The Burning Of The Philadelphia

And say besides, that in Aleppo once,

Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk

Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,

I took by the throat the circumcised dog

And smote him, thus.


It is difficult to conceive that there ever was a time when the United

States paid a money tribute to anybody. It is even more difficult to
/> imagine the United States paying blackmail to a set of small piratical

tribes on the coast of Africa. Yet this is precisely what we once did

with the Barbary powers, as they were called the States of Morocco,

Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers, lying along the northern coast of Africa.

The only excuse to be made for such action was that we merely followed

the example of Christendom. The civilized people of the world were then

in the habit of paying sums of money to these miserable pirates,

in order to secure immunity for their merchant vessels in the

Mediterranean. For this purpose Congress appropriated money, and

treaties were made by the President and ratified by the Senate. On one

occasion, at least, Congress actually revoked the authorization of some

new ships for the navy, and appropriated more money than was required

to build the men-of-war in order to buy off the Barbary powers. The fund

for this disgraceful purpose was known as the "Mediterranean fund," and

was intrusted to the Secretary of State to be disbursed by him in his

discretion. After we had our brush with France, however, in 1798, and

after Truxtun's brilliant victory over the French frigate L'Insurgente

in the following year, it occurred to our government that perhaps

there was a more direct as well as a more manly way of dealing with the

Barbary pirates than by feebly paying them tribute, and in 1801 a small

squadron, under Commodore Dale, proceeded to the Mediterranean.

At the same time events occurred which showed strikingly the absurdity

as well as the weakness of this policy of paying blackmail to pirates.

The Bashaw of Tripoli, complaining that we had given more money to

some of the Algerian ministers than we had to him, and also that we had

presented Algiers with a frigate, declared war upon us, and cut down the

flag-staff in front of the residence of the American consul. At the same

time, and for the same reason, Morocco and Tunis began to grumble at the

treatment which they had received. The fact was that, with nations as

with individuals, when the payment of blackmail is once begun there is

no end to it. The appearance, however, of our little squadron in the

Mediterranean showed at once the superiority of a policy of force over

one of cowardly submission. Morocco and Tunis immediately stopped their

grumbling and came to terms with the United States, and this left us

free to deal with Tripoli.

Commodore Dale had sailed before the declaration of war by Tripoli was

known, and he was therefore hampered by his orders, which permitted

him only to protect our commerce, and which forbade actual hostilities.

Nevertheless, even under these limited orders, the Enterprise, of

twelve guns, commanded by Lieutenant Sterrett, fought an action with the

Tripolitan ship Tripoli, of fourteen guns. The engagement lasted three

hours, when the Tripoli struck, having lost her mizzenmast, and with

twenty of her crew killed and thirty wounded. Sterrett, having no orders

to make captures, threw all the guns and ammunition of the Tripoli

overboard, cut away her remaining masts, and left her with only one spar

and a single sail to drift back to Tripoli, as a hint to the Bashaw of

the new American policy.

In 1803 the command of our fleet in the Mediterranean was taken by

Commodore Preble, who had just succeeded in forcing satisfaction

from Morocco for an attack made upon our merchantmen by a vessel from

Tangier. He also proclaimed a blockade of Tripoli and was preparing

to enforce it when the news reached him that the frigate Philadelphia,

forty-four guns, commanded by Captain Bainbridge, and one of the best

ships in our navy, had gone upon a reef in the harbor of Tripoli, while

pursuing a vessel there, and had been surrounded and captured, with all

her crew, by the Tripolitan gunboats, when she was entirely helpless

either to fight or sail. This was a very serious blow to our navy and to

our operations against Tripoli. It not only weakened our forces, but it

was also a great help to the enemy. The Tripolitans got the Philadelphia

off the rocks, towed her into the harbor, and anchored her close under

the guns of their forts. They also replaced her batteries, and prepared

to make her ready for sea, where she would have been a most formidable

danger to our shipping.

Under these circumstances Stephen Decatur, a young lieutenant in command

of the Enterprise, offered to Commodore Preble to go into the harbor and

destroy the Philadelphia. Some delay ensued, as our squadron was driven

by severe gales from the Tripolitan coast; but at last, in January,

1804, Preble gave orders to Decatur to undertake the work for which

he had volunteered. A small vessel known as a ketch had been recently

captured from the Tripolitans by Decatur, and this prize was now named

the Intrepid, and assigned to him for the work he had in hand. He took

seventy men from his own ship, the Enterprise, and put them on the

Intrepid, and then, accompanied by Lieutenant Stewart in the Siren, who

was to support him, he set sail for Tripoli. He and his crew were very

much cramped as well as badly fed on the little vessel which had been

given to them, but they succeeded, nevertheless, in reaching Tripoli in

safety, accompanied by the Siren.

