Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Epic Founding of the U.S. Navy - Toll





Relevant Excerpts from Ian W. Toll's – Six Frigates – The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy (Norton, 2006)

Peace with Britain had removed the threat posed by the Royal Navy to American merchant ships, but it had also left them without the umbrella of protection the Royal Navy had provided before 1776. For the first time, the Stars & Stripes were seen on the high seas and in foreign seaports – but the flag was seen flying only on richly laden and defenseless merchant vessels, never on ships of war. Greedy eyes studied the ships of this new nation the way wolves study sheep. The British let it be known that the Americans no longer enjoyed their protection. The wolves were hungry; the sheep were fat, numerous, and slow, and there was not a shepherd in sight.

The first attacks took place in the Mediterranean, where piracy had been practiced since the beginning of recorded history. The pirates in this case were from the four Barbary States of Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco, whose corsairs operated out of ancient seaports along the North African coast. Since the Islamic conquest of North Africa in the eighth century, these dusty, sun-drenched little city-states had pledged nominal allegiance to the Sultan of Turkey, but they were largely autonomous. Nested on the edge of the Mediterranean, with their backs to the North African desert, the Barbary States had little agriculture or industry to sustain them. Their traditional livelihood was piracy, and their traditional victims were the foreign merchant vessels that plied the Mediterranean trade routes close to their shores. Captured crew members were transported back into port in chains, where they were imprisoned, put to hard labor, or sold at the slave markets. Women faced the prospect of being raped or sold into private harems. Prisoners who disobeyed or attempted to escape might be burned alive or impaled. That sub Saharan Africans were subjected to the same cruelties by white masters in America did not prevent the news of such attacks from creating a sensation in the United States, where they inspired a genre of lurid fiction and plays.

Because the Barbary societies worshipped Allah and prayed to Mecca five times per day, and because the corsair often claimed to be at war with all infidels, the conflict was often cast in religious terms. But the real impetus behind the Barbary piracy was not religious or political, but economic. The Bashaw of Tripoli freely admitted as much. If he forbade slave raiding, he told an American diplomat, his people would be ruined and he would most likely lose his head. “I do not fear war,” he declared. “It is my trade.”

…In July 1785, two American ships, the Maria and the Dauphin, were seized by Algerian corsairs. Twenty-two crewmen were transported to Algiers and thrown into dungeons among the slaves of other nations…American leaders came under pressure to strike back at the pirates, to rescue their enslaved countrymen, and to prevent further attacks….

John Adams me the Triopli Ambassador in London.

…With the initial courtesies behind them, the ambassador turned to business. American and Tripoli, he said, were at war…The ambassador explained that Tripoli considered itself at war with all Christian nations until a bilateral peace treaty had been signed between them. Such a peace could be arranged, he added, at the bargain price of “30,000 Guineas for his Employers and L3,000 for himself….”

Though he was able to laugh at the rituals of tribute diplomacy, Adams reached the sober opinion: “it to be wisest for Us to negotiate and pay the necessary Sum, without Loss of Time.” Fighting the corsairs, he told Jefferson, would only compound the economic loses to the United States….

But Jefferson was taking a different tact. He told Adams he believed that “it would be best to effect a peace through the medium of war.” He laid out his reasons: “I. Justice is in favor of this opinion. 2. Honor favors it. 3. It will procure us respect in Europe, and respect is the safe-guard to interest.”  

But Adams did not believe the American people or their leaders were ready either to rebuild the navy or to fight a war in the Mediterranean. “We ought not to fight them at all,” he wrote, “unless we determine to fight them forever. This is, I fear, too rugged for our People to bear.”

The more likely outcome, Adams predicted, would be that the United States would fight for years at great expense, only to pay for peace at the end. He concluded with the pessimistic thought that the entire debate was irrelevant. Congress was too weak and indecisive, he told Jefferson, that it would not be capable of doing anything at all about the Barbary threat: “I perceive that neither Force nor Money will be applied…your Plan of fighting will no more be adopted than mine of negotiating.”

…Jefferson and Madison regarded politics and government as tedious work, a duty rather than a calling. They were dedicated members of the international “republic of letters,” and passionately devoted to the study of science, philosophy, history, and the arts. They stood for reason, empiricism, free speech, and a free press; for scientific inquiry, self-governance, individual rights, and a secular state. In their own eyes, they were the advance guard of a world revolution that was being waged, as Jefferson would later put it, “against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” It was a revolution that had not yet been won, and might yet be lost…

Finally in mid-November 1793,…a consul…reported that “the Algerine cruisers have captured in the latter end of October ten American Vessels, the Masters & Crews…made Slaves of this Regency…”

The tactics employed by the Algerian corsairs against the merchantmen were simple, effective, and brutal. They sailed lateen-rigged ships, xebecs, polacres, and feluccas that were fast enough to overtake most prey under sail, but cold also be rowed in a calm. Running down a fleeing merchantman, they dropped their long lateen yards across the victim’s rail. Ferocious men armed with pistols and cutlasses swarmed aboard and slaughtered any who resisted. The captives were beaten, stripped, and chained together belowdecks, and then returned to Algiers, where they were imprisoned or sold into slavery.

