Feb 18

The Burning of the USS Philadelphia

Wednesday, February 18, 2015 1:55 PM


Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor at Tripoli by Edward Moran

Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor at Tripoli by Edward Moran (U.S. Naval Academy Museum)

On the evening of 16th February, 1804, the U.S. frigate Philadelphia was burned in Tripoli Harbor. The frigate had been captured on October 31, 1803 when the ship ran aground on a reef a few miles outside Tripoli. The war with Tripoli had raged since 1801, the entire action of the war mostly amounting to a few naval skirmishes and a lackadaisical blockade of Tripoli. When Commodore Edward Preble arrived to take command of the war, he had hoped to up the tempo of operations against Tripoli and quickly bring the war to a successful conclusion. The capture of the Philadelphia dramatically complicated this objective. The capture meant the Philadelphia’s captain and her crew, 307 Americans, became Tripoli’s prisoners. The capture also diminished American prestige among the Barbary States. Preble decided it was necessary to destroy the captured ship. The mission would be extremely dangerous; Preble expected the destruction of the ship would only come with great loss of life. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr. volunteered to command the mission. His success restored American prestige and secured him a reputation of valor that followed him the rest of his life. The burning of the Philadelphia was a heroic episode during the Barbary Wars that made Decatur a hero and greatly increased the reputation of the Navy and the United States.

In 1801, Tripoli demanded larger tribute payments from the United States. If the United States did not agree to the increased tribute, then Tripoli’s ruler would declare war. The U.S. refused, and therefore, in May 1801, Tripoli declared war and began raiding the U.S. merchant fleet in the Mediterranean.[1] Commodore Richard Dale, the commander of U.S. Naval forces in the Mediterranean, then began actions against Tripoli. Arriving in Gibraltar July 1, 1801, Dale found two Tripolitan ships in quarantine. Convinced the ships were targeting American shipping, Dale dispatched the frigate Philadelphia under the command of Captain Samuel Barron to keep the ships from escaping.[2] Dale then proceeded to Tripoli to blockade, reaching the city July 24, 1801. However, Dale soon lifted the blockade and returned to Gibraltar where his squadron spent the rest of the year blockading the two Tripolitan vessels in Gibraltar and convoying American shipping.[3] They were relieved by a squadron commanded by Commodore Robert Morris in early 1802[4].

Morris soon became bogged down in disputes with Tunis as well. The Tripolitan ship, the Paulina, was captured by the schooner Enterprise in January 1802. Some of the Paulina’s cargo belonged to a Tunisian subject and the Bey of Tunis demanded immediate repayment, or the U.S. would face another war. During the course of negotiations, Morris was detained until he agreed to repay a loan the Bey claimed the American consul to Tunis, William Eaton, owed.[5]

Due to delays caused by the affair in Tunis as well as troubles with Algiers, Morris’ squadron did not arrive at Tripoli until May 20, 1802. After blockading Tripoli for about a month, during which an attack was made on Tripoli harbor which ended in the destruction of numerous Tripolitan ships[6], Morris raised the blockade on June 26, 1802. Morris then returned to Gibraltar and spent the remainder of the year in inactivity. Morris’ superiors were extremely displeased by his lack of initiative, so much so that he was suspended and command handed over to Captain John Rodgers. Morris was ordered to sail for home, where he faced a court of inquiry which found his conduct of the war inept and afterward he was dismissed from the Navy.[7] The first two years of war passed in relative inactivity, with Tripoli being blockaded for a total of about three months. Upon the arrival of Commodore Edward Preble, however, the conduct of the war changed dramatically.

Commodore Edward Preble


Preble arrived in the Mediterranean September 12, 1803. As soon as he arrived, Preble sent the frigate Philadelphia and the schooner Vixen to blockade Tripoli. However, before he could sail to Tripoli with the entirety of his squadron, Preble felt he needed to first resolve issues with the state of Morocco.[8] The Emperor of Morocco had released his corsairs to capture American vessels because of the capture of the Tripolitan ship Meshuda, which was flying Moroccan colors.[9] Angering the Moroccan Emperor even further, on his journey to Gibraltar Captain William Bainbridge captured the Moroccan cruiser Mirboka, which had captured the American vessel Celia.

