Feb 16

Burning of the Philadelphia

Thursday, February 16, 2012 1:00 AM


February 16, 1804

The captured frigate Philadelphia is burned in Tripoli Harbor by American forces.

The Burning of the frigate Philadelphia in Tripoli Harbor by Edward Moran

On February 16th, 1804, during the Barbary Wars, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, supported by American volunteers, burned the captured U. S. frigate, Philadelphia, in order to prevent her from remaining in the hands of the Tripolitans. In June 1935, Proceedings published an article by Commander Arthur Bainbridge Hoff, USN (ret.), which described the circumstances surrounding the burning of the Philadelphia, and the connection of the event to the famous Naval leader, Edward Preble. The article focuses on Preble’s unique personality, and the character and actions which earned him fame.

In those brilliant early years of our young Navy, when the Barbary corsairs had been brought to terms, and when seamen were either battling the elements or battling the enemies of their country, no man’s name stood higher as a leader and commander than did that of Edward Preble. Recently Mr. Fletcher Pratt gave us a stirring account of Preble’s career, bringing out several interesting points and incidents in connection with his life and achievements.

It is proposed in this necessarily brief sketch to add something to this, giving an account of his Tripoli campaign, and especially how it was affected by the loss of the Philadelphia. To do this effectively, we must go back to original sources.

Few of us nowadays, reading the naval history of the sail and smoothbore period, are sufficiently well grounded in square­-rig seamanship to grasp instinctively the full significance of any particular event. Especially this is so when it involves the manners and customs of the times, joined with the contemporary attitude of the naval mind. Here we frequently get modern reactions quite different from those that actually then prevailed.

Let us realize that the single original source as to naval opinion, between the years 1798 and 1805, is the works of James Fennimore Cooper, and particularly do we find this in his Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers. From this book we get at first hand what we seek. Cooper not only knew most of the ships and officers of which he wrote, but he was a non­partisan. He reflected the ideas of his times. In the period in which he lived the men he wrote about were leaders and men of distinction. It is true that Gardner W. Allen’s histories excel all others, but they cannot reproduce Cooper’s personal touch—the atmosphere and the actualities.

The officers and men who served under Edward Preble in his Tripoli campaign of 1803-4 regarded him not only as a peerless leader but as a wise and just superior. Of this we have abundant evidence. His deeds and those of his young commanders and officers can still inspire us, as outstanding examples of men whose ambition it was to serve their country—her honor and her glory.

Speaking of Preble, Cooper says:

His career in the Navy was short, and the greater portion of it kept him so much aloof from his brother officers that we must look for some unusual cause for the great influence he obtained while living, and the lasting renown he left attached to his name, now he is dead. Preble was forty-two fighting days before Tripoli—no more. In that time he captured nothing except three gunboats. Nor were his successes the kind that carries away the imagination—as Decatur’s feats. Still it may be questioned if any other name has as high a place as that of Preble.

This was written about 1841, and Cooper goes on to say,

The Tripolitan War had been miserably managed since the peace with France, owing principally to President Jefferson’s instructions and ideas. A better feeling, however, began to prevail at Washington, and it was now resolved to carry on the war with more spirit and decision.

When Preble arrived at Gibraltar in the Constitution he was practically unknown in the naval service. In the Revolution, while in the Massachusetts State Navy, he had gained a great reputation by several daring exploits, but during the French War he happened never to have been in active contact with the enemy. It was, consequently, with a considerable feeling of jubilation that his men noted the firm and undaunted bearing which manifested itself in his exchange of night hails with H.M.S. Maidstone (36), to the westward of the Straits, before his arrival at Gibraltar.

“It is worthy of note, ” says Cooper, “that those who had served against the British in the Revolution had no fear of their prowess, provided the odds were not too great. Whereas by the general public in America they were thought to be at sea invincible.”

Preble was a fine seaman and an experienced captain, but Cooper notes as the single blemish on his noble character his fits of ungovernable rage. These were sometimes sudden, sometimes the outcome of long brooding. And this fact must be fully, though reluctantly, taken into account, if we are to understand Preble and the course of his campaign.

