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On Tuesday, November 1, 1803, Decatur once again passed through the Pillars of Hercules and into the Mediterranean, dropping anchor in Gibraltar after a notably uneventful crossing of thirty-four days from Boston. It had been a little over six months since he had hastily left for home to escape arrest on the charge of murder. Now he was returning in temporary command of the spanking new brig Argus, of eighteen guns, and carrying with him thirty thousand dollars in gold and silver for the use of the American squadron and its new commodore, Edward Preble.
Decatur remained in Gibraltar for two weeks, occupied in turning over the Argus to his friend and superior, Lieutenant Isaac Hull, and assuming command of the older and smaller schooner Enterprise, of twelve guns. It was not until November 12 that Commodore Preble arrived in the harbor on board his flagship, the Constitution, and Decatur was able to report to him in person. He had already heard stories from the other officers of the squadron of Preble's determination to bring the war directly to the Tripolitanians, and was much encouraged by the meeting. Preble was an irascible, strongly opinionated Down-East Yankee who made no effort to curb his short temper or hide his aggressive nature. His fighting spirit contrasted sharply with that of his two predecessors, and Decatur and the squadron's other junior officers took heart.
But no sooner had Preble arrived than he disappeared again, setting sail the next day to deliver the American consul to Algiers. Before departing he ordered Decatur to meet him at the new American command post at Syracuse, where he planned to put together his campaign against Yusuf Karamanli. What neither Decatur nor Preble knew at the time was that a disaster had just occurred a thousand miles to the east that would drastically alter the balance of power in the Mediterranean and render all the American commodore's war plans irrelevant.
On October 31, the day before Decatur's arrival at Gibraltar, Captain William Bainbridge was returning the frigate USS Philadelphia to her blockading position off the stormy shores of Tripoli. For several days the wind had been blowing strongly from the west, and had driven the ship a considerable distance off station. Now Bainbridge was taking advantage of a fair breeze to run her down toward the town again.
Around nine o'clock in the morning, with the minarets of Tripoli just visible on the horizon, lookouts spotted a vessel inshore and to windward, standing for the harbor. Bainbridge was eager to overhaul the stranger - there was prize money to be made from such captures - but he was initially reluctant to take his deep drafted ship into uncharted waters that might well mask dangerous shoals. But the temptation of a possible capture was too strong to resist, and eventually Bainbridge overcame his doubts and decided to risk it. He gave the orders to make sail and give chase.
Another captain might have been more cautious, but William Bainbridge had his own reasons for taking a more aggressive course. In his five years of active duty he had somehow managed to compile the most woefully lackluster record of any officer in the navy, and he was eager to clear his reputation.
Soon after receiving his commission as a lieutenant, he had been put in command of the USS Retaliation. She was subsequently taken by the French, and Bainbridge became the first American naval officer forced to strike his flag to an enemy.
An even greater humiliation lay in store a year later, when he was given command of a frigate, the USS George Washington, with orders to deliver an annual tribute of gold and naval stores to the dey of Algiers. After Bainbridge discharged his cargo the dey demanded the use of his ship to carry an embassy to the ruler of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople. Bainbridge vigorously refused, protesting that American warships could not be used as common freighters by foreign potentates. But Bainbridge had made the mistake of mooring his ship under the guns of the dey's shore batteries. If he attempted to raise anchor and depart in defiance of the dey's demands, his frigate would be blown out of the water. As the realization of his tactical blunder finally became clear, Bainbridge was forced to change his tune. Reluctantly, he gave in and agreed to do the dey's bidding. After loading an exotic cargo of wild animals, harem slaves, and diplomatic representatives into the George Washington, the dey then added insult to injury by insisting that Bainbridge replace the American flag at the main truck with the Algierian standard. Again Bainbridge protested, but again he was forced to capitulate. Once more an American officer had been forced to strike his colors, and once more that officer was William Bainbridge.
The navy forgave him in both instances, but Bainbridge was sensitive to the fact that he now had two formidable black marks against his name, and if he wanted to wipe them away it behooved him to improve his record. It was almost certainly such a mind-set that impelled him to take an unwarranted risk that morning, and to give chase to an otherwise unimportant Arab trader.
