A Daring Exploit

About a century ago, pirates on the northern coast of Africa were

causing a great deal of trouble. They used to dash out in their

vessels, and capture and plunder the merchant ships of all nations.

The poor sailors were sold as slaves, and then kicked and cuffed

about by cruel masters.

You will hardly believe it, but our country used to do exactly what

other nations did. We used to buy the good will of th
se Barbary

pirates, by giving them, every year, cannon, powder, and great sums

of money. In fact we could not at first help it; for we were then a

young and feeble nation with many troubles, and our navy was so small

that we could not do as we pleased.

The payment of this blackmail soon became a serious affair. The

ruler, or pasha, of Tripoli was bold enough to declare war against

this country, and cut down the flagstaff in front of our consul's

house. Two other Barbary states, Morocco and Tunis, began to be

impudent because they did not get enough money.

This was more than our people could stand. These scamps needed a


{157} You will, of course, remember Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the

Declaration of Independence. He was at this time President of the

United States. As you may well think, he was not the man to put up

with such insults.

"It reminds me," said Jefferson, "of what my good friend, Ben

Franklin, once said in his Poor Richard's Almanac: 'If you make

yourself a sheep, the wolves will eat you.' We must put a stop to

paying this blood money, and deal with these pirates with an iron


So it came to pass that Commodore Dale was sent to the Mediterranean,

with a small fleet of war ships.

When our little fleet arrived off the Barbary coast, Morocco and

Tunis stopped grumbling and soon came to terms. We were then free to

deal with Tripoli.

Our war ships had orders simply to look after our merchantmen,

without doing any fighting. Still, to give the proud ruler of Tripoli

a hint of what he might soon expect, one of our small vessels, the

Enterprise, afterwards {158} commanded by Decatur, fought a short but

furious battle with a Tripolitan man-of-war.

The pirate captain hauled his flag down three times, but hoisted it

again when the fire of the Enterprise ceased. This insult was too

much for Dale. Bringing his vessel alongside the pirate craft, he

sprang over her side, followed by fifty of his men. The pirate crew,

with their long curved swords, fought hard; yet in fifteen minutes

they were beaten.

Our sailors now cut away the masts of the enemy's vessel, and,

stripping her of everything except one old sail and a single spar,

let her drift back to Tripoli, as a hint of how the new nation across

the Atlantic was likely to deal with pirates.

"Tell your pasha," shouted the American captain, as the Barbary ship

drifted away, "that this is the way my country will pay him tribute

after this."

In the year 1803, the command of our fleet was given to Commodore

Preble, who had just forced the ruler of Morocco to pay for an attack

upon one of our merchant ships. The famous frigate Constitution,

better known to every wide-awake American boy and girl as "Old

Ironsides," was his flagship.

Among his officers, or "schoolboy captains," as he called them, were

many bright young men, who afterwards gained fame in fighting their

country's battles. One of these officers was Stephen Decatur, the

hero of this story, who afterwards, as captain of the frigate United

States, {159} whipped the British frigate Macedonian after a fight of

an hour and a half.

One morning late in the fall of 1803, the frigate Philadelphia, one

of the best ships of our little navy, while chasing a piratical

craft, ran upon a sunken reef near the harbor of Tripoli. The good

ship was helpless either to fight or to get away.

The officers and crew worked with all their might. They threw some of

the cannon overboard, they cut away the foremast, they did everything

they could to float the vessel. It was no use; the ship stuck fast.

Of course it did not take long for the Tripolitans to see that the

American war ship was helpless. Their gunboats swarmed round the

ill-fated vessel and opened fire. It was a trying hour for the

gallant Captain Bainbridge and his men. Down must come the colors,

and down they came. The officers and the sailors were taken ashore

and thrown into prison.

After a time, the Tripolitans got the Philadelphia off the reef.

Then, towing her into the harbor of Tripoli, they anchored her close

under the guns of their forts. {160} The vessel was refitted, cannon

were put on board, together with a crew of several hundred sailors,

and the crescent flag was raised. She was now ready to sail out to

attack our shipping.

Just think of the days of grief and shame for Captain Bainbridge and

his men! Think of them as they looked day after day out of the narrow

windows of the pasha's castle, and saw this vessel, one of the

handsomest in the world, flying the colors of the enemy! These brave

Americans had need of all their grit; but they kept up their courage

and bided their time.

Commodore Preble now sailed to Sicily, and cast anchor in the harbor

of Syracuse.

