Remember the POWs of the USS Philadelphia
An eyewitness account of the capture of the frigate USS Philadelphia off Tripoli and the 19 months imprisonment of the 315 officers and members of the crew in the castle dungeon.
From the Memoir of Commodore David Porter (1875)
…The Enterprise was the first vessel that had the satisfaction of humbling the pride and lowering the flag of these corsairs. Nothwithstanding the Tripolitan admiral had assured Commodore Gale that no war existed against the United States, on the part of Tripoli, on the first of August, 1801, the Enterprise fell in with a polacre-rigged vessel near the island of Malta, mounting 14 guns (and carrying Tripolitan colors), that was known to be cruising against our commerce. As soon as the colors were recognized, the Enterprise cleared for action, and ran down close to the enemy. As Lieut. Com. Sterrett got within pistol shot he opened his batteries, and continued for three hours to pour in a heavy fire, at the end of which time the Triplotian struck his colors. The polacre was superior in every respect to her antagonist, but the precision of the American’s fire told fearfully upon the enemy and her crew, while the beautiful manner in which the Enterprise was handled (taking whatever position she chose and raking her enemy several times), elicited the admiration even of the corsairs. There are no braver people than the Turks, but on this occasion though they fought desperately they exhibited very little skill. The Corsair lost fifty men in killed and wounded, and the ship was a perfect wreck, her mizzen mast shot away and her yards and sails cut to pieces. On the other hand, owing to the skill with which the Enterprise was handled she received little damage. Three times during the combat did the Tripolitians strike their colors, renewing the fight again when they thought they saw an opportunity of redeeming the fortunes of the day; till at last Lieut. Com. Sterrett, irritated by this treachery, opened fire, with a determination to sink his enemy; when the Tripolitans threw their flag into the sea and cried for quarter. The Tripolitan proved to be the Tripoli commanded by Mahomet Sous, the latter confessed to his orders from the bashaw were to capture American merchant vessels….
….In the latter part of April, 1802, Commodore Morris arrived off Tripoli with the New York, Adams, and Enterprise, and as the squadron stood towards the harbor several small vessels, convoyed by gun boats, were seen close in with the land and making the best of their way to the port of Tripoli. The squadron immediately gave chase, and the enemy finding themselves cut off from the harbor, sent the merchantmen into the port of old Tripoli; while the gun boats, by means of their sweeps, were enabled to pull under the shelter of the batteries….It was impossible for the squadron to follow them in, for the port was full of reefs and there were no reliable charts. A large stone building stood on a bank, near the shore, which was occupied by a body of soldiers, and on each side were thrown up breastworks, composed of stacks of wheat taken from the merchant vessels, which were themselves finally hauled up high and dry on the beach close to the building, and a large reinforcement of troops were brought over from the city to man the breastworks. The best engineer could not have made a better disposition of forces, and the Tripolitans might well consider their works impregnable to an assault by boats and sailors…..
In the latter part of 1803, the Philadelphia 38, Capt. Bainbridge, was directed by the commodore to proceed to Tripoli accompanied by the schooner Vixen, Lieut. Commandant Smith, and keep up as close a blockade of that port as the weather would permit….Lieut. Porter had been transferred from the New York to the Philadelphia, as first lieutenant. He was now twenty-three years of age, and had been five years in the service, but in common with other officers of the period he exhibited remarkable proficiency in his profession, and handled a ship with as much skill as an old seaman could have done....
….The navy of those days was a fine school to bring out in relief the noble qualities of those brave spirits who were ready to make any sacrifice, and run any risk in the cause of their country. All seemed ready to share each other’s dangers, and divide the honors won by all…..
