Art: Edward Moran, The Burning Of The USS Philadelphia
On the night of February 16, 1804, in one of the most daring attacks of the age, Lt. Stephen Decatur, U.S.N., accompanied by a Sicilian pilot, led a force of 70 volunteers into the heavily defended port of Tripoli to burn the U.S.S. Philadelphia. The raid made an immediate hero of Decatur, it encouraged the Tripolitan regent to sue for peace, and it served notice to the world that the newly formed U.S. Navy was a force to be reckoned with. In a larger sense, Decatur's raid marked or was part of several firsts – the first protracted war against our nation by religiously motivated Muslims, our nation's first foreign war, and our first experience with the failure of appeasement.
Beginning in the late 15th century, the North African Islamic regencies of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers began sponsoring piracy against Christian nations as a form of jihad. In 1796, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met with an envoy from Tripoli. Jefferson later reounted:
“. . . [we] ‘took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury.’ The ambassador [from the Barbary States] replied that it was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.” He claimed every one of their guys who was “slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise."
Do note that this doctrine is part of the curriculum being taught in Saudi financed madrassas and schools around the world. As we are all well aware, the Muslim threat to the rest of the world that has existed since 622 A.D. has in no way abated or been blunted with the passing of time, whether it be counted in decades, centuries or millenniums.
For hundreds of years these Muslim Barbary pirates were a scourge on the Christian world. Their main goal was to capture Christians as slaves or to hold for ransom – and this they did on a near industrial scale, not merely attacking passing ships, but also making land raids throughout Europe:
Reports of Barbary raids and kidnappings of those in Italy, Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland, Scotland as far north as Iceland exist from between the 16th to the 19th centuries. It is estimated that between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by pirates and sold as slaves during this time period. Famous accounts of Barbary slave raids include a mention in the Diary of Samuel Pepys and a raid on the coastal village of Baltimore, Ireland, during which pirates left with the entire populace of the settlement.
Prior to and during the American Revolution, ships from the America were under English, then later French protection in the Mediterranean. But almost as soon as the Revolution ended - and our protection ceased - Muslim predation on American shipping began. In 1784, Morocco struck first, capturing the Betty, an American frigate, holding her crew for ransom. Not long thereafter Algiers captured two more ships. Morocco and Algiers both demanded ransom and annual tribute, which, in its powerlessness at the time, the U.S. paid. And still the predation did not stop. At one point in Washington's presidency, the U.S. government paid out 20% of its annual budget in ransom of ships and crew to the Muslim Barbary pirates.
During this period, the U.S. began building a sizable navy. Almost as soon as he was inaugurated, Thomas Jefferson put our nation on a war footing with Tripoli when he refused to pay any further tribute. He sent a fleet of warships to Tripoli to deliver the message. They blockaded ports throughout Tripoli and conducted raids. During one blockade, the USS Philadelphia, a 36 gun frigate ran aground on an uncharted reef just outside Tripoli Harbor. The ship was soon captured by the Muslim pirates and moored in the harbor, where it was occupied by pirates, surrounded by several Tripolitan vessels, and within half the range of the shore batteries.
The loss of the USS Philadelphia on 31 Oct. 1803 was a major blow to the war effort, not just because it weakened U.S. forces on site, but because it was a state of the art warship that could have been turned against the U.S. The Commander of the American navy in the Mediterranean considered attempting to retake the Philadelphia, but the defenses were deemed too strong. An alternate plan, put forth by Lt. Stephen Decatur, was to enter the heavily defended harbor by ruse, then board and destroy the Philadelphia, denying it to the enemy.
Lt. Decatur along with a Sicilian pilot and 70 officers and men – all volunteers – boarded a ship recently captured from Tripoli, the ketch Intrepid. Leaving the American fleet’s mooring in Syracuse, Sicily on February 3, they arrived off Tripoli on the 16th. Most of the men were sent below decks and the anchor stowed as the ship entered the harbor. The pilot, Mr. Salvadore, gave the story to guard vessels in the harbor that their ship had lost its anchors in a recent storm and needed to tie up to a nearby vessel for safety. They were directed to the Philadelphia’s position; it was about half-past nine o’clock at night.