The Algerians allowed some of the captured Americans to write home, perphas in the hope of obtaining ransoms from their families…

News of the captures appeared in the Philadelphia newspapers…the Algerian emergency commanded the city’s rap attention. In 1793, Philadelphia was to the United States as London was to England or Paris was to France: simultaneously the nation’s political, economic, and cultural capital. With a population of some fifty thousand, it was by far the largest city in North America. In the English speaking world, only London was larger. Travelers agreed that Philadelphia had America’s best theaters, libraries, inns and taverns. It was home to the nation’s most eminent scientists, philanthropists, poets, physicians, and artists. It’s newspapers were the most famous, or infamous, but in either case, the most widely circulated….Most important, Philadelphia was the seat of government…

Before the Algerian crisis, there had not been much serious talk of building a navy. Even proponents tended to accept the judgment that the government, still groaning under the weight of its Revolutionary War debt, could not afford a new one…News of the Algerian attacks changed the politics of the issue in one stroke. On January 2, 1794, a closely divided House enacted a resolution proclaiming that “a naval force adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States, against the Algerine corsairs, ought to be provided.” A select committee was appointed to study the intelligence reports and determine what class of warships should be built…

When the House vote was cast on March 10, 1794, an Act to Provide a Naval Armament passed by a margin of 50-39. Passage in the Senate followed quickly on a voice vote and Washington signed it into law on March 27. The act authorized the War Office either to buy or build six frigates…

The War Office was on the corner of Chestnut and Fifth, diagonally across from the State House and Congress Hall. From this cramped suite of rooms, heated by the warmth of a single fire, General Knox and a half dozen clerks managed the entire defense establishment of the United States

The city’s leading ship architects were, almost to a man, members of the religious sect known as the “Society of Friends, more commonly called “Quakers.”

…Not all Quakers failed to be impressed by the arguments against the peace testimony, and the revolutionary spirit opened a rift within their ranks...One of these renegade Quakers was a forty-two-year old Philadelphia shipbuilder named Joshua Humphries….The frigate Humphreys envisioned would be powerful enough to overwhelm a lone enemy cruiser…When pitted against a battleship, the American frigate would enjoy one of the most important advantages that any warship can ever have: the option to either fight or flee, to outrun or outgun….

Washington wanted the six frigates built in six different seaports….in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Norfolk, Virginia…Congress had authorized the recruitment of a full compliment of naval officers for each of the six frigates. At first, however, only six men – the captains – would be appointed. Each was to be employed to oversee the construction of one frigate. First on the captain’s list was a naval veteran of the American revolution, John Barry, who had commanded the Continental frigates Raleigh and Alliance in 1778-81…

Washington…chose the first five names on the list: United States, President, Consitution, and Consellation. The sixth frigate, which would be built in Nortfolk, Virginia, would later e christened Cheaspeake…Knox faced the embarrassing task of informing Congress that, for the second consecutive year, twelve more months were needed to complete the frigates.

In February 1796, diplomatic negotiations with Algiers at least bore fruit. President Washington asked the Senate to ratify a treaty, which, he said, would bring a “speedy peace and the restoration of our unfortunate fellow citizens from a grievous captivity.”

The Algerian peace would cost Americans nearly a million dollars in bribes, ransom, and payments of tribute. Particularly humiliating was the stipulation that the United States would build a 32-gun frigate for the Dey and deliver it to him as a gift. The cost of the treaty was equivalent to 13 percent of the total annual expenditures of the federal government that year. The Senate ratified it without debate…

On the same day, Washington sent a second message to Congress, a Republican amendment to the original law authorizing the frigates had required the building program to come to an immediate halt in the event of a truce with Algiers. The president now asked Congress to continue the work or risk “the derangement in the whole system.” Congress chose to give him half of what he asked for. The three frigates that were most advanced….would be completed and launched. The remaining three would be left to rot on the stocks;…eventually, perhaps, to be broken up for firewood…

The United States was one of the city’s most popular sightseeing destinations….Given the United States was the single most expensive military asset in American history, security was amazingly lax. Tourists strolled into the yard as if they owned the place. They mounted the scaffolding, climbed into the inboard works, and chatted with the tradesmen…The launch would be one of the greatest spectacles that the city of Philadelphia had ever seen….