Under the care of her experienced captain and energetic first lieutenant, the Philadelphia as in most excellent order, and under the gallant Preble (who was expected shortly to take command of the squadron), the officers expected glorious opportunities for distinction; but all were doomed to severe disappointment by the loss of the ship off the harbor of Tripoli. At 9 A.M. on the 31 of October, 1802, while the frigate was about five leagues off shore, to the eastward of Tripoli, a ship was descried in shore standing to the westward before the wind. Chase was immediately given to the stranger, who hoisted Tripolitan colors and continued her course close along the coast. About eleven o’clock, the frigate was so near the shore that the water shoaled to seven fathoms. The Philadelphia then commenced firing on the enemy, which was kept up by running before the wind for half an hour, when, finding it impossible to prevent the vessel’s escape, the pursuit was abandoned. The frigate then bore off the land to get into deep water, but ran on to some sunken rocks, leaving her with only twelve feet of water forward, and seventeen aft. In spite of all the precautions which had been taken to prevent such a disaster, by keeping three leads constantly going, the ship struck the rocks with about eight knots headway. All sail was immediately set to force her over what was supposed to be a bank, but which was in reality a smooth shelving rock, on which the vessel had run as far as her impetus would carry her, and there she lay hard and fast. Finding that his attempt to force the ship over did not succeed, Captain Bainbridge asked the advice of the first lieutenant as to what was best to be done, and the latter advised a consultation with the commissioned officers. Meanwhile perfect order reigned throughout the vessel, and all hands were busy in efforts to get her off.
Boats were lowered, and soundings soon showed that there was no deep water near the vessel, and it was apparent to all that without some stroke of good fortune she would be lost. The enemy’s gun boats, nine in number, were soon seen coming out of the harbor of Tripoli, and cautiously approaching to reconnoiter the Philadelphia, of whose condition they were apparently aware. At length repeated soundings showed deep water astern, when the sails were braced aback, the guns run aft, and the anchors cut from the bow; but all attempts to move the ship were unavailing. All the guns were hove overboard, with the exception of a few reserved for defense against the advancing gun boats. Meanwhile the frigate had heeled over very much to port, in which position she remained fixed, and the enemy passing under the fire from the stern battery, took up a position on the starboard and weather quarter, where no guns could be brought to bear on them.
It was now that Capt. Bainbridge realized the mistake he had made in sending off the Vixon in search of a Tripolitan cruiser, that had got to sea a short time previous. This had left him alone in the frigate to blockade a port where the chasing had to be done in-shore and in shoal water, a duty which could be far better performed in a vessel of light draft. Moreover, had the Vixon been present she could have kept the enemy’s gun boats at bay while the frigate was being extricated from her perilous position.
Capt. Bainbrige now summoned another council of war, who were of opinion that the water in the hold should be started and pumped out, then all heavy articles were thrown overboard, and finally the foremast was cut away; but all this had no effect in moving the ship. Orders were then given for the carpenter to bore holes through the bottom, and for the gunner to drown the magazine, in fact every precaution was taken to render the ship useless as the Tripolitians, should they unfortunately obtain possession of her.
During these operations, the enemy having taken a position where they could not be harmed by any fire from the Americans, kept up the attack from half past one o’clock until sunset; but the Philadelphia appears to have suffered from it only in her spars and rigging. It was now evidently impossible to prevent the capture of the Philadelphia; and to prevent a useless sacrifice of the lives of his officers and men, Capt. Bainbrige gave the order to strike the colors. Up to this time the enemy had kept at a respectful distance, but no sooner were the colors hauled down, than the gun boats made a rush for the frigate, and in ten minutes the decks were swarming with pirates, who began to plunder the unfortunate Americans of everything they possessed, even stripping off their clothing, and leaving them nearly naked.
The officers were soon carried before the bashaw, who was highly delighted at this capture of prisoners to add to his list of slaves, but on the whole his reception of them was not unkind, and they were conducted to the late American consulate, and place under the particular charge of the minister of foreign affairs, Mahommed D Ghines, with whom they had no difficulty in communicating as he spoke French fluently. Considering that the bashaw was a barbarian his treatment of the prisoners was generous. They were supplied with sufficient food, but suffered greatly for want of clothing. Most of the officers had laid in a three years outfit, and had lost everything except what they stood in when captured. How they were to be clothed in future, unless they adopted the Turkish costume, they were at a loss to imagine.
