In the First Barbary War, how long was the USS Philadelphia aground?

In the First Barbary War, how long was the USS Philadelphia aground?

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During the First Barbary War. The USS Philadelphia was giving chase to a Barbary Corsair in the bay of Tripoli when she ran aground October 31, 1803. Captain Bainbridge at first gave orders to put on sail and try to push the USS Philadelphia over the reef she was beached upon. The effort failed only driving the ship further aground. Next Captain Bainbridge gave orders to make the ship lighter by among other things throwing the cannons overboard. Finally Captian Bainbridge tried to scuttle the ship, destroyed his gunpowder and raised the white flag without contest condemning 307 US service men to slavery in Tripoli until the end of the first Barbary War; 10 June 1805 when the United States agreed to pay for their freedom.

After Bainbridge's surrender, the USS Philadelphia was re-floated and renamed "Gift from Allah" and became the prize of the Tripolitan Pirates. In February 16, 1804; Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr would lead an assault team into Tripoli Harbor and would burn the USS Philadelphia to deny it to the Tripolians.

Lord Horatio Nelson, known as a man of action and bravery, is said to have called this "the most bold and daring act of the Age."

How long after the beaching of the USS Philadelphia was it refloated and added to the Bey's Pirate fleet?

The U.S.S. Philadelphia
The First Barbary War
The Most Daring Act of the Age

I find some of the information required to answer this question is covered in the inquiry into the loss of the Philadelphia , which can be read in the Naval documents related to the United States wars with the Barbary powers This court was held on June 29, 1805 and the record contains testimony of many of the crew as well as Bainbridge himself.

From the testimonies we can gather some information concerning the time involved (all emphasis mine):

At half past 11 when within a league and a half from Tripoli, seeing no probability of preventing the chase from getting into port, we ceased firing and hauled off shore, then having eight fathoms water. We had not one more than two cables length before we suddenly shoaled…

So the Philadelphia was grounded at 11:30 A.M., according to Bainbridge.

After having triedy every expedient that could be thought of to contribute to our relief, and exerting ourselves to the utmost from the time of our grounding until half past four p. m. in indeavoring to get the ship afloat and at the same time in resisting the enemy, but finding all hopes of the first vain, and not being able to bring our guns to bear to effect the latter, I called a council of officers to consult them on the subject of a further resistance or the necessity of surrendering to the enemy. Upon a deliberate consideration of our situation, it was the unanimous opinion that it was impossible to get the ship 06, and that all further resistance would be but unnecessarily exposing men in a situation where neither perseverance nor fortitude would be of any benefit to our Country or ourselves; and it was unanimously agreed that the only thing left for us to do was to surrender to the enemy, which was accordingly done, after drowning the magayine, and destroying as many articles as possible, that might be of use to the enemy -

So grounded at 11:30 AM, efforts to free her until 4:30 PM, The Philadelphia was grounded for at least 5 hours. Since the only untried procedures to free the ship involved towing (and the Philadelphia was alone, as the Vixen had been sent elsewhere), and the placement of an anchor by boat some distance away to pull the ship clear in a process known as kedging. The court asked if this process had been considered on several occasions, and the response was that the ship had no boat which could carry the anchor safely, and that the enemy held the position necessary to place the anchor. So while the enemy ships were present, the Philadelphia was out of options.

The Wikipedia article on Bainbridge says this, (with a source listed as The Pirate Coast, Richard Zachs):

if he had chosen to wait until high tide his ship would have floated free of the sandbank.

We can make an assumption here, with information from NOAA:

High tides are 12 hours and 25 minutes apart and are separated by a low tide. So low tide must come 6 hours and 12.5 minutes after one high tide and before the next.

So after the grounding of 5 hours by Bainbridges testimony, the next high tide could have been as little as an an hour away. (But we don't know if, without the ability to place a kedge anchor, or get a tow, that the Philadelphia could have cleared herself even then.) As pointed out by @Peter Diehr in comments, tides in the Mediterranean are generally less pronounced than those in ocean regions (measured in centimeters, according to this source) We can assume then that the grounding lasted at least 6 hours before the pirates were able to free the ship.

Another source The Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Early American Republic, 1783-1812: A… edited by Spencer C. Tucker (pg 1005) states this:

Several days later following a storm the Tripolitans refloat it;they also recover its guns. They tow it into Tripoli Harbor, where they begin repairs with the intention of adding this powerfull warship to their navy.

So when was the Philadelphia refloated, answers seem to range from 'the next high tide' to "several days later". The several days later source seems to have better detail, I lean towards it.


I found another entry in the Naval Documents listed above(1), which discusses time involved before the ship was refloated. A letter from Bainbridge to Tobias Lear, the US Consul General in Algiers, while still in captivity (8 Feb 1804), details when and how the ship was freed:

About 40 hours after we struck, a gale from the westward raised the waters on this coast and made such a sea as floated the ship off; we were not Gods to forsee the wind and sea, and if we had, our fate must have been the same, for in far less time she would have been cut to pieces; and verily believe that nothing less than the assistance of the Elements could have got her off.

This confirms the storm source, and pretty much settles the issue.

As to refit time, I have found little conclusive information yet. Most of the ships guns had been thrown overboard, so salvage dives had to be performed to retrieve them. The foremast had been cut away as well. The ship reappears anchored in Tripoli harbor at the time of the Decatur action. Some entries mention that she was

… anchored in the harbor as a gun battery.

implying repairs may have not been completed to the point of making the ship fully seaworthy. The same source which mentions the several day delay, indicates the raid was taken to destroy the Philiadelphia because

once repaired by the Tripolitans, it would shift the naval balance in Tripoli's favor

Again this implies repair were never fully completed before the ship was destroyed in the raid on February 16, 1804. The answer to the second part of the question,when was it

added to the Bey's Pirate fleet?

is, never. It was destroyed before ever leaving Tripoli Harbor again.