Preble arrived at Tangiers with the combined force of two American squadrons, for Captain John Rodgers, acting commander of Morris’ squadron since Morris’ relief, agreed to accompany Preble before returning home. This show of force impressed the Moroccan Emperor who then disavowed all hostile actions toward American vessels. To demonstrate his good will, the Emperor gave Preble a present of many animals and promised to release the crew of the American brig Hannah. Preble, in return, agreed to release the Meshuda and the Mirboka.[10]

Once hostilities with Morocco were resolved, Preble returned to Gibraltar and sailed for Cadiz in order to replace an anchor and a cable lost at Tangiers which were not available at Gibraltar. While in Cadiz, Preble issued a proclamation of a blockade stating “that all Neutral Vessels that attempt to enter the Port of Tripoli, or are met with on the coast near that Port… will be stopped by the Squadron under my command and sent into port for adjudication.”[11] This circular was sent to various U.S. ministers throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Later Preble received orders from the Secretary of the Navy, Robert Smith, to amend his blockade, requiring that “in every case of an attempt to enter without a previous knowledge of the existence of the blockade, you will give the commanding Officer of such a vessel notice of such a blockade and forewarn him from entering.” [12]

While Preble was resolving the trouble with Morocco, Captain William Bainbridge in command of the frigate Philadelphia along with the schooner Vixen sailed to Tripoli in order to establish a blockade. The ships arrived at Tripoli on October 7, 1803. Action off the coast was very limited. Captain Bainbridge wrote he was “without the good fortune of seeing our enemies except under the refuge of well fortified works.” [13] However, Bainbridge learned of two Tripolitan cruisers off the coast of Cape Bon and dispatched Vixen on October 20 to find them. The Philadelphia stayed on station off Tripoli to continue the blockade[14]. On October 31, the Philadelphia sighted a Tripolitan vessel hugging the shoreline. The frigate began chasing the vessel at about 0900, getting within firing distance of her at 1100. At 1130, Bainbridge decided to cease the chase as the vessel was by then too close into the shore. However, when Bainbridge turned the Philadelphia away from land, he became immediately stuck on a reef, which was not on any of the Americans’ maps. To try and free the ship from the reef, Bainbridge had all but one anchor cut away and threw overboard most of the ships guns, “reserving as many only as would be necessary to defend against the enemy’s gunboats…”[15] Since the frigate was stuck only about three and a half miles outside Tripoli, many Tripolitan gunboats soon arrived and began firing on the ship. “The gun boats having taken a station on our Starboard quarter, commenced a firing, directed principally at our masts and rigging[16].” The Philadelphia returned fire with the few guns the crew had saved; however, their fire had no effect. “We returned (fire) with two guns from our main deck and three of our quarter deck cannonades, which, from the very great heel the ship had, took no effect.”[17] To try and free the ship, Bainbridge ordered the stern and foremast to be cut away, but try as he might the Philadelphia could not be freed from the reef.

Bainbridge held out until about 1630, endeavoring to free the boat by any means, all the while being fired at by the enemy cruisers that circled the ship. At that time, he called a council of his officers in order to decide what to do. The council found it impossible to free the ship and that all further resistance was futile and would only bring unnecessary harm to the crew with little benefit to their mission. Therefore, “it was unanimously agreed that the only thing left for us to do was to surrender to the enemy…”[18] After ordering the magazine flooded, the ship scuttled and the remaining guns to either be thrown overboard or rendered useless, Bainbridge surrendered the Philadelphia. The crew was taken prisoner, with officer and sailor alike being stripped of most of their belongings. The prisoners were then taken to meet with the ruler of Tripoli, who was greatly pleased at his good fortune in capturing an American frigate. The officers were then placed under house arrest in the abandoned American consulate, while the sailors became slave laborers[19].

