The Young Decatur And His Brilliant Deeds At Tripoli
HOW OUR NAVY BEGAN AND ENDED A FOREIGN WAR
IN the ship Essex, one of the fleet that was sent to the Mediterranean
to deal with the Moorish pirates, there was a brave young officer named
Stephen Decatur. He was little more than a boy, for he was just past
twenty-one years of age; but he had been in the fight between the
Enterprise and the Tripoli, and was so bold and daring that he was
make his mark.
I must tell you how he first showed himself a true American. It was when
the Essex was lying in the harbor at Barcelona, a seaport of Spain.
The Essex was a handsome little vessel, and there was much praise of
her in the town, people of fashion came to see her and invited her
officers to their houses and treated them with great respect.
Now there was a Spanish warship lying in the port, of the kind called a
xebec, a sort of three-masted vessel common in the Mediterranean Sea.
The officers of this ship did not like to see so much respect given to
the Americans and so little to themselves. They grew jealous and angry,
and did all they could to annoy and insult the officers of the Essex.
Every time one of her boats rowed past the xebec it would be challenged
and ugly things said.
The Americans bore all this quietly for a while. One day Captain
Bainbridge, of the Essex, was talked to in an abusive way, and said
little back. Another time a boat, under command of Lieutenant Decatur,
came under the guns of the xebec, and the Spaniards on the deck hailed
him with insulting words. This was more than young blood could stand,
and he called to the officer of the deck and asked him what that meant,
but the haughty Spaniard would give him no satisfaction.
"Very well," said Decatur. "I will call to see you in the morning. Pull
The next morning Decatur had himself rowed over to the xebec, and went
on board. He asked for the officer who was in charge the night before.
"He has gone ashore," was the reply.
"Well, then," said Decatur, in tones that every one on board could hear,
"tell him that Lieutenant Decatur, of the frigate Essex, calls him a
cowardly scoundrel, and when he meets him on shore he will cut his ears
There were no more insults after that. Decatur spoke as if he meant what
he said, and the officers of the xebec did not want to lose their ears.
But the United States Minister to Spain took up the matter and did not
rest until he got a full apology for the insults to the Americans.
I have told this little story to let you see what kind of a man Stephen
Decatur was. But this was only a minor affair. He was soon to make
himself famous by one of the most brilliant deeds in the history of the
In October, 1802, a serious disaster came to the American fleet. The
frigate Philadelphia was chasing a runaway vessel into the harbor of
Tripoli, when she got in shoal water and suddenly ran fast aground on a
shelf of rock.
Here was an awkward position. Captain Bainbridge threw overboard most
of his cannon and his anchors, and everything that would lighten the
ship, even cutting down his foremasts; but all to no purpose. She still
clung fast to the rock.
Soon a flock of gunboats came down the harbor and saw the bad fix the
Americans were in. Bainbridge was quite unable to fight them, for they
could have kept out of the way of his guns and made kindling wood of his
vessel. There was nothing to do but to surrender. So he flooded the
powder magazine, threw all the small arms overboard, and knocked holes
in the bottom of the ship. Then he hauled down his flag.
The gunboats now came up like a flock of hawks, and soon the Moors were
clambering over the rails. In a minute more they were in every part of
the ship, breaking open chests and storerooms and plundering officers
and men. Two of them would hold an officer and a third rob him of his
watch and purse, his sword, and everything of value he possessed. The
plundering did not stop till the captain knocked down one of the Moors
for trying to rob him of an ivory miniature of his wife.
Then the Americans were made to get into the gunboats and were taken
ashore. They were marched in triumph through the streets, and the men
were thrown into prison. The officers were invited to supper by the
Bashaw, and treated as if they were guests. But as soon as the supper
was over, they, too, were taken to the prison rooms in which they were
to stay till the end of the war.
The Tripolitans afterwards got the Philadelphia off the rocks during a
high tide, plugged up the holes in her bottom, fished up her guns and
anchors, and fitted her up for war. The Bashaw was proud enough of his
fine prize, which had not cost him a man or a shot, and was a better
ship than he had ever seen before.