‘Board Her Boys!’: The 1804 Burning of USS Philadelphia

When the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, it set into motion events not considered by the nascent nation’s Founding Fathers. Among the unintended consequences was that in throwing off the British yoke, the United States’ sizeable fleet of unarmed merchant ships also lost the protection of the mighty Royal Navy. And that protection was vital, for by 1780 American ships carrying cotton, tobacco, wheat and rice were generating some $79 million a year in commerce between the New World and Old World.

That lucrative trade was especially vulnerable in the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coast of North Africa, where pirates sailing from the Barbary states of Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco and Tunis routinely stopped, boarded, seized and/or plundered unarmed merchant ships. The pirates often held valuable cargoes for ransom and imprisoned the captured vessels’ crews or sold them into slavery. There were only two viable means of dealing with the threat posed by the Barbary pirates. The first was armed force, which was logistically complex and costly. The second was the annual payment of massive bribes—diplomatically referred to as “tribute”—arranged by treaty. Even Great Britain, with its globe-spanning navy, was inclined to pay tribute rather than deal with the expense of a protracted naval campaign.

The U.S. merchant fleet’s loss of Royal Navy protection meant the Barbary pirates were free to attack and capture American ships and crews. They wasted little time. Beginning in 1784—the year the allied French navy ceased shepherding U.S. vessels—the pirates began seizing American ships and imprisoning their crews. U.S. ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson soon negotiated a treaty with the Barbary states, pledging an annual tribute of $1 million and securing release of the captive crews.

The arrangement ultimately fell apart, however, forcing Jefferson’s hand.

In 1801 Yusuf Karamanli, the pasha of Tripoli, rebuffed in his demand for an additional tribute from newly elected third U.S. President Jefferson, directed his soldiers to chop down the flagpole outside the U.S. consulate, tore up the treaty and resumed attacks on American shipping. Though never an advocate of a strong, permanent mili tary, Jefferson realized something had to be done. Fortu nately, seven years earlier George Washington had signed the Naval Act of 1794, providing nearly $700,000 for the construction, launching and manning of six new U.S. Navy frigates.

In late May 1801 Jefferson, resigned to war against the Barbary pirates, sent Commodore Richard Dale and a six-ship squadron to escort American ships and block ade Tripoli, hoping to deter the bellicose Karamanli. But a dearth of provisions and illness among his crews compelled Dale’s return. Jefferson then sent Commodore Richard Morris with a larger squadron, but he proved too passive to handle the job. Finally, in the summer of 1803 the president tasked an irascible, hard-driving Yankee commodore named Edward Preble with the thank less job of escorting American ships and blockading the Barbary ports of Tripoli and Algiers. Preble’s small fleet included the soon-to-be-legendary heavy frigate USS Constitution (his flagship), the brigs Argus, Scourge and Syren, the schooners Enterprise, Nautilus and Vixen, and the second-class frigate Philadelphia.

The latter vessel was launched in that namesake city in 1799, its entire cost funded by citizens as a gift to the United States. Displacing 1,240 tons, Philadelphia was 130 feet long and carried 36 guns. At the time of the First Barbary War the frigate boasted a complement of 307 officers and men under Captain William Bainbridge, a stocky, redheaded former merchant officer from New Jersey. An excellent sailor, Bainbridge had joined the Navy in 1798. While known for his aggressive manner on the quarterdeck and respected for his courage, he had the dubious distinction of being the only U.S. Navy com mander who had twice struck his colors. On Nov. 20, 1798, while helming the schooner Retaliation during the Quasi War with France, he was forced to surrender after approaching two enemy frigates he’d mistaken for neu tral ships. Though acquitted of any charges, the sting of disgrace dogged him. Two years later he was assigned to carry the annual tribute to Algiers aboard the frigate USS George Washington. While Bainbridge was in port, the dey of Algiers asked him to transport an envoy to Turkey, a request the captain could not refuse. The dey further demanded he lower the U.S. colors and run up the Algerian flag. This Bainbridge refused to do—that is, until realizing his ship was anchored directly beneath the guns of the Algerian forts. While not the same as surrender, the captain’s ignominy represented a further stain on his and the nation’s honor.

His prior humiliations likely weighed on Bainbridge’s mind as Philadelphia patrolled the North African coast on the morning of Oct. 31, 1803. The frigate had been on blockade duty off Tripoli for weeks, but due to the Mediterranean’s often capricious winds it had been forced far to the west of its assigned station. With favorable winds Bainbridge had just managed to bring his power ful ship back into position, when one of his lookouts spotted a sail ahead, identified as a small Arab trader bound for the harbor. On consideration the captain ordered his crew to give chase.

After two frustrating hours Philadelphia had gained little on the small, swift vessel. Bainbridge’s gunners had fired several warning shots from the forward 18-pounders, but to no effect, and the trader managed to gain the entrance to the harbor. Bainbridge decided to follow, though his ship’s deeper draft put it at risk of running aground in the approaches. As Philadelphia rounded the headlands, three leadsmen assured the captain at least 40 feet of water lay beneath the keel. Bainbridge continued the chase until within a few miles of Tripoli and its defenses. At 11 a.m., increasingly reluctant to risk his ship in an unfamiliar harbor with uncharted reefs and shoals, Bainbridge broke off the chase and ordered his crew to bring the frigate about. The order came too late. In full sail the 1,200-ton Philadelphia drove atop a shoal, propelling its bow more than 5 feet out of the water and throwing its crew to the decks.

Philadelphia was hard aground on a hostile coast within sight of enemy fortifications, its plight obvious to those ashore. Nine Tripolitan gunboats soon set out from harbor to stalk the big warship, initially careful to remain just beyond the reach of its guns. Largely at the mercy of the mobile force, the grounded ship lay helpless.

