Loosed Upon the SeaBy Andrew Reinbach | January 20th, 2011 | Category: Long Form Articles | No Comments »
LOOSED UPON THE SEA
American Glory on the High Seas
in the War of 1812
By Andrew Reinbach
There was a gale abroad that night — a sweeping, swirling wind from the
northeast, where the great gales are loosed upon the sea.
The Way of the Sea by Norman Duncan, 1903
On October 27, 1812, three American warships weighed anchor and sailed into history.
Their names will live as long as ships fly the Stars and Stripes: The USS Constitution; the USS Essex; and the USS Hornet. Two hundred years later, the fame of their commanders is faded–Commodore William Bainbridge, Captain David Porter, and Master Commandant James Lawrence, respectively–but in their day, their glory was as bright as it can be in time of war.
The 44-gun Constitution and the 18-gun Hornet sailed in company from New York; the 32-gun Essex sailed to join them from Chesapeake Bay. Their aim: Cruise the South American coast, attack British shipping, and annoy the enemy.
American success in the Naval War of 1812 was at its flood. The British had drawn first blood by taking the 16-gun brig USS Nautilus in July, 1812. But in mid-August Porter and the Essex took the 18-gun HMS Alert; Alert had been hunting the Essex. Later that August the Constitution, under Captain Isaac Hull, sank the HMS Guerriere, an aging 38-gun frigate. And in October the USS Wasp, the Hornet’s sister ship, took the HMS Frolic, an 18-gun sloop, off Bermuda. The Wasp was almost immediately captured by a 74-gun British ship-of-the-line, but all the Americans—or the British—could remember was that the Frolic had struck her colors.
American success threw Britain into an uproar. For fifty years, often against great odds, the Royal Navy had swept all before it. It had whipped French fleets at the Nile, on the Glorious First of June, off Capes Trafalgar and St. Vincent, and in single-ship actions across the world’s oceans. By 1812 the French fleet was bottled up in Marseilles and Toulon in the Mediterranean, and in every French port on the English Channel. In England, it was an article of faith that the arrival of the Royal Navy meant victory.
How, believed the British, could it be otherwise? The American Navy was puny; eleven frigates—two unseaworthy–and 9 sloops and brigs, one of which, the Oneida, was on Lake Ontario. The Royal Navy, over 1,000 ships strong, had 245 frigates and 50-gun ships alone, and if most of the Navy was blockading the French fleet, the nation could certainly spare some ships to teach upstart Americans a lesson. To the typical English mind, it was—or should have been—merely a matter of issuing orders.
But what the American Navy lacked in numbers, it made up in other ways. American officers were the professional equal of their British opposites. American crews were paid volunteers serving limited enlistments; British crews were basically slaves—kidnapped from their hometown streets by press gangs and confined to their ships for eight years, by which time many were dead. And while the typical British frigate, built from traditional designs, carried 38 18-pound cannon, American frigates were superior–bigger, newer, stronger-built, and carrying 44 24-pound guns.
But to the British, these details bore little weight; to them, British naval superiority was a matter of fact. So the string of American naval victories was less a shock to the British mind than it was a challenge to the natural order. Their newspapers were filled with accusations of underhanded American behavior—about what could be expected from a race of mongrel rebels with nary a gentleman amongst them—and demands for revenge, and restoration of national honor. Thus began what amounted to a massive duel between the two officer corps, fought with ships instead of pistols.
The road to the duel was long and circumstantial. There was, for instance, the matter of professional honor. Officers of the Royal Navy certainly loved their country and had every reason for pride in their service, which had a long, storied tradition of service to the Crown, and for twenty years had been ranging the world’s oceans giving battle to Napoleon and Imperial France.
But American officers were just as proud. They had all been raised in post-Revolutionary America. To them, there was no difference between their nation and the cause of liberty, and this truth became more precious as Revolutionary France, which had shared those ideals, veered to anarchy, blood, and terror. Finally, France had accepted an Emperor. Looked at this way, the survival of America meant the survival of republican government and human liberty itself, so that glory or failure on the part of American officers could only reflect on that ideal.
That idea was magnified by the even greater awareness, in their parent’s generation, that they were creating a new thing under the sun; for the Founders, honor or disgrace, achievement or failure, meant the reification of the Revolutionary ideal, or its defeat. In this way, the achievements of Washington, of Adams, of Jefferson and Madison, were all of a piece with the country they had established, so that fame for them meant the persistence of their republic–of the freedom of mankind. Living up to that standard would have been a challenge for anyone; for young men, it must have been a constant spur to their own struggles to become themselves.
But for Bainbridge and Lawrence, it must have been much more; both were sons of Loyalists. Lawrence’s father had even been imprisoned for collaborating with the British, and later emigrated to Canada. James Lawrence had been raised in genteel poverty by his sisters, and later forsook study of the law to seek glory, and possibly redemption, at sea.
There was also the simple matter of national honor. In the 21st Century, honor is a vague, even quaint concept, although many could say otherwise; but in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, honor was a living thing, something that defined and carried one through life, something that could be lost, and must be defended. It was reputation, standing, the idea society held of who you were. Losing honor was very different from embarrassment: In the stratified society of the day, honor meant life itself; if it was lost, so was the life you’d known. And if for individuals losing one’s honor meant losing one’s place, for nations, always playing a rough game, lost honor meant disregard, insult, and, possibly, extinction, since no competitor would scruple to see how far they could go. Sooner or later, every nation had to fight—or else.
