- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Blazing sea fights and undercurrents of intrigue: these are among the compelling ingredients of a biography that brings to life the most illustrious and formidable figure of the United States Navy. His name is carried by more than two dozen towns and cities. Here at last is a full exploration of Stephen Decatur's complex character. Reckless in youth, cool yet audacious in combat, loved by those who sailed under his command yet plotted against by rivals in the race for glory, ...
Ships from: Sussex, WI
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
Ships from: Las Cruces, NM
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
Ships from: Las Cruces, NM
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
Ships from: Minneapolis, MN
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
Ships from: FORT MYERS, FL
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
Ships from: acton, MA
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
Blazing sea fights and undercurrents of intrigue: these are among the compelling ingredients of a biography that brings to life the most illustrious and formidable figure of the United States Navy. His name is carried by more than two dozen towns and cities. Here at last is a full exploration of Stephen Decatur's complex character. Reckless in youth, cool yet audacious in combat, loved by those who sailed under his command yet plotted against by rivals in the race for glory, Decatur is brought to life in this enthralling sea story.
Decatur's heroism became widespread news in 1804 when, sent to reclaim a captured U.S. vessel from Tripoli in the Barbary Wars, he ordered his men to set fire to the captured vessel and proceed to attack the sailors of the Tripoli fleet in hand-to-hand combat. His brilliance continued through the War of 1812, after which he was promoted to the highest naval rank of Commodore.
Decatur not only proved dauntless on the quarterdeck but amazingly effective in Mediterranean diplomacy. His spectacular dealings with Islamic powers presaged America's twenty-first century involvement in the region.
Readers will also learn the identity of the woman he forsook for a sophisticated beauty, pursued by suitors as varied as Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew and Aaron Burr. Through freshly discovered documents, many official, some intensely personal, biographer Leonard Guttridge traces the elements that sped Decatur inexorably into the shadow of murder.
Here, at last, is the full story of the man who raised one of the most memorable toasts in the history of American celebrations, when he declared in 1816 "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!"
The gale that halted the first attempt to steal into Tripoli harbor struck at dawn on February 7, 1807. Even so, the commander of the former Barbary slave ketch now in American hands and christened Intrepid by her captors rejected the advice of his Maltese pilot that they dare not venture farther into the rising seas. He bade the pilot and a midshipman take a boat with muffled oars to more closely inspect conditions at the harbor mouth. Only when the boat returned a near wreck with its occupants thoroughly drenched did Lieutenant Stephen Decatur decide to drop anchor and ride out the storm.
One week passed before the winds subsided. All that time, seventy American midshipmen, seamen, and marines crouched or sprawled, retching and coughing, in the hold of a craft that could hardly have been more loaded in its slave-transport days. The seventy-ton Intrepid was only sixty feet long, its beam but twelve across, and it was rigged with three square sails on the foremast and a single fore-and-aft sail on the mainmast. Garbed as Arabs, men who were not doubled up behind the bulwarks clung full length to timbers laid upon water casks or huddled below amid hogsheads of combustibles. Wearied by shifts at the pumps whenever the ketch took heavy water, they also hungered for food. Few slept or ate. At Syracuse, Sicily, where they had weighed anchor the first week of the month, Decatur found that his salt beef was packed in uncleaned fish barrels and had so putrefied that it could be consumed only by the vermin that infested every corner of the Intrepid’s hold.
Its tiny cabin was headquarters for Decatur, three other lieutenants, and a ship’s surgeon. But throughout those storm-tossed days Decatur was not always on the ketch. At times he could be found aboard the sixteen-gun brig Syren, three or four miles astern, where in relative comfort he discussed the task ahead with Lieutenant Charles Stewart, the brig’s commander. Given variable winds, uncertain tides, and the probability of enemy attack, plans made on the flagship Constitution at Syracuse, the United States Navy’s Mediterranean base, might well have to be altered.
Stewart’s orders were straightforward. His brig would follow at some distance in the Intrepid’s wake but close enough to provide reinforcements when Decatur’s party achieved the objective, and then to cover its withdrawal. The target, anchored in captivity with Tripolitan colors at the masthead, was the twelve-hundred-ton frigate Philadelphia, whose entire crew, from captain to loblolly boy, languished within Bashaw Yusuf Karamanli’s castle. They had been imprisoned there more than one hundred days.