Bainbridge acted quickly. First, to lighten the frigate, he ordered all water casks drained and nearly all the big guns, each of which weighed at least 2 tons, thrown overboard. The crew then cut loose all anchors and cables, followed by the foremast. Even with that release of at least 800 tons of deadweight, Philadelphia would not float off the reef. Closing the noose, the Tripolitan gunboats fired a few experimental shots at the immobile frigate. Unable to aim his remaining guns, Bainbridge realized with dread he had no alternative but to surrender. After ordering all signal and codebooks destroyed and the powder magazine flooded, he sought to sink the frigate by having the crew drill holes through its hull, to no avail. As night fell, Bainbridge struck his colors for the third time in his naval career. The gloating Tripolitans closed in, boarded the American frigate and took Bainbridge and his crew captive.

Nearly three weeks passed before Commodore Preble, cruising off the coast of Sardinia, learned of Philadelphia’s seizure from a passing Royal Navy ship. The news was dire. At a single blow he had lost one of his two frigates and a quarter of his guns. Worse yet, Karamanli held more than 300 Americans, for whom he could demand almost any ransom. Adding insult to injury, a few days after Philadelphia’s grounding a storm raised the water level in the harbor, and the frigate, considerably lightened by Bainbridge’s desperate efforts, finally floated off. But it didn’t sink. The delighted Tripolitans patched its hull and towed the warship to an anchorage directly beneath the forts. Then they went back out and recovered its castoff guns from the seafloor. The sea had gifted Karamanli a virtually intact, very powerful frigate. All the vessel needed was a crew and gunpowder, both readily obtainable. The capture of Philadelphia was an unprecedented disaster for Preble and the United States.

“Would to God that the officers and crew of the Phila delphia had one and all determined to prefer death to slavery,” Preble wrote to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith. Recriminations aside, the problem still demanded resolution. Could Philadelphia be recaptured or destroyed? That was topmost on Preble’s mind when a young, eager and bold officer entered the story. That man was 24-year- old Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr., as hot a firebrand as any man in the service.

Born on the eastern shore of Maryland, the namesake son of a U.S. Navy commodore who had served in the American Revolutionary War, Decatur had already dis tinguished himself in action during the 1798–1800 Quasi War. Handsome, with wavy black hair and piercing dark eyes, he seemed to radiate confidence and audacity. As commander of the brig Argus, Decatur had arrived in the Mediterranean on the first day of November, carry ing $30,000 in gold and silver for the fleet. After meeting with Preble at Gibraltar, he took command of the 12-gun schooner Enterprise. On hearing of Philadelphia’s capture, Decatur visited Preble aboard Constitution to discuss the Navy’s options. This was typical of Decatur, who through out his naval career found himself in the right place at the right time.

The young officer was directed to sail the nimble Enter prise just offshore of Tripoli to reconnoiter the situation. What he saw proved Philadelphia could not be recaptured. The frigate was firmly under the protection of the heavily armed forts and gunboats. There was simply no way to board it with enough Americans to raise sail and then clear the harbor before enemy batteries could pound the vessel into a floating wreck. Any such attempt would be suicidal.

Reporting back to Preble, Decatur assured the com modore the only possible course of action was to destroy Philadelphia—a suggestion Decatur likely made with mixed feelings, as his father had been the frigate’s first captain. But true to his aggressive, patriotic spirit, the younger Decatur requested permission to take Enterprise into the harbor with a skeleton crew, board Philadelphia and set it afire. The daring proposition likely made even the crusty Preble smile. He, too, was a man of action. The plan was dangerous, but both men knew something had to be done to keep Karamanli from turning Philadelphia into the terror of the Mediterranean.

Two days before Christmas 1803 Decatur experienced a stroke of good fortune on capturing Mastico, a four- gun, 60-ton Tripolitan ketch that had participated in the seizure of Philadelphia. Virtually indistinguishable from the hundreds of other small ships that plied the blue waters of the Mediterranean, it represented the key to the destruction of Philadelphia. Preble had the ketch commissioned as USS Intrepid, the first in a line of American warships to bear that name. In January 1804, under a cloak of secrecy, Decatur, Preble and their officers worked out the details of the raid. By early February the commodore pronounced them ready. He insisted Decatur’s crew all be volunteers. This proved no obstacle. In the strong voice of confidence that would see him through two more wars, Decatur explained the situation to the crew of Enterprise and within moments had more enthusiastic volunteers than he could use. Every one of his 70 officers and men would join him on the venture.

On February 3 Preble watched from the quarterdeck of Constitution as Intrepid and its support vessel, the brig Syren, sailed over the southern horizon. The commo dore hoped he was not sending Decatur and his brave crew to their deaths. But he had little choice Philadelphia had to be burned. “It will undoubtedly cost many lives,” he wrote, “but it must be done.”

After holding station offshore for five days during a spell of rough weather, Intrepid and Syren approached Tripoli. With its weather-beaten hull and faded lateen sails Intrepid appeared little more than a ship badly in need of refit. Decatur was counting on that impression as he and his eager volunteers approached the enemy harbor from the east in the late afternoon of February 16. Decatur had recruited a Sicilian pilot who spoke the local mari time dialect and knew the waters. The plan had called for some of Syren’s crew to join the raid, but a contrary wind prevented the ships from linking up. Decatur, in his usual dramatic style, quoted Henry V: “The fewer men, the greater share of honor.”

A crescent moon hung low over Tripoli that evening as Intrepid approached. To the west stood the city’s spires and minarets, dominated by Karamanli’s palace and the hulking forts. More than 100 guns guarded the harbor, as did cannons aboard the armed brigs, gunboats and corsairs within range of Philadelphia. The captured frigate was anchored conspicuously at the heart of the harbor, and even shorn of its foremast and bowsprit the vessel appeared formidable. All its ports were open, revealing its three-dozen 18-pounder guns and 32-pounder carronades. Decatur had no illusions the guns were unloaded. The Tripolitans would almost certainly make maximum use of the frigate’s firepower. There had to be at least 200 men aboard, the number needed to serve the cannons.

