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Chelsea Curtis Fraser

The Burning of the Philadelphia


'Twere better thus to sink where it stood

The ship he loved than that it should

Be used by foe against the good

Of his countrymen.

Swift stroke of oar—then

Flames on the ship shot to'rd the sky,

And when the pirates saw the why

They raged with mad, defeated cry.


For us of to-day it is very difficult to conceive that there ever was a time when the United States paid money to another country to be left unmolested. It is even more difficult for us to imagine the United States paying such a tribute to pirates.

And yet this is exactly what America did once upon a time. Moreover those same pirates,—the sea robbers of the Barbary coast states of Morocco, Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers, lying along the northern coast of Africa—had succeeded by their indiscriminate and destructive raids on commerce in forcing most of the civilized powers of Europe to bend to their demands for a tribute in order to be left alone. Even then peace did not come. These disreputable corsairs of the seas,—like the bully who takes the small boy's marbles from him in agreement of friendliness and then turns with cuffs and blows to demand more treasure—boldly continued to prey on Mediterranean merchantmen, to slyly deny their misdeeds, and to offer generous new assurances that all would be well in case a little more tribute were offered.

The only excuse that America can offer for ever entering into a shameful bargain of this kind, and maintaining it as long as she did, is that "everybody else was doing it." 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 order for new ships for the navy, and took the money to again buy off those pests of the seas, the Barbary buccaneers. The fund for this disgraceful purpose was known as the "Mediterranean Fund," and was entrusted to the Secretary of State to be disbursed by him at his own discretion.

Thus matters went on for some years. But the time was soon to come when a summary stop was to be put upon the blackmailing—at least for this country. After the United States had its brush with France in 1798, and following Truxtun's brilliant victory over the French frigate L'Insurgente in the next year, it occurred to the American government that perhaps there was a more efficient and more manly way of dealing with the Barbary powers than feebly handing thousands of dollars over to them every time they took a notion to demand it.

This change of attitude was largely occasioned by a number of complaints which came in about this time from the blackmailers themselves. I think you can guess pretty well as to the nature of these grievances. The Pasha of Tripoli whined that we had given more money to some of the Algerian ministers than to him; the Algiers government grumbled that we should not pay Tripoli so much; Morocco and Tunis pleaded for better treatment. With nations as with individuals, when the payment of black-mail is once begun there is no end to it. In the present instance the situation was made even more acute by the declaration of the Pasha of Tripoli that he had ordered his subjects to cut down the flagstaff in front of the residence of the American consul, and was about to declare war against us. This meant a renewed onslaught against our merchantmen by his pirates unless we immediately stepped forth with sufficient gifts to buy the old rascal off. In answer the United States government did a most fitting thing. In 1801 Congress sent Commodore Dale with a small squadron of warships to teach the pirates a much needed lesson.

No sooner had the expedition reached the Mediterranean than the cowardly Morocco and Tunis stopped their grumbling and came to terms with the United States. This left Tripoli alone to be dealt with.

As Commodore Dale had sailed before the declaration of war with Tripoli was known, he was hampered by his orders, which permitted him to protect our commerce only, and which forbade hostilities. Nevertheless he was destined to get into a fight, for hardly had he appeared off Tripoli than he was fired upon by the Tripolitan ship Tripoli, of fourteen guns. No self-respecting, peacefully inclined American would ever stand that, and Dale's own guns were quickly barking away in defense.

The engagement lasted a matter of three hours. Then the Tripoli, having suffered sufficiently for her temerity, struck her colors. Her mizzenmast was gone, she was riddled with the well-aimed shot of the Americans, and fifty of her crew lay wounded or dead. Scarcely any Americans on the Enterprise—the twelve gun ship commanded by Lieutenant Sterret which had fought this battle—had been wounded. It was a signal victory. As he had no orders to make captures, Sterret 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 jury sail to drift back to Tripoli—a hint to the Pasha of the new American policy.