His squadron, with dates of their arrival at Gibraltar, consisted of the following ships: Constitution (44) Preble, September 12; Philadelphia (36) Bainbridge, August 25; Argus (16) Decatur, November 1; Siren (16) Stewart, October 1; Enterprise (12) Hull, already on station; Nautilus (12) Somers, July 27; Vixen (12) Smith, September 14.

With the Commodore, embarked on board the Constitution, was Colonel Lear, consul-general to the Barbary States, an important person politically. Hull, being senior, took over the Argus from Decatur, who took the Enterprise. Bainbridge was the only captain, all the others being lieutenants. They were all New England or Philadelphia seamen, except Smith, who was a South Carolinian.

Even before reaching Gibraltar, Preble encountered Barbary duplicity. Off Cadiz, September 7, he fell in with the Moorish frigate Maimouna (20), whose papers appeared perfectly correct, but were examined only by Lear. On arrival at Gibraltar, Preble was awaited by Bainbridge with the captured Mirboka (22), another Moorish frigate. Her captain was found in possession of an American brig as a prize, with her crew as prisoners. Bainbridge thereupon threatened to hang the Moor as a pirate. This threat caused the Moorish captain to show a letter from the Governor of Tangier authorizing him to prey on American commerce. From these two incidents Preble now perceived that he must settle things with the Emperor of Morocco before proceeding farther east.

He relieved Commodore Rodgers of the Mediterranean command, and sailed across to Tangier September 20. Rodgers generously placed his two vessels under Preble’s broad pennant (although one number his senior) and this combined display of force enabled Preble to come to a satisfactory status of affairs with Morocco.

The Philadelphia and Vixen he sent on to the Tripoli station, while he himself remained at or near Gibraltar till November 13, when he sailed up the Straits. He took the precaution, however, to leave the Siren to watch Tangier.

On the twenty-fourth, off Sardinia, the Constitution spoke the H.B.M. frigate Amazon and from her heard of the loss of the Philadelphia.

This was confirmed on the twenty-seventh when he arrived at Malta, by news from Bainbridge himself. In losing Bainbridge, Preble had lost his only captain and most experienced counsellor. For although Bainbridge was only 29 years of age, he had had more experience dealing with the Mediterranean Mohammedan powers than any other officer of the Navy.

To Preble, on the other hand, these gentry were total strangers. The loss of the Philadelphia naturally was a heavy blow to him and upset all the plans for the campaign which his active and efficient mind had made.

He brooded on the matter. On December 10, thirteen days after receiving Bainbridge’s first and rather brief report, Preble wrote his first and celebrated letter to the Secretary of the Navy. This savage attack on Bainbridge was not only written with insufficient knowledge of the case, but indicated a temporary absence of Preble’s normal professional powers of reasoning. Neither to the Navy nor to the general public did this disparagement seem justified by so much of the facts as were then known.

It must be remembered that, when the Philadelphia was lost, no captain’s reputation among his brother officers stood higher than Bainbridge’s. And these were the days of intrepid ideals, which were, nevertheless, intensely practical!


To Hon. Robert Smith, Sec. of U. S. Navy.

United States Ship “Constitution”

Syracuse Harbor

10th Dec. 1803.


. . . 27th arrived off the Harbor of Malta, and sent in a boat with an officer on shore, who returned with letters from Captain Bainbridge, dated Tripoly, stating the particulars of the capture of the Philadelphia by the Tripolines, without a man on either side having been killed or wounded; with the mortifying circumstances that she was in the Harbor of Tripoly.

This affair distresses me beyond description, and very much deranges my plan of operations for the present.  I fear our National Character will sustain an injury with the Barbarians.  Would to God, that the officers and crew of the Philadelphia, had one and all, determined to prefer death to slavery; it is possible that such a determination might have saved them from either. Enclosed is Captain Bainbridge’s account of the business, with sundry other papers as per list.  I shall not hazard an opinion on the subject of the loss. . . . I am surprised she was not rendered useless, before her colours were struck.

Some of Preble’s comments were the result of his unfamiliarity with the Mediterranean, some were the result of long brooding, and some merely caused wonder that his mind, even in one of his notable rages, should work so far away from customary naval habits of thought.

