U.S. Navy History

The insolence of the North African pirates now became unbearable, and the United States resolved to cease paying tribute to the Barbary Powers. Captain Bainbridge had been sent, in 1800, in the frigate George Washington, to pay the usual tribute to the Dey of Algiers, and had been treated with cruel insolence by that ruler. After performing the errand courteously, and when he was about to leave, the Dey commanded Bainbridge to carry an Algerian ambassador to the Court of the Sultan at Constantinople. Bainbridge politely refused compliance, when the haughty governor said: "You pay me tribute, by which you become my slave, and therefore I have a right to order you as I think proper." Bainbridge could not sail out of the harbor of Algiers without the permission of the vigilant guns of the castle, and was compelled to yield. He bore the swarthy ambassador to the Golden Horn, when the Sultan saw our starry-flag for the first time. He had never heard of the United States of America. His own flag was garnished with a crescent, and he considered it a favorable omen for a flag bearing the stars of heaven to enter the waters of the seat of the Moslem Empire.

Bainbridge was granted a fireman to protect him from further insolence from the Barbary rulers, and he used it efficiently. When he returned to Algiers, he was ordered by the Dey to go on another errand to Constantinople, when the captain peremptorily refused. The African, enraged, sprang from his seat, and threatening Bainbridge with personal injury, ordered his attendants to seize him. Bainbridge quietly produced the fireman, when the lion became like a lamb. The Dey obsequiously offered the man whom he had just regarded as his slave, his slave, his friendship and service. Bainbridge, assuming the air of a dictator, demanded the instant release of the French consul and fifty or sixty of his own countrymen, whom the Dey had imprisoned, and they were borne away in the Washington in triumph. Then he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy: "I hope I shall never again be sent to Algiers with tribute, unless I am authorized to deliver it from the mouth of our cannon."

When news of these proceeding reached the United States, it excited much indignation. The navy, the strong right-arm of the government, which had enabled commerce, under its protection, to sell to foreign nations during the difficulties with France, the surplus products of our republic to the amount of $200,000,000, and to import sufficient to yield a revenue to the government of more than $23,000,000, was then paralyzed by the exercise of unwise economy on the part of the government, which had authorized the sale of all the naval vessels excepting thirteen frigates. Yet these were decreed sufficient to meet the immediate demands for the protection of American commerce in the Mediterranean Sea.

In the spring of 1801, President Jefferson, in anticipation of trouble with the Barbary powers, ordered Commodore Dale to go with a squadron, composed of the frigates President, Philadelphia, Essex and Enterprise, to cruise off the North African coasts. Dale reached Gibraltar on the first of July, and found that Tripoli had lately declared war against the United States, and its corsairs were out upon the sea. His presence effectually restrained the pirates, and made them quite circumspect. The next year a larger squadron, composed of the frigates Chesapeake, Constitution, New York, John Adams, Adams, and Enterprise, commanded by Commodore Richard V. Morris, were sent to the same waters, one after another, from February to September. The harbor of Tripoli was blockaded in May, and not long afterward the Chesapeake, Lieutenant Chauncey acting-captain, had a severe fight with a flotilla of Tripolitan gun-boats. These, as well as some cavalry on shore, were severely handled by this frigate. Finally, in 1803, the whole squadron appeared off the coasts of the Barbary powers, and effectually protected American commerce from the corsairs, for awhile. But Morris's cruise was not regarded as an efficient one. A court of inquiry decided that he had not "discovered due diligence and activity in annoying the enemy," and the President dismissed him from the service, without trial.