Bainbridge quickly discovered that chasing that particular quarry and overhauling her were two quite different things. After a frustrating two hours in pursuit, the Philadelphia had made only the barest headway, and a little before eleven o'clock, seeing no other chance of overtaking the stranger in the short time that remained before she reached the safety of the enemy harbor, he opened fire with his eighteen-pounders. He continued firing for almost an hour, but it was at long range, and his men scored no hits. Bainbridge continued to be anxious about having committed his ship to uncharted waters and ordered three separate leadsmen to make constant soundings, to insure the frigate did not run aground. The leadsmen regularly reported depths of anywhere from seven to ten fathoms - roughly forty to sixty feet - as the water shoaled or deepened. The Philadelphia's normal draft was eighteen and one-half feet forward and twenty and one-half feet aft, so the ship seemed in no danger.
By half past eleven the two vessels had moved considerably to the west and the town of Tripoli now lay in plain sight about three miles distant. Bainbridge, concerned that he was still in uncharted waters, decided to give up the chase. He ordered the helm aport to haul her directly off the land and into deeper water, but it was already too late. Even as the ship was coming up fast to the wind, and before she had lost any of her way, she struck a hidden reef and shot up on it, lifting the suddenly motionless frigate five to six feet out of the water.
The disaster had come upon them so quickly that it took a moment for those on the quarterdeck to absorb just how hopeless their situation had suddenly become. To be stranded on such a coast, in plain sight of the enemy and with no other vessel to bring aid, was nothing short of calamitous.
Bainbridge watched the Arab vessel he had so recently been chasing double the edge of the shoal and sail safely into the harbor, apparently interested only in escaping. But others had heard the American guns, and now nine Tripolitanian gunboats came out to investigate. The situation was perilous in the extreme, and Bainbridge recognized there was not a moment to be lost. The little Arab gunboats might appear insignificant in comparison to the looming frigate, but they would be able to attack with impunity as soon as they understood that the Philadelphia was immobilized.
In a desperate attempt to lighten ship, the crew began smashing open the water casks and pumping out the flooded hold, and throwing almost all the guns overboard, leaving only a few for defense. The anchors were the next to go, along with the huge, heavy cables that held them. Bainbridge ordered his men to chop down the foremast, which went crashing into the sea, carrying with it all its sails and rigging. But the ship remained stubbornly embedded in the sandy shoal.
By now the Tripolitanian gunboats had come within range, and tentatively opened fire. The Americans answered with the few guns that remained in the ship. For the moment, they were enough to keep the enemy boats at a respectful distance. As yet, the Arabs had no inkling of the desperate conditions on board the Philadelphia. The business of lightening the frigate continued for several hours.
By midafternoon it finally occurred to the Tripolitanians that they had the upper hand. They grew bolder and crossed the stern of the frigate, taking a position on her starboard quarter where they could fire at will, while it was impossible for the Philadelphia to bring a single gun to bear.
Night was coming on. With every passing minute the gunboats grew still bolder. Other boats were seen approaching from the town. Bainbridge, after consulting with his officers, saw no recourse but surrender, to save the lives of his people. He ordered the ship's signal books destroyed and the ship scuttled. The magazine was drowned, holes were bored in the ship's bottom, the pumps choked. About five o'clock he signaled his surrender. Any captain must lose heart at such a time, but one can only imagine Bainbridge's feelings, knowing that this was now the third time an American warship had been forced to strike her colors, and on all three occasions he was the man responsible.
Commodore Preble did not learn of the loss of the Philadelphia until November 24, three weeks after it occurred, when his flagship fell in with the Royal Navy frigate Amazon off the coast of Sardinia, and British officers apprised him of all the sorry details. In a single staggering blow Preble had lost half his frigates and a full quarter of his firepower. All his carefully developed plans for humbling Tripoli were suddenly thrown into confusion, and the future of his squadron's Mediterranean cruise looked decidedly grim.
Losing the ship was bad enough, but there were other distressing ramifications that vastly increased Preble's problems. The bashaw now held over three hundred new hostages and could demand almost any ransom within his imagination. He would now be encouraged to continue fighting no matter what the cost. The United States could not ignore the suffering of its own people, and would be forced to take him seriously.