Fortunately, they found a friend in the person of Mr. Nissen, the Danish consul, who was introduced to Capt. Bainbrige by Mahommed D Ghines, and this gentleman immediately relieved the prisoners’ anxiety, promising them every assistance in his power, which promise he kept to the letter. The minister, Mahommed D Ghines, also manifested the most friendly disposition, intimating to the prisoners that they might depend upon humanity; and Mr. Nissen, having done all that he could for them at the time, the officers found themselves much better situated than they had reason to expect from the rough treatment to which they were subjected when first captured.
Up to the time of the capture of the Philadelphia, the bashaw had received from the Americans nothing but humiliation, or to use the figurative language of the Turks, "The Christian dogs had made him eat dirt." He had made few or no captures of American merchant vessels, and his corsair ships had been either captured or blockaded in some foreign port. The capture of the Tripoli, and the treatment of the vessel, was the greatest indignity that this Barbary despot had ever received; and, under the circumstances, it seems wonderful that the bashaw should have been so complaisant as to address words of consolation to his prisoners. The bashaw had begun to feel very despondent, for independently of his losses he felt that his influence among his subjects was declining, and when this feeling arises in barbarous countries, especially when distrust occurs among the troops, the distance from the throne to the grave is short, the bow string is put in requisition, and does it work effectually. But this night the bashaw felt particularly joyous, and so he said, "Let the Christian dogs eat, drink and be merry, for they will bring us a ransom more than the value of the vessels we have lost."
Next morning the Tripolitans set to work to get the Philadelphia afloat. The frigate was on shore about three miles from Tripoli, and as the corsairs had plenty of large launches, anchors, and cables, and an unlimited number of men, they felt sanguine of saving the vessel. Two days after they got to work the wind came out strong from the northwest, and forcing the water up on the African coast the ship’s stern floated. Anchors were now carried out astern, the whole force at the disposal of the bashaw was applied to the work, and in three days from the commencement of operations the Tripolitans had the Philadelphia afloat. She was towed to within a short distance of town, and there remained until the weather abated; the Tripolitans pumping night and day to keep her free of water.
The Americans supposed that they had effectually destroyed the pumps by dropping shot into them, but if such was the case the Tripolitans soon rigged up others, and the carpenter had scuttled the ship so imperfectly that the holes were stopped without much trouble. Barbarians as they were, the Tripolitans were smart sailors, and taking advantage of the good weather following the northwest gale, they not only succeeded in taking the Philadelphia into port, but in weighing all the guns and anchors which lay in the clear shallow water around the ship, so that there was scare and article thrown overboard that was not recovered.
The American prisoners were deeply mortified to see the Philadelphia repaired as well as circumstances would admit, the guns all mounted, and the anchors in their paces. They had confidently expected that she would have thumped her bottom out in the northwest blow, but it happened she was to leeward of a reef, and the sea broke over her without lifting her much, which accounts for her not going to pieces.
The unwonted kindness of the bashaw did not long continue. From the first he had intended to treat his prisoners as circumstances might occur. He had no doubt that the United States government would now listen to reason, and enable him to propose his own terms of peace. He had three hundred and fifteen prisoners, including twenty-two quarter-deck officers, and rightly supposed that there would be great excitement in the United States over the reduction of all these people to slavery; and hoped to obtain a large amount of money by way of ransom. Previous to this, the bashaw, rather alarmed by the determined attitude of our government, had seemed inclined to listen to terms of peace, but having now gained what he considered a great advantage, he was anxious to continue to the war.
Commodore Preble, who was now in command of the squadron, immediately on hearing of the capture of the Philadelphia, made a proper disposition of his forces, and arrived off Tripoli in the later part of December 1803; but after communicating with Capt. Bainbridge and learning the situation of affairs; he returned in the Constitution to his headquarters at Syracuse, as hostile operations could not be conducted at that season of the year. The first proposition to destroy the Philadelphia came from Capt. Bainbrige and his officers, who took every opportunity, before they were rigorously confined, to ascertain what were the facilities for an active enemy attempting such a task; and the commodore was notified, through Bainbridge, that the vessel was slowly fitting to cruise at sea.