On account of this well-known failing of Preble, the letter was held very closely by the department and I believe has never been printed.  But gradually, of course, it leaked out among those in Washington, and is known to have greatly contributed to the department’s decision (May 22, 1804) to supersede him by Commodore Barron. At that date Preble’s leadership was not at all known in Washington, as his active campaign had not yet begun.

Probably Commodore Alexander Murray, writing to Bainbridge early in May, 1804, from Washington, before news of Decatur’s feat had yet arrived, gives a good idea of the department’s attitude. “I have never,” he says, “heard you censured by anyone except a regret that the ship had not been left in such a state as to prevent her being serviceable to the enemy, but you no doubt could not have supposed it possible for her to be got off from the situation she was in.”

The details and incidents of the Philadelphia’s loss properly belong to Bainbridge’s biography. That part only is given here that affects Preble’s campaign, his initial rage, his subsequent noble conduct, and the unfortunate influence his first report to the department had on its decision to supersede him. Nine days after writing the report to Washington, it was borne in upon Preble that he had made a grievous error.

His eighteenth century complex (“protect yourself from above, hammer the man below you”) was out of date in the new U. S. Navy.  Just as Nelson had changed the British fleet into a band of brothers, instead of an organization for court-martialing captains, so had a similar change come about in the American service. The comments of Preble’s officers soon made him aware of this fact. But by this time his rage had evaporated, leaving the fine qualities of his nature once more in command of the situation, and ready to carry on.  He did carry on, in a manner second to none our Navy has yet seen.

December 19, Preble writes his first letter to Bainbridge. From Gardner Allen we take this excerpt:

Your zeal for your country has occasioned the loss of a frigate and, for a time, of a valuable commander, officers, and crew. I have not the smallest doubt, but that you all have done everything which you conceived could have been done to get the ship off and extricate yourself from the unhappy situation in which you were placed. . . . You may rest assured that in me you have a friend whose exertions shall never be wanting in endeavors to relieve you; . . . God bless and preserve you. May you have health and live to enjoy the smiles of the fickle goddess. . . . The first consul of France, the much celebrated Bonaparte, has interested himself deeply in your situation.

This and subsequent letters from Preble to Bainbridge could not be exceeded for depth of feeling and professional acumen.

It did his heart much honor. Had his unfortunate brother-in-arms been his brother in blood, Preble’s letters and conduct could not have been more friendly and delicate. That Bainbridge felt this is apparent in his own correspondence, and it is probable these two brave men had a just appreciation of each other’s intrinsic worth, in consequence of their common misfortune (J. F. Cooper).

Not all the features of the Philadelphia episode were unfavorable to Preble. Her loss furnished him a concrete objective and crystallized certain factors of his war problem. It vastly increased the morale of his squadron. It gave a decisive support to the war at home. And it gave Preble the widest latitude in all the undertakings of his campaign. Add to this Preble’s peerless leadership, and we have a situation that produced those brilliant results that are still an example to the naval service. Unfortunately we have space only to briefly outline Preble’s campaign.

December 5, 1803.—Bainbridge writes to Preble giving a plan for destroying the Philadelphia. Preble had already thought of this plan and had informed the Navy Department. But it is likely that Decatur also had simultaneously conceived the idea, as he was its chosen leader.

December 28.—Preble reconnoiters Tripoli.

January, 1804.—Peace negotiations begun with the Bashaw.

February.—Lays final plans for destroying the Philadelphia. Gives Decatur detailed instructions in writing, and Decatur is specifically ordered to burn her, send her adrift among the shipping, if conditions should be favorable, but not to cut out the frigate.

February 16.—Decatur destroys the Philadelphia, supported by Stewart in the Siren. With him were Lieutenants James Lawrence, Joseph Bainbridge (brother of W. B.), Midshipmen Thomas Macdonough, Ralph Izard, Charles Morris, and sixty-four other equally intrepid officers and seamen.

February and May.—The smaller vessels of the squadron were active. Syracuse used as a base of supplies. Preble remains there till March except for short trips to Malta.

March 26.—Preble off Tripoli, sends Izard in under flag of truce to confer with Bainbridge.

March 30.—Stewart, in the Siren, captures the Tripolitan Transfer (16) with a crew of 80.

