Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Anyone who has followed my writings on this site knows that I love Naval history, especially that of the United States Navy. It was one of those subjects that I began reading about in grade school. Since I grew up as a Navy brat it is unsurprising that even after a detour of seventeen and a half years in the Army that I ended up in the Navy.
In 1803 the still very young United States Navy was two years into its campaign against the Barbary Pirates who sailed from Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco. The Navy, which had been disestablished after the Revolution was reestablished by Congress to protect American merchant sailors who were constantly being accosted by British, French, and Barbary ships, on March 27th 1793.
For years the United States like other nations had paid tribute to the rulers of the Rulers of the Barbary states for free passage of its ships in the Mediterranean, as well as hefty ransoms to free the sailors that were enslaved following the capture of their ships. By 1800 tens of millions of dollars had been paid and in that year the amount of tribute paid was 20% of the government’s total revenue.
In 1801 the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli demanded the payment of $225,000 tribute from the new President of the United States President Thomas Jefferson. In years past Jefferson had advised against payment of tribute believing that such payment only encouraged the Barbary States to continue their actions as he had when the French demanded similar tribute in 1797. The anti-naval partisans and even his Republican allies had blocked his recommendations even though Secretary of State John Jay and President John Adams agreed with him.
These partisans insisted that tribute be paid irregardless of the effect on European trade or the fate of American seamen because they believed that the Atlantic trade and involvement in the “Old World” detracted from the westward expansion by diverting money and energy away from the west. When Jefferson refused to pay tribute, Karmanli declared war on the United States by cutting down the flag at the US Consulate in Tripoli.
Jefferson sent a Naval small force to defend protect American ships and sailors and asked Congress to authorize him to do more as he did not believe that he had the Constitutional power to do more without Congressional approval. Despite the fact that Tripoli had declared war on the United States, Congress did not issue a declaration of war, but instead authorized Jefferson to “employ such of the armed vessels of the United States as may be judged requisite… for protecting effectually the commerce and seamen thereof on the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and adjoining seas.”
Jefferson sent the best of the United States Navy to deal with the situation and US Navy ships soon began to take a toll on the pirate vessels. The squadron was composed of ships and commanded by officers that would become legend in the history of the Navy. Commanded by Commodore Edward Preble and included the Brig USS Argus, the Frigates USS Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution, Enterprise, Philadelphia, Schooner Enterprise and Brig Syren. Numerous young officers who would distinguish themselves in the following years served aboard the ships of the squadron.
One of the young officers was the 24 year old Captain of the 12 Gun Schooner USS Enterprise Stephen Decatur the son of a Navy Captain who had entered the Naval service as a Midshipman in 1798 and who had risen rapidly through the ranks due to his abilities and leadership. He was among the few officers selected to remain in service following the end of the Quasi-War with France. By the time that he took command of Enterprise Decatur had already served as the First Lieutenant of the Frigates USS Essex and USS New York. After an altercation with British officer while wintering in Malta he was sent home to command the new Brig of War USS Argus. He was ordered to bring her to Europe where he handed over command to Lieutenant Isaac Hull who would achieve fame in the War of 1812 as Commanding Officer of the USS Constitution. Decatur was given command of Enterprise on when he detached from the Argus.
On December 23rd 1803 while operating with the Constitution Decatur and the Enterprise captured the small Tripolitan ketch Mastico which was sailing under Turkish colors. The small ship was taken to Syracuse where Commodore Edward Preble condemned her as a prize of war, renamed her Intrepid and placed Decatur in command.
Normally such a transfer would be considered a demotion for an officer of Decatur’s caliber; but events at Tripoli had forced Preble to make a bold strike at the heart of the enemy. On October 31st 1803 the Frigate USS Philadelphia one of the most powerful ships in the squadron, under the command of Captain William Bainbridge was lured into shoal water and ran aground on an uncharted shoal and was captured. Her crew was taken prisoner an imprisoned while the ship was floated off the reef by the Tripolitans. The ship was partially repaired and moored as a battery in the harbor. For the moment the powerful frigate was out of action until her foremast which had been cut down by Bainbridge in his unsuccessful attempt to float the ship off the shoal could be replaced.
The threat posed by such a powerful ship in the hands of the enemy was too great to ignore. Preble ordered Decatur to man the Intrepid with volunteers and make a plan to destroy the Philadelphia while the ship was at anchor and unable to put to sea. Decatur took 80 men from the Enterprise and was joined by eight more volunteers from USS Syren including Lieutenant Thomas McDonough who had recently served aboard Philadelphia and knew the ship well. The Intrepid was re-rigged with the
Under the cover of night of February 16th 1804 Decatur took the former Tripolitan ship into the harbor beneath the dim light of the new moon. The ship was able to slip past the guns of the forts overlooking the harbor using an Arabic speaking Sicilian sailor to request permission to enter the harbor under the ruse that she was a merchant ship that had lost her anchors in a storm.
The request was granted the and Decatur sailed the Intrepid to bring her alongside the Philadelphia without Securing permission from the Tripitolan watch standers aboard Philadelphia to tie up alongside the frigate. When he drew alongside the massive ship Decatur ordered his crew to board the Frigate. After a brief skirmish with the small contingent of sailors aboard he took control, and after ensuring that the ship was unseaworthy, he and his sailors set the frigate ablaze. When he was sure that the fire could not be extinguished he ordered his men back aboard Intrepid and sailed out of the harbor under the fire of Tripolitan shore batteries and gunboats.
The mission complete Decatur sailed Intrepid back to Syracuse where he was greeted as a hero and became one of the Navy’s legends. Pope Pius VII publicly proclaimed that “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast, than all the European states had done for a long period of time.” Admiral Horatio Nelson, one of the most heroic sailors that ever lived and no stranger to daring, said that Decatur’s accomplishment was “the most bold and daring act of the Age.“
Decatur would return to command the Enterprise in 1804 and would prove himself again against the forces of Tripoli. He distinguished himself in the years to come against the Royal Navy in the War of 1812 and later in the Second Barbary War.
In that final Barbary war, Decatur’s squadron decisively defeated the Algerian fleet capturing the Frigate Mashouda and killing the highly successful and chivalrous commander of the Algerian raiding squadron, Rais Hamidu.
Following the defeat of the Algerian fleet, the Pashas of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli all made peace and reimbursed the Americans for the financial damage that they had done. His victory ended the terror that the Barbary States had inflicted on Europeans for centuries and helped bring peace to the Mediterranean. More than any one man Stephen Decatur was responsible for the end their reign of piracy and terror in the Mediterranean.