For nearly a week they were unable to approach the harbor, owing to

severe gales which threatened the loss of their vessel; but on February

16 the weather moderated and Decatur determined to go in. It is well to

recall, briefly, the extreme peril of the attack which he was about to

make. The Philadelphia, with forty guns mounted, double-shotted, and

ready for firing, and manned by a full complement of men, was moored

within half a gunshot of the Bashaw's castle, the mole and crown

batteries, and within range of ten other batteries, mounting,

altogether, one hundred and fifteen guns. Some Tripolitan cruisers, two

galleys, and nineteen gunboats also lay between the Philadelphia and the

shore. Into the midst of this powerful armament Decatur had to go with

his little vessel of sixty tons, carrying four small guns and having a

crew of seventy-five men.

The Americans, however, were entirely undismayed by the odds against

them, and at seven o'clock Decatur went into the harbor between the

reef and shoal which formed its mouth. He steered on steadily toward the

Philadelphia, the breeze getting constantly lighter, and by half-past

nine was within two hundred yards of the frigate. As they approached

Decatur stood at the helm with the pilot, only two or three men showing

on deck and the rest of the crew lying hidden under the bulwarks. In

this way he drifted to within nearly twenty yards of the Philadelphia.

The suspicions of the Tripolitans, however, were not aroused, and when

they hailed the Intrepid, the pilot answered that they had lost their

anchors in a gale, and asked that they might run a warp to the frigate

and ride by her. While the talk went on the Intrepid's boat shoved off

with the rope, and pulling to the fore-chains of the Philadelphia, made

the line fast. A few of the crew then began to haul on the lines, and

thus the Intrepid was drawn gradually toward the frigate.

The suspicions of the Tripolitans were now at last awakened. They raised

the cry of "Americanos!" and ordered off the Intrepid, but it was too

late. As the vessels came in contact, Decatur sprang up the main chains

of the Philadelphia, calling out the order to board. He was rapidly

followed by his officers and men, and as they swarmed over the rails and

came upon the deck, the Tripolitan crew gathered, panic-stricken, in a

confused mass on the forecastle. Decatur waited a moment until his men

were behind him, and then, placing himself at their head, drew his sword

and rushed upon the Tripolitans. There was a very short struggle, and

the Tripolitans, crowded together, terrified and surprised, were cut

down or driven overboard. In five minutes the ship was cleared of the


Decatur would have liked to have taken the Philadelphia out of the

harbor, but that was impossible. He therefore gave orders to burn the

ship, and his men, who had been thoroughly instructed in what they were

to do, dispersed into all parts of the frigate with the combustibles

which had been prepared, and in a few minutes, so well and quickly was

the work done, the flames broke out in all parts of the Philadelphia. As

soon as this was effected the order was given to return to the Intrepid.

Without confusion the men obeyed. It was a moment of great danger, for

fire was breaking out on all sides, and the Intrepid herself, filled

as she was with powder and combustibles, was in great peril of sudden

destruction. The rapidity of Decatur's movements, however, saved

everything. The cables were cut, the sweeps got out, and the Intrepid

drew rapidly away from the burning frigate. It was a magnificent

sight as the flames burst out over the Philadephia and ran rapidly and

fiercely up the masts and rigging. As her guns became heated they were

discharged, one battery pouring its shots into the town. Finally the

cables parted, and then the Philadelphia, a mass of flames, drifted

across the harbor, and blew up. Meantime the batteries of the shipping

and the castle had been turned upon the Intrepid, but although the

shot struck all around her, she escaped successfully with only one shot

through her mainsail, and, joining the Siren, bore away.

This successful attack was carried through by the cool courage of

Decatur and the admirable discipline of his men. The hazard was very

great, the odds were very heavy, and everything depended on the nerve

with which the attack was made and the completeness of the surprise.

Nothing miscarried, and no success could have been more complete.

Nelson, at that time in the Mediterranean, and the best judge of a naval

exploit as well as the greatest naval commander who has ever lived,

pronounced it "the most bold and daring act of the age." We meet no

single feat exactly like it in our own naval history, brilliant as that

has been, until we come to Cushing's destruction of the Albemarle in

the war of the rebellion. In the years that have elapsed, and among the

great events that have occurred since that time, Decatur's burning of

the Philadephia has been well-nigh forgotten; but it is one of those

feats of arms which illustrate the high courage of American seamen, and

which ought always to be remembered.