Thursday, March 7, 2024

Pirates of the Mediterranean: Stephen Decatur and the First Barbary War (Part 2)

By Nick Wieman
HRNM Educator

To read part 1 of this blog, click here.

Stephen Decatur’s swift and efficient burning of USS Philadelphia, without a single casualty, made an impression on his superiors. Commodore Edward Preble, the commander of the American blockade of Tripoli and collaborator with Stephen Decatur in planning the destruction of the Philadelphia, successfully lobbied Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert to have Decatur promoted to captain at the age of 25. Decatur remains the youngest person promoted to captain in the U.S. Navy. Even with the burning of Philadelphia making him the talk of the Navy, Decatur’s “adventure” in the Mediterranean was far from over.

Seeking to take more aggressive action against Tripoli to shatter the confidence of the Bashaw, Commodore Preble procured six small gunboats and a pair of 13-inch sea mortar boats, crewed by around 35 men each. Tripoli’s formidable shore batteries and shallow, rocky harbor precluded a direct assault by the larger ships, but Preble believed that engaging these batteries at range would allow smaller ships to slip through and engage the enemy closer to shore. Supporting the main gunboat thrust with long-range cannon would be his flagship, the frigate USS Constitution; the brigs Argus, Siren, and Scourge; and the schooners Vixen, Nautilus, and Enterprise. The total armament would be 156 guns, manned by 1,060 men drawn from the crews of the respective ships along with Sicilian and Neapolitan volunteers.

Map of Tripoli Harbor on August 4, 1804 (Dawn Like Thunder)

The journey from Messina, Sicily, to Tripoli would be slow. Being little more than barges, the gunboats had to be towed behind the seaworthy vessels and were at risk of foundering in high winds. The squadron arrived a few miles off Tripoli in late July, but had to go further out to sea to avoid high winds near the shoreline. On August 3, Preble’s squadron arrived outside Tripoli Harbor and assumed its formation. The six gunboats were divided into two divisions, commanded by Lieutenants Stephen Decatur and Richard Somers.

This oil painting depicts the bombardment of Tripoli (NHHC)

At precisely 2:00, the pair of mortar boats began bombarding Tripoli alongside the rest of the American seagoing fleet, drawing fire from the city’s coastal artillery batteries to cover the advance of the two gunboat divisions toward the awaiting Tripolitan gunboat squadrons. The pirate’s ships were larger and heavier armed, each boasting an 18- to 26-pound cannon and a pair of howitzers, and a crew complement of around 30 to 50 men. Stephen Decatur’s gunboat squadron was the first to close the distance with a Tripolitan gunboat squadron that had taken heavy fire, and Decatur himself led the first boarding party onto the damaged lead ship to engage the pirates in close quarters combat. The first ship was taken in a matter of minutes; the Tripolitan crew was reeling from the loss of their captain in the initial barrage and was no match for the American boarding party. The Tripolitans in the gunboat suffered 16 killed and 15 wounded, with five taken prisoner; the Americans had three wounded.

Map of Tripoli Harbor showing ship positions (NHHC)

Claiming the ship as his prize, Decatur hauled down the Tripolitan colors and prepared to sail the ship out of the harbor, but before he could, he received terrible news. While Stephen and his crew were busy engaging the ship, his brother James had secured the surrender of a Tripolitan gunboat and boarded the ship to receive the crew’s arms. The commander of the ship instead pulled out a pistol and fired a round into James’s head, mortally wounding him. Stephen’s pursuit of his brother’s killer would be the stuff of Navy legend.

Decatur turned his captured ship around and sailed back into the harbor, intercepting the errant gunboat. Decatur and eight other men boarded the ship and laid into the pirate crowd. Decatur quickly singled out the treacherous captain because of his dress and formidable size. Decatur thrust his cutlass at the captain, but it was parried by his large boarding pike, snapping off at the hilt in the process. With Decatur disarmed, the captain thrust his pike toward Decatur’s heart, but he blocked the blow with his arm. Pulling the pike to knock the captain off balance, Decatur lunged at his throat, and both men wrestled on the deck of the ship.

"Stephen Decatur's Conflict with the Algerine at Tripoli," oil over print on canvas, by an unidentified artist (NHHC)

Even as the battle raged around them, both the Tripolitan and American crews looked to intercede on their commanders’ behalf. At one point in the fight, another pirate swung his sword directly at Decatur’s neck. A passing American Sailor named Daniel Frazier (erroneously identified as Reuben James) threw himself between the pirate and Decatur, who received a passing blow on his scalp. Decatur’s would-be assassin was shot dead before he could attempt another blow.

Daniel Frazier intervening to save his captain's life (NHHC)

In the momentary confusion, the captain rolled around and pinned Decatur to the deck, drew a dagger with his free hand, and plunged it toward Decatur’s throat. Decatur grabbed the man’s wrist in one hand while he reached into his pocket, cocked his pistol, and fired at the captain, finally killing him. With the treacherous captain slain, the Americans seized control of the vessel. After capturing the ship, Decatur transferred to Preble’s personal boat to bring his brother back to the Constitution for aid, but he passed away before they arrived.

After the Battle of the Gunboats, the blockading squadron commenced a month of heavy bombardment of Tripoli. After each bombardment, the Bashaw’s ransom and tribute demands dropped incrementally, but not enough to satisfy Preble, who anxiously awaited the promised reinforcement by Commodore James Barron for another major assault on the city. When September began and there was no sign of a squadron to relieve his own depleted forces, Preble devised one last assault.

USS Intrepid, formerly the Tripolitan ship Mastico, was refitted as a fire ship—in effect, a giant floating bomb. The ship was loaded with 15,000 pounds of gunpowder and 250 shells, with fuses set to burn long enough for the crew to evacuate safely, a poetic echo of Intrepid’s former role as the deliverer of fire to the captured USS Philadelphia. Commanding the ship and its twelve-man crew was Richard Somers, a dear friend of Stephen Decatur. Late on the night of September 4, they set off into the harbor intent on sending the ship right into the heart of the Tripolitan fleet before unleashing its explosive payload.

Destruction of the fire ship Intrepid (Wikipedia)

The promised fiery deliverance on the Tripolitan pirates never came. Roughly 45 minutes after setting off, Intrepid exploded prematurely before getting within range of any targets and before the crew could evacuate. Why the ship exploded remains a mystery, although it was likely an accident. A popular contemporary theory was that Somers and the crew sacrificed themselves rather than be boarded by an intercepting Tripolitan gunboat, but only American bodies were recovered afterwards, rather than the mixture of nationalities as would be expected in that situation.

While the First Barbary War would end months later after the capture of Derne by the United States Marines, for Stephen Decatur the war was over after the loss of his brother James and close friend Somers. He returned home to a hero’s welcome, not only for becoming the youngest captain in U.S. Navy history, but for thoroughly demonstrating his gallantry and ingenuity in his part combating the dreaded pirates of the Mediterranean.

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