Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

The Fate of the Philadelphia

It was a mild evening on the Mediterranean, the wind light, the sea smooth, the temperature—though the season was that of midwinter—summer-like in its geniality. Into the harbor of Tripoli slowly glided a small, two-masted vessel, all her sails set and moderately well filled by the wind, yet moving with the tardiness of a very slow sailer. A broad bay lay before her, its surface silvered by the young moon whose crescent glowed in the western sky. Far inward could be dimly seen the masts and hull of a large vessel, its furled sails white in the moonlight. Beyond it were visible distant lights, and a white lustre as of minaret tops touched by the moonbeams. These were the lights and spires of Tripoli, a Moorish town then best known as a haunt and stronghold of the pirates of the Mediterranean. All was silence, all seemingly peace. The vessel—the ketch, to give it its nautical name—moved onward with what seemed exasperating slowness, scarcely ruffling the polished waters of the bay. The hours passed on. The miles lagged tardily behind. The wind fell. The time crept towards midnight. The only life visible in the wide landscape was that of the gliding ketch.

But any one who could have gained a bird's-eye view of the vessel would have seen sufficient to excite his distrust of that innocent-seeming craft. From the water-side only ten or twelve men could be seen, but on looking downward the decks would have been perceived to be crowded with men, lying down so as to be hidden behind the bulwarks and other objects upon the deck, and so thick that the sailors who were working the vessel had barely room to move.

This appeared suspicious. Not less suspicious was the fact that the water behind the vessel was ruffled by dragging objects of various kinds, which seemed to have something to do with her slowness of motion. As the wind grew lighter, and the speed of the vessel fell until it was moving at barely a two-knots' rate, these objects were drawn in, and proved to be buckets, spars, and other drags which had been towed astern to reduce the vessel's speed. Her tardiness of motion was evidently the work of design.

It was now about ten o'clock. The moon hovered on the western horizon, near its hour of setting. The wind was nearly east, and favorable to the vessel's course, but was growing lighter every moment. The speed of the ketch diminished until it seemed almost to have come to rest. It had now reached the eastern entrance to the bay, the passage here being narrowed by rocks on the one hand and a shoal on the other. Through this passage it stole onward like a ghost, for nearly an hour, all around being tranquil, nothing anywhere to arouse distrust. The craft seemed a coaster delayed by the light winds in making harbor.

The gliding ketch had now come so near to the large vessel in front, that the latter had lost its dimness of outline and was much more plainly visible. It was evidently no Moorish craft, its large hull, its lofty masts, its tracery of spars and rigging being rather those of an English or American frigate than a product of Tripolitan dock-yards. Its great bulk and sweeping spars arose in striking contrast to the low-decked vessels which could be seen here and there huddled about the inner sides of the harbor.

A half-hour more passed. The ketch was now close aboard the frigate-like craft, steering directly towards it. Despite the seeming security of the harbor, there were sentries posted on the frigate and officers moving about its deck. From one of these now came a loud hail in the Tripolitan tongue.

"What craft is that?"

"The Mastico, from Malta," came the answer, in the same language.

"Keep off. Do you want to run afoul of us?"

"We would like to ride beside you for the night," came the answer. "We have lost our anchors in a gale."

The conversation continued, in the Tripolitan language, as the ketch crept slowly up, an officer of the frigate and the pilot of the smaller vessel being the spokesmen. A number of Moorish sailors were looking with mild curiosity over the frigate's rails, without a moment's suspicion that anything was wrong. The moon still dimly lit up the waters of the bay, but not with light enough to make any object very distinct.

As the ketch came close a boat was lowered with a line, and was rowed towards the frigate, to whose fore-chains the end was made fast. At the same time the officer of the large vessel, willing to aid the seemingly disabled coaster, ordered some of his men to lower a boat and take a line from the stern to the ketch. As the boat of the latter returned, it met the frigate's boat, took the line from the hands of its crew, and passed it in to the smaller vessel.

The ketch was now fast to the frigate bow and stern. The lines were passed to the men lying on the deck, none of whom were visible from the frigate's rail, and were slowly passed from hand to hand by the men, the coaster thus being cautiously drawn closer to the obliging Moorish craft.

All this took time. Foot by foot the ketch drew nearer, her motion being almost imperceptible. The Moors looked lazily over their bulwark, fancying that it was but the set of the current that was bringing the vessels together. But suddenly there was a change. The officer of the frigate had discovered that the ketch was still provided with anchors, despite the story that her anchors had been lost in a gale.

"What is this?" he cried, sternly. "You have your anchors! You have lied to me! Keep off! Cut those fasts there!"

A moment afterwards the cry of "Amerikanos!" was raised in the ship, and a number of the night-watch drew their knives and hastened fore and aft to cut the fasts.

