Decatur set the stage for his seagoing career with his daring exploits off the Barbary Coast in 1803-4.
His raid on an American frigate-previously captured by the corsairs and then anchored under the guns of the Bashaw’s fort on Tripoli Harbor-became the benchmark for heroism and bravery in the sailing Navy.
Captain William Bainbridge had earlier surrendered his grounded shipon 31 October 1803 (see Sea History 11 2, Autumn 2005);
Heroes of the Sailing the corsairs ofTripoli refloared Philadelphia,
a 36-gun frigate and sister ship to USS Chesapeake and USS Constellation,
rowed her into the harbor, put on a crew, and made preparations to use the ship as a unit of their corsair Navy.
Commodore Preble (in command of the United States Squadron in the Mediterranean)
and his officers and men found the th ought of their enemy using an American warship against them abhorrent.
He asked for volunteers to either cut her out (sneak aboard and sail or row her out of the harbor) or burn her.
Before any could respond, Decatur stepped forward to accept the challenge.
With a crew of 70- all volunteers, including midshipmen, officers, sailors, and Marines-he sailed a captured trading ship,
Intrepid, into the harbor under cover of darkness and made fast alongside the frigate.
His crew swarmed aboard, overpowered the Tripolitan crew, and set charges to blow up the ship.
With the resultant fires, the loaded 24-pounder long guns aboard cooked off and, in a final act of retaliation, fired several rounds into the Bashaw’s castle!
Decatur and company made their escape with no casualties, all in under 30 minutes!
Ir has been written by many, beginning with Alexander Slidell Mackenzie’s biography of Decatur in 1844,
that Lord Horatio Nelson called the raid the “most bold and daring act of the age,” but no documentation has ever been discovered supporting the claim.
Nonetheless, surely it was indeed one of the boldest strokes of the war.
Subsequent to that event, using borrowed Italian gunboats, Decatur led another attack on the Tripoli ran fleet, capturing several prizes.
Whil e rowi ng a prize back to Constitution, he learned of the death of his beloved brother, James, at the hands of a corsair captai n and turned his own boat back to the fray.
He successfully avenged his brother’s death by boarding the pirate vessel and killin g the corsair personally.
Heroes of the Sailing
For his role in the Philadelphia raid, Congress promoted Decatur two grades, from lieutenant to captain,
making him the youngest (at just 25 years of age) to ever hold the rank.
Captain Decatur was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in January, 1779, but his family moved to Philadelphia shortly thereafter.
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