At a quarter past noon on November 23, 1797, Adams delivered the opening address to the second session of the Fifth Congress. Whatever the outcome of the Paris talks, he said, the United States must have a navy….But when House leaders moved a resolution to provide additional funds for the completion of the three frigates, Republicans objected – and this time they were joined by several Federalists who were exasperated by the seemingly endless delays and cost overruns. One member remarked that Congress might as well throw the money into the sea…

Mon March 13, 1801, nine days after his inauguration, Jefferson received a disturbing set of dispatches from the Mediteranean. Yusuf Karamanli, the Bashaw of Tripoli, had summoned U.S. Counsul james Cathcart to his palace and threatened to send his corsairs out to attack American shipping. The attacks could be averted, Cathcart was told, if the U.S. government would present Tripoli with a cash gift of $225,000 immediately and $25,000 in future annual tribute. In the interest of peace, the Bashaw added, he would wait six months for the American president’s response.

Yusuf’s ultimatum was a flagrant breach of the treaty governing U.S. Tripolitan relations. Negotiated in 1796 and ratified by the Senate the following year, the treaty had established a “firm and perpetual Peace and friendship” between the two nations, to be guaranteed by the Dey of Algiers….But the Bashaw now brazenly denied that he had ever agreed to any such thing…

Cathcart responded bravely, telling Yusuf that “the meanest of our Citizens would expend their last dollar and lose their lost drop of blood before they would ever consent to become tributary to the Regency of Tripoli.” In the past, however, American ministers had used equally brave rhetoric just before agreeing to new and larger payments to the Barbary powers. Why should the Bashaw assume this case would be any different?

The first two years of the U.S. – Tripolitan War proved the rule that good officers are more important than good ships…In February 1802, Congress granted authority to “subdue, seize and make prize of all vessels, good and effects, belonging to the Bashaw of Tripoli, or to his subjects.”

On the morning of May 21, 1803, Boston Harbor was swept by breezes under cloudy skies….At her moorings was the USS Constitution, the 44-gun frigate…Her new captain, Edward Preble, was from Falmouth (later Portland), a small seaport town in the northern, non-contiguous district of Massachusetts (later Maine). Preble was a small, wiry man, with the sharp, prominent nose and cold, piercing eyes of a bird of prey…

(Captain) Bainbridge and the Philadelphia would be sent off to the east with orders to do what Preble’s predecessors had been roundly condemned for failing to do – maintain a rigorous blockade of Tripoli…The commodore …. Had neutralized the Moroccan threat, and he had done so in the space of three weeks, without firing a single shot in anger. Now he had nothing standing between him and Yusuf, and could bring his entire force to bear against Tripoli.

While Preble was away settling affairs with the Moroccans, twenty-five-year-old Lieutenant Charles Stewart of Philadelphia had been left in Gilbraltar as the Senior American officer on the station. He commanded the sloop of war Siren…

The Philadelphia was reckoned a very fine ship…Though she was not one of the original six frigates, she might as well have been. She was one of the “subscription” ships, commissioned in a private contract b the merchant community of the city for which she was named, built in 1799-1800 by Joshua Humphreys in the same yard that had launched the United States, and offered as a kind of gift to the navy…

Bainbridge was twenty-nine years old, six feet tall, and heavyset…He had been born in Princeton, New Jersey, to parents who had remained loyal to England during the Revolutionary War; his father, a physician, had served as a surgeon to a British regiment…Among his brother officers, Bainbridge was liked and respected, both as a gentleman and as a talented seamen. But he was unpopular with the enlisted men. He was a ruthless disciplinarian, even by the standards of the era; he readily admitted that he regarded seamen as inveterate miscreants, unworthy of the slightest courtesy…

It was known throughout the navy that Bainbridge had surrendered the Retaliation to the French in 1798, and then been forced to navigate the George Washington under an Algerian flag in 1800. In both cases he had been subsequently exonerated by courts of inquiry. But seamen were notoriously superstitious, and Bainbridge was dogged by the belief that he was terminally unlucky….Philadelphia hove in sight of Tripoli the morning of October 31 (then, as now, the day held special meaning to the superstitious). In the first light of dawn, the lookout sighted a native vessel standing to the east, close inshore with the town, and Bainbridge gave orders to make sail in chase….With her head put into the wind and her speed at 7 or 8 knots, she all at once lurched, shuddered, and came to rest. Her bow was canted six feet out of the water and her deck was suddenly as fixed and motionless as a patch of dry ground…The Philadelphia had run hard aground….Later charts would identify it as “Kaliusa Reef,” but the Philadelphia’s charts showed no such reef in that position....

