“I boarded her with sixty men and officers leaving a guard on board the ketch for her defense; and it is with the greatest pleasure that I inform you that I had not a man killed in this affair, and but one only slightly wounded…and as each of their conduct was so highly meritorious.. permit me sir to speak of the brave fellows I have the honor to command, whose coolness and intrepidity was such, as will ever characterise the American Tars.”
So wrote Lieutenant Stephen Decatur on February 16, 1804 in a dispatch to Captain Edward Preble. Earlier that evening, Decatur had lead a team of sailors and U.S. Marines into the harbour at Tripoli, and the team managed to board and destroy the recently captured frigate U.S.S. Philadelphia before she could be put to use by the Barbary Pirates. When news of the success of this daring commando raid leaked out, it electrified the world. Horatio Nelson, the hero of the British navy called it “the most bold and daring act of the age..”
The Barbary Pirates
By this point in time, the coast of North Africa was home to four states, Morroco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli. The head of each of these states was a semi-hereditary monarch called “the Dey”, or “the bashaw”. These states had for years been allowing their ships to raid the commerce of the entire Mediterranean Sea for plunder, and for the purpose of taking the sailors of the merchant ships hostage in return for tremendous ransom payments. The major powers of France, Spain, Portugal and Great Britain all had the necessary naval muscle to put an end to this, but they were continuously at war with each other, so they let it go on, each to
make life difficult for the other. While we were a set of thirteen colonies our merchant ships enjoyed the protection afforded by the great British Navy. But once we had acquired independence from Great Britain following our Revolution, and we became the United States, our ships began falling victim to increasingly brazen acts of piracy. The United States was at first governed by the weak Articles of Confederation, and thus had no standing navy, and only the weakest national government with which to contest these piratical seizures. By 1789, the United States had written and ratified a new Constitution. In 1798, President John Adams created a Department of the Navy, and six magnificent new frigates were being built. But it would take time for these ships to be built, and still more time for them to become an effective fighting force. So for the present at least, diplomacy and ransom were still the only means available for dealing with the Barbary States. The crew of a U.S. vessel, “the Betsey” was taken hostage in October of 1784 and their release could only be effected in February of 1797, after twelve years of captivity and slavery.
The U.S.S. Philadelphia Runs Aground and is Captured
In the years following the return of the crew of the Betsey the U.S. tried to make further treaties with Tripoli, offering more money. But as the Bashaw’s naked greed knew no bounds, and the U.S. could only afford a limited amount, he wound up declaring war on the United States on May 14, 1801. President Thomas Jefferson ordered a squadron of U.S. Naval vessels to enter the Mediterranean Sea and to put an end to this threat. But the first Squadron he sent accomplished little towards this end, with a commander who was too timid in using force. A second squadron was sent into action with orders to take more direct action. The Squadrons Commander, Commodore Edward Preble was determined to show America was not to be trifled with. But unfortunately, disaster struck. On (appropriately enough) October 31, 1803, the U.S. 44 gun frigate “Philadelphia” was chasing a Tripolitan ship when when she ran aground (her bottom became stuck on a sand bar) in the harbour of Tripoli. Commanded by Captain William Bainbridge, the crew of the “Philadelphia” tried furiously to break her free. They chopped down her foremast, and threw almost all of her cannons overboard along with almost every other heavy item on board. But it was no use. Before they knew it, the crew of the Philadelphia found themselves overwhelmed by a swarm of smaller Tripolitan vessels. The U.S.S. Philadelphia had been captured by the enemy.