Don't you suppose the recapture of the Philadelphia was talked of

every day?

Of course it was. Everybody in the fleet, from the commodore to the

powder monkey, was thinking about it. They must do something, and the

sooner the better.

Even Captain Bainbridge in his prison cell wrote several letters with

lemon juice, which could be read on being held to the fire, and sent

them to Preble. These letters contained plans for sinking the

ill-fated ship.

Every one of Preble's young captains was eager to try it. It might

mean glory, and promotion, or perhaps failure, and death.

Somehow or other all looked to the dashing Stephen Decatur; for from

the first he had taken a leading part in planning the desperate deed.

{161} "For the honor of the flag, sir, the ship must be destroyed.

She must never be allowed to sail under that pirate flag," said

Commodore Preble to Decatur.

"My father was the ship's first commander," replied the young

officer, whose fine black eyes gleamed, "and if I can only rescue

her, it will be glory enough for a lifetime."

"You have spoken first," said the commodore, "and it is only right

that you should have the first chance."

No time was lost. All hands went to work.

What was their plan?

With a vessel made to look like a Maltese trader, and with his men

dressed like Maltese sailors, Decatur meant to steal into the harbor

at night, set fire to the Philadelphia, and then make a race for


A short time before this, Decatur had captured a small vessel, known

as a ketch. As this kind of boat was common here, nobody would

suspect her.

{162} The little craft, now named the Intrepid, was soon loaded with

all kinds of things that would catch fire easily.

On board the Enterprise on the afternoon of February 3, 1803, the

order was, "All hands to muster!"

"I want sixty-one men out of this ship's crew," said Decatur, "to

leave to-morrow in the Intrepid, to help destroy the Philadelphia.

Let each man who wants to go take two steps ahead."

With a cheer, every officer, every sailor, and even the smallest

powder boys stepped forward. No wonder the young captain's fine face

beamed with joy.

"A thousand thanks, my men," he said, and the tears came into his

eyes; "I am sorry, but you can't all go. I will now choose the men I

want to take with me." He picked out about sixty of the youngest and

most active.

"Thankee, sir," said each man when his name was called.

Besides his own younger officers and his surgeon, Decatur took five

young officers from the Constitution, and a Sicilian pilot named

Catalano, who knew the harbor of Tripoli.

That same evening, the little ketch, with its crew of some

seventy-five men, sailed out of the harbor of Syracuse amid three

lusty cheers. The war brig Siren went with her.

In four days, the two vessels reached the harbor of Tripoli, but a

bad storm drove them off shore. What a time they had for six days!

The Intrepid was a poor {163} affair at best, and there was no

shelter from the fury and the cold of the storm. The sailors slept on

the hard deck, nibbled what little ship bread was not water-soaked,--

for they had lost all their bacon,--and caught rain water to drink.

In cold, hunger, and wet, these men, like true American sailors, sang

their songs, cracked their jokes, and kept up their courage.

After a week, the fury of the storm abated, the bright sunshine

brought comfort, and the two vessels set sail for Tripoli.

As they drew near the coast, towards evening, the wind was so light

that the Siren was almost becalmed. The Intrepid, however, met a

light breeze, which sped her toward the rocky harbor.

Decatur saw that his best hope now was to make a bold dash, without

waiting for the brig.

"Never mind, boys," he said, "the fewer the number, the greater the

glory. Keep your heads level; obey orders every time; and do your


About sunset, the ketch with her alert crew came in sight of the

white-walled city. They could see the chain of forts and the frowning

castle. The tall black hull and the shining masts of the Philadelphia

stood out boldly against the bright blue African sky. Two huge

men-of-war and a score of gunboats were moored near her. {164} The

harbor was like a giant cavern, at the back of which lay the

Philadelphia, manned by pirates armed to the teeth, who were waiting

for an attack from the dreaded Americans.

Into these jaws of death, Decatur boldly steered his little craft.

The breeze was still fresh. It would never do to take in sail, for

the ever-watchful pirates would think it strange. So spare sails and

buckets were towed astern to act as a drag, for fear they should

reach their goal too early.

The men now hid themselves by lying flat upon the deck, behind the

bulwarks, the rails, and the masts. Only a few persons, dressed like

Maltese sailors, could be seen. Decatur stood calmly at the wheel by

the side of Catalano, the pilot.

