Stephen Decatur led a small group of sailors into the heart of the pirate capital of Tripoli and in a daring raid burned the USS Philadelphia.
For centuries, the Mediterranean has been a dangerous place with pirates raiding shipping, taking citizens of coastal towns as slave and ransoming foreign sailors. It was no different in the early 1800s as pirates from the Barbary States trolled the waters in search of rich merchantmen vessels and plying their lucrative slave trade.
The Barbary States
The Barbary States were a loose collection of principalities and countries along the northern shore of Africa, stretching from modern day Tunisia across Libya to the boarder of Egypt. From these bases, the Barbary Pirates raided shipping lanes in the Mediterranean and took foreign sailors and citizens as slaves.
Rather than fighting the Barbary Pirates, the countries of Europe chose to pay ransom to the pirates rather than spend the money to patrol the area with their war vessels.
In the late 1700s, however, a new flag began flying above the ships sailing and trading in the Mediterranean, the Star Spangled Banner.
Initial Hostilities and the Grounding of the Philadelphia
With hardly any navy to speak of, the United States initially joined with Europe in paying annual tribute to the Barbary powers. But in 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli demanded the United States pay a larger bribe than was previously agreed.
President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay the larger tribute and sent a squadron to blockade Tripoli harbor.
As part of the blockade, the USS Philadelphia, a 36-gun frigate, was chasing a Tripolitan boat when it ran aground on an uncharted reef in the dangerous waters off Tripoli harbor.
Soon realizing the Philadelphia was in trouble and could not maneuver, boats from Tripoli came out and began shelling the stranded vessel. The crew of the Philadelphia worked furiously to free the boat but Captain William Bainbridge saw there was no escape and surrender the boat and crew.
After some time, the Tripolitans were able to free the Philadelphia and brought her and the crew into the city’s harbor.
With the ship and its crew as bargaining chips, the Pasha again renewed his demands for greater tribute and began repairing the Philadelphia to use as a pirate vessel.
Not wanting the Philadelphia to be turned against them and viewing the loss of the ship as a slight to the honor of the navy, the United States commanders in the Mediterranean devised a plan to burn the ship. Stephen Decatur, then a lieutenant, volunteered to lead the mission.
Early the navy had captured a Tripolitan ketch, a small merchant vessel used for trading in the Mediterranean. Using the ketch as a “Trojan Horse” of sorts, Decatur and his men sailed into Tripoli harbor under the guise of being a merchantman. Decatur recruited an Arabic-speaking Maltese pilot to steer the ship into port. Calling to the guards stationed on the Philadelphia, the pilot asked if the ketch, now named the USS Intrepid, could tie up to the frigate as the ketch had lost its anchor.
Not expecting anything amiss, the guards agreed to let the merchant boat moor to the frigate for the night. As the Intrepid grew closer to the Philadelphia, however, the guards could see the smaller boat had not lost its anchor and some of the American sailors lying on the deck trying to avoid detection.
Some of the guards shouted that it was a trick and the Intrepid’s pilot yelled to Decatur to order his men to board the Philadelphia. But Decatur seeing the gap between the ship was to great for his men to board, told them to stay in their places until he gave the order.
The calm scene on the deck of the Intrepid confused the guards on the Philadelphia but once the lines between the two ships were secured, Decatur gave the command to board the Philadelphia and in an instant his men sprang up and boarded the frigate.
The American’s used swords and cutlasses to avoid being detected by the batteries on shore, and soon the Philadelphia’s Tripolitan guards were either killed or had jumped overboard in fear and were swimming back to the city.
Decatur’s men worked quickly preparing the ship and Decatur walked along the deck giving the order to each man to light their candle and then return to the Intrepid.
The frigate began to burn quickly and by now the batteries of the Pasha’s castle had opened fire on the Americans. The more immediate danger, however, was the Intrepid getting caught up in the Philadelphia and also becoming ablaze. Decatur and his men needed to use oars to push the smaller boat away from the burning frigate. Under the constant cannon barrage of the castle artillery, Decatur and his men sailed out of Tripoli harbor not having lost a single man.
Aftermath and Promotion
The Philadelphia was a complete loss and the Pasha had lost his prize bargaining chip that he was holding over the heads of the Americans. The daring raid had removed the stain of the Philadelphia’s inglorious surrender and forced the Pasha to rethink his demands.
The United States sent more ships to enforce the blockade of Tripoli and due to his courage in the raid, Decatur was given command of the frigate, USS Constitution. Decatur would go on to show his daring one more time in Tripoli as he led a fierce attack on the harbor to avenge the death of his brother in an early fight.
He later served with distinction in the War of 1812 capturing a British war vessel as captain of the USS United States and later served as the Naval Commissioner until he died in a duel at the age of 41.
- Toll, Ian W., Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy (W.W. Norton, 2006)
- Zacks, Ricahrd, Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, The First Marines and the Secret Mission of 1805 (Hyperion, 2006)