The rest of the story was told by Lt. Decatur in a letter to his commanding officer, discussing the operation:
Lieut. Commandant Decatur, Intrepid.
Lieut. Commandant S. Decatur’s Report to Com. Preble.
On Board the Ketch Intrepid, at Sea ,
February 17, 1804.
I have the honor to inform you, that in pursuance to your orders of the 31st ultimo, to proceed with this ketch off the harbor of Tripoli, there to endeavor to effect the destruction of the late United States’ frigate Philadelphia, I arrived there in company with the United States’ brig Syren, lieutenant commandant Stewart, on the 7th, but owing to the badness of the weather, was unable to effect any thing until last evening, when we had a light breeze from the N.E. At 7 o’clock I entered the harbor with the Intrepid, the Syren having gained her station without the harbor, in a situation to support us in our retreat. At half past 9 o’clock, laid her alongside of the Philadelphia, boarded, and after a short contest, carried her. I immediately fired her in the store-rooms, gun-room, cock-pit, and birth-deck, and remained on board until the flames had issued from the spar-deck, hatchways, and ports, and before I had got from alongside, the fire had communicated to the rigging and tops. Previous to our boarding, they had got their tompions out, and hailed several times, but not a gun fired.
The noise occasioned by boarding and contending for possession, although no fire-arms were used, gave a general alarm on shore, and on board their cruisers, which lay about a cable and a half’s length from us, and many boats filled with men lay around, but from whom we received no annoyance. They commenced a fire on us from all their batteries on shore, but with no other effect than one shot passing through our top-gallant sail.
The frigate was moored within half-gunshot of the Bashaw’s castle, and of their principal battery-two of their cruisers lay within two cables’ length on the starboard quarter, and their gunboats within half gunshot of the starboard bow. She had all her guns mounted and loaded, which, as they became hot went off. As she lay with her broadside to the town, I have no doubt but some damage has been done by them. Before I got out of the harbor, her cables had burnt off, and she drifted in under the castle, where she was consumed. I can form no judgment as to the number of men on board, but there were twenty killed. A large boat full got off, and many leapt into the sea. We have made one prisoner, and I fear from the number of bad wounds he has received he will not recover, although every assistance and comfort has been given him.
I boarded with sixty men and officers, leaving a guard on board the ketch for her defence, and it is the greatest pleasure I inform you, I had not a man killed in this affair, and but one slightly wounded. Every support that could be given I received from my officers, and as each of their conduct was highly meritorious, I beg leave to enclose you a list of their names. Permit me also, sir, to speak of the brave fellows I have the honor to command, whose coolness and intrepidity was such as I trust will ever characterise the American tars.
It would be injustice in me, were I to pass over the important services rendered by Mr. Salvadore, the pilot, on whose good conduct the success of the enterprise in the greatest degree depended. He gave me entire satisfaction.
I have the honor to be, sir, &c.,
Decatur became an immediate hero in the U.S., and his notoriety spread world-wide. Perhaps the greatest accolade he received came from one of histories preeminent naval commanders Adm. Horatio Nelson, who is reputed to have called Decatur's raid "the most bold and daring act of the age."
America was under assault by Muslim Barbary pirates for thirty-one years, from 1784 to 1815. Appeasing the religiously motivated pirates who saw non-Muslims as fair game for slavery and aggression, was an utter failure. The First Barbary War, fought from 1801-1805, ended the Tripolitan regent's aggression. But the regents of Algiers and Tunisia soon opted to pick up where the Tripolitans had left off. For a time, the U.S. ignored the renewed piracy as its focus was on the events that led up to and culminated in the War of 1812.
After the War of 1812, the U.S. turned its attention back to the Muslim pirates. The U.S. declared war on Algeria in 1815 and sent a fleet of warships to the Mediterranean under the command of then Commodore Decatur. He was as efficient in command of a fleet as he was in the raid. In a matter of months, he captured Algeria's major warships and forced a treaty and reparations on the Algerian regent. Shortly thereafter, Tunisia likewise capitulated, bringing an end to the war. Decatur would die five years later in a duel.