We have all read of the gallant affair of the burning of the Philadelphia by Stephen Decatur in the ketch Intrepid; and as our history will deal as little as possible with matters in which Porter was not personally an actor, we must refer our readers to the chronicles of those times. The rage of the bashaw at the destruction of the Philadelphia was unbounded, and one effect was to increase very much the rigors of his prisoners’ confinement. The satisfaction of the latter, when they saw the flames which destroyed their old ship lighting up the harbor of Tripoli, was short duration. The sailors were put to work carrying stones on their heads and shoulders to repair the fortifications; and at this laborious employment they were kept from morning till night, exposed to burning sun, and supplied with very insufficient rations. Instead of beef, tough camel’s meat was served out to them, and the bread was a miserable article composed of beans instead of wheat.
The officers, although not compelled to labor, had their comforts much curtailed; and the provisions served out to them were of the poorest description. Thus, for upwards of nineteen months, were the unfortunate Americans subjected to a rigorous confinement; the United States government paying no heed to the exhorbitant demands of the bashaw, who required a ransom for his prisoners the sum of $160,000; for, by noticing favorably such a demand, they would have virtually abandoned the principle for which they had been contending. Thus our government was reduced to the painful alternative of leaving their citizens to remain in prison; but resolving to adopt the most energetic measures against their piratical enemies. Notwithstanding the uncomfortable predicament in which our officers and crew were situated, they never murmured at the determination of the government; but, on the contrary, were most anxious that no terms should be entered into for their relief, not strictly honorable to the United States. The officers, seeing that their confinement was likely to be a long one, endeavored to provide against that dullness which is the invariable accompaniment of captivity.
Consul Nissen continued his kind offices and supplied the captives with books; and Porter, whose spirits never flagged, and who never lost an opportunity of encouraging those around him, established a school of instruction for the younger officers, in which all joined. These exercises consumed a greater portion of the day; and evening was spent in such pastimes as could be invented or remembered from among those of their younger days. In this way time passed, if not joyously, at least not uselessly. Lieut. Porter instructed the midshipmen in fleet sailing seamanship, navigation, and gunnery, for which all expressed their indebtedness to him in after years. His own education had been very deficient, for his father could only send him to elementary schools; and he, therefore, took advantage of this opportunity to improve his own mind. He pursued the study of mathematics and the French language, read history carefully, devoted much attention to English grammar, became proficient in right-line drawing, and obtained a fair knowledge of the art of landscape drawing, all of which he considered necessary parts of an officer’s education. It can easily be imagined what a dreary time these captives would have had, shut up in prison for nearly two years, and without the opportunity of communicating with their friends, had there not been some leading spirit to animate them. Captain Bainbridge was allowed a room to himself, in consideration of his rank; his health was not good, and his spirits being greatly depressed in consequence of the loss of his ship, he passed many lonesome hours shut up in his apartment; thus the responsibility of keeping alive the spirits of the party devolved upon his first lieutenant.
The prisoners made many ineffectual attempts to escape, in which Porter always took a conspicuous part; but these attempts had no other result than to increase the severity of their imprisonment. One day they opened communication with the seamen, who on going to their daily work had to traverse a narrow passage past the quarters where the officers were confined. The seamen working on the walls had frequent opportunities of witnessing the operations of the American squadron, and of seeing the preparations of the Tripolitans. By some means a hole was cut through the wall between the officers’ room and the passage, and written communications handed through. This continued without discovery for a considerable time, until at length, grown bold by frequent success, an officer one day undertook to converse with the men going through the passage. The sound of the conversation was overheard by one of the officials appointed to urge the prisoners in their work, the plan was discovered and immediately reported to the Tripolitan officer on duty. The moment this man was informed of what had transpired he rushed into the captive officers’ quarters, his eyes glittering with rage, and demanded to know who had dared to open that hole in the wall; when Lieut. Porter, without a moment’s hesitation, stepped forward and took the blame upon himself. A guard was summoned and Mr. Porter was marched off to the bashaw; his companions, much alarmed at his prospective fate, anxiously waiting to hear what had befallen him. In a few hours Porter returned uninjured to his companions. He had frankly acknowledged his offense to the bashaw, at the same time taking the opportunity to tell Jusef Caramelli how harshly the prisoners were dealt with, protesting in the name of his government against such treatment. Strange to say, the despot, instead of displaying his usual rage, promised to give the matter his consideration, and restored the offender to his anxious friends. The hole was stopped by the bashaw’s order; but from that time their treatment was much improved.