With the ship “immovably grounded on the rocks,” Bainbridge called his officers back to the quarterdeck for a hurried conference. All agreed that the Philadelphia’s situation was desperate enough to justify an extreme measure: they would heave the guns into the sea and start the fresh water out of the hold...Four hours after the grounding,…all agreed that the Philadelphia was doomed. Nothing more could be done to get her off the reef. Nor was there any hope of bringing the frigate’s few remaining guns to bear on the Tripolitan gunboats….the Tripolitans instructed the prisoners to climb down into the gunboats, where they would be transported to the town…

As the overcrowded boats reached the inner harbor,…the boat carrying Bainbridge and several of his officers landed at a pier at the foot of the Bashaw’s Castle. They were driven through the streets – “amidst the shouts and acclamations of the rabble Multitude” – to a passageway “lined with terrific janissaries, armed with glittering sabers, muskets, pistols and tomahawks.” Hurried along through “various turnings and flights of stairs,” they were escorted into an opulent hall, where the walls were made of enameled porcelain and the marble floors covered with luxuriant Turkish carpets. The prisoners were compelled to sit in a half circle before an elevated throne.

After a short delay, Yusuf Karamanli himself entered, trailing an entourage of councilors and guards. At thirty-five-years old, the Bashaw was in the prime of his health. He was tall and athletic, with a long, dark beard and a “manly, majestic deportment.” He wore a long robe made of cerulean silk and embroidered with gold lace. A gold sword hung from his diamond encrusted belt, and his head was crowned with a magnificent white turban. As he gazed down on the prisoners from his throne, Bainbridge later wrote, “ a gracious smile appeared upon his countenance, expressive of his inward satisfaction.”

Yusuf seemed willing to treat his prisoners as honored guests, and after a short audience the officers were served a sumptuous dinner at a table “set in the European style.”

After dinner the officers were escorted out of the castle…Walking for a short distance through the city, they arrived at the former residence of James Cathcart, the last American consul who lived in Tripoli before the war. The house, they were told, would serve as their quarters for the duration of their captivity….Relief came on the second day, when the Danish consul, Nicholas Nissen, brought mattresses, blankets, and baskets of promegranates, dates and oranges…For the officers, captivity in Tripoli was shaping up to be something like an extended vacation in a tropical seaside resort…The enlisted men of the Philadelphia were not nearly so fortunate. Their plight was recorded by an ordinary seaman named William Ray, a thirty-four-year-old native of Salisbury, Connecticut, … Published in 1808, his account was entitled Horrors of Slavery, or the American Tars in Tripoli.

Hours after the surrender of the Philadelphia, the sailors were taken under heavy guard to a damp cell within the walls of the castle….Preble learned of the loss of the Philadelphia on November 24, from the Captain of the Royal Navy frigate Amazon (38 guns),…The night before Christmas Eve, the Constitution was in the offing near Tripoli, running south toward the African coast in company with the Enterprise. Soon after first light, the lookout at the masthead sighted land to the southwest, and a few minutes later hailed the deck again to report a sail on the horizon in the same direction.

Preble ordered the British ensign hauled up to the mizzen peak. The hands were turned out to make sail and the Constitution gave chase…She was ketch-rigged, about 60 tons burden, and flying Tripolitan colors. Her name was Mastico. A moment after the captain had stepped onto the quarterdeck of the Constitution, Preble ordered down the British ensign and up the Stars & Stripes….The Masticio…(had taken part)…in attack on the Philadelphia,…If any doubt remained…it was dispelled when articles belonging to the officers of the Philadelphia, including a sword and belt Preble recognized as belonging to Lieutenant David Porter, turned up in the possession of the Mastico’s crew…

The Mastico was not a valuable prize…But her economic value was not important. As the officers and men of the squadron celebrated the new year, 1804, Preble had an important mission in mind for the little ketch – a mission that promised, if successful, to bring him one long step closer to winning the war….

American diplomatic consuls were stationed in most of the major ports of the Mediterranean. They were an unruly and fractious group, often operating with little or no supervision from their punitive boss, Secretary of State Madison. They blended their public duties with private business affairs in ethically troubling ways, and they seemed to devote much of their time to feuding among themselves. For all their flaws, however, the members of this embryonic diplomatic corps knew better than anyone else how to get things done in the Barbary States….