In August, 1803, Commodore Preble, in command of a squadron, sailed for the Mediterranean in the frigate Constitution. After settling some difficulties with the Emperor of Morocco, whose corsairs were on the sea, he appeared with his vessels before the harbor of Tripoli, where a serious disaster occurred. The frigate Philadelphia, commanded by Captain Bainbridge, while reconnoitering the harbor, struck a rock and was captured by the Tripolitans. Her officers were made prisoners-of-war, and her crew were made slaves. When the news reached Preble at Malta, a plan was devised for the destruction of the Philadelphia before her captors could make her ready for sea. Lieutenant Decatur, with seventy-four volunteers--ardent and gallant young men like himself--sailed from Syracuse in a small vessel called a "ketch," named the Intrepid. She entered the harbor of Tripoli on the evening of the 3rd of February, 1804, in the disguise of a vessel in distress, and was moored alongside the Philadelphia. Decatur and his men were concealed below, when suddenly they burst from the hatches like a destructive flame, leaped on board the Philadelphia, and after a desperate fight, killed or drove into the sea her turbaned occupants. Then they set her on fire and escaped by the light, under cover of a heavy cannonade from the American squadron, and followed by shots from the castle, vessels at anchor in the harbor, and batteries on shore. Yet not one of Decatur's men was harmed. Before a favoring breeze they sailed to Syracuse, where they were greeted with joy by the American squadron there. The scene of the burning vessel was magnificent. As the guns of the Philadelphia were heated, they were discharged, giving a grand feu de joie for the victory.

This bold act alarmed the Bashaw, and subsequent events made him very discreet. In August following, Preble, with his squadron, opened a heavy bombardment upon his town, castle, shore-batteries, and flotilla of gun-boats, no less than four times, between the 3d and the 28th. In one of these engagements Decatur again distinguished himself. In command of a gun-boat, he laid her alongside one of the largest of the Tripolitan vessels, boarded her, and made her a prize. Then he boarded another, when he had a desperate personal encounter with her powerful captain. The struggle was brief but fearful. Decatur killed his antagonist, and the vessel was captured. Finally, on the 28th of August, Preble, with his flag-ship, the Constitution, entered the harbor, when her great guns opened a heavy fire upon the town, the castle, the batteries on shore and the camps of twenty-five thousand land troops, and the flotilla in the harbor. She silenced the Tripolitan guns, sunk a Tunisian vessel-of-war, damaged a Spanish one, severely bruised the enemy's galleys and gun-boats, and then withdrew without a man hurt.

Another attack was made on the 2nd of September. On that night--a very dark one--the Intrepid, which had been converted into a floating mine--an immense torpedo--with one hundred barrels of gunpowder below her deck, and a large quantity of shot, shell, and irregular pieces of iron lying over them, went into the harbor under the general direction of Captain Somers, to scatter destruction among the vessels of the enemy. She was towed in by two boats, with brave crews, in which it was expected all would escape, after firing combustibles on board of her. All hearts in the American squadron followed the Intrepid as she disappeared in the gloom. Suddenly a lurid flame, like that from a volcano, shot up from the bosom of the harbor, and lighted with its horrid glare the town, castle, batteries, ships, camps, and surrounding hills. It was followed by an explosion that shook the earth and sea, and flaming masts and sails and fiery bombs rained upon the waters for a moment, when darkness more profound settled upon the scene. The safety-boats were anxiously watched for until the dawn. They never returned, and no man of that perilous expedition was heard of afterward. Their names are inscribed upon a monument erected to the memory of these brave men, and the event, that stands at the western front of the Capitol at Washington city. Hostilities on the Barbary coast now ceased for the season. Preble was relieved by Commodore Samuel Barron, and early in 1805 he returned home, and received the homage of the nation's gratitude.

While Barron's ships blockaded Tripoli, and important land movement against that province was undertaken, under the general management of William Eaton, American consul at Tunis. The reigning Bashaw of Tripoli was an usurper, who had murdered his father and taken the seat of power from his brother, Hamet Caramalli. The latter had fled to Egypt. A plan was concerted between him and General Eaton for the restoration of his rights. The latter acted under the sanction of his government. Eaton went to Egypt, and at the beginning of March he left Alexandria, accompanied by Hamet and his followers, some Egyptian soldiers, and seventy United States seamen. They made a march of a thousand miles across the borders of the Libyan desert; and at near the close of April, in conjunction with two American vessels, they captured the Tripolitan city of Derne, on the borders of the Mediterranean Sea. They had defeated the Tripolitan forces in two battles, and were about to march on the capital when news came that the American consul-general (Tobias Lear) had made a treaty of peace with the terrified Bashaw. So ended the hopes of Hamet, and also the four years' war with Tripoli. But the ruler of Tunis was yet insolent. He was speedily humbled by Commodore Rodgers, Barron's successor, and the power of the United States was respected and feared by the half-barbarians of the north of Africa. Pope Pius the Seventh declared that the Americans had done more for Christendom against the pirates than all the powers of Europe united.

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