When the American commodore learned of the loss of the Philadelphia he
was in a bad state of mind. To lose one of his best ships in this way
was not at all to his liking, for he was a man who did not enjoy losing
a ship; and to know that the Moors had it and were making a warship of
it was a hard thing to bear.
From his prison Captain Bainbridge wrote letters to Commodore Preble,
which the Moors read and then sent out to the fleet. They did not know
that the letters had postscripts written in lemon-juice which only came
out when the sheet of paper was held to the heat of a fire. In these the
captain asked the commodore to try and destroy the captured ship.
Commodore Preble was a daring officer, and was ready enough for this, if
he only knew how it could be done. Lieutenant Decatur was then in
command of the Enterprise, the schooner which had fought with the
Tripoli. He asked the commodore to let him take the Enterprise into
the harbor and try to destroy the captured ship. He knew he could do it,
he said, if he only had a chance. At any rate, he wanted to try.
Commodore Preble shook his head. It could not be done that way. He would
only lose his own vessel and his men. But there was a way it might be
done. The Moors might be taken by surprise and their prize burned in
their sight. It was a desperate enterprise. Every man who took part in
it would be in great danger of death. But that danger did not give much
trouble to bold young Decatur, who was as ready to fight as he was to
What was the commodore's plan, do you ask? Well, it was this. Some time
earlier the Enterprise had captured the Mastico, a vessel from
Tripoli. Preble gave this craft the new name of the Intrepid and
proposed to send it into the harbor. The Moors did not know of its
capture and would not suspect it, and thus it might get up close to the
Decatur was made commander and called for volunteers. Every man and boy
on the Enterprise wanted to go; and he picked out over seventy of
them. As he was about to leave the deck, a boy came up and asked if he
couldn't go, too.
"Why do you want to go, Jack?"
"Well, Captain, you see, I'd kind o' like to see the country."
This was such a queer reason that Decatur laughed and told him he might
One dark night, on February 3, 1804, the Intrepid left the rest of the
fleet and set sail for the harbor of Tripoli. The little Siren went
with her for company. But the weather proved stormy, and it was not
until the 15th that they were able to carry out their plan.
About noon they came in sight of the spires of the city of Tripoli.
Decatur did not wish to reach the Philadelphia until nightfall, but he
was afraid to take in sail, for fear of being suspected; so he dragged a
cable and a number of buckets behind to lessen his speed.
After a time the Philadelphia came in sight. She was anchored well in
the harbor, under the guns of two heavy batteries. Two cruisers and a
number of gunboats lay near by. It was a desperate and dangerous
business which Decatur and his tars had taken in hand, but they did not
let that trouble them.
At about ten o'clock at night the Intrepid came into the harbor's
mouth. The wind had fallen and she crept slowly along over the smooth
sea. The Siren stayed behind. Her work was that of rescue in case of
trouble. Straight for the frigate went the devoted crew. A new moon sent
its soft lustre over the waves. All was still in city and fleet.
Soon the Intrepid came near the frigate. Only twelve men were visible
on her deck. The others were lying flat in the shadow on the bulwarks,
each with cutlass tightly clutched in hand.
"What vessel is that?" was asked in Moorish words from the frigate.
"The Mastico, from Malta," answered the pilot in the same tongue. "We
lost our anchors in the gale and were nearly wrecked. Can we ride by
your ship for the night?"
The permission asked was granted, and a boat from the Intrepid made a
line fast to the frigate, while the men on the latter threw a line
aboard. The ropes were passed to the hidden men on the deck, who pulled
on them lustily.
As the little craft came up, the men on the frigate saw her anchors
hanging in place.
"You have lied to us!" came a sharp hail. "Keep off! Cut those lines!"
Others had seen the concealed men, and the cry of "Americanos!" was
The alarm came too late. The little craft was now close up and a hearty
pull brought her against the hull of the large ship.
"Boarders away!" came the stirring order.
"Follow me, lads," cried Decatur, springing for the chain-plates of the
frigate. Men and officers were after him hot-foot. Midshipman Charles
Morris was the first to reach the deck, with Decatur close behind.
