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Lawton B. Evans

The Burning of the Philadelphia

F OR many years the Moors, in Africa, were pirates, and preyed upon vessels in the Mediterranean. The weaker nations of Europe agreed to pay tribute annually, if these pirates would not molest them on the seas. Those nations that did not pay suffered dreadfully in consequence. The United States paid tribute for a while, but grew tired of it, and declared war against Tripoli, the boldest of these piratical countries.

During the war which followed, an American vessel, named the Philadelphia,  while pursuing an enemy craft, ran aground on a reef, and was captured by the Tripolitans, who floated her and refitted her for service in their own navy. She lay in the harbor, a beautiful and tantalizing sight to the American vessels just outside the range of the guns of the fort that protected her.

Lieutenant Stephen Decatur volunteered to capture or destroy the Philadelphia,  with the aid of a recently captured vessel, called a "ketch," which was named the Mastico,  but had been rechristened the Intrepid.  He had a crew of seventy-six men, and one night in July, 1804, he slowly drifted into the harbor of Tripoli on his perilous adventure.

The ketch, which was innocent enough as it made its way slowly along, looked like a belated coaster making its way into the harbor. All the men, except about a dozen sailors, were lying on the decks, hidden from view. The moon had set, and the lights of the town gave a dim outline to the big ship toward which they were purposely drifting.

At last, the gliding ketch came close to the Philadelphia,  upon whose decks soldiers and sailors were plainly visible. An officer aboard hailed the ketch in the Tripolitan tongue, and inquired,

"What vessel is that, and where are you from?"

"This is the Mastico,  from Malta," was the reply in the same language.

"Be careful or you will run afoul of us," was the warning.

To this the ketch replied, "We have lost our anchors in a gale, and should like to tie up to you for the night."

The Tripolitan agreed to this, not suspecting for a moment that the ketch was otherwise than represented. The Moorish soldiers looked on lazily, and with idle curiosity. As the ketch came down, a boat was lowered with a line that soon was made fast to the forechains of the frigate. Another boat from the frigate was lowered to take a line from the stem of the ketch. Thus it was proposed to tie the two boats together.

When all was made fast, the American sailors slowly drew the ketch closer and closer to the side of the frigate. Suddenly, the officers of the frigate, seeing the anchors of the ketch still aboard, took alarm and cried aloud to cut her loose. It was too late. In a moment, grappling irons had fastened the two boats, and all the men aboard the ketch were swarming with drawn swords over the side of the frigate.

It was short work to disperse the crew of the frigate, most of whom leaped into the water and began swimming for the shore. In ten minutes, the Philadelphia  was again in the hands of her former owners, and not a Moor was left on board alive.

There was no chance to carry the vessel off, since her sails were not set, and there was almost no wind. Besides, it would be only a few minutes before the swimmers would reach the shore and give the alarm. Therefore, Decatur determined to set fire to the frigate, and to escape before armed boats could come to the rescue and defeat his purpose.

It took but a few minutes to spread fire from the hold to other places of the dry ship. The men barely had time to escape from the decks before vast volumes of smoke were issuing from the port holes, and the Philadelphia  was doomed. The Intrepid  now swung clear of the burning vessel, and left her to her fate. The men on board gave a great cheer as the flames burst forth to the rigging. Soon the boat was one mass of flames, from hull to peak, lighting the entire harbor with a deep red glow.

In spite of firing from the shore batteries and from several armed vessels, the Intrepid  made her way out of the harbor, impelled by sweeps in the hands of the crew, and aided by a light wind. In a short time, Decatur had joined his American fleet, and was greeted with congratulations for his daring exploit.