But in the years leading up to Madison’s declaration of war on June 18, 1812, America’s honor had been besmirched; France and Great Britain had batted her about like a gazelle chased by leopards. Simply put, America wanted to trade with both sides, but the antagonists wanted to keep supplies out of the hands of their enemies; the result was the sort of prolonged game of diplomatic chess in which both England and France had long experience, but at which Madison, and Jefferson before him, was hopelessly out of his depth. Both had imagined that the antagonists needed American goods more than the considerations of war; both were very wrong.
The result for the national honor—not to mention self-esteem–was discouraging and unprofitable. The original tool Madison tried for dealing with the problem—an embargo on the belligerents—was laughed at even by Americans, who continued trading with England even after war was declared. Certainly, a fair reading of the twists and turns on the road to the War of 1812 suggests that America could have as easily declared against France as England. But Madison hated England, so war with England it would be.
That hatred in Madison’s heart was, in any event, well-earned. And if the Father of the Constitution had ever been in a forgiving mood, the Chesapeake-Leopard affair must have driven it clear away.
In 1807 the 50-gun HMS Leopard, looking for what it claimed were deserters, fired on the 38-gun USS Chesapeake for 12 to 18 minutes, within sight of American shores, then boarded her and took away three men–only one shot was fired in return. This genuine insult to the national dignity had almost ignited war between England and America, although President Jefferson, never a warlike man, allowed the occasion to drift away.
Jefferson’s inaction left American pride aboil. It also lit a slow-burning fuse that led to Stephen Decatur’s duel with Commodore James Barron, who had been court martialled and suspended from the service for his role in the affair. Decatur had been one of the officers who tried Barron.
So by 1812—thanks to the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, and the thousand diplomatic indignities poured upon her by France and Great Britain–America was spoiling for a fight. It was one reason why, the same day the expected news of war reached him, Commodore John Rogers and his squadron sailed without orders. And it was why the nation was so delirious with joy as news of one naval victory after another reached its ears.
So when Commodore Bainbridge and his little squadron sailed into the Atlantic that October morning, British confidence was shaken and anxious for a victory. And American pride was high.
American pride was not disappointed. Bainbridge, Lawrence, and Porter were gloriously victorious. Off Brazil, the Constitution defeated the HMS Java, a new frigate, in a beautifully-fought two-hour battle. The Java was so badly damaged that it had to be burned. And in a separate action fought about the same time, Lawrence and the Hornet sank—sank–the HMS Peacock, a ship of equal force, in 14 minutes.
Porter, meanwhile, missed Bainbridge at every appointed rendezvous, and British ships, searching for the Essex, blocked him from going home. So he sailed around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, where, for two years, he lived off the enemy while destroying the British whaling fleet. Practically as an after-thought, he annexed the Marquesas Islands in the western Pacific, where he’d sailed to re-fit. Finally, two British ships cornered the Essex off Valparaiso, Chile and, together, blew her to bits.
For the American blue-water Navy, the Bainbridge mission was the war’s apogee. By the middle of 1813 Lawrence had died in battle, America’s ocean-going ships were bottled up in harbor, and the naval war was being fought on the Great Lakes. By the time the Constitution and the Hornet managed to slip, individually, back to sea, the war was almost over.
In the years after the 1812 War, in the way life takes us sideways, the paths of Bainbridge and Porter diverged.
Bainbridge was rewarded for his victory; his orders were to build, and command, America’s first 74-gun ship-of-the-line, the USS Independence. He was supposed to have sailed it against the Barbary Pirates in 1815—with Britain and half of Europe in a struggle with Napoleon to the death, piracy had flared again. Decatur was serving beneath him in the frigate USS Ontario. But a series of delays kept Bainbridge in port, and Decatur sailed first. Once in the Mediterranean, Decatur should have waited for Bainbridge, but he didn’t; and Decatur settled the Barbary Pirate’s hash, and harvested the glory.
Thereafter, Bainbridge served most of his days in Washington as the nation’s second most-senior naval officer, and a member of the Naval Board, overseeing the Navy’s day-to-day operations. His reputation was later enshadowed by suspicions that he had encouraged the 1821 duel between Decatur and James Barron; aside from the blot on his name from the Chesapeake/Leopard affair, Barron had been unable—too poor, in fact–to return from Europe to fight in the War of 1812, and for that he’d earned the scorn of the Navy. Barron blamed Decatur for his troubles, and Decatur died that day.
After the War Porter was sent to put down piracy in the Caribbean. He excelled, as he always did; but in his zeal he also invaded Puerto Rico–to chastise a village that had insulted some of his men–and he was court martialled for it. Since his actions threatened negotiations over Florida between Spain and the United States, a court martial was inevitable, whether Porter was justified or not. He resigned his commission, served awhile as Admiral of the Mexican Navy, and was eventually re-instated. Finally, he served for many years as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and died in his villa overlooking the Bosphorus.
It was Lawrence who fared best. Dying young and gloriously in battle, and uttering what became the Navy’s motto—“Don’t give up the ship”—Lawrence’s legend, unsullied by the missteps life leads us to, grew with his country, until he became the beau ideal of the American naval officer. By 1847, his reputation had so enlarged that when his headstone in Trinity Churchyard, New York, eroded, a flood of donations paid for one of the largest tombs in that mellow and gracious plot. It lies just south of the main doors, surrounded by cannon. So does death favor those of us who remain always young and covered in glory.
The War of 1812 was no triumph for America. Many historians say it was the only war she ever lost, and certainly, the United States barely emerged intact; by the end of the war, Great Britain had annexed northern Maine, held the Northwest Territories, and held the entire American coast under blockade. New England was on the verge of secession.