Most of Intrepid’s crew remained concealed belowdecks with kegs of gunpowder and incendiary devices. Dis guised as local sailors, a dozen or so men milled about on deck. Around 10 p.m. the wind died, becalming Intrepid some 100 yards shy of the warship’s port bow. When a lookout aboard Philadelphia ordered the ketch to sheer off, the Sicilian pilot replied he had lost his anchors in a gale and asked to tie up until morning. After a few tense moments, the lookout consented. By then Intrepid’s head had drawn even with the bigger ship some 20 yards to port. In plain view of the lookout a boat crew from Intrepid casually rowed over and secured a line to the ringbolt on Philadelphia’s forechain. Then, on Decatur’s instruction, the deck crew idly tugged on the line, pulling the ketch in close to the frigate.

Philadelphia dwarfed the ketch, and its long rows of black gun muzzles proved an intimidating sight. Intrepid’s crew reeled themselves toward the frigate regardless, and after several minutes of patient pulling the ships were nearly touching. The Tripolitans proved helpful, unaware they were inviting a wolf into the fold. Each of Decatur’s crew had been briefed on what to do on boarding the ship. To avoid alerting the shore batteries, no one carried pistols or muskets. All fighting was to be done quietly with cutlasses and boarding axes. The forthcoming fight would be hand-to-hand against an enemy of unknown number.

Suddenly a cry of “Americanos! Americanos!” cut through the night air, and Decatur knew the gig was up. “Board her, boys!” he yelled, as 60 men armed to the teeth swarmed over Intrepid’s rails onto the frigate. They clam bered through the gunports, up the ladders and into the rigging, screaming the name of the ship they had come to destroy. Though they had boarded in extreme haste, the Americans quickly overwhelmed the enemy sailors. Only a few Tripolitans had put up any resistance, and not a shot had been fired. Within 10 minutes Philadelphia was back in American hands. Decatur must have considered trying to return the ship to Preble intact. But he knew this was folly. He had his orders, and time was short.

Despite precautions, Philadelphia’s Tripolitan crew had sounded the alarm, sentries on neighboring ships and ashore had heard the commotion, and within minutes the entire harbor was alerted to the attack. By then the Americans had already begun pouring gunpowder and strewing oily rags and old ropes across the decks and down into the gun rooms and storerooms. On Decatur’s command they lit sperm oil candles and went to work. Long trails of orange flames instantly climbed into the rigging, setting alight the tarred hemp and sails. Belowdecks the combustibles engulfed the stores and cockpit, spread ing in all directions. Only when certain Philadelphia’s fate was sealed did the captain and his crew scramble back down to Intrepid and cut the mooring lines. In true swashbuckler fashion, Decatur was the last to leave, leaping across the gap into Intrepid’s rigging. The entire raid had taken 20 minutes, and not a single American had lost his life.

The night sky danced with embers and scraps of flaming sails as a pillar of fire consumed Philadelphia from the waterline to the tops of its masts. A few guns discharged, adding to the chaos. The situation turned perilous, as volumes of air drawn into the rising pyre of flames pulled Intrepid toward the blazing frigate. The Americans used long oars to push the ketch away from the doomed vessel, and Intrepid, brightly lit by the flames, made for the safety of the harbor mouth. Some gunners ashore fired at the fleeing vessel, far too late to stop the Americans. Intrepid soon met Syren, and together the jubilant crews left the glow of the burning Philadel phia far behind. Reaching the American base at Syracuse two days later, Decatur promptly reported the successful raid to Preble. The U.S. Navy had reclaimed its honor.

British Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson was on blockade station aboard HMS Victory off Toulon when he learned of the Yankee feat. He pronounced it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Blessed with remark able foresight, Nelson may well have recognized some thing more important. Seeing Constitution off Gibraltar, he observed, “There is in the handling of those transatlantic ships a nucleus of trou ble for the navy of Great Britain.” How right he was.

The Barbary Wars had yet to be fully played out. In fact, not until 1815 would Decatur himself, as commodore of a new large fleet, finally force the Barbary states to accede to American sea power and end their piratical ways. Yet it was the burning of Philadelphia that had enshrined his name in the pantheon of American naval heroes.

Mark Carlson has written about aviation and military history for more than a dozen magazines his most recent book is The Marines’ Lost Squadron: The Odyssey of VMF-422. For further reading he recommends A Rage for Glory: The Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur, USN, by James Tertius de Kay 1812: The Navy’s War, by George C. Daughan and The Naval War of 1812, by Theodore Roosevelt.

Today in North African history: the burning of the USS Philadelphia (1804)

Stephen Decatur (d. 1820) is one of the US Navy’s first famous heroes, alongside Revolutionary War captain John Paul Jones, and among the earliest American war heroes in general. Technically we should call him Stephen Decatur Junior, so as not to confuse him with his father, who was also an important early American naval officer. But I’m only going to refer to Stephen Decatur Senior (d. 1808) once more after this sentence, so we don’t really need to be so exacting.

One of the most interesting things about Decatur’s career is that the operation that really made his reputation involved setting an American ship on fire. The USS Philadelphia was a frigate that first set sail in 1799 under the command of Stephen Decatur Senior (whose part in this story is now done), and saw service during the Quasi-War with France before heading to the Mediterranean in response to threats by the Pasha of Tripolitania (the northwestern part of modern Libya), Yusuf Karamanli, against American shipping. Those threats led in part to the First Barbary War (1801-1805), between Tripolitania and the United States, and it’s during that war that our story today takes place. On October 31, 1803, the Philadelphia, by this point commanded by William Bainbridge, ran aground in Tripoli’s harbor. Despite Bainbridge’s best efforts to refloat his vessel—and then, when that failed, to scuttle it—he and his crew were taken prisoner and the Philadelphia was salvaged by the Tripolitanians.

