Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Intrepid Infernal

The Intrepid Infernal

By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U.S. Navy (Retire)

This article was published in the Naval History Magazine, October, 2004

The plan was for the bomb-laden Intrepid to be steered toward Tripoli harbor, for her crewmen to light the powder train and escape, and for the ship to explode, causing destruction of the enemy bashaw’s territory. The plan backfired.

Negotiations had proved futile. Commodore Samuel Barron and his four reinforcing frigates still had not appeared. The fighting season was rapidly ending. Commodore Edward Preble decided on a dramatic act to try to bring things to a head. In March, he advised the Navy Secretary that he intended to use a lot of powder to blow up the bashaw of Tripoli’s works; now he thought, was the time for it.

Newly promoted Master Commandant Richard Somers was the fourth senior officer in the American squadron and had begun in the 1804 campaign in command of the 12-gun schooner Nautilus. A native of Somers Point, New Jersey, he had been in naval service since 1798, coincident with his longtime chums, Charles Stewart and Stephen Decatur, and with them initially had served on the United States, where he eventually became its third lieutenant.

It was early in this tour that Somers felt compelled to duel six of his fellow midshipmen. Wounded in the arm in the first encounter and in the thigh in the second, Somers, seated and braced by Decatur, succeeded in wounding his third opponent. At that point, the remaining three declared honor satisfied and the affair ended.

His only other service prior to commanding the Nautilus had been duty in the first American Mediterranean squadron on board the small frigate Boston. During this period, he saw Tripoli for the first time, but accomplished little else as his quixotic captain, Daniel McNeil, never reported to Commodore Morris for duty. McNeil was cashiered on the ship’s return to the United States. Decatur, Stewart and Somers were Preble’s principle subordinates in the current squadron.

The little Intrepid, the 60-foot onetime transport for Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition and the former Tripolitan Mastico, after laying largely inert in Syracuse since her February escapade to destroy the Philadelpia, joined the squadron off Tripoli on 22 August. She was about to perform her last service to her country of capture. On 29 August 1804, Preble ordered his carpenters to maker her over into an “infernal,” a gigantic floating bomb. First, they planked in the forward portion of the hold, making it a magazine. Into it was placed about five tons (100 barrels) of black powder in bulk. Atop this were laid 100 13-inch mortar shells and 50 9-inch shells, as well as an assortment of kentledge (iron ballast blocks), shot, and anything that would make a deadly missile. A wooden trough was run aft to another compartment filled with combustibles. A powder train was laid in the trough, connecting the combustibles to two 15-minute fuses run through musket barrels mounted in the magazine bulkhead and into the powder. The Intrepid was to be run in amongst the bashaw’s fleet, or even against the castle wall, the combustibles room having been lighted to give her the appearance of a fire ship. The powder train would carry the fire along to the magazine which, if the timing was right, would go off as planned, causing much destruction in its vicinity. A small crew would be necessary to guide her in under the cover of darkness until she was headed fair for her target, when the combustibles would be lightened and the helm lashed, and the crew would depart in attending launches.

Preparations in the Intrepid were completed by 1 September. Somers claimed her command as his chance for glory. Commodore Preble granted him his wish, displacing Acting Lieutenant Joseph Israel, who had overseen the ship’s preparation, for the duration of the operation. Newly promoted Acting Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth of the Constitution was the third officer, while four seamen from the Nautilus (Seamen James Harris, William Keith, James Simms, and Thomas Tompline) and six from the Consitution (Seamen William Harrison, Hugh McCormick, and Jacob Williams, Ordinary Seamen Robert Clark, Isaac W. Downs, and Peter Penner) completed her complement All were volunteers. The officers vowed that the only way the Tripolitans would get the powder was in a blast.

Everything seemed right that evening for the operation. Preble stood the squadron, less the Intrepid, in toward Tripoli during the afternoon. As the sun set, they came to anchor about two miles off the town, and the Tripolitan warships could just be made out taking up their usual night time stations between the mole and the castle. J

At 2230, Somers and his volunteers manned the Intrepid, and a half hour later slipped her cable and bore down on the western entrance on a fair east-southeast wind. They were within about 400 yards of the entrance when the wind suddenly shifted south, taking the Intrepid all aback and making further progress impossible. Somers turned back, and at 0200 rejoined the squadron. Nobody in the port seemed to have been the wiser.

The next drawing, as was their custom, the Tripolitan gunboats left their defensive line deep in the harbor and began moving as if to take up their usual daytime positions inside the rocks adjacent to the western entrance. Soon, however, they moved to new positions under the protection of the English fort to the east of the town and to windward of the normal operating area of the Americans. Preble appreciated the move, seeing that it gave the pirates the weather gauge (wind advantage) in the event the Americans deployed as they had previously. The commodore adjusted his plan accordingly, sending his gunboats to duel with their opposite numbers while the frigate and ketches worked over the castle and fortifications.

It required the rest of the morning and a part of the afternoon for the brigs and schooners to town their gunboats to positions from which they could descend upon the Tripolitan flotilla at the eastern end of the harbor. AT 1430, the flagship signaled the attack and the two divisions went forward, one paying particular attention to the gunboats and the other to the English Fort and a new fortification slightly to its west, nicknamed by some the “American fort.” For the next two hours, the sides flailed away at one another without material result.

To the west, Preble had sent in the bomb ketches to bombard the city. Taking positions more than a mile off, the two craft had their best day since the attack of 7 August.

Out of 41 shells fired, 33 exploded in the town. Although both units suffered rigging damage from Tripolitan return fire, it was self-inflicted damage that put Number 1 out of action. Repeated firing of the massive mortar (and apparently inadequate repairs a few days earlier) resulted in the mortar bed giving way and hull timbers staring. She broke off firing with two feet of water in her hold.

