Stephen Decatur and USS Philadelphia
By: Garland Davis
On November 14, 1798, USS Philadelphia was laid down in that city at the same shipyard that built the USS Constitution. She was a 1240 ton, 36-gun sailing frigate and the second United States Navy vessel to be named Philadelphia. Originally named City of Philadelphia, she was built for the Navy by citizens of the city. Funding for Philadelphia’s construction came as the result of a funding drive which raised more than $100,000 in June 1798. The frigate was launched on November 28, 1799, and commissioned on April 5, 1800, with Captain Stephen Decatur in command.
Philadelphia was initially assigned to the West Indies to serve in the Quasi-War with France. She arrived in Guadeloupe Station in May of 1800 relieving the frigate Constellation. During this cruise, Philadelphia captured five armed French Vessels and recaptured six American merchant ships that had fallen into French hands.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The Quasi-War with France: On February 6, 1778, during the Revolutionary War, the United States, and France entered into a Treaty of Alliance signed by Benjamin Franklin, the Comte de Vergennes and others. Also known as the Franco-American Alliance, it set up a military alliance between the two nations and aided the Americans in their cause against the British.
In 1793, war between England and France broke out. A year later, John Jay negotiated a treaty with Great Britain that increased trade between the nations, resolved several points of contention between the nations and averted war. The French and Americans were already at odds over the United States’ refusal to continue paying its debt to France in the wake of the French Revolution. The Americans believed the debt was payable to the monarchy of France, not the Republic. While the Jay Treaty resolved issues with Britain, it created new tensions with France. END NOTE
After returning home in March 1800, Philadelphia was ordered to prepare for a one-year cruise to the Mediterranean as part of a squadron commanded by Commodore Richard Dale. The squadron arrived at Gibraltar on July 1, 1800. Philadelphia was directed to cruise the Straits and blockade the coast of Tripoli, the Pasha having threatened to wage war on the United States.
In April 1802, Philadelphia departed Gibraltar for the United States, arriving in mid-July. Laid up in ordinary until May 21, 1803, she recommissioned and sailed for the Mediterranean on July 28. She arrived in Gibraltar on August 24 with Captain William Bainbridge in command. Two days later she captured the 24 gun Moroccan ship Mirboka and recaptured the American brig Celia and brought them into Gibraltar.
During this period, known as the First Barbary War Philadelphia while giving chase upon a pirate ship ran aground on an uncharted reef two miles off Tripoli Harbor. Captain Bainbridge tried to refloat her by laying the sails aback, casting off the three bow anchors and shifting the guns aft. A strong wind and rising waves only drove her further aground. They next dumped many of her cannon, casks of water, and other heavy articles in an attempt to lighten Philadelphia. These attempts failed. They then sawed off the foremast in a desperate attempt to lighten her enough to refloat. This also failed and Bainbridge, in order not to resupply the pirates, ordered holes drilled in the ship’s bottom, gunpowder dampened, sheets set afire, and all other weapons were thrown overboard before surrendering. Philadelphia’s officers and crew became slaves of the Pasha.
Philadelphia was refloated by her captors. She was too great a prize to be allowed to remain in the hands of the Tripolitanians. A decision was made to recapture or destroy her. The U.S. had captured a Tripolitanian ship Mastico, which was renamed Intrepid and re-rigged with short masts and triangular sails so as to look like local ships. On February 16, 1804, Intrepid embarked Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr. and a volunteer party of officers and men tasked with boarding and recapturing Philadelphia. After determining that Philadelphia was unseaworthy, Decatur and his boarding party burned her where she lay in Tripoli Harbor.
Admiral Horatio Nelson of Trafalgar fame, known as a man of action and bravery, called Lieutenant Decatur’s action “the most bold and daring act of the age.”
Philadelphia’s anchor was returned to the United States on April 7, 1871, when the Pasha presented it to the captain of the visiting American sloop USS Guerriere.