On Feb. 16, 1804, Lt. Stephen Decatur burned the frigate, Philadelphia, in Tripoli Harbor. British Adm. Horatio Nelson called it, “the most bold and daring act of the age.” One wouldn’t think an officer burning a Navy ship would garner such an accolade, but the capture of Philadelphia had been an embarrassment to the young U.S. Navy.
The United States was in her first Barbary war with Tripoli, and back then Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis and Morocco were independent North African kingdoms that frequently employed piracy in the Mediterranean unless they received regular payments. The Tripolitans had captured Philadelphia four months earlier in October 1803, humiliating the Navy. Now that she was in enemy hands, the frigate was also a potential threat. Should the Tripolitans fully fit the frigate, they could navigate her out of the harbor and attack other United States ships blockading the harbor.
Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis and Morocco had been preying on weaker navies by capturing their ships, taking their crews captive, and then extorting their countries’ governments for their return. Between 1801 and 1816, United States and European ships would fall victim to these pirate raids in the Mediterranean, resulting in two Barbary Wars. As with Europe, the United States had been repeatedly forced to pay for the release of any captives from any merchant trade ships. The Pasha of Tripoli had declared war on the United States claiming “late payments on tributes owed” to him, and he had made his intentions clear by cutting down the flagpole in front of the United States’ consulate’s residence on May 14, 1801.
In Oct. 1803, Capt. William Bainbridge had been Philadelphia’s commander and was ordered to blockade Tripoli’s harbor in hopes of ending the thug-like tactics the Tripolitans had been using in the Mediterranean. While chasing an enemy ship in the harbor, he miscalculated the low tide and beached Philadelphia on what is now known as the Kaliusa reef, which at the time had not been charted. Before she was taken, Bainbridge ordered a large amount of her guns be thrown overboard in order to free her from the reef. This left Philadelphia defenseless, and Bainbridge had no choice but to surrender the ship. He and his officers would remain prisoners until the Barbary War with Tripoli ended in June 1805.
The thought of allowing Philadelphia to remain in enemy hands was intolerable to the Navy. So much so that the Commander of the Third Mediterranean Squadron, Commodore Edward Preble, commented that Capt. Bainbridge and his crew should have “chosen death over slavery.” The ship now posed a threat to all U.S. vessels. Within weeks of her capture, Philadelphia had been quickly fitted as a gun battery by the Tripolitans. Once complete, the frigate could become Tripoli’s most powerful corsair.
The Navy and Decatur had had it. Neither had any intention of paying any more “tribute” to any of the North African kingdoms. However, they also weren’t interested in attempting to retake Philadelphia, because Tripoli’s harbor was heavily fortified, and retrieving her once the tide receded would have only risked repeating the same mistake Capt. Bainbridge made four months prior. The Navy instead assigned Decatur to burn and destroy the frigate.
Decatur took a simple 60-ft ketch that he had seized from the enemy and renamed Intrepid. With a crew of 80 from two other U.S. ships, he sailed on Feb. 3 from Sicily to Tripoli posing as fishermen. Decatur and his crew endured two weeks of severe storms, gale force winds, lack of food, and filthy conditions in the tiny ketch. Finally, on Feb. 16 with only moonlight to guide them, Decatur and his men navigated into Tripoli harbor and slowly made their way towards Philadelphia. Decatur’s ruse on acting like poor fishermen tricked the Tripolitans and got them alongside Philadelphia. They told the guards they had lost their anchors from the storms and needed to tie up alongside Philadelphia. By the time the Tripolitans saw the anchors and sounded the alarm, they were too late. Decatur and his men were already too close to Philadelphia for the Tripolitans to fend off any attack. Many of them ended up jumping from Philadelphia, and within 20 minutes, Decatur had set fire to the ship. She eventually burned to the waterline and sank. None of Decatur’s men were injured.
Decatur would serve the Navy through both Barbary wars, the Quasi-War with France and the War of 1812. He would go on to defeat Algerian warships and capture hundreds of prisoners of war. His actions placed the Navy in more formidable diplomatic positions to negotiate with the Barbary rulers. Decatur was able to obtain the release of not only all U.S. prisoners from the other Barbary rulers, but also the release of European prisoners. Naples dubbed him the “Terror of the Foe.” Pope Pius even congratulated Decatur and the United States and commented, “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble and humiliate the barbarians on the African coast in one night than all the European states had done for a long period of time.”