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

Stephen Decatur (d. 1820) is one of the US Navy’s first famous figures, right up alongside Revolutionary War captain John Paul Jones, and among the first famous American military figures 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 specific.

The Burning of the Philadelphia, by 19th century American painter Edward Moran (Wikimedia)

What I dig about Decatur’s career is that the operation that really sent it skyrocketing was a mission to (of all things) set a ship on fire–an American ship, to boot. The USS Philadelphia was a frigate that first set sail in 1799 under the command of Stephen Decatur, Sr., and saw service during the Quasi-War with France before heading to the Mediterranean in response to threats by the Pasha of Tripolitania, 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, then scuttle, the ship, he and his crew were taken prisoner and the ship was salvaged by the Tripolitanians.

It seems pretty odd to imagine a modern-day aircraft carrier or guided missile cruiser falling into the hands of an enemy during wartime, but that’s pretty much what happened in the case of the Philadelphia. She was one of the biggest ships in the (admittedly still small) American navy, but more importantly she was more powerful than anything the Tripolitanians had in their fleet. The possibility that she could be repurposed as a weapon against the US fleet was deemed too big a risk to take, and so it was decided that the navy should undertake a mission to either steal her back or make sure she never sailed again.

This is where Decatur comes in. He’d been successful as a mid-level officer during the Quasi-War and the early years of the First Barbary War, and had risen to command of his own ship, the smallish schooner Enterprise. In late December, Enterprise was involved in an engagement that resulted in the capture of a Tripolitanian ketch (a small vessel with only a couple of guns), which Decatur and his crew renamed the USS Intrepid. Decatur came up with a plan to sail Intrepid, which could be disguised to look like a humble commercial vessel, into Tripoli harbor, board Philadelphia, and either take her back or render her useless. The operation was carried out under cover of darkness on the night of February 16, 1804. Decatur and his men determined that Philadelphia still wasn’t ready to be sailed in open waters, so they opted to set her on fire. Decatur pulled the operation off so well that not only was Philadelphia destroyed, but his 60-man detachment suffered all of one minor injury in the process.

I’ve deliberately glossed over the details because I’d like you to go read this nicely intricate write-up on the US Naval Institute’s Naval History Blog:

The Intrepid received her orders on January 31, 1804 and departed Syracuse February 2.[34] The ship was extremely small and uncomfortable. Designed to carry a complement of only about 30 men, 70 men were forced to cram into her along with all of the materials necessary to destroy the Philadelphia. Also, because the ship was disguised as a Maltese merchantman, only about six or seven of the crew could be on deck at any time. The voyage lasted about a week, with the ships arriving at Tripoli on February 7.[35] Once outside of Tripoli, Decatur sent Midshipman Charles Morris along with Sicilian pilot Salvatore Catalano, who had accompanied the Americans to act as interpreter and guide, to inspect the conditions of the harbor. The two reported that the harbor could not be entered because of high surf.[36] Storms kept the ships from attempting to enter the harbor until the 16th. In the evening on the 16th, at around 1900, the Intrepid entered the harbor. However, before the Siren could enter, the wind stopped blowing. The Intrepid would have to attempt to accomplish the mission by herself without any support from the Siren.

To sneak into the harbor, the Intrepid disguised herself as a Maltese merchantman flying British colors. The crew dressed in the clothing of Maltese sailors. So skillfully was she disguised, the British consulate raised the Union Jack to welcome them.[37]

The operation to scuttle Philadelphia won Decatur fame throughout Europe as well as back home in America, and may (I stress may) have been praised by no less an authority on naval warfare than British admiral Horatio Nelson. Decatur went on to command larger vessels, and was eventually promoted to captain, and then commodore, in time for the War of 1812. He served ably in that conflict until he was captured by the British navy and imprisoned in Bermuda from January 1815 through the end of the war. After the war he received the Congressional Gold Medal for his service.

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