The surprise was complete. There was no resistance. Few of the Moors
had weapons, and they fled from the Americans like frightened sheep. On
all sides the splashing of water could be heard as they leaped
overboard. In a few minutes they were all gone and Decatur and his men
were masters of the ship.
They would have given much to be able to take the noble frigate out of
the harbor. But that could not be done, and every minute made their
danger greater. All they could do was to set her on fire and retreat
with all speed.
Not a moment was lost. Quick-burning material was brought from the
Intrepid, put in good places, and set on fire. So rapidly did the
flames spread that the men who were lighting fires on the lower decks
had scarcely time to escape from the fast-spreading conflagration.
Flames poured from the port-holes, and sparks fell on the deck of the
smaller vessel. If it should touch the powder that was stored amidships,
death would come to them all. With nervous haste they cut the ropes, and
the Intrepid was pushed off. Then the sweeps were thrust out and the
little craft rowed away.
"Now, lads, give them three good cheers," cried Decatur.
Up sprang the jack-tars, and three ringing cheers were given, sounding
above the roar of the flames and of the cannon that were now playing on
the little vessel from the batteries and gunboats. Then to their sweeps
went the tars again, and drove their vessel every minute farther away.
As they went they saw the flames catch the rigging and run up the masts
of the doomed frigate. Then great bursts of flame shot out from the open
hatchways. The loaded guns went off one after another, some of them
firing into the town. It was a lurid and striking spectacle, such as is
Bainbridge and his fellow-officers saw the flames from their prison
window and hailed them with lusty cheers. The officers of the Siren
saw them also, and sent their boats into the harbor to aid the
fugitives, if necessary. But it was not necessary. Not a man had been
hurt. In an hour after the flames were seen, Decatur and his daring crew
came in triumph out of the bay of Tripoli.
Never had been known a more perfect and successful naval exploit. All
Europe talked of it with admiration when the news was received. Lord
Nelson, the greatest of England's sailors, said, "It was the boldest and
most daring act of the ages." When the tidings reached the United
States, Decatur, young as he was, was rewarded by Congress with the
title of captain.
We are not yet done with the Intrepid, in which Decatur played so
brilliant a part. She was tried again in work of the same kind, but with
a more tragic end.
A room was built in her and filled with powder, shot, and shells.
Combustibles of various kinds were piled around it, so that it could not
fail to go off, if set on fire. Then, one dark night, the fire-ship was
sent into the harbor of Tripoli, with a picked crew under another
gallant young officer, Lieutenant Richard Somers.
They were told to take it into the midst of the Moorish squadron, set it
on fire and escape in their boats. It was expected to blow up and rend
to atoms the war vessels of Tripoli.
But the forts and ships began to fire on it, and before it reached its
goal a frightful disaster occurred. Suddenly a great jet of fire was
seen to shoot up into the sky. Then came a roar like that of a volcano.
The distant spectators saw the mast of the Intrepid, with blazing
sail, flung like a rocket into the air. Bombs flew in all directions.
Then all grew dark and still.
In some way the magazine had been exploded, perhaps by a shot from the
enemy. Nothing was ever seen again of Somers and his men. It was the
great tragedy of the war. They had all perished in that fearful
* * * * *
Now let us turn back to the story of Decatur, of whom we have some more
famous work to tell.
In August, 1804, the American fleet entered the harbor of Tripoli and
made a daring attack on the fleet, the batteries, and the city of the
Bashaw. In addition to the war vessels of the fleet, there were six
gunboats and two bomb vessels, all pouring shot and shell into the city
which had so long defied them.
The batteries on shore returned the fire, and the gunboats of the Bashaw
advanced to the attack. On these the fleet now turned its fire, sweeping
their decks with grape and canister shot. Decatur, with three gunboats,
advanced on the eastern division of the Moorish gunboats, nine in all.