Mediterranean-stationed European diplomats expected the Bashaw to demand up to half a million American dollars for the release of the Philadelphia’s people. No ransom had yet been paid. That was for the politicians in Washington to decide. In the meantime, Edward Preble, dyspeptic commodore of the American squadron in the Mediterranean, had developed the idea of a secret mission: set the Philadelphia on fire, thus denying the Bashaw a powerful addition to his piratical fleet. And the burning would be done not noisily with newfangled Congreve rockets but through a boarding ruse coupled with reliable combustibles.
Weather had driven the Intrepid so far off course it took her four days to regain a position close to Tripoli. Then darkness fell before Decatur, now on the ketch, could maneuver it sufficiently into the harbor to locate the captive ship. And his boarding party was deteriorating into a tired and famished rabble, muttering mutiny.
Yet their spirits revived each time Decatur addressed them. Unlike many another officer in the American navy who depended on curses and the lash to sustain morale, he preferred mutual respect. He never bullied, seldom swore or raised his voice. He possessed a magnetism that itself grew out of sailors’ loyalty to him. Aged twenty-five, at five feet ten inches he was tall for his generation but not overbearingly so. He had wavy brown hair, with darkly piercing eyes set in a face rather aquiline but undoubtedly handsome. And in both attitude and deed he evinced a determination noble when need be and pointedly unsafe to oppose.
On the fifteenth the Intrepid with its long-suffering but reinvigorated crew wound its way amid a barrier of rocks and shoals to enter Tripoli harbor, flying English colors. Americans in Maltese dress waited on deck. Decatur waited in the cabin. Tension gripped the ketch’s lookouts. The Syren now lay five miles astern, farther away than Karamanli’s twin-domed palace and white-walled castle. Decatur knew that a fort on the long mole east of the inner harbor was sure to hold the Bashaw’s artillery. In fact, it bristled with more than one hundred cannon. And in the spray-misted gloom under a setting moon, no one on the Intrepid could guess how many Tripolitan gunboats lurked within the harbor.
One boat appeared, rowed strenuously by six men from the Syren. It pulled alongside the Intrepid, and the exhausted oarsmen asked for a progress report to take back to Lieutenant Stewart. Decatur told them that all was well and attached them to his boarding party. About then the Philadelphia came into sight—huge, gaunt, and skeletal against the darkening sky, pale lantern light glimmering from her open gun ports.
Decatur thought it likely that her thirty-six guns were shotted. So were the Intrepid’s four, but he hadn’t sailed 250 miles from Syracuse to bombard the town of Tripoli or the Philadelphia. Neither were pistols to be used. His boarders must take the ship with naked steel, and they would not make their move until dusk gave way to nightfall. When a perverse breeze against the lateen sails forced too rapid a headway, Decatur ordered drags out. Spars, a ladder, lumber, lashed together, were quietly dropped over the stern rail. The Intrepid slowed.
Huddled out of sight on the ketch, officers mentally rehearsed their moves. First, obviously, was to overcome any resistance with cutlass, sword, and dagger. Native disguise might cause confusion, so Decatur had decided upon a watchword: Philadelphia. Men would speed fore and aft to ignite storerooms and selected points along the berth deck, below in the orlop and cockpit. The boarders had familiarized themselves with the frigate’s construction under supervision of Commodore Preble, who in his farewell words at Syracuse had told the lieutenant, “The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance.”
The Intrepid drew nearer the prize. The two vessels were some two hundred yards apart when voices rang out from the frigate. Salvatore Catalano, Decatur’s pilot, knew the language. Guards on the Philadelphia had sighted the Intrepid, ordered her to anchor or be fired on. Poised at the Intrepid’s helm with Decatur concealed close by, Catalano shouted back. They were a British trader, robbed of their anchor by the recent storm, now helplessly adrift. Coached by Decatur’s whispered dictation, Catalano continued. Might they make fast to the frigate until sunrise? During this dialogue the vessels closed to seventy-five yards . . . then sixty . . . fifty. When they were almost abreast of each other, Decatur ordered the drags hauled in.
