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When the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, it set into motion events not considered by the nascent nation’s Founding Fathers. Among the unintended consequences was that in throwing off the British yoke, the United States’ sizeable fleet of unarmed merchant ships also lost the protection of the mighty Royal Navy. And that protection was vital, for by 1780 American ships carrying cotton, tobacco, wheat and rice were generating some $79 million a year in commerce between the New World and Old World.

That lucrative trade was especially vulnerable in the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coast of North Africa, where pirates sailing from the Barbary states of Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco and Tunis routinely stopped, boarded, seized and/or plundered unarmed merchant ships. The pirates often held valuable cargoes for ransom and imprisoned the captured vessels’ crews or sold them into slavery. There were only two viable means of dealing with the threat posed by the Barbary pirates. The first was armed force, which was logistically complex and costly. The second was the annual payment of massive bribes—diplomatically referred to as “tribute”—arranged by treaty. Even Great Britain, with its globe-spanning navy, was inclined to pay tribute rather than deal with the expense of a protracted naval campaign.

The U.S. merchant fleet’s loss of Royal Navy protection meant the Barbary pirates were free to attack and capture American ships and crews. They wasted little time. Beginning in 1784—the year the allied French navy ceased shepherding U.S. vessels—the pirates began seizing American ships and imprisoning their crews. U.S. ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson soon negotiated a treaty with the Barbary states, pledging an annual tribute of $1 million and securing release of the captive crews.

The arrangement ultimately fell apart, however, forcing Jefferson’s hand.

In 1801 Yusuf Karamanli, the pasha of Tripoli, rebuffed in his demand for an additional tribute from newly elected third U.S. President Jefferson, directed his soldiers to chop down the flagpole outside the U.S. consulate, tore up the treaty and resumed attacks on American shipping. Though never an advocate of a strong, permanent military, Jefferson realized something had to be done. Fortunately, seven years earlier George Washington had signed the Naval Act of 1794, providing nearly $700,000 for the construction, launching and manning of six new U.S. Navy frigates.

In late May 1801 Jefferson, resigned to war against the Barbary pirates, sent Commodore Richard Dale and a six-ship squadron to escort American ships and blockade Tripoli, hoping to deter the bellicose Karamanli. But a dearth of provisions and illness among his crews compelled Dale’s return. Jefferson then sent Commodore Richard Morris with a larger squadron, but he proved too passive to handle the job. Finally, in the summer of 1803 the president tasked an irascible, hard-driving Yankee commodore named Edward Preble with the thankless job of escorting American ships and blockading the Barbary ports of Tripoli and Algiers. Preble’s small fleet included the soon-to-be-legendary heavy frigate USS Constitution (his flagship), the brigs Argus, Scourge and Syren, the schooners Enterprise, Nautilus and Vixen, and the second-class frigate Philadelphia.

The latter vessel was launched in that namesake city in 1799, its entire cost funded by citizens as a gift to the United States. Displacing 1,240 tons, Philadelphia was 130 feet long and carried 36 guns. At the time of the First Barbary War the frigate boasted a complement of 307 officers and men under Captain William Bainbridge, a stocky, redheaded former merchant officer from New Jersey. An excellent sailor, Bainbridge had joined the Navy in 1798. While known for his aggressive manner on the quarterdeck and respected for his courage, he had the dubious distinction of being the only U.S. Navy commander who had twice struck his colors. On Nov. 20, 1798, while helming the schooner Retaliation during the Quasi War with France, he was forced to surrender after approaching two enemy frigates he’d mistaken for neutral ships. Though acquitted of any charges, the sting of disgrace dogged him. Two years later he was assigned to carry the annual tribute to Algiers aboard the frigate USS George Washington. While Bainbridge was in port, the dey of Algiers asked him to transport an envoy to Turkey, a request the captain could not refuse. The dey further demanded he lower the U.S. colors and run up the Algerian flag. This Bainbridge refused to do—that is, until realizing his ship was anchored directly beneath the guns of the Algerian forts. While not the same as surrender, the captain’s ignominy represented a further stain on his and the nation’s honor.