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The war

Thomas Jefferson did not agree with tribute payment anymore because he felt this was not going to end piracy. While serving as a minister to France Jefferson wrote about his thoughts concerning piracy in the Mediterranean sea to John Adams who was serving as a minister to Great Britain in 1978 and expressed that he felt war was the only war to attain peace”.

In 1786, he still held the belief that war was the only way of achieving peace. He wrote to James Monroe who was then serving in the a congress and told him that he felt that if American continued to pay tribute to the pirates their demands would only escalate thus a need to build a navy that would tackle the issue of pirates directly [2] .

Thus, after he became president he decided to take up arms against the Barbary pirates who were becoming vicious by the day when Pasha of Tripoli declared war. Alone Pasha was not strong enough to threaten the United States but there was the fear of the other Barbary nations joining forces with Pasha against America.

The United States sent the first military squadron out into the when the war began in May 1801. The motto of the mission was to use millions of dollars in defense and not pay out even a single sent to the pirates in terms of tribute to be accorded safety in the sea” [3] . Edward Preble together with Richard Dale led the squadron.

President Jefferson informed the congress of the decision to send the navy to Tripoli. There was no formal approval of war by the congress, but gave the president the authority to instruct the leaders of the squadron to seize Pasha’s vessels together with goods. In addition, the navy could take all measures necessary as necessitated by the war. On August 1, the same year the war began, the American USS Enterprise won over the Tripolitan Corsair following a fierce battle.

Later, the president requested more authority to be able to deal with the pirates decisively and the congress enacted an act in 1802 for “the Protection of Commerce and seamen of the United States against the Tripolitan cruisers” [4] . Through the act, the president had the authority to send American vessels to Mediterranean Sea to safeguard the American crews from attacks by the pirates even in other international waters.

Throughout 1802, the American navy did not face any challenges at the seas but President Jefferson continued to increase the pressure for a stronger military force and better naval ships to be deployed to the troubled seas. Consequently, more vessels were sent to the Mediterranean Sea such as USS Constitution, USS Argus and USS Philadelphia among others. Edward Preble organized campaigns against the pirates’ fleets to stop them from attacking American merchant ships. He also cordoned off the Barbary ports.

Battle of Tripoli

Unfortunately, the USS Philadelphia was taken into captivity in October 1803 when it beached patrolling the Tripolitan harbor. The Americans tried to float but their efforts were in vain and all the crewmembers captured. The captors in the harbor anchored the Philadelphia instead. Following this attack lieutenant Stephen Decatur together with a small marine contingent attempted to rescue the vessel on February 1804. The marine boarded the captured vessel and defeated the Tripolitan sailors. Eventually the marines set the Philadelphia ablaze rather than have the enemies use it. The brave action by Decatur earned him a place in America’s history and was the first military hero after the revolution [5] .

Preble attacked Tripoli in July 1804 but the series of battles were unsuccessful. The USS Intrepid led by Captain Robert Somers was unlucky in its mission to destroy the Tripoli harbor with the explosives it carried on board when it was destroyed by the enemies and it exploded killing all members on aboard

The battle of Derna

The battle of Derna was the turning point in the first Barbary war between April and May 1805. Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and General William Eaton led an assault against Tripoli consisting of marines from eight American states, Greek, Berber and Arab mercenaries. This attack was a success and America won for the first time outside its borders. The then ruler of Tripoli Yussif Karamani became weary of the attacks, blockade in Tripoli, and signed a peace treaty on June 4, 1805.

Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

During the blockade of Tripoli, the USS Philadelphia saw heavy battle. One of the confrontations is illustrated here as Tripolitan gunboats fire upon the U.S. warship.

Burning of the USS Philadelphia

The USS Philadelphia had a prominent role in the early actions of the U.S. Navy against France and the Barbary states. Stephen Decatur Jr.’s bold destruction of the ship in 1804 in Tripoli harbor, shown here, was memorable though unfortunate, described in a report to the U.S. Congress as “one of the brightest ornaments of our naval escutcheon.”

Captain William Bainbridge

In 1803, with Captain William Bainbridge of New Jersey in command, the USS Philadelphia recaptured an American warship from a Moroccan vessel and blockaded Tripoli. When the ship ran aground on an uncharted reef, Captain Bainbridge and the crew were taken captive.

This 1836 painting of Bainbridge is by J.W. Jarvis and was engraved by G. Parker.

Stephen Decatur Jr., Barbary Wars

The USS Philadelphia ran aground in 1803 on an uncharted reef during the Barbary Wars and the ship and crew were taken captive. In February 1804, Stephen Decatur Jr. (1779-1820) led a dangerous mission to free the ship from Tripoli harbor, but ended up setting it on fire to prevent its use by the enemy.

This drawing from 1855 by Felix Octavius Carr Darley (1822-88) shows Decatur and his men fighting hand-to-hand on board a Tripolitan gunboat during the First Barbary War.

Preparation for War

Artist William Birch captured the construction of the frigate USS Philadelphia in November 1798 at Humphrey’s & Wharton Shipyard on Front Street along the Delaware River. The USS Philadelphia was commissioned into the U.S. Navy on April 5, 1800, and destroyed just three years later in the Barbary Wars off the coast of Tripoli. An attack by hostile forces left the Philadelphia severely damaged. She was kept in Tripoli harbor as a symbol of American defeat and a threat to other American warships and commercial shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. Under the cover of a ship in distress, Americans entered Tripoli harbor on a February evening in 1804 and burned the Philadelphia, marking the end of her short seafaring life.

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Philadelphia (Warship)

During the blockade of Tripoli, the USS Philadelphia saw heavy battle. One of the battles is illustrated here as Tripolitan gunboats fire upon the U.S. warship. (Library of Congress)

Inspired by patriotic fervor during the Quasi-War with France, the people of Philadelphia raised money in one week during June 1798 to build the USS Philadelphia to help increase American naval power to protect commerce. Completed in 1799, the Philadelphia served in both the West Indies and the Mediterranean Sea, where it was captured in the Barbary campaigns and then sunk by an American force in a valiant but unsuccessful effort to free the ship.