Using a telescope, William Bainbridge had surveyed Tripoli’s harbor defenses from the roof terrace of the officers’ prison house. Writing in cipher and forwarding the letters through Consul Nissen…he warned the town could not be taken from the sea…Added to Tripoli’s defenses was the frigate Philadelphia, (soon to be renamed Gift of Allah), now anchored in the main channel about three fourths of a mile from shore…her very existence was a humiliating symbol of American powerlessness in the Mediterranean. 

The idea to destroy the Philadelphia seems to have occurred independently to several American officers….Twenty-five-year-old Stephen Decatur, commander of the schooner Enterprise, volunteered to take a hand-picked crew and do it himself, and several colleagues later corroborated his claim that the mission had been his initiative….

A fellow officer, when interviewed by a biographer years later, attempted to put his finger on the elusive quality that set Stephen Decatur apart, “In Decatur I was struck with the peculiarity of manner and appearance, calculated to rivet the eye and engross the attention. I had often pictured to myself the form and look of a hero, such as my favorite Homer had delineated; here I saw it embodied.” Born in a log cabin in Tidewater, Maryland and raised in maritime Philadelphia, Decatur was tall, trim, broadshouldered, and athletic, with curly dark hair and large, proud brown eyes. His physical magnetism was famous – upon entering a room, resplendent in his blue and gold-laced naval uniform, his mere appearance had been said to cause young women to actually collapse and lose consciousness. No officer of the period better personified the eighteenth-century ideal of the romantic hero. To Decatur, the object of war was personal and national glory, and he sought after both with a single-minded intensity…

The captured Mastico would carry the raiding party into the enemy’s harbor. No other vessel in the American squadron would do, said Preble, because “our frigates and schooners are so well-known, that they create alarm the moment they are seen.” But the native-rigged Tripolita ketch looked no different from a thousand other small merchantmen that plied the North African coasting trade. She could easily pas for a common trading vessel, inbound to Tripoli…If the ruse succeeded, her approach would arouse no suspicions. She was given a new name, chose by Preble himself: Intrepid…

The commodore wrote out his orders on January 31. Decatur was to transfer his crew from the Enterprsie into the Intrepid. The Intrepid would sail in company with the brig Siren, commanded by Lieutenant Charles Stewart, to a rendezvous north of Tripoli. As Siren waited in the offing, Intrpeid and Siren’s boats would steal into the harbor under cover of darkness, “Board the Frigate Philadelpia, burn her, and make your retreat good,” wrote Preble. Before escaping to safety, Decatur must be certain that the ship had been completely and utterly destroyed. The raiding party was to ignite combustibles in the gun room, berth deck, and cockpit store rooms. “After the Ship is well on fire, point two of the 18-pounders spotted down the Main Hatch and blow her bottom out.”
“The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance,” Preble added. “I rely with confidence on your Intrepidity & Enterprize to effect it.”  

…When the Intrepid came within hailing distance, her Maltese pilot, Salvador Catalano, called out to the guards in Arabic. He told the story that Decatur had invented. The ketch had come to Tripoli to ship a cargo of livestock for the British garrison at Malta. She had suffered badly in the gale, losing both her anchors, and she needed assistance. Could she have permission to make fast to the frigate for the night?

The guards relaxed and assented. The water in the harbor was as smooth as glass, and the wind had all but died off…As the distance narrowed, the Tripolitans on board the Philadelphia could look down onto the deck of the ketch. One noticed that she had not lost her anchors, as Catalano had claimed – and another caught sight of one of the armed men laying prone on the deck. He cried out: “Americanos!”

Catalano lost his nerve and shouted to Decatur to give the order to board. The lieutenant, seeing there was still a gap between the vessels, answered firmly: “No order to be obeyed but that of the commanding officer.” The crew restrained themselves for a few critical seconds as the Intrepid drifted closer. The guards seemed confused – some shouted that it was a trick, but others remained uncertain. When the ketch was finally alongside, just under the Philadelphia’s forechains, Decatur shouted,: “Board!”

“The effect was truly electric,” Surgeon’s mate Lewis Heermann later recalled. “Not a man had been seen or heard to breath a moment before, at the next, the borders hung on the ship’s side like a cluster of bees; and, in another instant, every man was on board the frigate.”

The rail was 10 or 12 feet higher than Intrepid’s, so the men had to climb the hull as if scaling a rampart. Decatur lept first and clung to the fore chains: eighty men were just behind him. So quick and tightly choreographed was the assault that by the time the commander slipped over the bulwark, the frigate’s decks were already swarming with attackers. Some came over the rail, others darted through the gun ports. To keep the noise to a minimum, they worked with edge weapons only: swords, pikes, and knives. No shots were fired.

