Nov 18, 2013
One of my favourite events in US History is a story that almost all Americans knew 200 years ago, but is rarely talked about today – even though Admiral Horatio Nelson called it ‘the most bold and daring act of the age.’
In the early years of the 19th century, the young American nation was at war with the Barbary States of North Africa. The pirates expected us to pay them money in order to sail through the Mediterranean, or else they’d attack our ships and sell their crews into slavery. President Thomas Jefferson sent a fleet of ships to the Mediterranean in order to show them what we thought of them.
The USS Philadelphia, under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, was blockading Tripoli Harbour in October of 1803. Suddenly, on Halloween night, she ran aground on an uncharted reef. Seeing that Philadelphia was disabled, shore batteries began opening fire and the ship was harassed by Barbary gunboats. Captain Bainbridge and his crew tried desperately to refloat the ship. They threw the cannons overboard, followed by everything onboard that they didn’t absolutely need - anything to lighten the ship. Eventually Captain Bainbridge was forced to surrender Philadelphia. The ship was taken by the corsairs, and her crew made slaves of the Ottoman governor of Tripoli.
The capture of Philadelphia severely hurt the American fleet in the Mediterranean, and what was worse, could’ve significantly helped the pirates in their nefarious enterprise. Something had to be done!
Commodore Edward Preble, commander of the fleet, began putting together a plan to rescue the captured ship. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur was chosen to lead the operation. On 3 February 1804, 85 volunteers (including five Arabic-speaking Sicilians) boarded a small Barbary ship that had been captured and renamed USS Intrepid, and left the port of Syracuse in Sicily.
At 7 o’clock on the 16th, Intrepid, flying a British flag and pretending to be a merchant ship from Malta, crept into Tripoli harbor. Claiming to have lost their anchors, the Sicilians asked to tie up alongside Philadelphia. When Intrepid was close enough, Decatur gave the order, and his crew leapt out of hiding to board Philadelphia.
Within ten minutes, Decatur and his crew had killed or chased off the small Tripolitan crew and recaptured Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Philadelphia was in no shape to sail on her own, and Intrepid was way too small to tow the larger frigate. Decatur did the only thing he could – scuttle the ship. The crew started a fire on board Philadelphia. After making sure that it would burn the entire ship, Decatur ordered his men to abandon ship.
The pirates began firing on Intrepid from the shore, and began to launch their ships. Philadelphia’s remaining guns had been loaded, and with the heat, had begun firing into the city. Intrepid escaped in the confusion by the skin of her teeth.
Decatur became an instant national hero, and later that year also participated in another attack on Tripoli which would ultimately force the surrender of the Barbary pirates.
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