Twenty-year-old midshipman Charles Morris, assigned the torching of the Philadelphia’s cockpit, would remember the tension. “I kept near Decatur who I supposed would naturally be among the first to board.” But would the moment be premature? Once safely secured to the frigate, were they not to wait for the Syren to catch up? The brig and the ketch were supposed to rendezvous at ten o’clock. It was now 9:30. The Syren’s additional men and the cover she provided would more likely guarantee success during the imminent hours of darkness.
But Stephen Decatur’s instincts allowed no such consideration. In his book, delay was seldom if ever an option. Upon his quiet orders the Intrepid’s small boat, manned by turbaned Americans, had already put out with a line they intended to secure to the Philadelphia’s forechains. The commander’s response to Morris’s voiced concerns was, why wait? And few words could have been more characteristic of Decatur than those he next uttered to his hesitant midshipman. “The fewer the number, the greater the honor.”
Now the Intrepid was attached to the Philadelphia, the vessels ten yards apart. Decatur’s men hauled on the line, warping the ketch closer. Then it was alongside the frigate’s port bow, under her guns, in the shadow of her shrouds. Something alerted the Tripolitans, a glimpse of the lost anchor, or the glint of a cutlass in the dim moonlight. Cries of alarm issued from the frigate. The Intrepid’s pilot, Catalano, yelled, “Board, Captain, board!”
But prudence tempered Decatur’s impetuosity. He gauged the space between his small craft and the frigate’s huge hull as still too wide. Now his voice was heard, stern yet calm. “No order will be obeyed but that of the commanding officer.” Scant minutes more of hauling on the line. Then: “Board!” Decatur shouted even as he sprang for the frigate’s chain plates. Eagerness to be first on the Philadelphia’s deck got the better of him. About to grasp a chain plate, he slipped, almost fell, might have drowned or been crushed between the two vessels grinding one against the other. And it was Midshipman Charles Morris who first alighted on the Philadelphia’s foredeck.
Decatur was right behind him. Apparently unaware that he was not the first American on board and mistaking Morris for a Tripolitan, he swept his sword upward. “Philadelphia!” Morris panted, and the watchword probably saved his life. The boarding was under way. Surgeon’s Mate Lewis Heermann, left with shipmates in the ketch to defend her if need be, would never forget it. “Not a man seen or heard to breathe a moment before. At next, the boarders hung on the ship’s side like cluster bees and in another instant every man was swarming on board.” Resistance was slight. Only here and there was needed the swoop of a cutlass or a dagger’s thrust. Estimates would vary as to the number of Tripolitans manning the Philadelphia. None above twenty, several of whom leaped over the starboard rail and swam for the handful of gunboats lying offshore.
Decatur had divided his party into four squads, each man operating with a lighted lantern slung over his shoulder. The men carried short sperm-oil candles with turpentine wicks. They worked without a Tripolitan in sight. Combustibles were hauled aboard and distributed, along with boxes of tar, lint, wood shavings, an assortment of ignitible bric-a-brac. Once on board, at Decatur’s direction, the teams moved deftly, lighted their candles from the lanterns, hurried to their assigned locations.
Lieutenant James Lawrence with Midshipman Laws set fire to the berth deck and forward storeroom. Lieutenant Joseph Bainbridge, whose brother William was the highest-ranking officer of the Bashaw’s prisoners, attended to the wardroom and steerage. Heading below with eight men to set the cockpit alight, Midshipman Morris ran into Decatur and again had to hastily avoid the commander’s ready blade. Morris was still in trouble. His combustibles were late coming down. His party waited in the cockpit while much of the ship was already burning. By the time they started their own fire, flames had crept above their heads. Morris had to lead his men struggling through smoke and sparks to reach the forward hatch and rejoin their shipmates.
They were going over the side fast. Decatur and sixteen men stationed along the upper deck as lookouts had spotted three of Karamanli’s gunboats emerging from the inner harbor. “I remained on deck,” Decatur would report, “until flames had issued from the spar deck, hatchways and ports.” Not quite the first to set foot on the Philadelphia with arson in mind, he was certainly the last to leave her. His ketch was already backing off as he jumped for the shrouds, briefly losing grip before sliding down the rigging to a safe landing. He ordered oarsmen to pull harder.