The crew of the Mastico—or the Intrepid, to give it its proper name—were still more alert. At the first signal of alarm, their cautious pull on the ropes was changed to a vigorous effort which sent the ketch surging through the water to the side of the frigate, where she was instantly secured by grappling-irons, hurled by strong hands.

Up to this moment not a movement or whisper had betrayed the presence of the men crouched on the deck. The ten or twelve who were visible seemed to constitute the whole crew of the craft. But now there came a sudden change. The stirring cry of "Boarders away!" was raised in stentorian tones, and in an instant the deck of the Intrepid seemed alive. The astonished Moors gazed with startled eyes at a dense crowd of men who had appeared as suddenly as if they had come from the air.

The order to board had been given by an officer who sprang at the same moment for the frigate's chain-plates. Two active young men followed him, and in an instant the whole crew were at their heels, some boarding the frigate by the ports, others over the rail, swarming upon her deck like so many bees, while the Moors fell back in panic fright.

The surprise was perfect. The men on the frigate's deck ran to the starboard side as their assailants poured in on the larboard, and constant plunges into the water told that they were hastily leaping overboard in their fright. Hardly a blow had been struck. The deck was cleared in almost a minute after the order to board. The only struggle took place below, but this lasted little longer. In less than ten minutes from the time of boarding all resistance was at an end, and the craft was an undisputed prize to the Intrepid's crew.

And now to learn the meaning of this midnight assault. The vessel which had been so skilfully captured was the frigate Philadelphia, of the American navy, which had fallen into the hands of the Tripolitans some time before. For years the Moorish powers of Africa had been preying upon the commerce of the Mediterranean, until the weaker nations of Europe were obliged to pay an annual tribute for the security of their commerce. The United States did the same for some time, but the thing grew so annoying that war was at length declared against Tripoli, the boldest of these piratical powers. In 1803 Commodore Preble was sent with a fleet to the Mediterranean. He forced Morocco to respect American commerce, and then proceeded to Tripoli, outside whose harbor his fleet congregated, with a view of blockading the port.

On October 31 Captain Bainbridge of the Philadelphia, while cruising about, saw a vessel in shore and to windward, standing for Tripoli. Sail was made to cut her off. The chase continued for several hours, the lead being kept constantly going to avoid danger of shoals. When about a league distant from Tripoli it became evident that the fugitive craft could not be overtaken, and the frigate wore round to haul off into deeper waters. But, to the alarm of the officers, they found the water in their front rapidly shoaling, it having quickly decreased in depth from eight to six and a half fathoms. A hasty effort was now made to wear the ship, but it was too late; the next instant she struck on a reef, with such force that she was lifted on it between five and six feet.

This was an appalling accident. No other cruiser was near. The enemy was close at hand. Gunboats were visible near the town. The moment it was discovered that the frigate was in trouble these dogs of war would be out. Captain Bainbridge gave orders to lighten the ship with all speed. All but a few of her guns were thrown overboard. The anchors were cut from the bows. The water-casks in the hold were started, and the water pumped out. All heavy articles were thrown overboard, and finally the foremast was cut away. But all proved in vain. The ship still lay immovable on the rocks. The gunboats of the enemy now surrounded her, and were growing bolder every minute. There was nothing for it but surrender. Resistance could only end in the death of all on board.

But before hauling down his flag, Captain Bainbridge had the magazine drowned, holes bored in the ship's bottom, the pumps choked, and every measure taken to insure her sinking. Then the colors were lowered and the gunboats took possession, three hundred and fifteen prisoners being captured. The officers were well treated by the bashaw of Tripoli, but an enormous ransom was demanded for them, and all signs of an inclination to peace disappeared.

Captain Bainbridge's efforts to sink the Philadelphia proved ineffectual. During a high wind the prize was got off the reef, her leaks stopped, and she taken in triumph to the city. Her guns, anchors, and other articles were raised from the reef, the ship was moored about a quarter of a mile from the bashaw's castle, and her injuries repaired, it being the intention to fit her for sea as a Tripolitan cruiser.

These were the events that preceded the daring attempt we have detailed. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur had volunteered to make an effort to destroy the vessel, with the aid of a recently-captured ketch, called the Mastico. This, renamed the Intrepid, manned with a crew of seventy-six men, had entered the harbor on the evening of February 3, 1804. What followed, to the capture of the frigate, has been told. The succeeding events remain to be detailed.