His prior humiliations likely weighed on Bainbridge’s mind as Philadelphia patrolled the North African coast on the morning of Oct. 31, 1803. The frigate had been on blockade duty off Tripoli for weeks, but due to the Mediterranean’s often capricious winds it had been forced far to the west of its assigned station. With favorable winds Bainbridge had just managed to bring his powerful ship back into position, when one of his lookouts spotted a sail ahead, identified as a small Arab trader bound for the harbor. On consideration the captain ordered his crew to give chase.

After two frustrating hours Philadelphia had gained little on the small, swift vessel. Bainbridge’s gunners had fired several warning shots from the forward 18-pounders, but to no effect, and the trader managed to gain the entrance to the harbor. Bainbridge decided to follow, though his ship’s deeper draft put it at risk of running aground in the approaches. As Philadelphia rounded the headlands, three leadsmen assured the captain at least 40 feet of water lay beneath the keel. Bainbridge continued the chase until within a few miles of Tripoli and its defenses. At 11 a.m., increasingly reluctant to risk his ship in an unfamiliar harbor with uncharted reefs and shoals, Bainbridge broke off the chase and ordered his crew to bring the frigate about. The order came too late. In full sail the 1,200-ton Philadelphia drove atop a shoal, propelling its bow more than 5 feet out of the water and throwing its crew to the decks.

Philadelphia was hard aground on a hostile coast within sight of enemy fortifications, its plight obvious to those ashore. Nine Tripolitan gunboats soon set out from harbor to stalk the big warship, initially careful to remain just beyond the reach of its guns. Largely at the mercy of the mobile force, the grounded ship lay helpless.

Bainbridge acted quickly. First, to lighten the frigate, he ordered all water casks drained and nearly all the big guns, each of which weighed at least 2 tons, thrown overboard. The crew then cut loose all anchors and cables, followed by the foremast. Even with that release of at least 800 tons of deadweight, Philadelphia would not float off the reef. Closing the noose, the Tripolitan gunboats fired a few experimental shots at the immobile frigate. Unable to aim his remaining guns, Bainbridge realized with dread he had no alternative but to surrender. After ordering all signal and codebooks destroyed and the powder magazine flooded, he sought to sink the frigate by having the crew drill holes through its hull, to no avail. As night fell, Bainbridge struck his colors for the third time in his naval career. The gloating Tripolitans closed in, boarded the American frigate and took Bainbridge and his crew captive.

Nearly three weeks passed before Commodore Preble, cruising off the coast of Sardinia, learned of Philadelphia’s seizure from a passing Royal Navy ship. The news was dire. At a single blow he had lost one of his two frigates and a quarter of his guns. Worse yet, Karamanli held more than 300 Americans, for whom he could demand almost any ransom. Adding insult to injury, a few days after Philadelphia’s grounding a storm raised the water level in the harbor, and the frigate, considerably lightened by Bainbridge’s desperate efforts, finally floated off. But it didn’t sink. The delighted Tripolitans patched its hull and towed the warship to an anchorage directly beneath the forts. Then they went back out and recovered its castoff guns from the seafloor. The sea had gifted Karamanli a virtually intact, very powerful frigate. All the vessel needed was a crew and gunpowder, both readily obtainable. The capture of Philadelphia was an unprecedented disaster for Preble and the United States.

“Would to God that the officers and crew of the Philadelphia had one and all determined to prefer death to slavery,” Preble wrote to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith. Recriminations aside, the problem still demanded resolution. Could Philadelphia be recaptured or destroyed? That was topmost on Preble’s mind when a young, eager and bold officer entered the story. That man was 24-year-old Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr., as hot a firebrand as any man in the service.

Born on the eastern shore of Maryland, the namesake son of a U.S. Navy commodore who had served in the American Revolutionary War, Decatur had already distinguished himself in action during the 1798–1800 Quasi War. Handsome, with wavy black hair and piercing dark eyes, he seemed to radiate confidence and audacity. As commander of the brig Argus, Decatur had arrived in the Mediterranean on the first day of November, carrying $30,000 in gold and silver for the fleet. After meeting with Preble at Gibraltar, he took command of the 12-gun schooner Enterprise. On hearing of Philadelphia’s capture, Decatur visited Preble aboard Constitution to discuss the Navy’s options. This was typical of Decatur, who throughout his naval career found himself in the right place at the right time.