The capture of the Philadelphia completely changed the war with Tripoli. Suddenly, the Tripolitans had 307 American prisoners to ransom and a 40-gun American frigate added to their arsenal. Though the ship had been scuttled, “the Turks… got on board in season to stop the holes and prevent her filling.”[20] Also, most of the guns thrown overboard were salvaged. The capture of the Philadelphia meant “the enemy gained a better vessel than they had ever owned before.”[21] The Tripolitan ruler, Yusuf Kramanli, increased his demands for peace from $500,000 and an annual tribute payment of $20,000 to $3,000,000 for peace and the ransom of the crew of the Philadelphia[22]. Preble learned of the capture of the Philadelphia from the British frigate Amazon on 24 November 1803.[23] Writing to inform the Secretary of the Navy of the capture, Preble revealed his displeasure. “This affair distresses me beyond description, and very much deranges my plans of operations for the present.”[24] Preble wrote angrily of what he perceived to be a lack of an enthusiastic defense of the ship. “(I) would to God, that the officers and crew of the Philadelphia had one and all, determined to prefer death to slavery; it is possible such a determination might have saved them from either.”[25] His hopes of ending the war soon were confounded. “If it had not have been for the Capture of the Philadelphia, I have no doubt, but we should have had peace with Tripoli in the Spring.”[26] Preble also feared the blow to prestige the United States would suffer among the other Barbary states. “I fear our national character will sustain an injury with the Barbarians.”[27] Indeed, the state of Tunis was emboldened in its dealings with the United States and began to demand restitution for the confiscation of Tunisian property during the fall of 1803. As one Tunisian minister told the U.S. consular agent to Tunis, George Davis, “the Americans are now like the ground.”[28]

Preble decided that it was necessary to destroy the frigate though he believed, “it will undoubtedly cost us many lives.”[29] Though he knew that the Tripolitans had no way to man the captured frigate, Preble knew that they would probably endeavor to sell it to another of the Barbary States, possibly Tunis or Algiers.[30] Preble decided to reconnoiter Tripoli’s harbor in his flagship, Constitution, along with the schooner Enterprise. While sailing off Tripoli, the Enterprise sighted a vessel flying Turkish colors departing Tripoli. The Enterprise stopped the vessel and found it to be a Tripolitan ship carrying tribute to Constantinople. An Italian doctor on board the Constitution identified the ship as the Mastico which had participated in the capture of the Philadelphia. The captain of the Mastico, a Tripolitan named Murad Reis, “was among the first that boarded the ship and was extremely active in taking the officers out and… plundering them of their cloathing[sic].”[31] The captain and the crew were taken prisoner and the Mastico was pressed into service and renamed the Intrepid.

The rest of 1803 was spent cruising throughout the Mediterranean. Preble stayed in Syracuse, his new base, trying to negotiate a peace and the freedom of the American prisoners. By January 1804, it was agreed that the price of peace would be a small consular gift, a ransom of $120,000, and an exchange of the Philadelphia for a schooner[32]. However, before this peace could be put into effect, Preble decided to try and destroy the Philadelphia. Preble ordered an expedition to be readied; the ships Siren and Intrepid were to sneak into Tripoli harbor and attempt to destroy the Philadelphia. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr. volunteered to command the mission. The plan was fairly simple. The Intrepid would sneak into the harbor pretending to be a merchantman, the Siren would enter with her to provide support. The Intrepid would then moor right next to the captured Philadelphia; the crew would board her and take control, and then burn the ship. The mission, however, would be extremely dangerous; the Philadelphia lay in the middle of Tripoli Harbor, protected by 115 guns spread throughout numerous batteries, its own 40-gun compliment, with the majority of the Tripolitan fleet anchored in the harbor. Together the Intrepid and Siren mounted only 20 guns. Preble ordered Decatur to raise a group of 70 volunteers in order to man the Intrepid for the mission. When Decatur asked for volunteers from his crew, “every man and boy stepped forward”.[33]

The Intrepid received her orders on January 31, 1804 and departed Syracuse February 2.[34] The ship was extremely small and uncomfortable. Designed to carry a complement of only about 30 men, 70 men were forced to cram into her along with all of the materials necessary to destroy the Philadelphia. Also, because the ship was disguised as a Maltese merchantman, only about six or seven of the crew could be on deck at any time. The voyage lasted about a week, with the ships arriving at Tripoli on February 7.[35] Once outside of Tripoli, Decatur sent Midshipman Charles Morris along with Sicilian pilot Salvatore Catalano, who had accompanied the Americans to act as interpreter and guide, to inspect the conditions of the harbor. The two reported that the harbor could not be entered because of high surf.[36] Storms kept the ships from attempting to enter the harbor until the 16th. In the evening on the 16th, at around 1900, the Intrepid entered the harbor. However, before the Siren could enter, the wind stopped blowing. The Intrepid would have to attempt to accomplish the mission by herself without any support from the Siren.