The impassioned atmosphere that led to construction of the Philadelphia followed the outbreak of war between France and Great Britain in 1793. Despite a declaration of neutrality by President George Washington (1732-99), the French government authorized seizure of American shipping. When United States efforts to negotiate peace failed, the U.S. and France entered a period of naval conflict known as the Quasi-War in which both sides seized merchant vessels and naval warships. The political temper in the United States became very tense as the Federalists whipped up hyperpatriotism against the French. Philadelphians joined a larger movement in American cities to construct ships for the United States Navy, and their fundraising campaign quickly raised the money needed for the USS Philadelphia. Josiah Fox (1763-1847) designed the ship and in 1798-99 Samuel Humphreys (1778-1846), Nathaniel Hutton, and John Delavue supervised construction.

This drawing from 1855 by Felix Octavius Carr Darley shows Stephen Decatur Jr. and his men fighting hand-to-hand aboard a Tripolitan gunboat during the First Barbary War. (Library of Congress)

Philadelphia was then a preeminent commercial port in America and home to the federal government. As a shipbuilding center since before the American Revolution, the city served as a hub for the U.S. Navy. It contained shipbuilding facilities that not only constructed the USS Philadelphia but also the USS United States, one of the first three frigates built for the U.S. Navy.

Captain Stephen Decatur Sr. (1751-1808), a Philadelphian, received command when the USS Philadelphia was commissioned in 1800. The ship was then stationed in the West Indies, where it seized five French ships and recaptured six merchant vessels from the French.

The USS Philadelphia returned to Philadelphia in 1801, then participated in two tours in the Mediterranean to combat the Barbary corsairs, or pirates, from the North African states of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco, who preyed on American and other ships. The USS Philadelphia cruised near Gibraltar and blockaded the coast of Tripoli. In 1803, with Captain William Bainbridge (1774-1833) of New Jersey in command, the USS Philadelphia recaptured an American warship from a Moroccan vessel and blockaded Tripoli. When the ship ran aground on an uncharted reef, Captain Bainbridge and the crew were taken captive. In February 1804, Stephen Decatur Jr. (1779-1820) led a dangerous mission to free the USS Philadelphia from Tripoli harbor, but ended up setting the ship on fire to prevent its use by the enemy.

The USS Philadelphia’s history highlights the importance of Philadelphia as a national commercial and military center where private citizens swiftly raised funds for its construction. The ship had a prominent role in the early actions of the U.S. Navy against France and the Barbary states. Stephen Decatur Jr.’s bold destruction of the ship in Tripoli harbor was memorable though unfortunate, described in a report to the United States Congress as “one of the brightest ornaments of our naval escutcheon.”

Nathaniel Conley is a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas whose research focuses on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania with emphasis on the lower class and the border between slavery and freedom.

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University

Related Reading

DeConde, Alexander. The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 1797-1801. New York: Scribner, 1966.

Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.

Palmer, Michael A. Stoddert’s War: Naval Operations During the Quasi-War with France, 1798-1801. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Sechrest, Larry J. “Privately Funded and Built U.S. Warships in the Quasi-War of 1797-1801.” The Independent Review XII, no. 1 (Summer 2007): 101-113, accessed May 27, 2015,

Toll, Ian W. Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2006.

Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror, 1801-1805. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.


John T. Towers, Documents, Official and Unofficial, Relating to the Case of the Capture and Destruction of the Frigate Philadelphia on the 16 th February, 1804. Washington, 1850.

Barbary Wars Timeline

August 1st — Andrew Sterett and the USS Enterprise capture Admiral Rais Mahomet Rous’ ship Tripoli after a bloody battle the event is considered the first U.S. naval victory of the Barbary Wars

February 6th — Congress passes the Act for Protection of Commerce and Seamen of the United States Against the Tripolitian Corsairs, essentially a declaration of war

June 17th — The Emperor of Morocco declares war against the United States but negotiates a peace settlement in August

January 17th — Commodore Edward Preble leads an American squadron to the Mediterranean subordinate officers include Stephen Decatur, John Rodgers, Isaac Chauncey, Oliver Hazard Perry, and David Porter

March 4th — Commodore Charles Morris and Captain John Rogers are arrested by the Bey of Tunis and are forced to pay Eaton’s debts

May 12th — Captain Rodgers and the John Adams capture the Tripolitan frigate Meshouda

June 10th — Tobias Lear is appointed consul general to the Barbary States

October 31st — William Bainbridge and his warship the Philadelphia surrender to Tripoli after running aground in Tripoli harbor

February 16th — Stephen Decatur on the Intrepid set the captured Philadelphia on fire as it is anchored in Tripoli harbor

August 3rd — Commodore Preble launches an attack on Tripoli that lasts until September 11

April 27th — After a two month march across the Libyan desert, William Eaton, former Tripoli Pasha Hamet Karamanli, and a group of mercenaries attack Derna by land, meanwhile three US warships under Captain Isaac Hull strike Derna by sea together they take the fort

May 15th — Rodgers takes over command of the American fleet from Samuel Barron

June 4th — The Pasha agrees to a treaty with Lear and takes over Derna America no longer needs to pay yearly tributes to Tripoli

June 10th — Treaty of Tripoli is officially signed

November — Tobias Lear is stationed at Algiers as U.S. consul

The Mediterranean Squadron is withdrawn and Barbary powers resume capturing American trading ships

March 5th — James Madison becomes president

July 25th — The Dey of Algiers refuses the annual American tribute and expels Tobias Lear and his colleagues from Algiers

July 25th — Algerian corsairs capture the brig Edwin

Fall — At the outset of the War of 1812, the British blockade the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, thus halting much Mediterranean commerce

April 9th — Tobias Lear arrives in New York City

December 24th — United States and Great Britain sign the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812

