Sunday, February 16, 2014

Stephen Decatur and the Most Daring Act of the Age

Intrepid rows away from the the USS Philadelphia.

On February 16, 1808 young U.S. Navy Lt. Stephen Decatur, Commanding Officer of the schooner Enterprise, entered the harbor at Tripoli aboard a captured Barbary ketch by stealth of night and under the guns of the shore defenses succeeded in burning the U.S.S. Philadelphia, one of the Navy’s prized 36-gun frigates which had run aground and been captured the previous year.
He was operating under the orders of Mediterranean Squadron Commander Commodore Edward Preble, who was desperate to prevent the Barbary pirates based in the North African port from restoring and deploying one of the most advanced Naval warships of the era. 
To enter the harbor without arousing suspicions, Decatur, a crew from the flagship USS Constitution, and a Sicilian  pilot familiar with the harbor were given a recently captured pirate Ketch, a light and fast two-masted ship that would not attract attention in the enemy port.  The crew renamed her Intrepid, although her name was not, as was customary, painted on her stern and she did not fly American colors.
Decatur sailed from Syracuse in Sicily on February 3 with the expectation of closing in on Tripoli in about three days.  Un-expected storms kept the ship at sea for nearly two weeks. The crew suffered from cramped conditions, limited and unwholesome rations, and un-Navy like filthy conditions.  Most of them were sick.
Upon arriving, the Intrepid entered the harbor in the moonlight.  Decatur kept most of the crew below deck so that she would appear to be a local costal trader.  As the neared the docks, the pilot, who was known to port authorities, hailed the shore command and request permission to birth next to the Philadelphia claiming that the ship had lost its anchor in the storms.  Permission was granted.
But as she pulled alongside, guards detected suspicious motion on board and sounded the alarm.  Decatur immediately ordered his boarding party to seize the larger ship.  The sailors quickly overpowered the stunned and surprised guards. 
In less than twenty frantic minutes the boarding party ignited several fires.  The blaze spread rapidly.  They jumped back aboard the Intrepid, which cast off its ties.  With the wind against them, the crew had to row the ketch out of the harbor as they drew inaccurate fire from shore guns.
The Intrepid with no loss to her crew escaped and rejoined the Squadron.  The  Philadelphia burned to her water line and then sank.  She could never be used against naval forces or civilian shipping.
Britain’s Lord Nelson, no stranger to high adventure himself, called the action, “The most bold and daring act of the age.” Decatur returned to the U.S. as the first great hero of the new Republic not associated with the Revolution.  Several dusty inland frontier settlements were named in his honor. 
Decatur served with distinction again in the War of 1812 and in the Second Barbary War the squadron under his command finally put an end to Mediterranean piracy against American ships and extracted reparations for previous damage. 
As Commodore he settled into senior command and the Washington whirl-wind social scene. 
He is now remembered for the favorite toast of knee-jerk patriots, “Our country!  In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”
In 1820 Decatur was shot and gravely wounded in a duel with a jealous naval rival.  As he lay dying, his wife hosted a ball honoring the marriage of James Monroe’s daughter in their elegant home.

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