Doubtless Lieutenant Decatur would have attempted to carry off the prize had it been possible. His orders, however, were to destroy it, and the fact that there was not a sail bent or a yard crossed left him no alternative. The command was, therefore, at once given to pass up the combustibles from the ketch. There was no time to be lost. The swimming fugitives would quickly be in the town and the alarm given. Every moment now was of value, for the place where they were was commanded by the guns of the forts and of several armed vessels anchored at no great distance, and they might look for an assault the instant their character was determined.

With all haste, then, officers and men went to work. They had been divided into squads, each with its own duty to perform, and they acted with the utmost promptitude and disciplined exactness. The men who descended with combustibles to the cockpit and after-store-rooms had need to haste, for fires were lighted over their heads before they were through with their task. So rapidly did the flames catch and spread that some of those on board had to make their escape from between-decks by the forward ladders, the after-part of the ship being already filled with smoke.

In twenty minutes from the time the Americans had taken possession of the ship they were driven out of her by flames, so rapidly had they spread. The vessel had become so dry under those tropical suns that she burned like pine. By the time the party which had been engaged in the store-rooms reached the deck, most of the others were on board the Intrepid. They joined them, and the order to cast off was given. It was not an instant too soon, for the daring party were just then in the most risky situation they had been in that night.

The fire, in fact, had spread with such unexpected rapidity that flames were already shooting from the port-holes. The head fast was cast off, and the ketch fell astern. But the stern fast became jammed and the boom foul, while the ammunition of the party, covered only with a tarpaulin, was within easy reach of the increasing flames.

There was no time to look for an axe, and the rope was severed with swords-blows, while a vigorous shove sent the Intrepid clear of the frigate and free from the danger which had threatened her. As she swung clear, the flames reached the rigging, up which they shot in hissing lines, the ropes being saturated with tar which had oozed out through the heat of the sun.

The Intrepid did not depend on her sails alone for escape. She was provided with sweeps, and these were now got out and manned with haste, a few vigorous strokes sending the vessel safely away from the flaming frigate. This done, the crew, as with one impulse, dropped their oars and gave three rousing cheers for their signal victory.

Their shouts of triumph appeared to rouse the Moors from their lethargy. So rapid and unlooked-for had been the affair, that the vessel was in full flame before the town and the harbor were awake to the situation. There were batteries on shore, and two corsairs and a galley were anchored at no great distance from the Philadelphia, and from these now the boom of cannon began. But their fire was too hasty and nervous to do much harm, and the men of the Intrepid seized their sweeps again and bowled merrily down the harbor, their progress aided by a light breeze in their sails.

The spectacle that followed is described as of a beauty that approached sublimity. The ship, aflame from hull to peak, presented a magnificent appearance, the entire bay was illuminated, and the flash and roar of cannon were constant, the guns of the Philadelphia going off as they became heated, and adding to the uproar. She lay so that one of her broadsides was directed towards the town, thus returning the enemy's fire, while the other sent its balls far out into the harbor. "The most singular effect of the conflagration was on board the ship, for the flames, having run up the rigging and masts, collected under the tops, and fell over, giving the whole the appearance of glowing columns and fiery capitals."

The Intrepid moved on down the harbor, none the worse for the cannon-balls that were sent after her, and continued her course until she reached her consort, the Siren, which awaited her outside the harbor. Joining company, they proceeded to Syracuse, where the fleet then lay.

The exploit we have here described was one of the most notable in the annals of the American navy. It was one that needed the utmost daring combined with the most exact attention to details, and in both these respects there was nothing wanting to insure the success of the enterprise. The hour was well chosen, as that in which the foe would most likely be off their guard, and to this we must ascribe the slowness of their assault on the Americans and the uncertainty of their aim. The mode of approach to the frigate, the skill with which the ketch was laid alongside without exciting suspicion, and the rapidity and completeness with which the destruction of the prize was prepared for, were all worthy of high commendation. As for the boldness of the enterprise, one has but to consider what would have been the fate of the Americans had the attack failed. Directly under the frigate's guns, and in a harbor filled with gunboats and armed cruisers and surrounded by forts and batteries, escape would have been impossible, and every man in the Intrepid must have perished. The greatest courage, coolness, and self-possession, and the most exact discipline, alone could have yielded success in the daring project, and these qualities seem to have been possessed in a high degree.

The success of this exploit gave Lieutenant Decatur a reputation for gallantry which had its share in his subsequent elevation to the highest rank in the navy. The country generally applauded the feat, and the navy long considered it one of its most brilliant achievements, it being deemed a high honor among sailors and officers to have been one of the Intrepid's crew. The writer of these pages may add that it is to him a matter of some interest that the first man to reach the deck of the Philadelphia on that memorable night was a namesake of his own, Midshipman Charles Morris. For the credit of the name he is also glad to say that Mr. Morris in time become a commodore in the navy, and attained a high reputation as an officer both in war and peace.

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