The original casus belli—free trade, and an end to British impressment of American sailors—weren’t even mentioned in the Treaty of Ghent. The only reason Great Britain didn’t press the war following Napoleon’s defeat was because, offered overall command, the Duke of Wellington declined–he thought the United States was too thinly-settled to re-conquer. And there was the fact that England, after 20 years of world war, was exhausted and didn’t need the distraction. So the final settlement returned matters to the status quo ante bellum.
But for a brief, glorious moment, Bainbridge, Porter, Lawrence, their fellow officers, and the men of the United States Navy bloodied the nose of the world’s greatest naval power, and drove their former colonial masters to distraction. While they did so, they showed the world that America would—and could—fight. America’s honor was redeemed. And the nation sailed to its destiny.
Life deceives us. Defeat sometimes leads to great victories. When disaster found the USS Philadelphia in 1803, it touched the men who gave the US Navy its greatest triumphs in the War of 1812–William Bainbridge, David Porter, and James Lawrence.
It was October. Years of provocation, bribes, and the slogan of “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!” had forced President Thomas Jefferson, who didn’t believe in war and didn’t like the Navy, to send ships to the Mediterranean to force war on the Barbary pirates.
In the Mediterranean, the American naval squadron had a new commander, Commodore Edward Preble. Preble, 42, was a hard-nosed, Maine-born man willing to fight, was sewnt to replace Commodore Richard Morris, who had different ideas of war: he’d brought his pregnant wife, his son, and a maid with him. Mrs. Morris gave birth while on station.
Preble, in the 44-gun super frigate USS Constitution—204 feet long, 462 officers and crew—was making his way to Gibraltar from Tangier, where he’d negotiated peace with the Emperor of Morocco. Off Tripoli in what is now Libya was the 36-gun frigate USS Philadelphia–157-foot long, 307 men and officers, built by the merchants of Philadelphia as a present to the nation. She was designed by Joshua Humphreys, who had designed the Constitution’s sisters, the USS United States and the USS President. Commanding was twenty-nine year old Captain William Bainbridge; David Porter, 23, was his first lieutenant. Both had great things before them. But October 31st was not their day.
Sprinkled through the squadron were heroes of the War of 1812, young officers like Stephen Decatur, Charles Stewart, and James Lawrence, at the dawn of glorious careers. Today their fame is confined to the Navy; but in 1814, they were some of America’s most celebrated men.
There’d been a hard blow that drove the Philadelphia off station the night of the 30th. By nine the next morning she was returning, and near the harbor she spotted a Tripolitan xebec— light, narrow, fore-and aft rigged ships much favored by the pirates—sailing toward Tripoli. Bainbridge, firing her bow chasers—small guns mounted forward—chased her into the harbor.
By 11 the Tripolitan, knowing the waters, got away. Bainbridge did not. Making eight knots, he turned toward open water and struck a sandbar called the Kaliusa Reef. With that much way on her, the Philadelphia drove on to the sand until it held her like a cradle.
This wasn’t bad just because the Philadelphia and her men were at risk—so were Preble’s war plans. Morris’ squadron had included three frigates—The USS Chesapeake, the USS Constellation, and the USS Adams. They were big ships that needed plenty of water under their keels, and the pirate’s small xebecs escaped them easily, merely by sailing where the frigates couldn’t. The idea behind Morris’ squadron, in other words, was as much public relations as war.
Preble’s squadron was designed to fight. It had the Constitution and the Philadelphia, but also five sloops half their size that could chase the xebecs into the shallows—the USS Argus, the USS Enterprise, the USS Nautilus, the USS Syren, and the USS Vixen. With two frigates, the squadron could operate in two places at once, the frigates supporting the sloops. If the Philadelphia was lost so was the premise of the squadron.
First Bainbridge tried to drive the ship forward and off by setting more sail; but soundings showed the water before him was only 12 feet deep, To float, the Philadelphia needed 20 ½ feet. Then the ship began listing to port. He abandoned the effort. His first soundings astern showed 17 feet. The ship must have been lifted on a long, heavy, almost invisible swell, and dropped on the bar.
Tripoli had heard the guns and saw the Philadelphia strike the reef. Gunboats were sailing out to her. Bainbridge took new soundings astern and found deeper water, so he laid his sails to their masts to push the ship backwards, and shifted his guns aft. Each of the Philadelphia’s 28 18-pound long guns weighed about 2.2 tons. Her 16 32-pound carronades weighed 1,918 pounds each. Some had to be dragged 157 feet under the Libyan sun.
Bainbridge threw most of the guns and all but one of her anchors overboard, hoping that if she could be gotten off the reef, she wouldn’t strike the harbor bottom. Meanwhile, the Tripolitan xebecs had made gun range and began peppering her, getting bolder over time. Leaning to port, Bainbridge’s guns could not bear on the Tripolitans. Then the Tripolitans took station off her stern and began raking her. Bainbridge dumped his water overboard. He cut down his foremast. When it fell, it took her main topgallant mast with it. The ship didn’t budge.
Finally, it was a matter of the crew’s lives. There were nine Tripolitan warships nearby, all firing. At 4 PM Bainbridge drowned his power magazine, bored holes in the hull, choked the ship’s pumps, and struck her colors. It was the third time he’d struck since his service began in the 1798 Quasi-War with France. In the service Bainbridge was thought capable, but unlucky.
