Wednesday, May 18, 2011

USS Philadelphia Burning

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John B. Guerrazzi engraving of USS Intrepid escaping Tripoli harbor after setting fire to the captured frigate USS Philadelphia. 1803.

Of Philadelphia and Tripoli
By Ron Avery
March 22, 2011

An obscure war linked the cities 200 years ago. It also contributed to our pantheon of war heroes and the lines of a famous battle hymn.

It dates back to 1803, but there is an intimate and violent connection between the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and Philadelphia.

Somewhere at the murky bottom of the port of Tripoli lies the remains of an American warship, the USS Philadelphia. It was built for the Navy in its namesake city at the end of the 18th century, using funds raised by Philadelphians. The graves of two naval heroes closely connected with the ship - William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur - can be found in local graveyards less than a mile apart.

The ship and a nearly forgotten war in which it saw action are commemorated in the second line of the Marine hymn: "From the halls of Montezuma/ To the shores of Tripoli ... " The drama of the USS Philadelphia played out during the First Barbary War, from 1801 to 1805.

North Africa's Mediterranean shore, including Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, was known then as the Barbary Coast. All three of these Barbary States practiced piracy, attacking and capturing trading ships and their crews.

To keep their ships from being taken by the Barbary pirates - and their crewmen from being sold into slavery or held for ransom - some nations paid annual tribute to the Barbary States in gold and silver. America was among them.

Bainbridge, as a young, hapless naval officer (before his major victories in the War of 1812), had the onerous task of delivering the tribute to Algiers. The Algerians added a heaping dose of additional humiliation by forcing him to sail a delegation of Algerians to Istanbul to deliver their tribute to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

After Thomas Jefferson decided to stop paying tribute and battle the pirates, Bainbridge was understandably thrilled to be part of the effort, as commander of the 36-gun, 300-man Philadelphia. The Philadelphia's job was to blockade the port of Tripoli.

But perhaps offshore patrol wasn't exciting enough for Bainbridge, because he decided to chase a small Tripolitan craft into the treacherous, shallow waters of the port. It was a big mistake.

The Philadelphia got stuck on a sandbar. The crew took measures to free the ship by lightening it, tossing overboard most of the cannons, anchors, chains, and finally a mast. But it remained stuck as Tripolitan gunboats moved in for the kill.

Bainbridge faced a choice between surrender and a suicidal fight. He chose surrender and imprisonment for himself and the crew.

When the tide was right, the Tripolitans got the Philadelphia free and recovered its guns from the water. This was roughly comparable to a Stealth bomber falling into the hands of Moammar Gadhafi.

But it gave the intrepid Decatur - a Philadelphian whose father had served as the Philadelphia's first commander - an opportunity to become America's greatest military hero since the Revolution.

In an extremely risky gambit, Decatur used a captured Barbary ketch to sail right up to the Philadelphia during the night. On the small craft's deck were Decatur, a couple of other American sailors disguised in Arab garb, and a Sicilian mariner who knew the waters and spoke Arabic. The Sicilian called up to those aboard the Philadelphia, saying he had lost his anchor and requesting to tie up to the large frigate for the night. Permission was granted.

Hidden below the ketch's deck were 60 Americans armed with swords and hatchets, not wanting to wake up the city with gunfire. In minutes, the Americans swarmed aboard the Philadelphia, killing more than a dozen Tripolitans as others jumped overboard.

The damaged ship could not be sailed out to sea, so the plan was to destroy it with explosives. Within 20 action-packed minutes, and without the loss of a single American, the Philadelphia was a blazing inferno, and all Decatur's men were back on the ketch and sailing to safety.

The British naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson has been quoted as declaring Decatur's attack at Tripoli "the most bold and daring act of the age."

Poor Bainbridge and his captured crew, meanwhile, were forced to build fortifications for Tripoli. They were freed after the United States paid a ransom.

Decatur would lead more hand-to-hand shipboard battles. And he would cover himself in glory during the Second Barbary War, in 1815, by forcing all three Barbary States to sign treaties ending piracy.

Decatur died in a duel with another naval officer in 1820, with Bainbridge servin
g as his second; he's buried in the graveyard of St. Peter's Church, at Third and Pine.

Bainbridge, who settled in Philadelphia after a long naval career, is buried in the Christ Church Burial Ground, at Fifth and Arch.

Ron Avery is a former Daily News reporter. He can be reached at

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