Today in North African history: the burning of the USS Philadelphia (1804)

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:

Stephen Decatur (d. 1820) is one of the US Navy’s first famous heroes, alongside Revolutionary War captain John Paul Jones, and among the earliest American war heroes in general. Technically we should call him Stephen Decatur Junior, so as not to confuse him with his father, who was also an important early American naval officer. But I’m only going to refer to Stephen Decatur Senior (d. 1808) once more after this sentence, so we don’t really need to be so exacting.

One of the most interesting things about Decatur’s career is that the operation that really made his reputation involved setting an American ship on fire. The USS Philadelphia was a frigate that first set sail in 1799 under the command of Stephen Decatur Senior (whose part in this story is now done), and saw service during the Quasi-War with France before heading to the Mediterranean in response to threats by the Pasha of Tripolitania (the northwestern part of modern Libya), Yusuf Karamanli, against American shipping. Those threats led in part to the First Barbary War (1801-1805), between Tripolitania and the United States, and it's during that war that our story today takes place. On October 31, 1803, the Philadelphia, by this point commanded by William Bainbridge, ran aground in Tripoli’s harbor. Despite Bainbridge’s best efforts to refloat his vessel—and then, when that failed, to scuttle it—he and his crew were taken prisoner and the Philadelphia was salvaged by the Tripolitanians.

It seems odd to imagine a modern-day aircraft carrier or guided missile cruiser falling into the hands of an enemy during wartime, but that’s effectively what happened in the case of the Philadelphia. She was one of the biggest ships in the (admittedly still quite small) US Navy, but more importantly she was more powerful than anything the Tripolitanians already had in their fleet. The possibility that she could be repurposed as a weapon against the US was deemed too big a risk to take. On top of that, her capture emboldened Yusuf Karamanli, who started demanding an immediate payment of $500,000 to make peace, along with $3 million in annual tribute. And there were concerns that the embarrassment of Philadelphia’s capture would embolden other Barbary leaders to take advantage of the United States. So US officials decided that the Navy should undertake a mission to either steal her back or make sure she never sailed again.

This is where Decatur comes in. He’d been successful as an officer during the Quasi-War against France and in the early years of the First Barbary War, and had risen to command of his own ship, the smallish schooner Enterprise. In late December, Enterprise was involved in an engagement that resulted in the capture of a Tripolitanian ketch (a small vessel with only a couple of guns), which Decatur and his crew renamed the USS Intrepid. Decatur volunteered to sail Intrepid—which could be easily made to look like a Maltese commercial vessel of a type common in North African ports—into Tripoli harbor, board Philadelphia, and assess whether or not she could be sailed out. If the answer was “no,” then Decatur and his men were ordered to destroy her.

The operation was carried out under cover of darkness on the night of February 16, 1804. A second vessel, the brig USS Siren, was also involved but couldn’t participate directly due to weather, so much of her crew transferred to Intrepid for the attack. Their subterfuge notwithstanding, this was an extremely dangerous assignment in the middle of a well armed enemy port. Had the US ruse been detected the Intrepid could have found itself being pounded from all sides by over 100 cannons. But Decatur and company managed to get all the way to the Philadelphia and board it without alerting the guards on board. The Americans killed some 20 guards and the rest fled. They (finally) began raising alarms in the harbor, but it was too late. Decatur and his men determined that Philadelphia couldn’t be recovered, so they opted to set her on fire. Decatur pulled the operation off so well that not only was Philadelphia completely destroyed, but his 60-man detachment suffered all of one minor injury in the process.

The US Naval Institute has a more detailed account of the operation if you’re interested.

The First Barbary War ended in an inconclusive American victory, after a small detachment of Marines led a larger group of mercenaries to capture the Tripolitan city of Derna (the “to the shores of Tripoli” line in the US Marines hymn refers to this engagement) in May 1805 and Yusuf Karamanli decided that he was tired of fighting. The basic settlement amounted to an end to hostilities and a prisoner exchange. The US kicked in a $60,000 ransom even though it had in the barest sense “won” the war, because more Americans than Tripolitanians were released in that exchange and Yusuf insisted on making up the difference in cash. There was nothing in the settlement about ending Barbary piracy or protecting American ships from it, which is why the First Barbary War was eventually followed by the Second Barbary War in 1815. That war was another American victory, and coupled with actions taken by Britain and the Netherlands helped more or less end piracy in the Mediterranean.

The First Barbary War is mostly remembered as America’s first sustained overseas military engagement and—at least technically—its first victory. As such, it can be credited with establishing America’s military legacy. So that’s...nice? I guess?

As for Decatur, the operation to scuttle Philadelphia won him fame throughout Europe as well as back home in America, and may (I stress may) have been praised by no less an authority on naval warfare than British admiral Horatio Nelson. Decatur went on to command larger vessels, and was eventually promoted to captain, and then commodore, in time for the War of 1812. He served ably in that conflict until he was captured by the British navy and imprisoned in Bermuda from January 1815 through the end of the war. After the war he received the Congressional Gold Medal for his service.