Sunday, April 12, 2009

Captain William Bainbridge

Captain William Bainbridge - b. Princeton, New Jersey, son of Tory physician, surgeon for British regiment during revolution. Captain USS Philadelphia (36), captured by pirates after running aground at Tripoli Harbor. Bainbridge and the 300 man crew of the Philadelphia were held for ransome in the dungeons of the old castle fort.

Captain Bainbridge and the crew of the Philadelphia remained prisoners of the basha of Tripoli for nine months, during which time the Americans handily won the Battle of Tripoli (Aug. 1804) and led by Lt. Stephen Decatur, succeeded in destroying the Phildelpia in a daring special operation that required stealth and inginuity. In an attempt to duplicate the success of Decatur's raid, Lt. Ricahrd Somers and twelve men sailed the USS Intrepid back into Tripoli harbor as a fireship, intending to destroy the anchored pirate fleet, but the ship exploded in the harbor without any damage to the enemy.

When the remains of the men of the USS Intrepid washed ashore on September 5, 1804, the surgeon of the Philadelphia, Dr. Jonathan Cowdery oversaw the identification of the bodies and their burrial near the old castle fort.

Ian W. Toll, in his fine book SIX FRIGATES - The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy (W.W. Norton, 2006), notes that Bainbridge was a strict disciplinarian who was not particlarly liked by the men under his command. And he was none too fond of them either.

Known as unlucky, he had previously, though in a spirited battle, lost the Retaliation during the quasi war with France, and running the Philadelphia aground and handing it over to the pirates did not make him popular with his fellow officers, but upon release he was given another command and distinguished himself against the British during the War of 1812.

One of his officers on the Retaliation, who had killed one of his own men for cowardance, was given command of a schooner and sent to the Mediterranian to fight pirates. His superior command, sailing ability and tactical skills allowed him to take on a superior pirate ship, and running rings around it firing broadsides, killed 60 pirates and destroyed the ship, but because of his orders was not permitted to take it as a prize. The after action report details how the early American naval officers set the standards and traditions for those who would follow, and serve today, fighting pirates off Africa.

Bainbridge's superior, Captain Edward Preble, commander of the fleet sent to fight the pirates, (now known as the United States Sixth Fleet, based at Naples, Italy), was also a stict disciplinarian, but he garnered the admiration of his young officers by aggressive action against the pirates.

While this agression led to the Philadelphia running aground and the loss of Somers and the Intrepid, it also led to victory in the battles of Tripoli and Derna.

During both battles of Tripoli Habor (August, 1804), Lts. Stephen Decatur and Richard Somers had led flotilas of ships and cannon barges into the harbor and were met by pirate ships that came out to fight them. The Americans won both engagements.

The Americans were even more successful at Derna, a major port town east of Tripoli, captured by a small army led by dashing diplomat William Eaton that consisted of Sgt. Presley O'Bannon, USMC, eight marines, 200 Greet Christian mercinaries and a thousand bedouin tribesmen. Like Laurence of Arabia two hundred years later, they stormed in off desert to take the fort that was only fortified from the sea.

Eaton and O'Bannon supported Karamandi, the former basha deposed by his brother, and seeking his crown and power with the help of the Americans. But as with the Cubans at the Bay of Pigs, the fighters were betrayed by the politicians, who made a treaty with the Basha of Tripoli and abandoned his brother at Derna.

But Karamandi, in thanks for fighting with him, gave Sgt. O'Bannon his sword, which is now known as the official sword for the USMC dress uniform.

When Captain Bainbridge and the men of the Philadelphia were freed, they were treated as heroes when they returned home to Philadelphia. Preble and all the officers who fought the pirates were heroes, especially Decatur, who was favored to win the presidency, but he died in a duel of honor.

Both Bainbridge and Decatur are burried in Old City Philadelphia.

Decatur's wife was burried in Washington D.C., but was reinterred next to her husband in the 1980s.

Richard Somers and the remains of the men of the Intrepid are still burried in Tripoli near the Old Castle Fort.

More on Bainbrige: 5, 1804.

Captain William Bainbridge
7 May 1774 - 27 July 1833

Documents in the Navy Department Library
Service Record

USS Bainbridge histories:
USS Bainbridge (1842-1863);
USS Bainbridge (Destroyer # 1), 1902-1920;
USS Bainbridge (DD-246), 1921-1945;
and USS Bainbridge (DLGN-25, later CGN-25), 1962-1997.