The Tripolitans swarmed on board, stole everything they could—one grabbed Bainbridge’s neck cloth from his throat—and, according to a letter from Bainbridge to an unknown party, delivered the officers to the 35-year-old Bashaw, Yusuf Karamanli, “…seated in state with his Council about him, and surrounded with Guards…He asked a variety of questions principally concerning our Ship and Squadron; and after having us paraded before him, and taken a full survey of each of us…a gracious smile appeared upon his countenance,” and put them up in the empty American Consulate, overlooking the harbor.
The 283 crew members, on the other hand, were thrown into a dirt-floored stone warehouse measuring 20 by 80 feet. It had been used to store hides. For the next 20 months they lived on bread and water, built a ship for the Bashaw, pulled carts, carried stones, served hard labor generally, and were beaten.
The next day the Tripolitans began repairing the Philadelphia’s hull, retrieving the guns, and got ready to pull the Philadelphia off the bar. They needn’t have bothered; two days later a shift in the wind pushed her partly off the reef. By November 5th , she was afloat inside the harbor and her guns and anchors were being pulled from the water. Whether Tripoli could man her or not, her navy now had a powerful ship and 307 bargaining chips.
The day the Philadelphia ran upon the Kaliusa Reef , Edward Preble was preparing to sail to Gibraltar to make formal declaration of his Tripoli blockade. From there, he delivered the American consul to Algiers, then sailed for Malta. On the way he ran across the HMS Amazon, which gave him the news.
Waiting for him when he reached Malta was a letter from Bainbridge.
TRIPOLI BARBARIE 6th Nov. 1803
SIR, I wrote you on the 1st inst. informing of the distressing event in the loss of the United States Frigate Philadelphia on the Rocks off Tripoli; since then, owing to the assistance of their Gun boats, and a strong Westerly wind that came on about 40 hours after we struck, which raised the Sea so as to enable them to get her off; this still adds to our calamity, but feel conscious that it was morally impossible, situation as we were, to effect it: however distressing it is to us, we feel some consolation in knowing that it is not the first instance where ships have been from necessity (of running aground) oblidged to surrender, and afterwards got off by the enemy, which could not have been effected by the ships company; – witness the Hanibal at Algesiras, the Jason off St Maloes, and several others.
We are confined to the American Consular House, notwithstanding our having given our parole of honor.
When a vessel of the United States appears off here, if she hoists a white Flag at the Fore & fires a Gun, and should the Bashaw hoist a white Flag & fire a Gun in answer, I presume a Boat with an Officer would be safe to come on Shore; – this I am told is their method.
Negotiating Bills here; for money will be attended with a great loss
Present my best respects to Colo Lear, who must excuse my not writing him at present.
Every wish attend you for glory & success, but I am doubtful of the Field
The next day, Preble sailed for Sicily, set up a supply base, sent dispatches to America, refit the Constitution for the winter, and sailed for Tripoli on December 17th in company with the Enterprise, an 85-fott-long schooner carrying 12 six-pounders and 70 officers and men. The Enterprise was commanded by 24-year-old Lieutenant Commandant Stephen Decatur Jr., in later days one of America’s most famous Commodores. His second in command: Lieutenant James Lawrence.
At sunrise on the 23rd.the Constitution and the Enterprise were nine miles from Tripoli harbor when the Enterprize sighted a fore-and-aft rigged ketch to the southwest, turned in chase and signaled the Constitution, which turned and joined her. Between them, and flying British colors—a common ruse de guerre at the time—they stopped the ketch at around 11:30, and sent over a boarding party. It turned out to be the Mastico, bound for Constantinople with a crew of 20, 32 slaves—20 a present to Mehmed Kadri Pasha, the Captain Pasha, or Admiral of the Fleet, in Constantinople–and some weapons, including, as it turned out, Lt. David Porter’s sword and sword belt. She was a little less than half the size of the Enterprize—between 60 and 70 tons versus 135 tons.
As soon as he knew what he had, Preble hauled down the Union Jack, raised the Stars and Stripes, and took the Mastico as a prize. Preble put Midshipman Hethcote J. Reed in command, gave him a crew, and sent her in to Syracuse. In January, Don Nicholas Thomas Fucile, judge for the Royal Vice-Admiralty Court of Syracuse, heard a merchant captain named Salvatore Catalano swear he’d been in Tripoli when the Philadelphia had been taken, that Mastico’s crew boarded and looted her under the Tripolitan flag, and that Mastico’s captain, Mustapha Rais, had personally escorted Bainbridge and his officers to the Bashaw. Preble had already heard this several times.
The prize court found the Mastico a lawful prize of war, took possession, and paid the Americans for her. Preble took $1,800 of the prize money, bought her back, renamed her US Ketch Intrepid, and hired Salvatore Catalano as a pilot. He had plans for them.
A few days after the Mastico was taken the weather came on to blow and Preble sailed to Syracuse. Waiting for him were letters from Bainbridge written in invisible ink—probably lime juice. They had been smuggled from the embassy by Nicholas Nissen, the Danish Consul. In one, dated December 5th, Bainbridge urged Preble to destroy the Philadelphia.
“….The unfortunate Frigate lies moored in the Harbour, with all her Guns. They took them up from off the rocks in the depth of 12 & 14 feet Water. I think it very practicable with six or Eight good Boats well manned, and determined Officers to destroy her, and their Cruisers, particularly if the thing was attempted without giving them much warning; for all their Gun Boats at present, are hauled up on Shore, and I am told, that there is only a four Gun Battery badly mounted, that points towards the Harbour, which could be easily silenced, after getting possession of the Ship. Powder and Shot should be brought in one of the Boats, to supply the Guns on board the Frigate.
