Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Most Daring Act of the Age—Stephen Decatur and Burning of the USS Philadelphia

Stephen Decatur and his crew aboard the captured Tunisian Ketch row away under fire from the burning USS Philadelphia.

On February 16, 1808 young U.S. Navy Lt. Stephen Decatur, Commanding Officer of the schooner USS 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 US. 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.  Unexpected 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 requested 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 including those in Georgia and Illinois were named in his honor.  

In another thrilling episode of the First Barbary War, Decatur was nearly killed in the boarding and capture of a Tripolitan gunboat.

Decatur served with distinction again in the War of 1812 and in the Second Barbary War in 1815 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!” 
As Commodore, Decatur was the youngest officer appointed to the Board of Navy Commissioners  which oversaw the Service.  He was responsible for the rebuilding an modernization of the fleet after the War of 1812 and Second Barbary War.  His rise above more senior officers and his social prominence in Washington were resented by some. 

On March 22, 1820 Decatur was shot and gravely wounded in a duel with a Commodore James Barron, the disgraced former Capitan of the USS Chesapeake which had been captured by the British in 1807 and a jealous naval rival. 
As he lay dying in excruciating pain, his lovely wife, the former Susan Wheeler of Norfolk, Virginia dutifully played hostess a long-arranged ball honoring the marriage of President James Monroe’s daughter in their elegant home near the White House.  She struggled the rest of her life to bring Baron, who had survived with a grievous wound, and the seconds of both parties who were suspected of conspiring to assure that the duel had fatal consequences instead of the missed and wasted shots that often ended such affairs honorably without serious injury.  She also spent years trying to obtain a naval widow’s pension which was finally granted by Congress in 1837.
The funeral of the young naval hero was held in Washington with the President, members of Congress, and almost all senior Navy officers.  In the midst of solemn  procedures a common Navy Tar unexpectedly stepped forward and declared, “He was the friend of the flag, the sailor's friend; the navy has lost its mainmast,” as good a eulogy as any elaborate oration given that day.

Decatur was honored in many ways.  Five Navy warships have born his name and he was pictured on the 1875 $20 Silver Certificate and a 1942 postage stamp.  His Washington home is now museum operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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