"The most bold and daring act of the Age." - The Burning of U.S.S. "Philadelphia" in the harbour of Tripoli.

16 February 1804, 210 years ago in a daring raid during the First Barbary War, the US naval hero Stephen Decatur successfully burned the captured frigate USS “Philadelphia” in the harbour of Tripoli.

“The most bold and daring act of the Age." (Horatio Nelson)

Edward Moran: “Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli“ 
an imagination of the “Philadelphia“ ablaze and "Intrepid”
 making her escape in the foreground


Technically speaking, it was the rather medieval practice of the Barbary corsairs residing on the shores of North Africa to capture American merchant crews, holding them as slaves and demanding large ransoms, 115 men had been redeemed in 1795 for the total amount of $1 million, 1⁄6 of the entire U.S. budget, that persuaded the young United States of the need of a navy. Six large frigates had already been commissioned in 1794 and some had been through their baptism of fire during the Quasi-War with France, when the First Barbary War was declared in 1801 on the corsairs to show them that their steady flow of income by reselling US mariners was at an end. It was a bit of an embarrassment when USS “Philadelphia” under the command of William Bainbridge ran aground off Tripoli harbour on 31 October 1803, the frigate captured by the local Pasha and her men offered for sale. Something had to be done.

The Stranding and Capture of  USS "Philadelphia" by her former captain, William Bainbridge Hoff

USS “Intrepid” once was a ketch that had served carrying French troops to Egypt in 1798, was later sold to Tripoli, was among the vessel that captured the “Philadelphia” until Stephen Decatur’s schooner USS “Enterprise” took her in December 1803. The local American commander, Commodore Edward Preble, took her into US service and she became the core of the plan to recapture or destroy the lost frigate before she became the most powerful Corsair warship in the Med. Appointed as captain of the “Intrepid” was Lt Decatur and together with the schooner USS “Syren”, the expedition was ready to commence the desperate action under the shore batteries of Tripoli. Claiming to be a storm-stricken Maltese merchantmen, the “Intrepid” sailed into the harbour, begged to make fast to the “Philadelphia” since she had allegedly lost her anchor in a gale and approached the frigate that lay without her foremast and her main yards stowed on deck in the basin. The ketch slowly approached until she was close enough for Decatur to give the order to board and his sixty volunteers quickly overwhelmed her Corsair prize crew and since the “Philadelphia” was anything but seaworthy and too heavy to be towed away by “Intrepid”, Decatur decided to set her ablaze. With the ropes securing her loosened, she slowly drifted into the rocks at the western harbour entrance and burned to the waterline.

Dennis Malone Carter (1820 – 1881): “Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat”

Decatur immediately became a national hero, continued to serve with distinction in the Barbary War and later during the War of 1812 against the British, commanded USS “United States” in her successful action against HMS “Macedonian” was captured while in command of USS “President” in 1815 by a British squadron and played a major role in the Second Barbary War that ended the Corsair threat for good. And since diplomacy, especially towards brother officers, was not really his strong side and Decatur did not withhold his criticism, he fought several duels until the “Philadelphia’s” former commander Bainbridge arranged a meeting of Decatur and Commodore James Barron. Decatur had lambasted Barron over the latters conduct during the Chesapeake-Leopard affair in 1807 for years and in March 1820 both men met outside of Washington and wounded each other mortally. Barron cried out that he’d forgive Decatur from the bottom of his heart and “God bless you, Decatur" when he was carried off the field and Decatur answered in a weak voice "Farewell, farewell, Barron." He died later that day under excruciating pain from an abdomen wound at the age of 41.

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