By chartering a Merchant Vessel, and sending her into the Harbour, with the men secreted and steering directly on board the Frigate, it might be effected without any or a trifling loss. It would not be possible to carry the Frigate out, owing to the difficulty of the Channel. I beg that you will not consider me too officious, in giving my ideas on a conjectural practicability….”.
Preble was apparently of the same mind. On December 10th, he wrote Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith that “I do not believe the Philadelphia will ever be of service to Tripoly;
I shall hazard much to destroy her – it will undoubtedly cost us many lives, but it must be done.”
Since the Constitution was sailing in company with the Enterprize, it would be unsurprising if Preble hadn’t discussed the Philadelphia with Decatur, especially since Decatur was considered a most promising young officer. Decatur, for his part, offered to cut her out—take her back—and Preble told him he could have the assignment when his plans were formed.
At about the same time Lieutenant Commander Charles Stewart made the same offer. Stewart, 25, commanded the16-gun brig Syren and in Bainbridge’s absence was the squadron’s second in command. Stewart and Decatur were boyhood friends; Decatur’s father, a sea captain, used to work for Stewart’s ship-owning father.
But Preble was 42. He was steadier than his young officers, and thanks to Bainbridge and his invisible ink, had more facts. He knew, for instance, that the Philadelphia lay close to shore, covered by 115 shore guns and surrounded by gunboats. The foremast Bainbridge had cut away had not been stepped—reinstalled—and without it, the jibs necessary to steer the ship would have to be rigged from the mainmast—an awkward job that would take time a cutting-out party never has, especially when it’s under fire. Not to mention that any operation would be under cover of night, and as Bainbridge certainly knew, Tripoli harbor was full of reefs and sandbars.
It would not do. Preble told Decatur to fit the Intrepid for a cruise, gave Stewart and the Syren overall command of the mission, and on January 31, gave them their orders.
To Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr., U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. Ketch
Intrepid, from Captain Edward Preble, U. S. Navy
U. S . FRIGATE Constitution
Syracuse Harbor Jan 31st 1804
Sir: You are herby ordered to take command of the prize ketch, which I have named the Intrepid, and prepare her with all possible, despatch for a cruise of thirty days, with full allowance of water, provision, &c., for seventy-five men. I shall send you five midshipmen from the Constitution, and you will take seventy men, including officers, from the Enterprise, if that number can be found ready to volunteer their services for boarding and burning the Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli; if not, report to me, and I will furnish you with men to complete your complement. It is expected you will be ready to sail to-morrow evening, or some hours sooner, if the signal is made for that purpose.
It is my orders that you proceed to Tripoli, in company with the Syren, lieutenant Stewart, enter that harbor in the night, board the Philadelphia, burn her, and make good your retreat, with the Intrepid, if possible, unless you can make her the means of destroying the enemy’s vessels in the harbor, by converting her into a fireship, for that purpose, and retreating in your boats and those of the Syren. You must take fixed ammunition and apparatus for the frigate’s 18-pounders, and if you can, without risking too much, you may endeavor to make them the instruments of destruction to the shipping and Bashaw’s castle. You will provide all the necessary combustibles for burning and destroying ships. The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance, and I rely with confidence on your intrepidity and enterprise to effect it. Lieutenant Stewart will support you with the boats of the Syren, and cover your retreat with that vessel. Be sure and set fire in the gun-room births, cock-pit, store-rooms forward, and births on the birth-deck.
After the ship is well on fire, point two of the 18-pounders, shotted, down the main hatch, and blow her bottom out. I enclose you a memorandum of the articles, arms, ammunition, fire-works, &c., necessary, and which you are to take with you. Return to this place as soon as possible, and report to me your proceedings. On boarding the frigate, it is probable you may meet with resistance-it will be well, in order to prevent alarm, to carry all by the sword. May God prosper and succeed you in this enterprise.
I have the honor to be, Sir, your obedient serv’t,
To Lieutenant Charles Stewart. U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. Brig Siren.
From Captain Edward Preble, U. S. Navy
U. S. FRIGATE Constitution
Syracuse Harbor Jan 31 1804
SIR YOU will prepare the Syren for a Cruize and be ready to sail tomorrow evening, or as soon as the Signal is made.
Proceed with all possible dispatch for the Coast of Tripoly; The Ketch Intrepid under the Command of Lt Decatur with Seventy Volunteers from the Squadron is ordered to accompany you, to endeavor to effect the destruction of the Frigate Philadelphia by burning her in the Harbor of Tripoly.
Previous to your approaching so near the Coast that the Syren can be discovered from the Shore, you are to disguise her by changing the Color of your paint, sending Top Gall’ masts on deck, rigging in flying Jibb boom, Housing guns, Shutting in Ports, raising quarter cloths & give the appearance of a Merchant Vessel.
I concieve the Object in view can be best effected in the night; You will therefore keep at a distance from Tripoly until the Evening, but not so far but that you can reach the Harbor by Midnight: The Intrepid being rigged in a manner peculiar to the Mediterranean probably will not be suspected by the enemy, of course it will be most adviseable to send her ahead in order that she may stand into the Harbor, and board the frigate.
I have no doubt but Lt Decatur with the Officers and men under his command will be able to take possession of, and destroy her: As soon as the Intrepid has entered the Harbor, you will stand in and anchor in such a position as you, in your Judgment, may think best calculated to afford her assistance in the execution of the main object, cover her retreat or destroy any of the Enemies Cruizers that may be in the Harbor by sending your boats for that purpose.
