U.S. Navy Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, who grew up in Philadelphia [in a house on Front Street in Queen Village], became an American hero for having led the nighttime raid by sailors who torched the frigate Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor.
The Philadelphia, built five years earlier in Joshua Humphreys’ shipyard [near Old Swedes’ Church], was the darling of her namesake city. But her time at sea soon came to an end. In October 1803, while commanded by Capt. William Bainbridge, the frigate foundered on rocks near Tripoli and was boarded by corsairs loyal to the Tripolitan Bashar. For months, newspaper readers in the U.S. followed the travails of the Philadelphia’s officers and crew after they had been captured. One of the officers wrote in a letter that the corsairs “drove us into their boats without any clothes but what we had on. I had to fight with two of them some time to secure my great coat, and by scuffling I saved my money and watch. The captain was robbed of his watch, money and epaulets …”
Once in the city of Tripoli, however, the Bashar gave the officers a personal audience, set them down to a full dinner, and allowed them quarters in the house that had been inhabited by the American consul in peacetime. The crew, in contrast, was locked in a dungeon and later made to labor as slaves. Some of the American crewmen were even rowed out to the Philadelphia to work in the effort of loosening her from the shoals. At the beginning of November 1803, high seas helped to lift the frigate free. The Bashar’s navy claimed the Philadelphia as their prize, rearmed her with cannon, and positioned her as a fortress to guard the harbor of Tripoli.
Stephen Decatur was assigned the task of sailing a captured Tripolitan ketch—originally called the Mastico and renamed the Intrepid—into the harbor to destroy the Philadelphia. The brig Siren towed the ketch to a site just outside the reef that circled the harbor. There the crew had to endure five days of squall conditions; the hold of the Intrepid was infested with rats and vermin, and the morale of the men quickly began to sink into despair. But after the storm had cleared, Decatur was able to rally the crew for their brave attempt.
In the late afternoon of Feb. 16, 1804, the Intrepid lazily made its way into the harbor under a light breeze. She was disguised as a merchantman and flew English colors. Although some seventy men, armed with knives and sabers, were aboard, only a few, dressed in Maltese clothing, showed themselves on deck. Decatur ordered buckets and spars to be towed behind the vessel to retard her speed, and thus make certain that she would not reach her objective until darkness had fallen.
A crescent moon threw only a glimmer over the harbor as the Intrepid came within hailing distance of the Philadelphia. Her Maltese pilot called out to the frigate’s guards in Arabic. He told them, as he had been instructed, that the ketch had suffered in the squall and lost her anchors. Would they grant her permission to latch onto the frigate for the night? The guards assented, threw out a line, and began to draw the ketch closer. When the Intrepid was directly alongside, the Tripolitan sentries seemed to have discovered the ruse—but it was too late. Decatur shouted, “Board!” and the crew quickly scaled the sides of the frigate and leapt onto her deck.
The fighting took no more than ten minutes; the Americans then divided themselves into pre-arranged incendiary squads, each equipped with candles and combustible material, and each assigned to set fire to a different compartment of the vessel. As the Intrepid made its getaway, the Philadelphia erupted like a volcano; the fiery plume lit the entire city of Tripoli in an orange glow. Flames raced up the rigging until, at 11 p.m., the masts and spars, still aflame, toppled into the harbor.
News of the stunning success at Tripoli came to Philadelphia in May 1804. There were rousing celebrations, although the event left a bittersweet taste with Philadelphians who mourned the loss of their city’s frigate.
This is an excerpt from Michael Schreiber’s new book, “Unsinkable Patriot: The Life and Times of Thomas Cave in Revolutionary America.” The book has just been published and is available in area bookstores.