Commodore William Bainbridge, USN


Born in Princeton, New Jersey, 7 May 1774. Appointed Lieutenant, 3 August 1798: Master Commandant (Commander), 29 March 1799: Captain, 20 May 1800. Died 27 July 1833

At the age of 15 he entered the merchant service where he made an unusual and distinguished record.

Upon his appointment as lieutenant in the Navy he was ordered to command the schooner or galley Retaliation, cruising in the West Indies. November 1798 - after a brave resistance, she was captured by the French frigates Volontier and Insurgente and carried into Guadeloupe. While here Bainbridge secured the release of a number of American prisoners and the Retaliation was restored to him by order of the Governor, that he might take them to the United States. Upon his return he was given command of Norfolk and during the years 1799-1800 made a number of captures of French privateers. May 1800 - he was ordered to the frigate George Washington to carry “tribute” from the United States to the Dey of Algiers. He was employed by the Dey of Algiers to carry his ambassador and gifts to the Sultan of Turkey and was instrumental in securing an order from the Sultan to the Dey obliging him to release 400 prisoners.

He returned to the United States and on 2 May 1801 was ordered to Essex, one of the vessels of the squadron of Commodore Richard Dale fitted out to cruise against the Barbary Powers.

March 1803 he was superintending the building of vessels for the US Navy at Philadelphia and Baltimore.

21 May 1803 ordered to command the Philadelphia, 44-gun frigate, of Commodore Edward Preble’s Squadron, to cruise against Tripolitan cruisers in the Mediterranean. 13 July 1803 ordered by the Department to sail in advance of the squadron. 26 August 1803 off Cape de Gatt, captured the Moorish ship Meshboha and recaptured from the Moors the American brig Cecelia.

31 October 1803 while in chase of a Tripolitan cruiser, the Philadelphia struck on a rock in the harbor of Tripoli, struck fast in the sands, was surrounded by Tripolitan gunboats and captured. Captain Bainbridge, his officers and men were taken on shore and imprisoned in the castle overlooking the harbor for 19 months. Upon the establishment of a treaty of peace with Tripoli, 3 June 1805, Captain Bainbridge returned to the United States in the frigate President. He was granted furlough during the years 1806-1807 and made a voyage in a merchant vessel. 1809-1810 again on duty in the Navy commanding the President. 1810-1811 on furlough and made voyages in merchant vessels to India and Russia, where hearing rumors of trouble with England he gave up his ship and returned home.

28 July 1812 he was ordered to command the Constitution and sailed on a cruise 28 October 1812. 9 November 1812 captured the brig South Carolina. 29 Dec 1812 after an engagement of 1 hour and 45 minutes captured the British frigate, Java, of 49 guns and 400 men. During this fight Bainbridge was twice wounded.

Engraving of the medal authorized by the United States Congress in honor of Captain Bainbridge's 29 December 1812 victory in the battle between USS Constitution and HMS Java.


His next duty was in command of the Navy Yard, Charlestown, Massachusetts. July-December 1815 commanded the Independence, Mediterranean Squadron. 1816-1819 on shore duty at various stations. 1819-1821 commanding the Columbus, flagship Mediterranean Squadron. 1821-1823 commanding first the Philadelphia, then the Boston Stations. December 24, 1824 - June 1827 Naval Commissioner. 1829-1831 commanding Philadelphia Station. He was again in command of the Charlestown Navy Yard until 19 November 1832, when he was granted leave. His health failed and his death occurred at Philadelphia in 1833. He was buried in the churchyard of Christ Church that city.


Documents in the Navy Department Library:

1) ALS dated 26 February 1794, Scarborough, Tobago. To Messrs. Jones and Clark in Charleston, South Carolina. Describing market and naval dispositions in the West Indies.
2) DS dated 30 June 1818. To Lieutenant Josiah Tattnall. Orders to report for duty on board the U.S. frigate Macedonian.
3) ALS dated 21 December 1820. Order convening a General Court Martial aboard USS Columbus, signed by Commo. Bainbridge.
4) LS dated 29 September 1825, Washington City. Thanking Thomas Chew, Purser, USN, for his assistance.
5) LS dated 26 May 1827, Washington City. Vis-a-vis plans for British dock yards.

See also Chauncey, Isaac; Hull, Isaac; Morris, Charles; Porter, David

Record of the service of Captain William Bainbridge, US Navy.

1798 August 3 - Appointed to command the galley Retaliation.
1798 August 15 - Accepted appointment.
1798 August 18 - Sent commission dated 3 August 1798.
1799 March 29