The young officer was directed to sail the nimble Enterprise just offshore of Tripoli to reconnoiter the situation. What he saw proved Philadelphia could not be recaptured. The frigate was firmly under the protection of the heavily armed forts and gunboats. There was simply no way to board it with enough Americans to raise sail and then clear the harbor before enemy batteries could pound the vessel into a floating wreck. Any such attempt would be suicidal.

Reporting back to Preble, Decatur assured the commodore the only possible course of action was to destroy Philadelphia—a suggestion Decatur likely made with mixed feelings, as his father had been the frigate’s first captain. But true to his aggressive, patriotic spirit, the younger Decatur requested permission to take Enterprise into the harbor with a skeleton crew, board Philadelphia and set it afire. The daring proposition likely made even the crusty Preble smile. He, too, was a man of action. The plan was dangerous, but both men knew something had to be done to keep Karamanli from turning Philadelphia into the terror of the Mediterranean.

Two days before Christmas 1803 Decatur experienced a stroke of good fortune on capturing Mastico, a four-gun, 60-ton Tripolitan ketch that had participated in the seizure of Philadelphia. Virtually indistinguishable from the hundreds of other small ships that plied the blue waters of the Mediterranean, it represented the key to the destruction of Philadelphia. Preble had the ketch commissioned as USS Intrepid, the first in a line of American warships to bear that name. In January 1804, under a cloak of secrecy, Decatur, Preble and their officers worked out the details of the raid. By early February the commodore pronounced them ready. He insisted Decatur’s crew all be volunteers. This proved no obstacle. In the strong voice of confidence that would see him through two more wars, Decatur explained the situation to the crew of Enterprise and within moments had more enthusiastic volunteers than he could use. Every one of his 70 officers and men would join him on the venture.

On February 3 Preble watched from the quarterdeck of Constitution as Intrepid and its support vessel, the brig Syren, sailed over the southern horizon. The commodore hoped he was not sending Decatur and his brave crew to their deaths. But he had little choice; Philadelphia had to be burned. “It will undoubtedly cost many lives,” he wrote, “but it must be done.”

After holding station offshore for five days during a spell of rough weather, Intrepid and Syren approached Tripoli. With its weather-beaten hull and faded lateen sails Intrepid appeared little more than a ship badly in need of refit. Decatur was counting on that impression as he and his eager volunteers approached the enemy harbor from the east in the late afternoon of February 16. Decatur had recruited a Sicilian pilot who spoke the local maritime dialect and knew the waters. The plan had called for some of Syren’s crew to join the raid, but a contrary wind prevented the ships from linking up. Decatur, in his usual dramatic style, quoted Henry V: “The fewer men, the greater share of honor.”

A crescent moon hung low over Tripoli that evening as Intrepid approached. To the west stood the city’s spires and minarets, dominated by Karamanli’s palace and the hulking forts. More than 100 guns guarded the harbor, as did cannons aboard the armed brigs, gunboats and corsairs within range of Philadelphia. The captured frigate was anchored conspicuously at the heart of the harbor, and even shorn of its foremast and bowsprit the vessel appeared formidable. All its ports were open, revealing its three-dozen 18-pounder guns and 32-pounder carronades. Decatur had no illusions the guns were unloaded. The Tripolitans would almost certainly make maximum use of the frigate’s firepower. There had to be at least 200 men aboard, the number needed to serve the cannons.

Most of Intrepid’s crew remained concealed belowdecks with kegs of gunpowder and incendiary devices. Disguised as local sailors, a dozen or so men milled about on deck. Around 10 p.m. the wind died, becalming Intrepid some 100 yards shy of the warship’s port bow. When a lookout aboard Philadelphia ordered the ketch to sheer off, the Sicilian pilot replied he had lost his anchors in a gale and asked to tie up until morning. After a few tense moments, the lookout consented. By then Intrepid’s head had drawn even with the bigger ship some 20 yards to port. In plain view of the lookout a boat crew from Intrepid casually rowed over and secured a line to the ringbolt on Philadelphia’s forechain. Then, on Decatur’s instruction, the deck crew idly tugged on the line, pulling the ketch in close to the frigate.