It will be most proper for you to enter the harbor with a Westerly Wind as it will ensure you a safe retreat. The destruction of the Frigate is of National importance, and I rely with confidence on your Valor Judgment & Enterprize in contributing all the means in your power to effect it. Whatever may be your success you will return if possible directly to this place.
May the Almighty take you under his protection and prosper you in this Enterprize.
When Preble gave his orders to Decatur, he closed the sort of story no one would believe if they read it in a novel. The first commanding officer to feel the living Philadelphia beneath him had been Stephen Decatur, Sr.. Now the son held her death warrant.
On February 3rd several officers from the Constitution came aboard the Enterprize and Decatur called all hands, told them his orders, and called for volunteers. The whole crew answered. Decatur took 62, left behind a few men and officers, and sailed for Tripoli in company with the Syren at around 5PM. The squadron knew they were off on a mission, but what mission was kept secret.
Among the officers in the little ketch were Lieutenant Lawrence; Midshipman Thomas McDonough, who stopped an 1814 British invasion of the United States at the Battle of Lake Champlain; and Salvadore Catalano, the man who’d testified in Sicily at the Mastico’s condemnation. Catalano later served the Navy for many years as a sailing master. All told there were 74 men aboard the ketch—about the same number as when she was taken.
The voyage had fair weather, but the Intepid’s salt meat was spoiled, and the crew made do with bread and water. By the 9th, Tripoli was in sight, with the Syren about five miles astern, but by as they neared the harbor’s mouth at 5PM, wind and sea were growing. Catalano said the heavy swell from the northeast was probably breaking over the harbor mouth and making it impassable, so Decatur sent in a boat to make sure.
By the time the boat returned and confirmed Catalano’s guess, wind and sea were up–rough enough to stove one of the Syren’s boats as they were hauling it aboard. The Syren and the Intrepid prepared to make for open sea. They were in the spot seamen dread most—in a high sea off what’s called a lee shore. That plight that had claimed many a vessel. But with plenty of water beneath them, they could weather the storm.
They were delayed. One of the Syren’s anchors was stuck, and as she rolled, gunwales under, the crew—even Stewart–labored at the capstan for five hours to lift it from the seabed. Three times the capstan spun, and many at the bars were injured, including Stewart. By 4 AM Stewart saw winning the anchor was hopeless, cut the cable, and made for open water—into the teeth of a six-day blow that drove the ships east more than 200 miles, to the Gulf of Sidra.
The gale broke on the 15th, and by next noon, with the Enterprize leading, the ships came abreast of Tripoli. The breeze was fair, but light. Stewart sent eight men across to reinforce the boarding party, and Intrepid set off.
The plan was simple: 52 men would board. The rest would man Intrepid and the ship’s boats. The boarders would clear the decks, Decatur and 17 men would hold them, and Lawrence would lead three parties below and fire the ship. Fighting by the sword, except in the last extremity.
As the Intrepid drew in with the land, the men could see the Philadelphia moored under the castle walls, guarded by two large xebecs, a few gunboats, and an oared galley. The harbor was smooth as glass, and the ship was making too much way. If he shortened sail to slow her, the shore would see he was suspiciously uneager to land; instead, Decatur threw buckets and other drags overboard to act like brakes, towing them behind him.
Then the wind fell, and he didn’t need them. Soon the Intrepid was barely making two knots, gliding towards the frigate, most of the crew hiding, flat on deck behind the bulwarks and weatherboards.
By ten they made the inner harbor. There was a young moon. The harbor seemed asleep. The wind kept falling until the ship was barely under way. Decatur and Catalano stood on deck, quartermaster at the helm, the Intrepid making for the frigate’s bows. They could see that the foremast was down, her topmasts were housed, and her yards were on the gunwales.
A hail came from the Philadelphia, and Catalano answered in the patois of the coast. The ketch was a trading vessel from Malta, he said, she’d barely survived the blow and had lost her anchors. He told the frigate her cargo. Could she tie up to it for the night?
The wind shifted and took the ketch aback. Her head fell off the wind and she began drifting backwards, then lay becalmed, 40 yards from the Philadelphia’s broadside. But no one aboard the big ship suspected a thing. They lowered a boat with a line, so the Intrepid could make fast to her.
Meanwhile some of the ketch’s men got into one of her boats and made a tied a line to the frigate’s fore chains. Then they met the frigate’s boat, took its line, and passed it to the Intrepid. Men aboard began hauling on it. The ketch pulled slowly toward the Philadelphia.
Then the Tripolitans saw the Intrepid’s anchors. They warned her off, and began cutting the lines. Someone on the frigate shouted they were Americans. The Intrepid’s people gave a strong pull, made fast, and swarmed up the Philadelphia’s side. Over the rail. Swords and tomahawks out. The Americans charged. Tripolitans started dropping overboard. Some took a boat. In a minute the upper deck was clear and Decatur sent up a rocket to tell Stewart he had possession. One American caught a slight saber cut on his head. Maybe 20 Tripolitans were killed. One was taken prisoner, badly wounded.
There was fighting below but in ten minutes the decks were cleared. Catalano told Decatur that he thought the frigate could be cut out, but Decatur followed his orders and the firing parties went to work. Lawrence and twelve men made for the berth deck and forward store rooms; Lieutenant Joseph Bainbridge—William Bainbridge’s brother–and eleven others ran to the wardroom and steerage; Lieutenant Charles Morris and nine more set about the cockpit and aft store rooms. By the time Morris made his way back, smoke from the lower decks filled the ship. He had to grope his way to the fore ladders. On deck he saw the rest of the party already in Intrepid. He joined them. The frigate was aflame. The whole thing took 25 minutes.