The battle for possession of the Philadelphia was short and savage. Taken by surprise, the Tripolitans made a feeble and halfhearted defense. Some ran to the forecastle and others to starboard rail, “whooping and screaming” as they went. A dozen or so scrambled into a boat and rowed to safety. Most simply leapt overboard and swam toward the beach. About twenty men turned on their attackers and fought. As a reward for their courage, they were slashed, hacked, and stabbed, and their ruined bodies thrown into the harbor. The raiding party took only one prisoner, and he was so badly lacerated that he was not expected to live through the night. One American was slightly wounded, none killed.

In ten minutes, the fighting was over, and Decatur gave the order to destroy the Philadelphia. Like every other aspect of the mission, the firing of the ship had been meticulously planned in advance. The raiding party separated into squads, each assigned to set fire to a different section…..Decatur waited until the last of his men had climbed down to the deck of the Intrepid, and then followed. Flames were roaring out of the hatchways….As soon as the lieutenant was aboard, the men worked frantically to fend off before the ketch was consumed….Decatur sent a crew around to take one of the boats ahead to row the ketch’s bow around. Her sails filled and she began to make way.

An alarm had gone up through the harbor. The Intrepid was taking small arms fire from two xebecs moored nearby, and soon the guns of the castle and harbor batteries came to life. The Americans were fortunate. The enemy cannonade was widly inaccurate – only one shot came close to hitting the fleeing ketch, and that passed through her topgallant sail. Men laid hold of the oars and rowed her down the channel. Once out of range of the enemy guns, they laughed, joked, sang, and paused to watch the spectacle of the still-blazing Philadelphia.

None of them would ever forget the sight. The walls of the castle and the city were bathed in a warm, orange, spectral light. As the flames reached the frigate’s tar-saturated rigging, they raced up to the mastheads and “presented a column of fire truly magnificent.” 

…By six the next morning, the men on the deck of the Siren, forty miles out to sea, could still see the light of the distant fire on the southern horizon.

…Yusuf took his anger out on the common seamen of the Philadelphia….the officers were taken under guard from the consular house and moved into a securely guarded suite of rooms within the castle….

One of the strangest duels in the early navy was set in motion by an exchange of friendly banter between Stephen Decatur and Richard Somers in 1798, when both were midshipmen serving on the United States under Captain Barry. The two young men were, by their own reckoning, inseparable friends, and as they were joking in the wardroom one day, Decatur laughingly called Somers a “fool.” Neither man thought anything of it until the next day when several of their fellow officers refused to share the wardroom table with Somers. Having talked it over among themselves, they had agreed that Decatur’s use of the term “fool” constituted an insult, and that Somers must either issue a challenge or be ostracized as a coward. Somers and Decatur protested that their bantering had been harmless. Decatur had not meant to suggest that Somers was literally a fool, and Somers had not taken offense at the remark. Decatur offered to host the entire wardroom at a dinner in which the exchange would be explained in fuller detail. Their messmates refused the invitation.

Somers’s exasperated response was to issue a challenge, but not to Decatur. Nominating Decatur as his second, he challenged the other officers to fight him in sequence. The multiple challenge was accepted. In the first duel, Somers took a ball in his pistol arm; in the second, he took a bal in the thigh. Decatur offered to take his friend’s place for the third duel, but Somers refused. Bleeding heavily, Somers sat on the ground while Decatur propped up his pistol arm. After the third exchange of gunfire, all agreed that Somers had resolved any doubts about his courage, and the business was called off….

Bashaw Yusuf was enraged by the destruction of the Philadelphia, but he was also perplexed. Who were these Americans, who seemed so intent upon persisting in a costly and unproductive war?

…Preble was showing interest in a scheme that had been under discussion among America’s Mediterranean envoys for several years. The idea was to lend financial and military support to Yusuf’s exiled older brother, Hamet, who had a competing claim to the throne of Tripoli. Yusuf had seized power in the same way that previous generations of Karamanlis had – by slaughtering all his rivals, and not sparing his blood relatives. Hamet had been lucky to escape with his life. In June 1775, Yusuf had tricked his older bother into leaving the city on a gazelle-hunting expedition, and then seized power in a coup d’etat and closed the gates against Hamet’s return.

With American support, Hemet now promised to march overland before an army of Arabs and Mamelukes who would seize Derna, then Benghazzi, and then attack Tripoli from the lightly defended inland side. “Through these instruments,” wrote William Eaton, the plan’s most energetic sponsor, “I firmly believe the enemy may be taken from his sofa at the same instant that our fellow citizens are rescued from their chains.”