March 3rd — Congress, with Madison’s support, declares war on Algiers

May 15th — Commanding the American fleet, Stephen Decatur leaves New York for Algiers

July 3rd — Stephen Decatur destroys several Algerian ships before suing for peace with Algiers. William Shaler negotiates treaty that ends the practice of paying tribute, frees American and European slaves from Algiers, and secures full American shipping rights in the Mediterranean

November 12th — Stephen Decatur and the Guerriere return to New York City to a hero’s welcome

December 5th — The Algiers Treaty is taken before Congress

December 15th — Madison declares the Barbary War over American squadrons still patrol the Mediterranean

January 5th — Oliver Hazard Perry is sent as captain of the Java to patrol the Mediterranean

June — Isaac Chauncey replaces Stephen Decatur as commander of the Mediterranean Squadron, which enforces the Algiers Treaty

The United States & The First Barbary War

The Barbary Corsairs (Berbers) were pirates who operated for several hundred years off the Mediterranean coast of North Africa and into the Atlantic. Their primary goal was to abduct westerners for the North African slave market, or free these prisoners for ransom. They preyed upon all ships, but would refrain from attacking ships of nations which paid them hefty tribute to stay away from.

Following the American Revolution, merchantmen of the 13 colonies reflagged themselves as American ships, thus they lost the protection that the Royal Navy had before provided (the French Navy protected American ships during the revolution). The American government initially paid tribute to the Barbary states in order to afford their merchantmen safe passage, but following the election of Thomas Jefferson, the tribute fees were greatly increased. This enraged Jefferson, who refused to ever pay another tribute. The pirates began attacking American shipping, taking their crews hostage. Jefferson dispatched the brand new United States Navy to Africa to deal with this threat.

The Enterprise capturing the Tripoli

The U.S. fleet, which was dispatched on 13 May 1801, was comprised of the USS Essex, Philadelphia, President and Enterprise. This squadron was under the command of Commodore Richard Dale. The original purpose of this fleet was to act as a show of force, but upon arriving in Africa, they found that the Sultan of Tripoli had declared war on the United States for refusing to pay tribute. The U.S. forces acted quickly, defeating the 14 gun Tripoli on 1 August. Following this escalation, the U.S. Congress, in 1802, authorized the use of military force against the Barbary pirates to protect American interests. This was the first such action in U.S. history.

The Americans found an ally in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which provided manpower, supplies and ports for the American ships. Beginning in 1803, the U.S. navy maintained a blockade of the Barbary States. That October, the Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli harbour, and was captured by the Berbers. All it's complement was taken ashore and held hostage.

Decatur boarding the Tripoli gunboat - Dennis Malone Carter

On 16 February 1804 (#OnThisDay), Lt. Stephen Decatur led a small party of U.S. Marines aboard a captured Tripolitanian ketch, rechristened the USS Intrepid, who overpowered the guards aboard the capture Philadelphia in Tripoli harbour, setting fire to the ship to deny it's use to the Berbers. The U.S. Navy would continue to harass the city in a series of inconclusive battles until a force of American Marines and mercenaries marched overland from Egypt and captured the Tripolitanian city of Derna. This was the first time an American flag was raised in victory over foreign lands.

War exhausted, blockaded, and facing a land based assault, the Berbers sued for peace. There was an exchange of prisoners, and the U.S. provided a ransom of $ 60, 000 due to a disparity in the number of prisoners. This was the first time that the United States had been given a chance to prove that it could conduct a war far from home. It would not be the end of piracy however, by 1807 the Berbers would be at it again, only to be stopped once and for all in 1815 during a second U.S. intervention. The action by the U.S. had other, unintended, consequences, and the U.S. naval presence in the area was a contributing factor to tensions that led to the war of 1812.

[edit] Declaration of war and naval blockade

"Immediately prior to Jefferson's inauguration in 1801, Congress passed naval legislation that, among other things, provided for six frigates that 'shall be officered and manned as the President of the United States may direct.' … In the event of a declaration of war on the United States by the Barbary powers, these ships were to 'protect our commerce & chastise their insolence — by sinking, burning or destroying their ships & Vessels wherever you shall find them.'" [ 14 ] On Jefferson's inauguration as president in 1801, Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha (or Bashaw) of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 from the new administration. (In 1800, Federal revenues totaled a little over $10 million.) Putting his long-held beliefs into practice, Jefferson refused the demand. Consequently, on May 10, 1801, the Pasha declared war on the U.S., not through any formal written documents but in the customary Barbary manner of cutting down the flagstaff in front of the U.S. Consulate. [ 15 ] Algiers and Tunis did not follow their ally in Tripoli.

In response, "Jefferson sent a small force to the area to protect American ships and citizens against potential aggression, but insisted that he was 'unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.'" He told Congress: "I communicate [to you] all material information on this subject, that in the exercise of this important function confided by the Constitution to the Legislature exclusively their judgment may form itself on a knowledge and consideration of every circumstance of weight." [ 14 ] Although Congress never voted on a formal declaration of war, they did authorize the President to instruct the commanders of armed American vessels to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli "and also to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify."

The schooner USS Enterprise defeated the 14-gun Tripolitan corsair Tripoli after a fierce but one-sided battle on August 1, 1801.

In 1802, in response to Jefferson's request for authority to deal with the pirates, Congress passed "An act for the Protection of Commerce and seamen of the United States against the Tripolitan cruisers", authorizing the President 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." [ 16 ] "The statute authorized American ships to seize vessels belonging to the Bey of Tripoli, with the captured property distributed to those who brought the vessels into port." [ 14 ]

The U.S Navy went unchallenged on the sea, but still the question remained undecided. Jefferson pressed the issue the following year, with an increase in military force and deployment of many of the Navy's best ships to the region throughout 1802. The USS Argus, Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution, Enterprise, Intrepid, Philadelphia and Syren all saw service during the war under the overall command of Commodore Edward Preble. Throughout 1803, Preble set up and maintained a blockade of the Barbary ports and executed a campaign of raids and attacks against the cities' fleets.

