Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ships: A Bold and Daring Act

On October 31, 1803, the frigate Philadelphia, William Bainbridge commanding, was run aground on a sandbar at the mouth of Tripoli Harbor and captured by the Tripolitans. Her crew was a stellar cast of future naval heroes and some of the 300 who survived to live through nearly a year of torturous captivity will be more than familiar to the Brethren. Among them were Bainbridge himself, his Lieutenant David Porter and Midshipman Daniel Tod Patterson. These men and their fellows would be rescued in a daring raid by U.S. Marines led by William Eaton, the memory of which action remains in “shores of Tripoli” line from the Marine Corps anthem.

Before that was accomplished, however, the Barbary pirates’ possession of one of the United States’ most modern engines of war – a heavy frigate – had to be addressed with all speed. While President Jefferson was ordering Eaton’s top secret mission to Tripoli, Commodore Edward Preble, commanding the Mediterranean station, was planning the best way to either reclaim or destroy the Philadelphia.

It was quickly recognized that trying to recapture the frigate in Tripoli’s heavily fortified harbor would be a disaster of epic proportions. Preble had to realize, however, that destroying the ship would mean at the very least the loss of several men but he had no other options. Unbeknownst to Preble, the Tripolitans did not have the resources to repair and then operate the heavy frigate so this fact was not a consideration in his decision making. In January of 1804, the Commodore called for volunteers to sign up on what could become a suicide mission.

The almost immediate response of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, then in command of the schooner Enterprise, no doubt encouraged others to join the mission. Decatur already had a reputation for intrepid action and fearlessness; by February, 64 volunteers and two ships – Enterprise and Intrepid – had committed to the endeavor. The crews set out with a local pilot familiar with Tripoli Harbor on February 3rd.

Arriving in Syracuse, Decatur transferred his volunteers to the ketch Intrepid, a captured Tripolitan, and headed for Tripoli. They encountered two weeks of dirty weather, a delay for which they were in no way prepared. The ketch, generally manned by a crew of no more than twenty, was overcrowded and leaky and conditions grew worse as the days dragged on. Things did not immediately improve when Intrepid reached her destination, either; Decatur ordered the majority of his crew below and dressed those above as local merchants. On February 16th, he cruised slowly into the harbor at dusk spying Philadelphia at anchor just under the walls of the main fortress.

With his usual panache, Decatur put Intrepid along side the frigate and called over the side to request permission to tie up next to her. This was granted, but moments later an alarm bell was sounded aboard Philadelphia. Intrepid had been identified as a foreign intruder.

Decatur responded by ordering his men to board the frigate. The reaction of the crew was immediate and swift; the Barbary corsairs had no time to respond, and most barely managed to arm themselves. The majority of the men aboard Philadelphia jumped into the harbor and swam for it. Decatur’s crew set the frigate ablaze almost immediately, while the remaining pirates who stayed to fight were quickly overcome. Within twenty minutes, Decatur and his volunteers were back aboard Intrepid, rowing away in the blazing, red light from the dying USS Philadelphia. Decatur did not lose a single American in the action, and only one man was wounded.

Word of the daring raid spread throughout the Mediterranean with the same speed that fire had consumed Philadelphia to the waterline. In one of history’s true moments of well-informed hyperbole, Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson – arguably the most brilliant naval strategist of the era – commented that Decatur’s raid was “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

For an in depth analysis of Commodore Preble’s career as commander in the Mediterranean, including his reasons for ordering Decatur’s action, see today’s post over at the Naval History Blog.

Header: An early 19th c print of Decatur boarding Philadelphia via Navy History


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Huzzah! for Stephen Decatur! And if anyone knew about bold and daring acts it was Lord Nelson...

Pauline said...

It certainly is true that Admiral Nelson knew whereof he spoke. Pretty daring do by our boy Decatur and his 64 volunteers.