A Brief History
On February 16, 1804, the U.S. Navy conducted a stunningly audacious raid to deny the enemy the use of an American warship by concocting a ruse that allowed American sailors into the jaws of the enemy harbor to sink a captured American frigate. The American Navy managed to sink the captured ship and escape under heavy gunfire, a heroic and successful raid marking a high point in the bravery and cunning of the U.S. Navy.
The United States had been having troubles with pirates along the Barbary Coast (modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) resulting in the need for the U.S. Navy to protect American interests in the Mediterranean Sea, a conflict called The First Barbary War (1801-1805). The USS Philadelphia was part of that effort, a sailing ship called a frigate, a medium sized ship (157 feet long by 39 feet wide), though heavily armed with 28 X 18 pounder guns (muzzle loading cannon that fired an 18 pound iron cannon ball) and an additional 16 X 32 pounder carronades (close range heavy ship killing weapons). Philadelphia was manned by a crew of 307 officers and men.
Philadelphia was chasing a pirate ship off the coast of Tripoli when she ran aground about 2 miles from Tripoli harbor. Running aground in those days was serious business. While the ship was not immediately threatened by damage, she was in dire danger of being captured by the pirates. Her crew worked frantically to free the ship, trying all sorts of techniques, such as lightening the vessel by tossing all anchors overboard, shifting the weight on the ship by running all the cannon forward, and then again trying to lighten the ship by throwing cannon overboard and even cutting off a mast. When none of these efforts bore fruit, the Captain ordered the hull holed by drilling, the powder wetted down, and all weapons thrown overboard, as capture was imminent. Defenseless, the Captain had no choice but to surrender his ship and crew, and his men were taken into custody to be sold as slaves! Philadelphia sank as planned but was later raised by the pirates and taken into the harbor.
A daring and bold rescue plan was mounted with Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, USN in charge. The idea was for Decatur, in charge of 80 U.S. Marines, would be aboard the USS Intrepid, a warship disguised as a Maltese merchant ship under a British flag to trick its way into the harbor and sink the Philadelphia by burning the ship so as to deny its use by the Barbary pirates. The USS Syren would be standing by to provide assistance once the operation went down. Pretending to be a friendly vessel that had lost its anchors, Decatur hid his Marines below decks and had some Sicilian sailors that spoke Arabic provide the communication with the Tripolitans. The ruse worked and Intrepid was allowed to pull up near Philadelphia.
Decatur’s men waited until they pulled alongside, then boarded the Philadelphia and took the ship before The Tripolitans could stop them. Finding the Philadelphia in no condition to sail with a small crew of Americans, Decatur ordered the ship set on fire. The blaze aboard the Philadelphia had a positive effect other than merely destroying the ship, as the cannon on the ship had been loaded and began firing on their own as the ship burned! The Tripolitan prize crew was surprised and the 60 Americans that boarded did not lose a man, though they killed 20 of the enemy with swords and pikes. (One American suffered a minor slash from a sword.) A wounded pirate was captured, and the remaining Tripolitans jumped overboard. Returning to Intrepid and making their escape with some cover fire from Syren, assisted by the darkness of night, the Americans made good their escape.
Decatur and his Marines had pulled off a tremendous and unlikely successful raid in the teeth of the enemy harbor, ringed with cannon and other armed ships. An authority on naval affairs no less than Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson called the raid, “the most bold and daring act of the Age.” Obviously, Decatur became a national hero in the United States, and also attained much acclaim in Europe tired of the depredations of the Barbary pirates. How big a deal was the raid to keep Philadelphia out of Tripolitan hands? Pope Pius VII himself heaped praise on the American effort, saying, “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble and humiliate the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast in one night than all the European states had done for a long period of time.” (It must be remembered that the Barbary pirates were Muslims and the rest of Europe and America was mostly Christian.)
Decatur’s raid goes down in the annals of the U.S. Navy as a great feat of daring and success, just one of many such events in the glorious history of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. We salute you!
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think the greatest victory by the U.S. Navy or U.S. Marine Corps is? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Allison, Robert. Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 1779-1820. University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.
Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805. PublicAffairs, 2003.
The featured image in this article, a painting by Edward Moran (1829–1901) of the Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.