Tuesday, February 16, 2016


16 February 2016:  Today is an anniversary that few if any are even aware of: the burning, by Americans, of the American frigate USS Philadelphia, in Tripoli Harbor. USS Philadelphia was an American 36-gun frigate built in 1799. In 1803, she deployed to the Mediterranean to assist in dealing with the depredations of the Barbary Corsairs. For those of you not familiar with these nice folks, they were pirates, cut-throat and cruel, likely the ancestors of today's terrorists, from the four countries of the coast of North Africa: Tripoli (now Libya), Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco. The pirates, for all intents and purposes, acted as the navies of the rulers of those countries and if a nation who wished to trade in the Med did not pay them "tribute" (read bribe), their ships were fair game for the pirates. They captured the innocent merchantmen, stole their cargoes, enslaved their crews, and kept the ships. Didn't matter what country they were from, they were all fair game if their governments didn't pony up the tribute. And after the U.S. was out from under the thumb of Great Britain, we were also out from under their protection and our ships were easy targets for the corsairs. President Jefferson finally sent some ships over, but after three commodores were unable to accomplish anything, the fourth, Edward Preble, had a sufficient number of ships to bring an end to the problem. One of them was USS Philadelphia.  

She was commanded by William Bainbridge and on 31 October, 1803, due to a major error on his part, was captured by the corsairs in Tripoli harbor; she had run aground and essentially the Tripolitan gunboats took her without her firing a shot; actually, she couldn't as Bainbridge had ordered her guns heaved overboard to lighten the ship in hopes of refloating her. Not so much! He also ordered her foremast chopped down, obviously thinking that would do the trick. It did not.

Stranded and attacked by gunboats of Tripoli

Needless to say, Preble found nothing amusing about the situation and sent in a volunteer crew in a captured Tripolitan xebec (that's pronounced "zee-bek" in case you wondered). 

Stephen Decatur
On the night of 16 February, 1804, Stephen Decatur sailed the xebec into Tripoli Harbor with 75 men and officers and through a ruse, got themselves alongside the captured, and now afloat (the tide came in), frigate. They boarded, killed the Tripolitan pirates guarding the ship, and set her aflame.
a contemporary image of the event

They made good their escape in the xebec (renamed Intepid,) and put themselves, or rather their commander, Stephen Decatur, permanently into the record books as heroes. In fact, Decatur, a lieutenant at the time of his raid, was jump promoted to captain as a reward.
Marine Artist Paul Garnett's masterful rendition

Should any of you have an interest in learning more about this brilliant event in our Navy's history, check out The Greater the Honor by yours truly. It's on Amazon.com in digital and paper. (that's a "clickable" link) Some have even declared it a good read.

By the way, some of you astute readers out there may have heard that Admiral Nelson referred to the raid by Decatur as the "most daring act of the age." Not so. It was created out of the head of one of Decatur's biographers back in 1844. Of course, Nelson and Decatur were both dead, so it could not be refuted!

Until next time,
                                     Fair Winds, 
                                         Old Salt

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