The Burning of the USS Philadelphia

U.S. #791 – Both of the men pictured on this stamp (Decatur and Macdonough) participated in the burning of the Philadelphia.

On February 16, 1804, Stephen Decatur led a surprise assault on the captured USS Philadelphia in Tripoli.

In the early 1800s, pirates from the Barbary states (Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripolitania) frequently raided U.S. ships in the Mediterranean Sea. The sailors and their ship’s contents were often captured and then ransomed back to the U.S. for a hefty price. President Thomas Jefferson sent the U.S. Navy to the area to put an end to this in 1801, leading to a series of minor sea engagements that started the First Barbary War. Then, in June 1803, a small U.S. expeditionary force attacked Tripoli harbor (in present-day Libya) and major fighting began.

Item #20086 – Commemorative cover honoring the Philadelphia’s captain, William Bainbridge.

That October, the U.S. frigate Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli harbor. The ship’s captain, William Bainbridge, attempted to get the ship back in the water by dumping cannons and other heavy cargo to make it lighter. When all attempts to free the ship failed, he ordered his crew to drill holes in the bottom of the vessel, dampen the gunpowder, and destroy anything else the enemy could find useful. They were captured shortly after.

Item #20073 –Decatur cover commemorating his 207th birthday.

Though the Philadelphia was badly damaged, it could still be repaired, or used as a model for new enemy ships. The Americans knew they couldn’t let the Tripolitans use the Philadelphia to their advantage, so Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a mission to recapture or, as a last resort, destroy the Philadelphia.

Item #47025A – Decatur Proof Card marking his 213th birthday.

Decatur’s daring actions began on the evening of February 16, 1804. Around 7:00 p.m., under the cover of darkness, Decatur led the Intrepid into Tripoli harbor, while leaving the Syren out to sea to provide supporting fire during and after the assault. Among the 80 volunteers Decatur brought with him was Thomas Macdonough, Jr. (also pictured on U.S. 791), who had previously served on the Philadelphia and knew its layout very well.

The Intrepid was disguised to look like a merchant ship from Malta with British colors. And while most of the attackers hid in the lower deck, the men up top were Sicilian volunteers who spoke Arabic, to avoid suspicion. Pretending to be in distress, they told the crew guarding the Philadelphia that they had lost all of their anchors at sea. The lie was believed, so they casually floated the Intrepid next to the Philadelphia and tied the ships together. Then Decatur shouted “board!” and the volunteers emerged from the Intrepid, attacking the surprised crew aboard the Philadelphia. Decatur’s men, dressed as Maltese and Arab sailors, carried swords and boarding pikes, and were ordered not to fire their guns unless absolutely necessary. Within 10 minutes, they killed 20 Tripolitans, captured one, and forced the rest to jump overboard. The Americans didn’t lose a single man and only suffered one injury.

Tripolitania #73/C48 – Set of 12 stamps issued by Tripolitania in 1934.

Unfortunately, the Philadelphia was too badly damaged to set sail, and too large to be towed by the Intrepid, so Decatur ordered his men set it on fire. When they were done, Decatur was the last man to leave the Philadelphia. As the flames heated the Philadelphia’s loaded cannons, the unmanned ship began firing into the town. Shocked at what had happened, the Tripolitans gathered on the shore and filled small boats to fire on the escaping Americans. But with supporting fire from the Syren, Decatur and his crew escaped unscathed.

Decatur instantly became a national hero and was dubbed “Terror of the Foe.” British Vice Admiral of the White Horatio Nelson described the attack as “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

Click here to see a dramatic painting of the burning of the Philadelphia.

1. The Marine Corps has a mascot – a Teufel-hunden, or Devil Dog

During WWI, many German soldiers referred to the Marines they fought as “teufel-hunden”, meaning devil dogs. The term “teufel-hunden” comes from Bavarian folk tales which told of vicious mountain dogs. A Marine recruiting poster was being designed, and the artist picked up the nickname and placed a snarling British Bulldog wearing a Marine Corps helmet on the poster. The poster was an immediate hit with both the Corps and the general public, as they associated the common traits of the bulldog breed with the Marine Corps. Thus the unofficial mascot of the Corps was born, and the British Bulldog became linked to the men of the Marine Corps.

A recruiting poster by Charles B. Falls, created in 1918, was one of the first recorded references to the term Devil Dog

In 1922, at Quantico, Virginia, Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler signed all the documents enlisting Private Jiggs this Pedigreed Bulldog, whose registered name was King Bulwark, became a private in the US Marine Corps. This little four-legged private was not content to stay in the lower ranks forever, and within three months he was promoted to corporal and had his chevrons sewn onto his custom-fitted uniform. Soon he sported sergeant’s stripes, and within seven months he became a Sergeant Major, the highest rank he attained.

When Jiggs died in 1927, he was interred with full military honors, and soon Jiggs II was enlisted into the Corps, having been donated by Gene Tunney, the heavyweight boxer. As one dog passed away another would take his place, and from the 1930s all the dogs have been named Smedley, in honor of Brigadier General Smedley Butler, who enlisted the first mascot.

In the 1950s, the dogs were renamed “Chesty” in honor of Lieutenant General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, Jr., and when Chesty made his first official public appearance in his dress blues on July 5, 1957, he was a huge hit with the press and the public. Chesty II soon followed, but he was a disgrace to the Corps and made a habit of going AWOL. His son Chesty III redeemed the family name and was a model Marine.

Many more British Bulldogs have followed in the paw-prints of Chesty III. Some performed flawlessly, and others did not do so well, but to this day there is still a bulldog as the Marine mascot, History reported.

The US Marine Corps is the epitome of the modern élite fighting force. They are tough, dedicated, aggressive, and sometimes arrogant, but they are a dedicated and professional fighting force that honors their traditions and makes its country proud.