Stephen Decatur Leads a Raid on the Philadelphia
While the capture of this magnificent U.S. vessel was a tremendous blow to U.S. prestige, it was worse: the Dey of Tripoli immediately began trying to sell her to one of his neighbors because he lacked the skilled crew necessary to use her effectively. But the U.S. had no intention of having to fight one of her own ships. By mid-December Preble, in consultation with the captured Bainbridge (communicating with his commander from captivity via the use of lime juice mixed with water – invisible ink!!) had decided that attempting to board the Philadelphia and sail her out would be too difficult. She would have to be destroyed. He had at hand just the man to lead such a mission. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr. (below) was the Maryland born son of a veteran of naval service during the Revolution. Decatur, one of two brothers in the U.S. Squadron, had early on acquired a reputation as a duelist, and a daring adventurer. He was commanding the U.S. sloop of war, the U.S.S. Enterprise when the plan to re-take the Philadelphia was hatched and naturally volunteered for the mission.
It was while reconnoitering at the edge of the harbour for the best way in, that Preble and Decatur aboard Enterprise ran across the perfect vessel for the mission. A Triplolitan Ketch (a small two masted vessel of war) named the Mastico was captured on December 23, 1803, and taken back to the U.S. base at Syracuse. For the mission, she was renamed the “Intrepid.” On the evening of February 16, at twilight, the Intrepid, flying the crescent flag of the Ottoman Empire silently glided into the harbour at Tripoli, guided by her Sicilian pilot, Salvador Caralano. On the deck was Decatur and about a dozen men disguised as local fisherman. Hidden on the decks below were several dozen men armed with swords and cutlasses, ready to spring into action. The password for the mission was “Philadelphia”. They pulled up alongside “Philadelphia” and after exchanging some remarks with the Tripolitans guarding her, Caralano, speaking in the local dialect convinced the guards that it was safe for “Intrepid” to run a line to “Philadelphia”. It was about 9;30 p.m. .
Suddenly, the blood curdling cry of “AMERICANOS!!” pierced the darkness. One of the Tripolitan guards finally recognized what was happening. But it was too late. The Ameicans poured out of hiding and swiftly invaded the deck of the Philadelphia. Midshipman Ralph Izard wrote:
“…we then hauled up alongside her and about 50 of our men and officers boarded her instantly. The Tripolitans on board were dreadfully alarmed when they found out who we were. Poor fellows! About 20 of them were cut to pieces & the rest jumped overboard. We set fire to her in less than 15 minutes from the time we first borded her, the flames were bursting out of her ports.”
Decatur himself further recorded:
“The noise occa- sioned by boarding and conten- ding for posse- ssion (although no firearms were used) gave general alarm on shore, and on board their cruisers which lay about a cable and a half’s length from us, and many boats filled with men lay around from whom we received no annoyance. They commenced fire on us from all their batteries on shore, but with no other effect than one shot passing through our topsail.”
In the words of historian Joseph Wheelan:
“With seamless precision, the Americans had captured and destroyed a frigate in an enemy harbour, within range of 115 fortress guns and two warships and escaped — all inside twenty-five minutes with only one man slightly wounded. They had killed at least twenty enemy soldiers and taken one prisoner. The exploit would have embroidered the record of any commando unit in any era.”
And, I have to think that today’s Navy Seal teams could not possibly have done it better. As we can see, the tradition which resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden was begun way back in 1804!
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“Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805” by Joseph Wheelan, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2003.
“A Picture History of the U.S. Navy” by Theodore Roscoe & Fred Freeman Bonanza Books, New York, 1956
“Regime Change in Tripoli? Part 1” – by Brian T. Bolten
http://suite101.com/article/regime-change-in-tripoli–part-one-a385921 = You can go ahead and click on this link, but it will only take you to a page wherein the usurious crew at “Suite101” will suggest to you that the page may never have existed. This is mere cyber-nonsense for the fact that these clowns re-arranged their page and cut me out of their picture, taking my articles with them. Happily I have copies of all but one of them, and about that more later. Let it suffice to say that THIS particular item will appear on this Blogpage’s sister site “Today in History II” soon…. just you wait “Suite101”, just you wait…
The capture of the Philadelphia = http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/images/h01000/h01071.jpg
Stephen Decatur = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:StephenDecatur.jpeg
Decatur on board the Philadelphia = http://history1800s.about.com/od/americanwars/tp/barbarywars.htm