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This Day in History: Stephen Decatur Burns the USS Philadelphia, 1804

The flames … ascending her rigging and masts, formed columns of fire, whilst the discharge of her guns gave an idea of some directing spirit within her.”

Burning of the Frigate 'Philadelphia'

Burning of the Frigate ‘Philadelphia’ via ProQuest eLibrary

This was the scene in Tripoli Harbor on February 16, 1804 as the USS Philadelphia burned during the first Barbary War. But it wasn’t the enemy who set her afire; it was an American party led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr., the 24-year-old son of the very naval officer who commissioned the Philadelphia four years before.

The war against the Barbary states arose from President Thomas Jefferson‘s refusal to continue to pay tribute (payments) to those states for protection of American merchant ships from pirates. A number of prior attacks had meant ever-increasing ransoms demanded by the pirates. Years earlier, in a letter to John Adams, Jefferson had called for the use of naval forces to deal with the situation. In 1801 Jefferson sent ships to the area, and in 1802 Congress granted authorization to seize ships and protect American vessels, and the war was officially on.

The Philadelphia, commanded by William Bainbridge, ran aground on a reef in Tripoli Harbor and was eventually surrendered after Bainbridge attempted to make the ship unusable by the enemy. The Tripolians managed to get the ship afloat again, and Commodore Edward Preble ordered Decatur to try and repossess the ship or destroy it.

Sir, you are hereby ordered to take command of the prize ketch Intrepid. It is my order that you proceed to Tripoli, enter the harbor in the night, board the Philadelphia, burn her and make good your retreat … The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance. I rely with confidence on your intrepidity and enterprise to effect it.

The Intrepid, previously named Mastico, had been captured from the Tripolians, and Decatur disguised the ship as a merchant vessel run by a small Arab-speaking crew. Decatur and most of the men hid below deck. Under the ruse that the ship had lost its anchor, permission was sought to tie up to the Philadelphia. When the two ships were aside one another, Decatur and the other men burst out and onto the Philadelphia, easily overcoming the crew aboard. In a matter of minutes, 20 of the enemy were dead and others had jumped ship. The Americans then proceeded to send the ship up in flames and quickly retreat to the Intrepid.

The gun deck was all of a sudden beautifully illuminated by the numerous candles of the crew. The squads … repaired to their stations. After the lapse of a few minutes Captain D demanded at every hatchway, from forward to aft, whether they were ready, and-on being answered in the affirmative from below-returned to the hatchways as before, giving the word succinctly at each, “Fire!”-in order of insuring the simultaneousness of setting fire to every part of the ship alike.

Decatur was deemed a hero, with legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson reportedly declaring “his actions “the most bold and daring act of its age.” The young naval officer became a celebrity. Towns and ships were named after him, he was the subject of paintings and busts, and his image even appeared on household items like cups and pitchers. His career took off, and he took part in many other military engagements, including the Second Barbary War and the War of 1812.

Unfortunately, his distinguished career was cut short in 1820 when he died in a duel with Commodore James Barron, whom Decatur criticized over his conduct in an engagement with the British known as the ChesapeakeLeopard Affair.

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Jim Zelli

Jim Zelli has been with ProQuest since 1989 and with eLibrary since 2004.
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