…As anxious as Commodore Preble was to begin his attack on the town, he was force to admit that conditions were not right…

The first American gunboat division, commanded by Stephen Decatur, opened fire with 24-punder round shot. Each vessel had time to fire and reload three times before the Tripolitan boats began to retreat to within the rock barrier. Decatur’s boats pursued, navigating a 12-foot wide channel through the rocks, taking heavy fire from the artillery in the Bashaw’s Castle…As Decatur’s vessel collided with the first enemy boat, he and nineteen other boarders crossed the gunwales and fell on the defenders. Wielding pistols, pikes, axes, and cutlass, they slashed, thrusted, hacked, shot and stabbed their way across the enemy deck. It was the most ferocious and bloody engagement the navy had ever fought. In fifteen minutes the boarders had possession of the boat…

Gunboat No. 2 was commanded by Decatur’s younger brother, James…The Tripolitians who were left standing hauled down the colors, and James Decatur ordered his men to cease fire. As he stepped across the gunwales to take possession of the surrendered boat, one or more muzzles were raised and fired. Decatur took a musket ball to the forehead and fell between the boats. As the Americans rushed to fish their fallen commander from the sea, the surviving Tripolitans took hold of their oars and started pulling for the inner harbor.

As Stephen Decatur’s gunboat No. 4 was pulling back to the safety of the flagship, with her captured vessel in tow, she came within hailing distance of No. 2. From Midshipman Thomas Brown, Decatur learned of the sham surrender, and then looked down and saw his younger brother, shot through the head....Decatur was undermanned but he none the less bore away and chased the fleeing enemy. For the second time that afternoon Stephen Decatur boarded an enemy vessel. Nine men followed him. It was a rash action – there were twenty four defenders aboard and they were willing to fight…As Decatur exchanged blows with the Tripolitan commander, his (Decatur’s) cutlass broke just above the crossguard, leaving him defenseless. The two men grappled and fell to the deck, sprawling across the gunwale. The Tripolitan drew a yatagham – a long, curved Turkish knife – and was on the verge of plunging it into Decatur’s exposed chest when the lieutenant found his pistol and fired it into his antagonist’s side, mortally wounding him. Four more Tripolitans were advancing on the still prone Decatur and were about to cut him to pieces when the lieutenant’s personal servant and a marine private rushed into the fray, armed with a tomahawk and cutlass. They fell upon the four and killed them all….

August 5 and 6, the squadron lay in the offing six miles north of Tripoli, “in continued preparation” for a second attack. Some of the hands were set to work altering the captured gunboats from lateen rigs to a more familiar sloop rig…On August 7, at ten o’clock in the morning, Commander Preble ordered the signal; “Advance in a line abreast.”

…At three thirty, every man’s head was turned by an ear-splitting explosion. Gunboat No. 9, commanded by Lieutenant James Caldwell, had blown up. Dr. Cowdery witnessed the event from the roof of the Bashaw’s Castle: “I saw the mangled bodies of my countrymen precipitated into the air…”

The event seemed to stun both attackers and defenders, all guns fell silent for several minutes….The explosion of No. 9 was a major blow to the squadron’s fortunes. Ten Americans were killed instantly, including James Caldwell and Midshipman John Dorsey. Six others were wounded; four critically and two mortally. Preble attributed the explosion to a direct hit by a red-hot shot from one of the shore batteries, but it was more likely that the magazine was touched off by flaming wad from No. 9’s bow gun….The battle continued for two hours. The Tripolitians fought on with renewed ferocity…. 

The bodies of the dead Americans washed up on shore west of the town, where they were discovered by a Tripolitan patrol on August 17. Lieutenant Caldwell cold be identified only by the epaulet on his right shoulder. Dr. Cowdery, who was permitted to go to see the bodies, found them “in a state of putrefaction on the beach…They were scattered on the shore for miles, and torn to pieces by dogs.” The Tripolitans would not bury them, nor allow the American prisoners to do so…

The Squadron began preparations for a third attack….Midshipman F. Cornelius DeKrafft(‘s) ….journal serves as a valuable historical record of the Tripolitan War,…

Preble placed his last hopes in a plan to destroy the Bashaw’s gunboats by sending a “fireship” into Tripoli’s inner harbor. A small crew would navigate a vessel crammed with powder and incendiaries into the heart of the enemy’s anchorage. Once in position, the men would light slow fuses and then flee to safety in two fast rowboats. When the fireship detonated, the explosion would lay waste to everything within a quarter-mile radius. Or so it was hoped.