In 1803 the command of the United States fleet in the Mediterranean was taken over by Commodore Preble, who had just succeeded in forcing satisfaction from Morocco for an attack made upon his country's merchantmen by a vessel from Tangier. He was preparing to enforce a blockade of Tripoli when news reached him that the frigate Philadelphia, of forty-four guns, commanded by Captain Bainbridge, and one of the best ships in the United States navy, had gone upon a reef in the harbor of Tripoli. It was said that the mishap occurred while she was pursuing an enemy, and that while she lay helpless she had been surrounded and captured by Tripolitan gunboats.

This was a very serious blow. It not only weakened the American force in those waters, but it was also a great help to the enemy, for it promised to add another vessel to their own fleet. In fact they 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 made every effort to prepare her for service against her own ships.

At this critical time Stephen Decatur came upon the scene to save the day for his countrymen. Decatur, a young lieutenant of the Enterprise, appeared before Commodore Preble and offered to go into the harbor and destroy the Philadelphia.

Preble was willing, after talking at length with the intrepid young man and hearing his plans in detail. But some delay ensued in carrying out the program, as the squadron was driven off the coast by severe gales. However, in January, 1804, the favorable moment having apparently arrived, the Commodore assigned to Decatur a small vessel known as a "ketch" which had recently been captured from the enemy.

Decatur took seventy men from the Enterprise  and put them on the Intrepid, as he now chose to rechristen the prize. Then, accompanied by Lieutenant Stewart in the Siren, who was to support him, he set sail for Tripoli. The little ketch proved very cramped quarters for so many men, but they were used to discomforts in those days, and finally reached their destination without mishap.

For almost a week they were unable to approach the harbor, owing to severe gales which threatened the loss of their vessels, and ran into a hidden bay for protection. But the weather moderated, and on February 16th they stole out in the darkness of the night and made their way into the harbor.

All this time the Philadelphia, with forty guns mounted, double-shotted and ready for firing, and manned by a full complement of the pirates, was moored within half-gunshot of the Pasha's castle, the mole and crown batteries, and within easy range of ten other batteries which mounted a total of over a hundred guns. Some Tripolitan 133 cruisers, two galleys, and nineteen gunboats also lay between the Philadelphia  and the shore.

Leaving the Siren  behind, into the midst of this powerful armament of the enemy Decatur had to go with his little vessel and only four guns. But he was undismayed. By seven o'clock he was stealthily making his way between the reefs and shoals which formed the mouth of the harbor. With the aid of a light wind blowing in shore the ketch bowled silently along. Her master steered straight toward the Philadelphia, whose position he well knew and whose lights he could soon make out, like burning embers against he dark heart of night. By nine thirty he was within two hundred yards of the former American frigate.

As they approached Decatur stood at the helm with the pilot, only two or three men showing on deck. The rest of the crew of seventy-five were lying hidden under the bulwarks. In this manner the Intrepid  drifted to within twenty-five yards of the Philadelphia  before she was hailed by the lookouts. The cry was in a foreign tongue whose meaning the young American could only guess at. He answered back in English, hoping that it would be understood; "This is the Intrepid."

"You Angleesh?" came the broken inquiry through the darkness.

"We are alone," said Decatur, as though he had either not heard or had misunderstood the question. "We are in need of aid."

"What wrong?" was the next call. Evidently the pirate's suspicions, if he had any, were allayed, as Decatur intended they should be.

"Our anchors have been lost in the gale," was the truthful answer. (The Intrepid  and Siren  had each lost an anchor.) "Will you let us run a warp to your ship and ride by her till morning?"

The truth of the matter is, while this little by play had been going on, some of Decatur's men had already lowered a small boat with the avowed purpose of rowing to the Philadelphia  whether a favorable or an unfavorable answer resulted. A reply that sounded very much like "You come" came from the captured frigate. Instantly Decatur leaped into the small boat with a rope, followed by a couple of his men. In a few minutes they had pulled to the big shadowy hull of the Philadelphia  and made fast their line to her forechains. He then twitched the rope sharply three times, a pre-arranged signal, and at once his crew on the ketch began to haul the latter toward the pirate craft.