Philadelphia dwarfed the ketch, and its long rows of black gun muzzles proved an intimidating sight. Intrepid’s crew reeled themselves toward the frigate regardless, and after several minutes of patient pulling the ships were nearly touching. The Tripolitans proved helpful, unaware they were inviting a wolf into the fold. Each of Decatur’s crew had been briefed on what to do on boarding the ship. To avoid alerting the shore batteries, no one carried pistols or muskets. All fighting was to be done quietly with cutlasses and boarding axes. The forthcoming fight would be hand-to-hand against an enemy of unknown number.

Suddenly a cry of “Americanos! Americanos!” cut through the night air, and Decatur knew the gig was up. “Board her, boys!” he yelled, as 60 men armed to the teeth swarmed over Intrepid’s rails onto the frigate. They clambered through the gunports, up the ladders and into the rigging, screaming the name of the ship they had come to destroy. Though they had boarded in extreme haste, the Americans quickly overwhelmed the enemy sailors. Only a few Tripolitans had put up any resistance, and not a shot had been fired. Within 10 minutes Philadelphia was back in American hands. Decatur must have considered trying to return the ship to Preble intact. But he knew this was folly. He had his orders, and time was short.

Despite precautions, Philadelphia’s Tripolitan crew had sounded the alarm, sentries on neighboring ships and ashore had heard the commotion, and within minutes the entire harbor was alerted to the attack. By then the Americans had already begun pouring gunpowder and strewing oily rags and old ropes across the decks and down into the gun rooms and storerooms. On Decatur’s command they lit sperm oil candles and went to work. Long trails of orange flames instantly climbed into the rigging, setting alight the tarred hemp and sails. Belowdecks the combustibles engulfed the stores and cockpit, spreading in all directions. Only when certain Philadelphia’s fate was sealed did the captain and his crew scramble back down to Intrepid and cut the mooring lines. In true swashbuckler fashion, Decatur was the last to leave, leaping across the gap into Intrepid’s rigging. The entire raid had taken 20 minutes, and not a single American had lost his life.

The night sky danced with embers and scraps of flaming sails as a pillar of fire consumed Philadelphia from the waterline to the tops of its masts. A few guns discharged, adding to the chaos. The situation turned perilous, as volumes of air drawn into the rising pyre of flames pulled Intrepid toward the blazing frigate. The Americans used long oars to push the ketch away from the doomed vessel, and Intrepid, brightly lit by the flames, made for the safety of the harbor mouth. Some gunners ashore fired at the fleeing vessel, far too late to stop the Americans. Intrepid soon met Syren, and together the jubilant crews left the glow of the burning Philadelphia far behind. Reaching the American base at Syracuse two days later, Decatur promptly reported the successful raid to Preble. The U.S. Navy had reclaimed its honor.

British Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson was on blockade station aboard HMS Victory off Toulon when he learned of the Yankee feat. He pronounced it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Blessed with remarkable foresight, Nelson may well have recognized something more important. Seeing Constitution off Gibraltar, he observed, “There is in the handling of those transatlantic ships a nucleus of trouble for the navy of Great Britain.” How right he was.

The Barbary Wars had yet to be fully played out. In fact, not until 1815 would Decatur himself, as commodore of a new large fleet, finally force the Barbary states to accede to American sea power and end their piratical ways. Yet it was the burning of Philadelphia that had enshrined his name in the pantheon of American naval heroes.

Mark Carlson has written about aviation and military history for more than a dozen magazines; his most recent book is The Marines’ Lost Squadron: The Odyssey of VMF-422. For further reading he recommends A Rage for Glory: The Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur, USN, by James Tertius de Kay; 1812: The Navy’s War, by George C. Daughan; and The Naval War of 1812, by Theodore Roosevelt.