The men on the Intrepid gave a shove, and put their oars in the water as flames shot up the rigging. They set the Intrepid’s sails. When they were clear they gave three cheers and the shocked Tripolitans finally began shooting in every direction. One cannon shot hit the Intrepid’s topgallant sail; the rest splashed around them. And the Philadelphia lit up Tripoli. The fire set off her loaded guns, shooting into the town. Her masts fell. The fire burned through her anchor cables. She drifted to shore right under the Bashaw’s castle, and burned to the waterline.
By then Stewart and Decatur, boyhood friends, were watching from the deck of the Syren.
The attack annoyed the Bashaw, and next morning the door to the men’s prison burst open and Tripolitans ran in, “beating every one they could see, spitting in our faces and hissing like the serpents of hell.” Then they were put to heavier labor and shorter rations until they were released 19 months later.
The officers weren’t beaten, but things weren’t much better for them. They had a chance to watch the Philadelphia burn—“…a most sublime sight, and very gratifying to us:” Bainbridge wrote to Preble–but the next day they were thrown in a cell in the castle, a “…habitation very dark and smoky, having no light but what came through a grated skylight.” The door only opened to deliver meals.
To make the best of it, Porter ran a school in the cell for the midshipmen, teaching them fleet sailing, seamanship, navigation, and gunnery. He kept himself busy studying mathematics, French, history, English grammar, and drawing. Thanks to his rank Bainbridge had his own room, but was predictably morose.
The Syren and Intrepid reached Syracuse on February19th and Decatur and Stewart made their reports. Later that day Preble wrote to the Secretary of the Navy Smith that “Lieutenant Decatur is an Officer of too much Value to be neglected. The important service he has rendered in destroying an Enemy’s frigate of 40 Guns, and the gallant manner in which he performed it, in a small vessel of only 60 Tons and 4 Guns, under the enemy’s Batteries, surrounded by their corsairs and armed Boats, the crews of which, stood appalled at his intrepidity and daring, would in any Navy in Europe insure him instantaneous promotion to the rank of post Captain.”
Decatur was made post captain–at 24, the youngest man ever promoted to that rank. Congress awarded him a sword. The rest of the men, including Stewart, got two month’s pay.
By the laws of war at that time, Decatur and his crew were entitled to prize money for the mission. Twenty-four years later, his widow, Susan, had to petition Congress for it.
Later that year, Jefferson sent out a stronger fleet, eventually totaling six frigates, six sloops, ten gunboats and two “bombs”. Preble was relieved by Samuel Barron, who had more seniority, and Decatur was briefly given the Constitution, then shifted to the smaller USS Congress, now on station. This was the largest squadron that had ever sailed under American colors, and the next year, under Commodore John Rogers, it brought the Bashaw to heel.
During Preble’s last bombardment of the city, the Intrepid was packed with 100 barrels of gunpower and 150 exploding shells. The idea was that a skeleton crew of volunteers led by Lt. Commandant John Somers would sail her into the Tripolitan fleet, set the fuse, and row away. On September 4th she sailed into Tripoli harbor, came under fire from the Tripolitan guns, and before she reached the Tripolitans, blew up.
On June 19th, 1805, the Bashaw sued for peace and signed the Treaty Of Peace and Amity between the United States of America and the Bashaw, Bey and Subjects of Tripoli in Barbary. Stripped down, he agreed to stop attacking American shipping and swap the officers and men of the Philadelphia for $60,000 in return for the 100 Tripolitans held by the Americans. Jefferson called it a ransom.
On January 30th, 1804 Preble landed the 43 slaves found aboard the Mastico, in Sicily along with two men to cook and care for them. They were left in the care of one of his agents, a Mr. Dyson, and lost to history.
LOOSED UPON THE SEA: Glory on the High Seas in the War of 1812.
I. Preface sketches overall story.
II. Prologue—In 1805, the US Navy fights the Barbary Pirates off Tripoli, commanded by Edward Preble; Preble sets the tone for the US Navy’s officer corps. The surrender and subsequent burning of the frigate USS Philadelphia joins William Bainbridge, James Lawrence and David Porter by fate.
III. Biographical sketches of these men in the years between Tripoli and the War of 1812:
A. William Bainbridge.
B. David Porter
C. James Lawrence
IV. The reality of life aboard warships in the Age of Sail—As per Churchill, “Monstrous. Nothing but rum, sodomy, prayer, and the lash.” Detail accounts of battle, work and attending dangers, living conditions, and why men would choose such a life—prize money and glory.
V. Road to War of 1812–The Jefferson Administration. Jefferson reduces the Navy, mothballs the majority of the fleet, replaces sea-going vessels with un-seaworthy gunboats intended for harbor and coastal defense only, and attempts to use economic warfare against the British and French, resulting in a massive economic depression. Ironically, this guarantees the North wins the Civil War, while the nullification Jefferson laid out in the Kentucky Resolution lays the legal foundations for secession.
VI. The Road to War—The Madison Administration. Madison’s oddly passive approach to the Presidency results in paralyzed government, while the mood of the public, and Napoleon’s maneuvers, push us into war with England. As America drifts toward war, the Administration does nothing to prepare for it.