At this juncture the suspicions of the Tripolitans seemed suddenly awakened. There came a harsh, alarmed cry of "Americanos!" and the strangers were ordered away in no uncertain terms of pidgin English.

But those buccaneers knew not with whom they were reckoning. At the first sign of alarm on the part of the enemy, Decatur sprang up the main chains of the Philadelphia, shouting to his men to board her at once. He was rapidly followed by his officers and crew.

As the Americans swarmed over the rails and came upon the deck the pirates gathered in a panic stricken, confused mass on the forecastle. Apparently they thought themselves assailed by an opponent many times more numerous than themselves, whereas, in truth, the odds were all on their own side had they but known it.

Decatur waited a moment until his men were all behind him. Then, placing himself at their head, he drew his sword and rushed upon the Tripolitans. There was a sharp, but very brief conflict. The pirates, terrorized from the beginning, stood before the fierce onslaught only long enough to see scores of their number go down under the unerring pistol shots and cutlass thrusts of the Americans, and then those of them who could fled to the rails and jumped madly overboard.

Could he have done so it would have been the immediate effort of Decatur now to take the Philadelphia  out of the harbor. But this he knew to be impossible. He therefore gave orders to burn the ship, and his men, who had been thoroughly instructed in their parts, dispersed to all sections of the vessel with the combustibles that had been prepared. So well and quickly did they work, a few minutes later flames broke out in practically all parts of the frigate at once.

Satisfied that he could do no more, Decatur ordered. his men to return to the Intrepid. Quietly, without confusion, they obeyed, although there was a pang in the throat of many a man of them because the dear old Yankee frigate must perish in this ignoble manner.

It was a moment of unusual peril. The fire was breaking out all along the Philadelphia, and the flaming brands and sparks were already beginning to fly. Should any of these fall onto the deck of the little Intrepid, lying by, she too would be afire in a moment, with great danger of her powder magazine catching and blowing her to fragments.

The Americans were quickly aboard their own craft, however. The next instant they had slashed the cables, manned the sweeps, and were bearing away from the larger ship.

It was a magnificent sight to see those great licking tongues of pallid red bursting forth from the hull and decking of the Philadelphia, as the ketch swiftly drew farther and farther away, afraid that in the bright and expansive reflection of the conflagration the enemy on shore could detect them and shoot them down before they could get out of range.

Soon the tongues of fire were creeping up the tall masts of the frigate, and clutching first one shivering shroud and then another in their consuming tentacles. As the ship's guns became heated, they were discharged, as if by phantom gunners, shattering the silence of the night into quivering echoes. And, as if in a final effort to wreak vengeance on the foreigners who had brought her to this, the grand old frigate now let go her shoreward batteries, and the heavy shot went hurtling into the midst of pirate craft and shore works. Finally her cables parted, and, an awesome pyre of wreckage, she drifted across the harbor, to finally blow up.

Meantime the waters in the vicinity had been illuminated almost like day. The escaping Intrepid  stood out against the light background like a blot of ink on a white sheet of paper. An angry roar went up from the buccaneer populace of Tripoli. Shore guns and ship's guns began to cast their venomous hate toward the frail craft of the fleeing ones. But fortune favored the Americans; they kept on pulling for dear life, a friendly puff of wind soon filled their sail, and soon they were out of range and once more engulfed in darkness. A little later they came up with the Siren, and bore away to rejoin Commodore Preble.

This successful venture was carried through solely by the cool courage of Stephen Decatur and the admirable discipline of his men. The hazard was very great; everything had depended on the nerve with which the attack was made and the completeness of the surprise. Nothing miscarried; no success could have been more complete. Lord Nelson—at that time in the Mediterranean, and the best judge of a naval exploit that ever lived—pronounced it "the most bold and daring act of the age." In any event, it is one of those feats of arms which no American should ever forget, for although of no great importance, it fittingly' illustrates the keen resourcefulness and high courage of American seamen.