To sneak into the harbor, the Intrepid disguised herself as a Maltese merchantman flying British colors. The crew dressed in the clothing of Maltese sailors. So skillfully was she disguised, the British consulate raised the Union Jack to welcome them.[37]

The USS Philadelphia Burning in Tripoli Harbor

The Intrepid sailed into the harbor and pulled up to the captured frigate. The Tripolitan captain called to the ship and ordered her to stay away. The Sicilian pilot, Salvatore Catalano, called back asking permission to tie the boat to the frigate saying the ship had lost its anchor in a storm. The captain asked what the ship at the harbor’s mouth, the Siren, was. Catalano replied it was the Transfer, a ship the Tripolitans had purchased in Malta but that had actually been captured by the Americans before it could arrive in Tripoli.[38] The two ships exchanged lines and the Intrepid moored next to the frigate. As soon as the Intrepid pulled up to the ship, Decatur gave the order to board and was the first on the Philadelphia. Behind him, sixty men boarded the ship “like a cluster of bees.”[39] The Americans quickly overpowered the Tripolitans, killing 20, with the rest of the Tripolitan guards escaping either by boat or by jumping overboard. Once the frigate was in their power, the crew of the Intrepid began the task of destroying the ship. The crew spread throughout the ship placing combustibles and waiting for Decatur to give the order to set fire to the ship. As the crew set about its work, the Tripolitans in the harbor and on shore raised the alarm. “The noise occasion by boarding… gave a general alarm on shore… many boats filled with men lay round, but from whom we received no annoyance.”[40] The guns from the shore batteries began to fire, “but with no other effect than one shot passing through our top gall sail.”[41] Decatur ordered the ship to be set fire, going to each station and giving the command. Decatur then supervised the withdrawal of the crew back onto the Intrepid, counting each man and ensuring everyone had gotten of the burning ship before he left it.[42] Twenty minutes had elapsed. Decatur quickly ordered his crew to push off of the burning frigate, as the Intrepid was in danger of catching fire. The crew pushed off with spars and the Intrepid’s boats towed her away from the burning Philadelphia. As the Intrepid pulled away, the Philadelphia’s cannons began to go off. “She had all of her guns mounted and loaded which as they became hot went off as she lay with her broadside to the town.”[43] The Intrepid pulled out of the harbor, rejoined the Siren, and the two ships made for Syracuse, returning on February 18 to general rejoicing by the rest of the squadron.

The Tripolitan reaction to the raid was a mixture of surprise and fury. Tripoli’s ruler was enraged and ordered more guards and tighter restrictions placed on the American prisoners. He had good reason to be angry; Tripoli had actually already sold the frigate to Tunis.[44] Kramanli was so incensed at the burning that he refused to even consider a proposed prisoner exchange.[45] One Tripolitan man, recalling the event years later, was impressed with the Americans. “These Americans have wise heads, when they lose their ship, they lose it to everybody.”[46]

To the Americans, the burning of the Philadelphia was viewed as an enormous victory. “The success of this enterprise added much to the reputation of the Navy, both at home and abroad.”[47] Preble praised Decatur for his intrepidity and courage, immediately writing the Secretary of the Navy to ask for Decatur’s immediate promotion to captain, writing “I wish as a stimulus (to others), it could be done in this instance; it would eventually be of real service to our Navy.”[48] The Secretary took Preble’s advice and in a letter dated May 22, 1804 formally granted Decatur the rank of Captain, writing, “The President has desired me to convey to you his thanks for your gallant conduct on this occasion… As a testimonial of the President’s high opinion of your gallant conduct in this instance, he sends to you the enclosed commission.”[49] For his part in the raid, Decatur became the youngest captain ever appointed in the U.S. Navy.[50] Decatur’s reputation was also made among his European counterparts. Nelson, who was blockading Toulon at the time, heard about the event and called it the most bold and daring act of the age.[51] Decatur would be further honored by Congress with a sword and the other officers and sailors who took part in the raid received two month’s pay.[52] The raid cemented Decatur’s reputation for bravery and as a daring commander.

Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero


Preble now prepared for a major attack on Tripoli. Preble began to assemble a large fleet at Syracuse. Preble supplemented his own forces with the captured Transfer, which was renamed the Scourge. Preble also asked the King of Naples, who was also at war with Tripoli, for a number of gun and mortar boats with which to bombard Tripoli.[53] These the King provided along with the crews to man them. Preble made his assault in the summer of 1804, capturing numerous Tripolitan prizes and causing great destruction in Tripoli. When the Philadelphia was captured, Preble wrote back to the United States for reinforcements. These were sent, but unfortunately for Preble, there were not enough junior captains to command the reinforcements. The Secretary of the Navy wrote Preble informing him of this unfortunate circumstance and that he was to be relieved of command.[54] Preble was greatly disappointed at the thought of being relieved at “the moment of victory.”[55] Preble, though, duly relinquished his squadron to Commodore Samuel Barron on December 24, 1804 and sailed for home, leaving the Tripolitans considerably weaker than when he arrived.

The burning of the Philadelphia was the result of a daring raid during the war against Tripoli. Stephen Decatur secured for himself a reputation for valor that lasted for the rest of his life. The burning of the Philadelphia shocked the Tripolitans, enraging their ruler, and restored American prestige in the eyes of the other Barbary States. Even more amazing, the raid cost no American lives. While Bainbridge and the crew of the Philadelphia remained prisoners until the end of the war, the destruction of the frigate ensured that the Tripolitans could not use it nor sell it to any of the other Barbary States. After the frigate’s destruction, Preble increased the tempo of operations against Tripoli, causing great destruction for Tripoli and her fleet, and increasing even further the prestige of the U.S. Navy in the eyes of Barbary. Preble and Decatur would both return home to a hero’s welcome. Costing no lives or ships lost, cementing the heroic reputation of Decatur, and giving the initiative back to the Americans, the burning of the Philadelphia was a heroic and important episode in the war against Tripoli.

[1]Ray W. Irwin,Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers 1776-1816 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1970), p.107

[2]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p.106

[3]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p. 109

[4]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p. 112

[5]Gardener W. Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Hamden: Archon Books, 1965), p. 121-122

[6]Allen, Our Navy, p. 126-128

[7]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p. 129

[8]Allen, Our Navy, p. 143

[9]Allen, Our Navy, p. 144

[10]Allen, Our Navy, p. 144

[11]Navy Department, Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1941), p. 215

[12]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 389

[13]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 159

[14]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 192

[15]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 193

[16]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 193

[17]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 193

[18]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 194

[19]Allen, Our Navy, p. 150-151

[20]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 192

[21]Allen, Our Navy, p. 157

[22]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p. 135

[23]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 235

[24]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 256

[25]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 256

[26]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 257

[27]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 256

[28]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p. 140

[29]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 258

[30]Navy Department, Naval Ops., p. 277

[31]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 294

[32]Allen, Our Navy, p. 164

[33]Robert J. Allison, Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero 1779-1820 (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005) p. 46

[34]Navy Department, Naval Ops., p. 384

[35]Navy Department, Naval Ops., p. 414

[36]Allison, Stephen Decatur, p. 47

[37] Allison, Stephen Decatur, p. 48

[38] Allison, Stephen Decatur, p. 49

[39] Allison, Stephen Decatur, p. 50

[40] Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 414

[41] Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 414

[42] Allison, Stephen Decatur, p. 51

[43] Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 414

[44] Allison, Stephen Decatur, p. 52

[45]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p. 135

[46] Allison, Stephen Decatur, p. 53

[47] Allen, Our Navy, p. 173

[48] Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 441

[49] Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 428

[50] Allen, Our Navy, p. 176

[51] Allen, Our Navy, p. 173

[52] Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 428

[53] Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p. 138

[54] Allen, Our Navy, p. 199

[55] Allen, Our Navy, p. 200

  • Mark Lewis

    Interesting read, thank you for writing it and thank you for your service!