VII. War of 1812 begins.
A. The possibly spurious—but wonderful—story of how Bainbridge and Charles Stewart lobbied Secretary of the Navy, Madison, and the Cabinet, to reverse its original defensive strategy for the Navy—keeping it in harbor as defense—in favor of allowing it to attack the British;how whether it was true of not, Administration policy reversed itself, and how the Navy, thinking policy was to keep it in harbor, sailed for the open sea, without orders, on hearing war was declared.
B. Early US Navy successes: USS Essex v. HMS Alert; USS Constitution v HMS Guerriere; USS United States v. HMS Macedonian; USS Enterprise v. HMS Boxer; USS Wasp v. HMS Frolic
C. Comparison of US and Royal Navy—US ships bigger with more guns; US crews paid volunteers, British crews largely pressed men (slaves); officer corps comparable.
D. Bainbridge receives orders from Secretary of the Navy Alan Hamilton.
1. Bainbridge’s intentions—letters to and from William Jones (friend, later Secretary of the Navy)
VIII. Bainbridge and Lawrence sail from New York, cruise off Brazil.
IX. Porter sails from Chesapeake Bay, misses Bainbridge in the Atlantic.
X. Bainbridge, Lawrence, and HMS Bon Citoyenne, which carried $2.5 million in silver. Bon Citoyenne’s captain refuses to fight, gives various excuses.
XI. Bainbridge sails away to remove the excuses of Bon Citoyenne’s captain, and give Lawrence a chance at an even fight (not to mention the silver and the prize money) with that ship. Bainbridge encounters and sinks HMS Java in a 2-hour fight, sails for New York.
XII. Forced to abandon Bon Citoyenne by the arrival of a British 74, Lawrence cruises the Brazilian coast, takes HMS Resolution and her $23,000 in silver, and then encounters HMS Peacock, and sinks her in 14 minutes. The result for Cmd.. John Taylor, captain of HMS Espiegle, which saw the Hornet, had to know of the fight, and did not go out to attack Lawrence after he sank the Peacock—and why, according to his court martial transcripts. Lawrence sails for New York.
A. Lawrence praised by his prisoners, lionized in NYC, assigned to Constitution, then re-assigned to the bad-luck ship of the Navy, the USS Chesapeake.
B. Bainbridge lionized in NYC, given Navy’s first 74-gun ship-of-the-line to build and then command. This takes the rest of the War..
XIII. Porter, pursued by British Navy in South Atlantic, sails into Pacific; in two years, living off the enemy, destroys British whaling fleet; annexes Marquesas; finally cornered by two Royal Navy ships, and Essex destroyed, in Valpariso. Returns to NYC in late 1814. Lionized.
XIV. Back in the US, the US Navy is bottled up in harbor by the Royal Navy’s blockade of the US coast. After mid-1813, there are no significant US actions on the ocean until the war is near its end, although there are great and decisive US victories on Lake Erie (Perry) and Lake Champlain (MacDonough, which actually won the war).
XV. War settled in Ghent; Wellington declines command because, he says, the War is not winnable; but basically, after 20 years fighting Napoleon, the British had better things to do than keep fighting us.
A. Lawrence killed off Boston in fight with HMS Shannon; buried with full military honors (wrapped in his flag, and with his sword) by British in Halifax; Lawrence’s body returns to US, buried in Salem, Mass.; body then returned to NYC, buried in Trinity Churchyard; massive new tomb raised in 1847.
B. Bainbridge sent to Mediterranean to finally defeat the Barbary Pirates, but delayed by friends of Decatur, who gets there first and gets the credit for defeating the Barbary States. Falling out of these former friends. Possible complicity of Bainbridge in Decatur’s death in a duel with Capt. James Barron. Serves most of his life in Washington as a senior officer.
C. Porter sent to Key West to fight Caribbean pirates. Court martial over a punishment mission in Puerto Rico (Spanish territory). Resigns US commission, takes command of Mexican Navy, kills two sets of assassins. Eventually restored to rank, named US Ambassador to Ottoman Empire, and serves there rest of his life.
This book is intended to be a fairly short, fast read about the US Navy’s most successful mission in the War of 1812—a mission that coincides with the peak of the Navy’s success in that war. I expect it to run no more than 300 pages and hopefully less, to appeal to today’s shorter attention spans. It is less a history than a historically accurate telling of the tale, but it will be fully supported by footnotes at the back of the book.
Books about this period—the Age of Fighting Sail–are a strong niche market, best represented in fiction by Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series and C.S. Forester’s Hornblower books. There are plenty of non-fiction books that have sold well, including Ian Toll’s SIX FRIGATES (recently issued in paperback), not to mention a long list of biographies, histories, and classic books issued by The Naval Institute.
Because of the dramatic story and the several naval battles, the project has strong potential for a television documentary.
Age of Sail books are a strong niche market, best represented in fiction by Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series and C.S. Forester’s Hornblower books. There are also plenty of non-fiction books that have sold well, including Ian Toll’s SIX FRIGATES (recently issued in paperback), not to mention a long list of books issued by The Naval Institute.
In my opinion, the strongest marketing strategy would be to sell this book to Naval buffs and people exploring the War of 1812. The Navy itself would be a strong market.
The best proxy for total realistic sales is probably the sales of SEVEN FRIGATES by Ian Toll (Trade secret), and/or the membership of the US Naval Institute.
Also: Readers of the Hornblower and Aubrey/Maturin (Patrick O’Brian) series, and the Bolitho and Captain Hazard series. (Totals a trade secret)
In my opinion, making the book a book/television documentary package would maximize revenues for this project. As a book project alone, there is a strong, dedicated readership of US Navy and Naval buffs.