"We lay packed closer than sardines in a box, and were still as so

many dead men," said one of the men long afterwards to his


About nine o'clock the moon rose, and by its clear light the ketch

was steered straight across the blue waters for the bows of the


"Vessel ahoy! What vessel is that?" shouted an officer of the

frigate, as the Intrepid boldly came nearer.

Decatur whispered to his pilot.

"This is the ketch Stella, from Malta," shouted Catalano, in Italian.

"We have lost our anchors, and were nearly wrecked in the gale; we

want to ride near you during the night."

{165} "All right! but only until daylight," replied the officer, and

ordered a line to be lowered.

Without a moment's delay, a boat under the command of young Lawrence

put off from the Intrepid. On meeting the pirate boat, he took the

line and rowed back to the ketch.

The Americans, in their red jackets and fezzes, hauled away with a

right good will, and brought their little craft steadily in toward

the huge black hull of the frigate, where they were soon being made

fast under her port side.

As the ketch now drifted into a patch of moonlight, the pirate

officer spied the anchors with their cables coiled up.

"Keep off! You have lied to me," he shouted, and ordered his men to

cut the hawser.

As if by magic, the deck of the ketch swarmed with men, whose strong

arms forced their vessel up against the side of the Philadelphia.

"Americans! Americans!" cried the dazed Tripolitans.

"Board! board!" shouted Decatur, as he made a spring for the deck of

the frigate, followed by his gallant men.

Although taken by surprise, the Tripolitans fought hard. They were

called the best hand to hand fighters in the world, but they were no

match for American sailors. As Preble's orders were "to carry all

with the sword," no firearms were used. The only weapons {166} were

cutlasses. The watchword was "Philadelphia," which they were to use

in the darkness.

The Americans formed a line from one side of the ship to the other,

and, with Decatur as leader, swept everything before them on the main

deck. On the gun deck, Lawrence and McDonough did the same thing. In

fifteen minutes, every Tripolitan had been cut down or driven

overboard. In spite of the close, sharp fighting, not one of our men

received a scratch.

But now comes the tug of war! Every man knows exactly what to do, for

he has been well drilled. Some hand up kegs of powder and balls of

oakum soaked in tar. Others carry these along the deck and down

below. Now they drag two eighteen-pounders amidships, double-shot

them, and point them down the main hatch, so as to blow out the

bottom of the ship. In a few minutes everything is ready.

"Start the fires!" A puff of smoke, a little blaze, then flames


Quick and sharp comes the order to leap aboard the ketch. Decatur,

sure that the work thus far is well done, is the last man to leave.

Now all are safe aboard the Intrepid. The order is given to cast off.

The ketch still clings to the blazing frigate, from whose portholes

the flames are shooting out. The gunpowder left on the deck is

covered only with canvas. Life is in peril. They find that the stern

rope has not been cast off. Up rush Decatur and his {167} officers,

and cut the hawser with their swords. The boat swings clear, and the

men row for their lives.

The fierce flames of the burning ship bring the Intrepid into plain

view. She is a target for every gun. Bang! bang! thunder a hundred


"Stop rowing, boys, and give 'em three cheers," shouts Decatur.

Everybody is on his feet in an instant, and joins in the hurrahs.

Solid shot, grape, and shells whistle and scream in the air above the

little ketch, and throw up showers of spray as they strike the water.

Only one shot hits, and that whizzes through the mainsail. The men

bend to their oars and pull for dear life. They are soon well out of

{168} range, and, in a short time, safe under the guns of the Siren.

What wild hurrahs were heard when Decatur, clad in a sailor's

pea-jacket, and begrimed with powder, sprang on board and shouted,

"Didn't she make a glorious bonfire, and we didn't lose a man!"

In telling the story afterwards, the men said it was a superb sight.

The flames burst out and ran rapidly up the masts and the rigging,

and lighted up the sea and the sky with a lurid glare. The guns soon

became heated and began to go off. They fired their hot shot into the

shipping, and even into the town. Then, as if giving a last salute,

the Philadelphia parted her cables, drifted ashore, and blew up.

As a popular saying goes, "Nothing succeeds like success." So it was

with Decatur's deed. His cool head and the fine discipline of his men

won success. The famous Lord Nelson, the greatest naval commander of

his time, said it was "the most bold and daring act of the age."

Decatur was well rewarded. At twenty-five he was made a captain, and

given the command of "Old Ironsides," probably the finest frigate at

that time in the world.