock. On her entering the harbor, several shots were fired at her from the batteries. In a few minutes, when she had apparently nearly gained the intended place of destination, she suddenly exploded, without her people's having previously fired the room filled with splinters and other combustibles. These were intended to create a  p89 blaze in order to deter the enemy from boarding while the fire was communicating to the fuses which led to the magazine. The effect of the explosion stunned their batteries into profound silence — not a gun was afterward fired for the night. The shrieks of the inhabitants informed us that the town was thrown into the greatest terror and consternation by the explosion of the magazine and the bursting and falling of shells in all directions. The whole squadron awaited with the utmost anxiety to learn the fate of the adventurers from a signal previously agreed on in case of success — but waited in vain; no signs of their safety were to be observed. The Argus, Vixen, and Nautilus hovered around the entrance of the port till sunrise, when they had a fair view of the whole harbor — not a vestige of the ketch or boats was to be seen. One of the enemy's largest gunboats was missing and three others were seen very much shattered and damaged, which the enemy were hauling on shore.

"From these circumstances, I am led to believe that those boats were detached from the enemy's flotilla to intercept the ketch without suspecting her to be a fire ship. The boat afterwards missing suddenly boarded her. The gallant Somers and the heroes of his party, observing the other three boats surrounding them, and no prospect of escape from them, . . . put a match to the train leading directly into the magazine, which at once blew the whole into the air, and terminated their existence. My conjectures respecting this affair are founded on a resolution which Captain Somers and Lieutenants Wadsworth and Israel had formed, neither to be taken by the enemy nor suffer him to get possession of the powder on board the Intrepid. They expected to enter the harbor without discovery, but had declared that if they should be disappointed and the enemy should board them before they reached the point of destination in such force as to leave them no hopes of safe retreat, that they would put a match  p90 to the magazine and blow themselves and the enemy up together — determined as there was no exchanging of prisoners, that their country should never pay ransom for them, nor the enemy receive a supply of powder through their means."

Captain Bainbridge was permitted to see the bodies when they came ashore the next day, but all were so mangled as to make recognition out of the question. According to him, no damage whatever was done the Tripolitans; so Preble was probably mistaken in his idea regarding the injury sustained by the enemy's gunboats.

The loss of the Intrepid's crew was felt deeply throughout the squadron. Somers, especially, seemed to have a brilliant future in store for him, having many fine qualities in common with Decatur, whose dearest friend he had been from boyhood. After the war, the officers of the squadron subscribed to the erection of the monument, now in the United States Naval Academy grounds, honoring the memory of the six comrades who fell before Tripoli: Somers, Caldwell, James Decatur, Wadsworth, Israel, and Dorsey.

The Final Year of the War

Shortly after the Intrepid disaster, Commodore Barron arrived with the frigates President and Constellation, bringing as passenger Tobias Lear, former consul-general to Algiers, who had full powers to negotiate with the Bey of Tripoli; and in December Commodore Preble sailed for New York on the John Adams. The new commodore had under his flag about twice the force that Preble had commanded, but the glory of the war ended with Preble's departure from the Mediterranean. Commodore Barron was, at the time, in wretched health and soon became incapable of command. When, finally, he was compelled to give up his duties, in the spring of 1805, he was succeeded by Commodore Rodgers. The latter then  p91 had under his pennant five frigates and seven schooners and brigs, the largest of all the American squadrons assembled before Tripoli.

Meanwhile, the energetic Eaton had managed to interest the authorities of Washington in his scheme of backing the deposed Hamet in an effort to regain his throne by means of a land attack against Tripoli. Eaton was authorized to go to Egypt and do what he could, relying on such assistance as the fleet could afford. Starting at Cairo, he collected a motley array of Arabs and freebooters, including Hamet and some of Hamet's officials. This horde he drove by sheer force of will throughout the desert to the frontiers of the province of Tripoli, and captured the city of Derne.​6 The attack on the city was led in person by Eaton, who was shot through the wrist in the final charge. The fall of Derne thoroughly frightened the Bey, and Eaton was looking forward to a triumphant march on Tripoli when he was met by the humiliating news that he must abandon Derne, because peace had already been concluded on the 10th of June, 1805. Consul Lear, who disliked Eaton and had opposed his plans, had during Eaton's operation hastily agreed to a treaty of peace with the Bey of Tripoli, involving the payment of ransom of $60,000 for the captives from the Philadelphia. Apparently, neither Rodgers nor Bainbridge made any objection to the terms; but that any money should have been paid when a large fleet lay off the batteries of Tripoli and Eaton with an army threatened a revolution in the private itself, seems inexcusable.7

 p92  The treaty was satisfactory, however, in that it did away with all annual tribute for the future. Hamet, who was left in the lurch at Derne, became thereafter a pensioner of the United States. Eaton was honored by the state of Massachusetts with a grant of 10,000 acres of land; but he was embittered by the outcome of his efforts to secure an honorable peace, and up to his death in 1811, he was engaged in disputes over that brilliant but luckless expedition.

The war with Tripoli was the beginning of the movement of the civilized world to shake off the yoke of the Barbary pirates. The operations of our little fleet, under Preble, brought honor to the nation and to the service in the eyes of Europe, and at the same time they gave a practical schooling in warfare to the officers of all grades, but especially to the younger men, who later won fame in the War of 1812.

In the popular mind, the hero of the Tripolitan War was Stephen Decatur, and there is no question as to his distinction in the brilliant personal qualities of courage and dash. But the officer who deserved first honors was Commodore Preble. Where others failed with large squadrons, he succeeded with the smallest. He introduced iron discipline into the service at a time when it was most needed, and yet became the idol of his officers and men, because he was as jealous of their success and reputation as of his own. The difficulties that had proved insurmountable to others he overcame. And he inspired his subordinates with ideals of obedience, courage, and efficiency that have ever since been the standards of the American Navy.

The Authors' Notes:

1 A native of Palermo, he apparently joined the squadron at Malta and is referred to by Preble, also, as a "Maltese." He was for many years afterwards a sailing master in our navy.

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2 Edited by Professor James S. Soley, U. S. N., and published for the first time in the Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. VI, (1880). Reprinted by permission.

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3a 3b "Captain" by courtesy, as he was in command of a division.

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4 Decatur believed that this second vessel was the one that had struck to his brother a few moments before, and that in killing her commander he had avenged his brother's death. Morris, however, agreeing with Preble, says in his memoirs that the treacherous pirate escaped. At all events, Stephen Decatur very nearly lost his own life in his hand to hand grapple with the Tripolitan commander. One of his seamen, Daniel Frazier, already wounded, interposed his own head to catch the blow of the scimitar, aimed for Decatur.

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5 The three Tripolitan gunboats that had been captured (see p86) were rerigged and taken into service as Nos. 7, 8, 9.

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6 In this attack Eaton was supported by the fire of the sloop Hornet, the brig Argus, and the schooner Nautilus.

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7 Commodore Preble wrote to Eaton that he was sure "the Senate feel that just sense of indignation which they ought at the sacrifice of national honor which has been made by an ignominious negotiation." Preble Papers, quoted by Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs, p254.

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