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Lt. Stephen Decatur, Jr. Burns the Philadelphia

A legendary Navy hero led what might be considered one of the service's first special operations

The Barbary Coast of North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt, was home to pirates who had raided the sea lanes of the Mediterranean for generations, getting rich through either the capture and sale of merchantmen and their crews, or tribute from their governments – often both. Since independence freed the Royal Navy from having to protect American shipping, those merchantmen transiting the Mediterranean Sea increasingly fell prey to the pirates. To protect its maritime interests, Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794, creating the U.S. Navy. When one of the republic’s new frigates, the 36-gun USS Philadelphia, was captured on Oct. 31, 1803, in Tripoli harbor, the stage was set for the emergence of America’s first great hero of the nineteenth century, and what today would be a special operations mission conducted by SEALs: the destruction of the Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia, under the command of Capt. William Bainbridge, was part of a seven-ship squadron that included the frigate Constitution (44 guns), 16-gun brigs Argus and Siren, and 12-gun schooners Enterprise, Nautilus, and Vixen sent to punish the Barbary States under the overall command of Commodore Edward Preble whose flagship was the Constitution.

Bainbridge hit the bad luck trifecta on Halloween, Oct. 31, 1803, when he ran the Philadelphia aground on the shoals off Tripoli while trying to enforce a blockade of the harbor. Unable to free the ship, even after tossing almost all the cannon overboard, the Philadelphia was captured and its crew – at total of 307 officers and men – imprisoned.

Though respected by his fellow officers, the 29-year-old Bainbridge was not popular with the enlisted men. In an age where physical punishment was the norm for enforcing discipline, Bainbridge had a reputation for ruthless brutality. While that aroused resentment, what really set Bainbridge apart in the eyes of superstitious sailors was that he had committed the ultimate nautical sin: that of being an unlucky captain. Even he admitted to being a “child of adversity.” In a letter to Commodore Preble he wrote “misfortune has attended me throughout my naval career.” He wasn’t kidding. Two incidents were whoppers.

Commodore William Bainbridge

Painting of Commodore William Bainbridge, USN (1774-1833) by John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840). Bainbridge’s bad luck as captain of the USS Philadelphia put in motion Lt. Decatur’s mission to burn the captured ship. Painting in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

In 1798, during the Quasi-War with France and without firing a shot in defense, he surrendered his ship the Retaliation to two French frigates, thus making the Retaliation the first U.S. Navy warship to surrender to a foe. Two years later, as the captain of the George Washington, he was on an unenviable mission to deliver tribute to the Barbary Coast’s Dey of Algiers. He anchored in Algiers harbor, within point-blank range of the harbor fort’s 200 cannon. After receiving the agreed upon tribute, the Dey issued an ultimatum: deliver the Algerian ambassador and tribute gifts to Constantinople and do so flying the Algerian flag, or be sunk. Bainbridge did so, carrying livestock and slaves to the Ottoman Empire capital. Though boards of inquiry exonerated him in both instances, the court of public opinion in the form of seamen found him guilty. From that point on he had a devil of a time finding crews for his ships.

Bainbridge hit the bad luck trifecta on Halloween, Oct. 31, 1803, when he ran the Philadelphia aground on the shoals off Tripoli while trying to enforce a blockade of the harbor. Unable to free the ship, even after tossing almost all the cannon overboard, the Philadelphia was captured and its crew – at total of 307 officers and men – imprisoned.

Preble was in the Constitution off the coast of Sardinia when he received word of the loss of the Philadelphia from a Royal Navy frigate almost a month later on Nov. 24. The military consequences were bad. A significant portion of his small force was gone; and after salvaging both ship and cannon, the Philadelphia was restored, renamed the Gift of Allah, and made a part of the defenses of Tripoli harbor. Worse, this victory emboldened the Barbary States to demand more in tribute, with no guarantee that they would remain bought once tribute was paid.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...