Fire consumed the Philadelphia so rapidly it imperiled the Intrepid. In the words of Surgeon’s Mate Heermann, “Flames rushed from every gun port and scupper hole to within a few feet of the ketch’s cotton sails. It shoved off with long sweeps, and the jib hoisted. But the jib took the wrong way and the ketch fell to again.” Even as the oarsmen, four to a side, pulled with all their muscle, the Philadelphia seemed determined not to let her destroyers escape. The Intrepid’s long boom fouled her blazing quarter gallery. Swords hacked it free, pikes and the sweeps finally pushing the ketch clear of collapsing yards and lines.
The fire had reached the Philadelphia’s standing rigging, spiraled up well-tarred ropes to envelop her eighty-foot-high tops. A fortuitous breeze helped carry the Intrepid clear. Men delighted with the bonfire they had created broke into cheers. Decatur silenced them. They were not yet out of danger. The Bashaw’s flotilla had closed to within gunshot. And his shore batteries thundered into action. Their aim was bad. But the gunboats scored a hit, a ball piercing the Intrepid’s topgallant sails. The ketch was otherwise undamaged, only one American wounded.
Now the raiders were at a safe distance from the once proud Philadelphia. Her scorched cables had parted. Erect at the Intrepid’s hold, Stephen Decatur stared out at a spectacular floating inferno. Its glare illuminated the two-mile-wide harbor, in its wake a wall of smoke and the stench of burning tar and timber. The receding crackle of flames, the hiss of blazing fragments striking water, and the boom of cannon fire from ashore, might now have been joined by hurrahs from the Intrepid’s officers and men. There was instead a sudden awed silence as they watched the American-built frigate cease its fiery drift and blow up at the very foot of Bashaw Yusuf Karamanli’s castle.
On the Constitution anchored in Syracuse harbor Commodore Preble had anxiously waited for two weeks. Days had elapsed since the anticipated date of the Intrepid’s and Syren’s return. When at last they were sighted on February 19, signal flags fluttered high. Preble’s ten a.m.: “Business or enterprise, have you completed that you were sent on?” Decatur’s answer: “Business completed that I was sent on.”
In later detail, Decatur was pleased to declare that he had lost not a man. “Every support that could be given I received from my officers.” He praised “the brave fellows I have the honour to command, whose coolness and intrepidity was such as I trust will ever characterize the American tars.” Salvatore Catalano was not forgotten. In due course he would receive American citizenship and join the United States Navy.
However glorious the deed, what was the gain? At home, in the media of his day, Decatur was a hero. The audacity of destroying the Philadelphia under the guns of “barbarians” was universally praised. Even England’s Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson was described as impressed. And the Tripolitan Bashaw’s demand for ransom had reportedly dwindled to $60,000. Still, at home there were mutterings of discord. Already it had been widely held that Captain William Bainbridge should never have surrendered the Philadelphia in the first place. And the war with Tripoli was not yet over. The Bashaw had lost the powerful warship that he had boasted made him the envy of every other ruler of North Africa’s Barbary States—the Sultan of Morocco, the Bey of Tunis, the Dey of Algiers. He would undoubtedly take out his frustration on the Americans locked within his fortress.
On a different level, when Preble recommended to Robert Smith, secretary of the navy, that Decatur was “of too much value to be neglected” and deserved a captaincy, the Navy Department’s chief clerk privately suggested to the commodore that Decatur be persuaded to say no thanks. His elevation over the heads of lieutenants his senior was sure to cause resentment. It did, notwithstanding Secretary Smith’s stated belief that Decatur’s promotion for a “brilliant achievement” would prove an inspiration to every other officer in the young service. Preble had ignored the chief clerk’s suggestion, and Decatur was soon a captain. Resentful lieutenants included Andrew Sterrett, who two years earlier had displayed his own capacity for brilliant achievements by capturing a fully manned Tripolitan cruiser. Although the secretary promised him a special sword for the deed, Sterrett couldn’t be mollified and resigned from the navy.
But this was Decatur’s hour. Before burning the Philadelphia he had refused to wait for the Syren to catch up. That brig’s commander, Charles Stewart, may have been among the naval officers disaffected by Decatur’s sudden celebrity. Many of his peers were envious of him. To officers of the fledgling American fleet, honor was synonymous with glory. The fewer the men, the greater the glory. There could hardly have been an officer more instinctively bound to this tenet than Stephen Decatur, who could not foresee that what glory he pursued and won would in the end exact a fearful price.
Copyright © 2006 by Leonard F. Guttridge