Decatur, you will see, was outnumbered three to one, but he did not stop
for odds like that. He dashed boldly in, laid his vessel alongside the
nearest gunboat of the enemy, poured in a volley, and gave the order to
board. In an instant the Americans were over the bulwarks and on the
The contest was short and sharp. The captain of the Tripolitans fell
dead. Most of his officers were wounded. The men, overcome by the fierce
attack, soon threw down their arms and begged for quarter. Decatur
secured them below decks and started for the next gunboat.
On his way he was hailed from one of his own boats, which had been
commanded by his brother James. The men told him that his brother had
captured one of the gunboats of the enemy, but, on going on board after
her flag had fallen, he had been shot dead by the treacherous commander.
The murderer had then driven the Americans back and carried his boat out
of the fight.
On hearing this sad news, Decatur was filled with grief and rage. Bent
on revenge, he turned his boat's prow and swiftly sped towards the
craft of the assassin. The instant the two boats came together the
furious Decatur sprang upon the deck of the enemy. At his back came
Lieutenant McDonough and nine sturdy sailors. Nearly forty of the Moors
faced them, at their head a man of gigantic size, his face half covered
with a thick black beard, a scarlet cap on his head, the true type of a
Sure that this was his brother's murderer, Decatur rushed fiercely at
the giant Moor. The latter thrust at him with a heavy boarding pike.
Decatur parried the blow, and made a fierce stroke at the weapon, hoping
to cut off its point.
He failed in this and his cutlass broke off at the hilt, leaving him
with empty hands. With a lusty yell the Moor thrust again. Decatur bent
aside, so that he received only a slight wound. Then he seized the
weapon, wrested it from the hands of the Moor, and thrust fiercely at
In an instant more the two enemies had clinched in a wrestle for life
and death, and fell struggling to the deck. While they lay there, one
of the Tripolitan officers raised his scimitar and aimed a deadly blow
at the head of Decatur.
It seemed now as if nothing could save the struggling American. Only one
of his men was near by. This was a sailor named Reuben James, who had
been wounded in both arms. But he was a man of noble heart. He could not
lift a hand to save his captain, but his head was free, and with a
sublime devotion he thrust it in the way of the descending weapon.
Down it came with a terrible blow on his head, and he fell bleeding to
the deck, but before the Tripolitan could lift his weapon again to
strike Decatur, a pistol shot laid him low.
Decatur was left to fight it out with the giant Moor. With one hand the
huge wrestler held him tightly and with the other he drew a dagger from
his belt. The fatal moment had arrived. Decatur caught the Moor's wrist
just as the blow was about to fall, and at the same instant pressed
against his side a small pistol he had drawn from his pocket.
A touch of the trigger, a sharp report, and the body of the giant
relaxed. The bullet had pierced him through and he fell back dead.
Flinging off the heavy weight, Decatur rose to his feet.
Meanwhile his few men had been fiercely fighting the Tripolitan crew.
Greatly as they outnumbered the Americans, the Moors had been driven
back. They lost heart on seeing their leader fall and threw down their
Another gunboat was captured and then the battle ended. The attack on
Tripoli had proved a failure and the fleet drew off.
I know you will ask what became of brave Reuben James, who offered his
life for his captain. Was he killed? No, I am glad to say he was not. He
had an ugly cut, but he was soon well again.
One day Decatur asked him what reward he should give him for saving his
life. The worthy sailor did not know what to say. He scratched his head
and looked puzzled.
"Ask him for double pay, Rube," suggested one of his shipmates.
"A pocket full of dollars and shore leave," whispered another.
"No," said the modest tar. "Just let somebody else hand out the hammocks
to the men when they are piped down. That's something I don't like."
Decatur consented; and afterwards, when the crew was piped down to stow
hammocks, Reuben walked among them as free and independent as a
That is all we have here to say about the Tripolitan war. The next year
a treaty of peace was signed, and Captain Bainbridge and the men of the
Philadelphia were set free from their prison cells.
In 1812, when war broke out with England, the gallant Decatur was given
the command of the frigate United States, and with it he captured the
British frigate Macedonian, after a hard fight.
Poor Decatur was shot dead in a duel in 1820 by a hot-headed officer
whom he had offended. It was a sad end to a brilliant career, for the
American Navy never had a more gallant commander.