It was a very disheartening thing for those officers to be cooped up when they knew their friends in the squadron were reaping such a harvest of fame, and from Lieut. Porter’s character we can imagine what a conspicuous part he would have taken in the different encounters which were continually taking place between the hostile parties, had he been at liberty to offer his services. They had all to remain quiet, much against their will, and their only consolation was the news of the glorious feats of their comrades outside, which was communicated by their friend Mr. Nissen. The prisoners were frequently in danger from the shot and shell of the United States squadron, which often struck their prison. Once a heavy shot passed through the castle walls into Captain Bainbridge’s room, knocking the stones and mortar on to the bed where the captain was laying and nearly burying him in the rubbish. Bainbridge was instantly pulled out of the debris by his officers, severely injured; and, notwithstanding the danger to which himself and companions were exposed by the bombardment, he wrote to Commodore Preble urging him to keep up the fire with the mortars, at every opportunity, as it demoralized the Tripolitans very much, and would do more than anything else to bring them to terms.
All things will have an end, and the Tripolitan war was no exception to the rule. The United States government at last discovered, that the economical system pursued towards the navy in the early part of Mr. Jefferson’s administration, was not the one to ensure success against a stubborn enemy; so after many earnest appeals from Commodore Preble, who was on his return to the United States in 1804-5, gave all the necessary information on which to base further arrangements for prosecuting the war, a squadron was ordered to be prepared for sea, which when completed, would increase the force before Tripoli to fourteen large vessels carrying 304 guns, ten gun boats carrying 17 guns and two bomb vessels. The Tripolitans, seeing that the United States was determined to prosecute the war until they were conquered, concluded at length to succumb, and on the third of June, 1805, the treaty of peace was signed.
It was agreed that the United States should never be required to pay tribute to Tripoli, but after exchanging prisoners man for man it was settled that $60,000 should be paid to Tripoli for the excess of prisoners in her possession. This later clause in the treaty sounds rather strangely after such loss of life and outlay of money in prosecuting the war; and no doubt, the United States could have made better terms by carrying on hostilities a little longer, but the sufferings of the prisoners in Tripolitan hands were exciting so much sympathy at home, and the expense of further warfare would have been so great that, perhaps, the course pursued may have been the wisest. It was a joyful day when all these poor fellows were released, and received the congratulations of their friends; but amid all their joy at being relieved from confinement, the prisoners could not but experience deep sorrow when they missed the many comrades who had fallen before the walls of Tripoli. A few years had made sad havoc among their friends, but such is ever the result of war.
In this conflict the American nation, which had been fighting for the rights of civilized nations, had won great renown through its navy, and the thanks of Christendom for setting an example that was soon followed by all Europe. When we look at these insignificant Barbary powers today we can hardly realize that we ever consented to pay tribute to them in the first place, and in the last act abandoned all the principles for which we had contended by paying that ransom of $60,000. With all this, however, the navy had nothing to do, and had the matter been left to them to decide, the barbarians would never have got anything, since they knew that they could conquer a peace. Throughout the trying ordeal they had to undergo, the honor of the navy remained untarnished; and painful as had been the imprisonment of the officers and crew of the Philadelphia, yet it produced good fruit, for without the loss of that vessel and its results, the government might have abandoned a contest which in the end put a stop to the enslaving of Christian people.