The British had still worse news for Preble. The scuttling of the Philadelphia had been handled so hastily and imperfectly that, when a storm raised the water level a few days after the grounding of the vessel, the Tripolitanians had been able to float her off the sandbar on which she had foundered, patch her up, and bring her within the protection of the harbor forts. Then they went back and fished up her guns from where they had been cast overboard and restored them to their carriages, and once more the Philadelphia rode proudly on the waves. All she needed was a new foremast and she could become the most powerful vessel in Yusuf Karamanli's fleet, ready to cruise against the Americans as soon as the mild season returned. In the meantime, she lay at anchor in the middle of Tripoli harbor, the most valuable prize ever taken by the Barbary pirates.
"It distresses me beyond description," Preble wrote grimly to the secretary of the navy. "Would to God that the officers and crew of the Philadelphia had one and all determined to prefer death to slavery."
Shortly after hearing the dire news, Preble shaped course for his base at Syracuse. Off Cape Passaro he fell in with Decatur's Enterprise, bound for the same destination, and in the course of a courtesy visit to the flagship, Preble told Decatur of the Philadelphia's fate. The two vessels arrived in Syracuse in company, and not long afterward they left again, once more in company, headed for Tripoli to reconnoiter the Philadelphia.
Once off the North African coast, Decatur left the deep-drafted Constitution safely out to sea and ran the little Enterprise close in to the coast to scout the harbor and determine the position of the Philadelphia. The sight of the frigate, dwarfing every other warship around her, and lying directly under the protection of the bashaw's land batteries, was a sobering vision. Decatur was much moved by the sight. He had strong personal ties to the ship. As a youth he had witnessed her construction only a few city blocks from his home. Later, his father had served as her first captain. Now, suddenly disgraced, she belonged to his country's enemies, ready to be turned into the most formidable terror in the Mediterranean. Having made note of the Philadelphia's location and of the vessels guarding her, he returned to the open sea to fall in with the waiting Preble. After reporting to the commodore, he made a suggestion. He asked to be allowed to take the Enterprise into the harbor and destroy the Philadelphia. Preble was sympathetic - Decatur's aggressive spirit matched his own - but he rejected the idea as too hazardous. Still, he agreed that some such plan would have to be worked out, and promised Decatur that since he was the first to make the offer, he should be the one to carry it out.
It was during this brief scouting expedition that an apparently minor piece of good fortune fell the Americans' way, when they managed to overhaul and capture the Mastico, a small four-gun ketch of sixty or seventy tons, with seventy Tripolitanians on board, including forty-two slaves. She was an older vessel that had already seen much service, and was not likely to bring much in the way of prize money. But at the moment neither Preble nor Decatur was much interested in prize money. They saw a more valuable use for her. She was indistinguishable from hundreds of coastal traders in the western Mediterranean, and could sail into Tripoli harbor without anyone taking notice. She would be the means by which they would destroy the Philadelphia.
Once back in Syracuse, Preble had his carpenters examine the Mastico. They reported her basically sound and the commodore, using his discretion as squadron commander, bought her into the American navy and renamed her Intrepid. Over the month of January 1804, plans for the raid were worked out in greatest secrecy, for fear that word might get back to the bashaw. Winter was the stormy season in the Mediterranean, and the weather continued foul throughout the month. It was not until February 3, 1804, that Preble judged conditions favorable to send the little Intrepid in.
As soon as he had his orders, Decatur mustered the crew of the Enterprise - most of whom had no inkling of the secret preparations that had been going on for weeks - and outlined the plan that he and Preble had developed for the Intrepid. He warned them of the dangers involved, which were very real, and called for volunteers. Without hesitation, every member of the ship's company, officers, men, and boys, stepped forward in a body. The unquestioning enthusiasm of his crew to volunteer for such a hazardous mission remains one of the most telling aspects of the whole venture. It speaks volumes about Decatur's style of leadership, the high morale of his men, and their great trust in him.
Later that day, from the quarterdeck of the Constitution, Commodore Preble watched the little Intrepid sail off in company with the brig Siren, which would serve as her support vessel. The venture was dangerous, and possibly harebrained to boot, but the destruction of the Philadelphia was critical to the mission of the squadron, and for all the perils involved it was the best idea that anyone could come up with. He could only hope that not too many brave men would die in the endeavor. "I shall hazard much to destroy her," he wrote to the secretary of the navy, "it will undoubtedly cost many lives, but it must be done."
Preble had bestowed upon Stephen Decatur the greatest gift that was within his power to grant. Now he would see what the young man would do with it.
Excerpted from A Rage for Glory by James Tertius de Kay Copyright © 2004 by James Tertius de Kay. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 28, 2010
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