April, May, and June.—Intense activity. Tunis is restless and needs watching. Energetic preparations for summer campaign. Preble finally succeeds in purchasing several small gunboats from the Neapolitan King. This attempt had been begun by Commodore Morris, but, on account of the European War conditions, was ineffectual. Small gunboats were not only needed for inshore work when attacking, but as a protection for frigates and smaller vessels which, if becalmed inshore, were liable to be overwhelmed by Tripolitans coming out in their own gunboats, under oars, and boarding them in great numbers. Our gunboats were therefore equipped with oars.

July 25.—U. S. squadron off Tripoli.

August 3.—First attack on Tripoli. James Decatur killed. Stephen Decatur in command of inshore forces. Captures 3 gunboats.

Of this attack, Cooper gives the following episode:

It is now that a scene occurred which it will not do to pass over in silence, delineating as it does, Preble’s good as well as his bad qualities. When Decatur came on board to report, he said in a quiet way, “Well, Commodore, I have brought you off three gunboats.” To Decatur’s astonishment, and doubtless to all who witnessed this extraordinary scene, Preble seized his young subordinate with both hands by the collar, shook him violently, and cried bitterly, “Aye, Sir! Why did you not bring me more?” At the next instant Preble turned and disappeared into his own cabin. All who witnessed this were astounded. Decatur himself was strongly excited and was about to quit the ship. The older officers crowded around and entreated him above all not to leave the Constitution. They reminded him that no one would be more sorry for what had just occurred than Preble himself. Decatur was still in suspense when the cabin steward came to say, “Commodore Preble wishes to see Captain Decatur below.”

After a moment’s hesitation Decatur complied, as indeed he was bound to do. In a few minutes an officer who could presume on his rank, and who felt uneasy at leaving the two together, descended also to the cabin.

He found Preble and Decatur seated amicably within a few feet of each other, both silent and both in tears.

August 8.—Second attack on Tripoli. Lieutenant Caldwell, Midshipman Dorsey, and 8 men killed. Captain Chauncey arrives in John Adams. Brings Preble’s recall, by the department, dated May 22, 1804. To be superseded by Commodore Barron.  News of loss of Philadelphia determines government to push war with vigor. Preble much downcast. Pauses, to await Barron’s arrival. Continues negotiations for ransom and peace.

August 25.—Third attack. Night. Bombardment only. Little damage done.

August 28.—Fourth attack. Heavy bombardment. Bainbridge nearly killed by American shot. U. S.loss-3 men killed. Great damage done ashore.

September 3.—Last attack. Chauncey and several officers on board Constitution as volunteers. No U. S. casualties.

September 4.—Night attack by Somers in the Intrepid. Premature explosion when about 100 yards from enemy. All hands perished. Somers, Wadsworth, Israel, and 10 men. No damage done enemy.

September 10.—Barron arrives.

September 12.—Preble leaves for Syracuse. Settling his affairs.

October 29.—Joins John Adams, Captain Chauncey. (Lieutenant James Lawrence, 1st lieutenant).

November 4.—Receives a letter from Captain Decatur and 52 other officers expressing admiration and esteem for his services and conduct.

December 29.—Leaves Naples for home in John Adams.

February 20, 1805.—President Jefferson sends his “Preble” message to Congress, expressing satisfaction at his energy and judgment, as well as for the zeal and bravery of his officers.

February 26.—John Adams arrives in New York with Preble.

“Thus terminated the celebrated cruise of Preble—1 yr. 6 mos. 12 da. The effect on his country was to induce it to love and cherish its marine, of which it now became so justly proud. The effect of Preble’s discipline on the Navy was in the highest degree beneficial. Everything was prepared and systematically carried out” (J. F. Cooper).

March 3.—Congress votes Preble a gold medal, swords to officers who had distinguished themselves, and one month’s extra pay to all petty officers, seamen, and marines.

March 4.—Preble arrives in Washington.  Jefferson offers him position in cabinet as head of Navy. Preble refuses on account of failing health.

August 25, 1807.—Dies at Portland, Maine.

Thus passed a renowned sea-officer, who in his day and generation was accorded the highest honors of esteem and admiration by those who had served with him and under him. This tradition survived till after the Civil War, and though in times since many notable names and characters have added their share to the achievements and honor of the service, it is right that he, who so early brought to that service both achievement and honor, should have the knowledge of his renown passed on to the naval officers of today.

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