The ever-watchful Preble saw what was happening to the bomb ketches. Once more the Constitution spread her canvas high and wide and bore down on the offending batteries. Some 80 cannon opened at her as she came, raising sprouts of water all around her and sometimes throwing the spray even on the glistening canvas. At 1530 she came to, her port broadside fair on the town, and there she lay at three cable’s length for 40 minutes, crashing shot after shot into the pirate stronghold – more than 200 rounds this time. As on earlier occasions, the shifting wind necessitated the signal to haul off shore, which all units did without incident.

Following a day of repair and resupply, Preble found the evening of 3 September right for the use of the infernal, the Intrepid. A light haze covered the surface of the sea, making visibility difficult beyond a couple of hundred yards, although the stars clearly were seen overhead.

At 2000, Intrepid slipped her cable and headed for the port’s western entrance, just inside of which three Tripolitan gunboats were known to have taken their regular night station. She was towing two fast rowing boats, one each from the Constitution and the Nautilus, to be used in the escape from the time bomb. The Argus, Vison, Nautilus, and somewhat later, the Siren, all followed Somers’s dangerous craft. They would take up stations off the rocks to pick up the returning daredevils.

Lieutenant George Washington Reed, Somers’s next senior officer in the Nautilus, was the last to speak to Somers as the escorts dropped away. He later reported that the “Intrepids” were calm, in good order, and determined as they parted company.

Slowly, the Intrepid moved forward and disappeared into the haze. Some claimed to have seen her throughout what followed, but it seems more likely that her gradual disappearance left them convincing themselves they still could make out her form. After some moments, the Tripolitan batteries were seen and heard to open fire, a fire that seemed aimed at nothing in particular.

About ten minutes after the shore batteries opened up, at about 2147, according to Sailing Master Nathaniel Haraden of the Constitution, there was a tremendous explosion and a burst of light. In an instant a fiery column flashed skyward. In it, some saw Intrepid’s mast rising straight up, trailing its rigging. So swiftly did the fire flash and ide that none saw the mast come down. From the point of explosion fountained burning shells arching across the sky in all directions and raining down on sea and shore alike. And then there was deafening silence, as both sides stopped in awe of what they had seen.

Clearly, something had gone wrong. There had not been time for Somers to have gotten his craft to its destination before the explosion. The haze had prevented a sure knowledge of where the Inrepid was when she blew up. Still the American units waited off the rocks through the night with waning hope that their shipmates would come rowing out of the gloom as Decatur had done the preceding February.

The Intrepid’s mast could be seen resting on the rocks just to the west of the entrance the next morning. Also there was what appeared to be a portion of her keel or bottom. Coincidently, three of the enemy gunboats seemed to be missing. Commodore Preble, with so few clues, concluded that Somers had been boarded, or at least cornered, bythe picket boats and that, true to his word, he fired the charge so that the Tripolitans could not get the powder. However, given the location of the wreckage at or outside the entrance, it does not seem likely that Somers got far enough to engage the gunboats. He probably missed the entrance in the poor visibility and went gently aground on the rocks on the west side of the entrance. In that vulnerable position, he may have been hit by a stray shot from one of the Tripolitian guns; or perhaps the jar of grounding set off the powder; or perhaps, in the confusion that must have occurred when she struck, someone aboard caused an accident or panicked.

The next morning, Commodore William Bainbridge, the senior of the bashaw’s American prisoners, received permission to see the bodies. He and two of his lieutenants accounted for all 13; two bodies still in the wreck, ten floating in various parts of the harbor or washed ashore southeast of the town, and one in Constitution’s boat, which drifted ashore farther down the coast to the west. None of the bodies was recognizable; some were not all there. Somers’s remains were identified by his breeches. Those found on the beach subsequently were buried nearby, Bainbridge himself conducting the small service.

Preble’s infernal had done absolutely no damage to the Tripolitans. The loss of personnel in this bizarre mode of attack stunned the squadron. The commodore himself deeply felt the loss.

Preparations began anew the next morning for yet another attack, but without quite the drive that had characterized Preble’s earlier efforts. The loss of Somers and company and the frustration of his inability to bring the Bashaw to terms, combined with a spate of bad weather on 5 September, led the commodore to call of preparations and to make ready the bomb ketches and gunboats for a return to Naples. The season, he decided, was far too advanced to risk keeping the unwieldy craft on the open sea any longer. Late on 6 September, the John Adams, Siren, Enterprise, and Nautilus towed them offshore, on their way home.

Barron and two frigates, the President and Constellation, were sighted at noon on Sunday, 9 September, and when they joined later that afternoon, Edward Preble hauled down his broad command pennant. Although he did not feel it at the moment, the months to come would prove how very successful he really had been.

Early in the new year, shortly after Preble returned to the United States, Congress voted him a gold medal, swords for each commissioned officer and midshipmen (never delivered), and a month’s pay bonus to each of the sailors in his squadron.

The 200 years since have seen ships bearing the names of a number of these officers and men serving in the Navy: six ships named for Somers, five for Preble, three for Sailing Master Trippe, two each for Lieutenant James R. Caldwell, Midshipman John D. Henley, and Seaman Reuben james, and one each for Acting Lieutenant Joseph Israel, Midshipman John S Dorsey, and Seaman Daniel Fraser. (Both James and Fraser were credited, at later times, with saving Stephen Decatur’s life in his first gunboat attack.) Midshipman Robert T. Spence, who persisted in firing his bow cannon even as Gunboat 9 sank under him and survived, also had a destroyer named for him.

Neither Lieutenant James Decatur nor Acting Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth have been so honored, perhaps because each had a brother who was: Stephen Decatur and Alexander S. Wadsworth. Henry gained a remembered memorial, however, when his nephew was named after him: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

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