The vessel chosen for this mission was the Intrepid, the captured Tripolitan ketch that had been employed in Stephen Decatur’s successful mission to destroy the Philadelphia the previous February. Carpenters from several different vessels in the squadron were detailed to make the necessary alterations. Intrepid’s magazine was crammed with fresh gunpowder – nearly one hundred barrels, or 5-tons, and then tightly planked over. One hundred and fifty mortar shells were stacked on a tier above the magazine. Small holes were drilled in the bulkheads for the fuses, and then troughs of trains of gunpoweder were run to the bow and stern. Once lit, the trains and fuses were supposed to burn for eleven minutes before touching off the payload.

It was well understood by both the officers and the seamen that the fireship mission would be extremely perilous. The Intrepid, literally a floating powder keg, would have to be sailed into the heart of the enemy flotilla, well within range of more than a hundred hostile guns. A direct hit would very likely detonate the magazine and blow the entire crew to kingdom come. Under no circumstances could the Intrepid be surrendered, since her 5-tons of gunpowder could in that case be used to resupply the enemy’s shore guns. If she were boarded and carried, it would be converted into a suicide mission, the crew would have to touch off the magazine. In spite of these sobering considerations, Preble was inundated with volunteers. Every single officer in the squadron wanted to go, and some lobbied the commodore directly for the assignment. Preble thought it fair to choose officers who had been disappointed not to participate in Decatur’s mission to destroy the Philadelphia. The fireship mission would be commanded by Decatur’s old friend, Richard Somers; he would be accompanied by two other officers and ten enlisted men….

Final preparations were made for the fireship attack. The volunteers wrote out their last wills, specifying which of their shipmates would inherit a jacket, a tarpaulin hat, or a pair of duck trousers.

At eight o’clock the next morning, Intrepid slipped her moorings and sailed in toward the harbor, borne along by a soft northeast breeze. The Tripolitan lookouts saw her enter the western passage, and two shore guns were sounded as an alarm. Then all fell silent, and the darkness obscured her next maneuvers. At 9:47 p.m. there was a flash of light, followed by an enormous explosion.

“How awfully grand!” Midshipman Spence exclaimed. “Everything wrapped in dead silence made the explosion loud and terrible. The fuses of the shells, burning in the air, shone like so many planets. A vast stream of fire, which appeared ascending to heaven, portrayed the walls to our view.” Several of the mortars detonated late, some at a height of 300 feet. “For a moment, the flash illuminated the whole heavens around, while the terrific concussion shook every thing far and near,” Midshipman Ridgeley wrote. “Then all was hushed again, and every object veiled in a darkness of double gloom.” From the deck of the Constitution, men could hear the terrified cries from the inhabitants of the town and the low roll of kettledrums beating out an alarm.

The squadron waited for the two rowboats in which the Intrepid’s crew were to have made their escape. Hours passed. Preble ordered sky rockets fired at ten-minute intervals. As the first blue glow of dawn broke on the horizion, lookouts at the mastheads scanned the horizon. There was no sign of the Intrepid or her boats. Hope faded.

Preble and the other officers rallied around an explanation that they may or may not have actually believed. In his letter to Secretary Smith, Commodore Preble wrote that the Intrepid had come under attack and Somers, preferring death to capture, had “put a match to the train leading directly to the magazine, which at once blew the whole into the air, and terminated their existence.” The story was echoed by other officers in the squadron…It also drew attention away from the likelihood that thirteen American lives had been thrown away to no good purpose. In fact, no Tripolitan vessel or lives were lost in the attack, and it almost certain that the Intrepid exploded accidentally before reaching the inner harbor…

Dr. Cowdery was awed by the magnitude of the blast, but agreed that it “did but little damage.” The Tripolitans observed a day of thanksgiving for the town’s deliverance, filled with prayers and singing, “accompanied with the sound of an instrument made by drawing a skin over a hoop.”

Captain William Bainbridge was granted permission to examine the Intrepid crew’s remains, which had washed up on the beach at the edge of the harbor. He was accompanied by Lieutenant David Porter and an armed guard. In his private journal, Bainbridge described what he found: [We] “there saw six person in a most mangled and burnt condition lying on the shore, whom we supposed to have been part of the unfortunate crew of the fire vessel….Two of these distressed-looking objects were fished out of the wreck. From the whole of them being so much disfigured it was impossible to recognize any known features to us, or even to distinguish an officer from a seaman.”

Yusuf had the bodies transferred into the arsenal, where they were placed on public display. The Bashaw, reported Consul Zuchet, “amused himself by watching his people hurl curses and insults at the corpses.” They were partly eaten by stray dogs. Not until three days later were Dr. Cowdery and a gang of the Philadelphia’s enlisted men permitted to bury the bodies in a communal grave east of the town wall…



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