Method of sailing a ship in distressed condition (Lever, Young Officer’s Sheet Anchor)
THAT AMERICA would have a navy at all in 1812 on the eve of her mad war against Britain was the direct result of events of a decade before that had spoken more to the young nation’s heart than to her mind. The American mind was dead set against the temptations that the republic’s founders believed always led governments to war and tyranny. A solid majority of America’s political leaders opposed on principle the very notion of a standing navy, a solid majority of Americans opposed the taxes that would be required to pay for one, and no sane American of any political inclination thought that any navy their country could ever possess would be able to contend with those of the great European powers.
Yet from the Anglophile merchants of New England to the backwoods farmers on the frontier, Americans had been stirred by the glory that had been won by the captains and men of the tiny United States navy in worlds far away ever since its founding in 1794, and it was that glory that had kept the service alive against all rational calculation to the contrary.
Edward Preble had no illusions about the price to be paid for that glory. “People who handle dangerous weapons,” he once wrote, “must expect wounds and Death.”1 Preble was a man of action to the core, possessed of a legendary decisiveness and a volcanic temper. Just a year before joining his country’s young navy in 1798 as a not-so-young thirty-seven-year-old lieutenant, Preble had taken exception to something a fellow merchant sailor had said to him in Boston, and cracked him over the head with a musket. Preble ended up paying his victim’s room and board and medical bills while he recovered, then gave him $200 for his troubles; he never apologized, though.2
The first week of February 1804 found Commodore Edward Preble, forty-two years old, captain of the frigate Constitution and commander of America’s six-ship Mediterranean squadron, going prematurely bald and gray. His dark blue eyes were as fierce as ever, but he was increasingly given to bouts of racking physical debilitation from a griping stomach complaint that laid him low for days at a time. On the outside he usually managed to keep up a front of self-control and even optimism; inside he was blackened by darts of despair at the task before him, at his mission in life, at the distressing run of bad luck that kept coming his way.
Just a year before taking command of the Constitution the previous May, he had tried to resign his commission from the navy altogether, pleading his shattered state of health, which had kept him bedridden more often than not for weeks on end. Writing the secretary of the navy, Robert Smith, with his decision, Preble had enclosed a statement from his physician confirming that he was “reduced to a distressing state of debility and emaciation,” adding, “he is extremely susceptible of injury from the cares and fatigues of business.” His ship’s surgeon agreed that the burdens of the job had proved too much for a man of Preble’s hard-driving and easily provoked temperament.3
But Secretary Smith had spurned the resignation, ordering Preble on furlough to get some rest, and slowly his health had improved enough for him to return to the endless vexations of commanding one of the three plum ships of the tiny American fleet. For more than two years the American squadron in the Mediterranean had been waging an anemic battle against the Barbary corsairs that were raiding American ships traversing the region. For centuries the semi-independent Muslim states of Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli had flourished on piracy and tribute extorted from European shippers that sailed the Mediterranean. On May 14, 1801, the pasha of Tripoli had made known his dissatisfaction with the amount of tribute he had been receiving from the United States in return for allowing American ships to pass unmolested: in a symbolic declaration of war, the pasha had sent his men to chop down the flagstaff in front of the American consul’s residence.
Little had happened since. The American naval force found it could not effectively blockade Tripoli’s harbor and had been reduced to defensive measures, convoying American ships rather than directly confronting the Tripolitan corsairs. American consuls in the region warned that the United States’ prestige was plummeting—as was her navy’s, both at home and abroad. Jefferson’s cabinet, true to the antinavalist credo of the Republican party, was strongly inclined to simply pay off the pasha and be done with it; Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin wrote the president that he considered the decision “a mere matter of calculation whether the purchase of peace is not cheaper than the expense of a war.”4
Preble’s and the Constitution’s mission was to prove them wrong; or at least to prove that the navy had some value at all. Painfully aware how much was riding on their mission, the secretary of the navy confidently let be it known in Washington that Preble would be on station ten weeks from the date of receiving his orders. Instead, the months had slipped by as Preble struggled to get his ship seaworthy. The Constitution was only five years old but was literally rotting away at her moorings. She had served with distinction during America’s undeclared naval war with France from 1798 to 1800—the Quasi War, as it came to be called, triggered by French captures of American merchant ships trading with Britain and then by a wave of popular anger over the XYZ Affair, when an American delegation sent to Paris to resolve the rising tensions was approached by three agents of the French government who demanded a large bribe. In May 1800, a detachment of sailors and marines from the Constitution staged a daring cutting-out raid on a harbor in Haiti, seizing a French privateer and recapturing an American merchant brig; two days later the Constitution’s men exhibited equal derring-do in snatching another French privateer from under the guns of a nearby port in Hispaniola. But with the signing of a peace treaty between America and France in September 1800, the ship had returned to Boston after one final cruise in the West Indies, and since June 1802 she had lain utterly neglected, accumulating weeds and decay, in the Charles River near Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard.
On May 20, 1803, Preble had come aboard, inspected her skeleton crew of one midshipman, one boatswain, and twelve men, and ordered a caulking stage brought alongside so he could examine the ship’s bottom. The next day he climbed out onto the stage armed with a rake and began pulling up swaths of sea grass that had grown through gaping holes in the copper sheathing below the waterline.
Through the spring and summer of 1803 Preble worked day after day, morning to night, making “every exertion in my power,” he wrote an old acquaintance, denying himself even “the pleasure of dining with a friend” as he urged the work on.5 Every seam of the frigate’s planking had to be recaulked, a job that required all of the officers’ rooms alongside the wardroom to be knocked out. There were cables to be made and tarred, ballast to be brought in, fifty-four thousand gallons of water in casks to be loaded, all new yards to be fitted, all of the ship’s rigging to be removed and rerigged. For the damaged copper sheathing to be replaced, the ship first had to be brought over to a wharf at Boston’s North End, just across the mouth of the Charles River, and all her guns and nearly all her ballast laboriously removed. Then the gunports had to be hammered shut and temporarily caulked tight to make them waterproof, everything that might slide around had to be unloaded and the rudder unshipped, and then each day she was tipped over and held at a frightening angle by huge ten-inch-thick ropes running from her lower masts to a capstan on the wharf alongside. Massive poles braced the masts against the edge of the deck to take the strain as the ship was heaved over, exposing her side all the way down to the keel, while relieving tackles running from the opposite side made sure she did not capsize altogether. Carpenters set to work from a stage, ripping off the old copper sheets and filling the exposed seams beneath with oakum. Then came a coating of tallow, tar, and turpentine; then sheets of tarred paper roofing felt; then finally the new sheets of copper hammered on. Sailing Master Nathaniel Haraden—his nickname was “Jumping Billy”—oversaw the backbreaking schedule; work started at 5:15 each morning, and the laborers kept at it until seven at night, with an hour off for breakfast and dinner and fifteen minutes for grog at eleven and four. Some captains had found Haraden hard to take for having “assumed too much” in telling them how to run their ship, but the fact was no one knew the Constitution better, and the log Haraden kept of the repair operation spoke of a man justifiably proud of his mastery of the myriad technical complexities the job entailed. Preble told Secretary of the Navy Smith he thought Haraden knew his job and that he could keep him in line when he had to.6
By August 9 the Constitution at last was ready to sail, awaiting only a favorable wind to carry her out of Boston harbor. Preble wrote a farewell letter to an old friend from Maine, Henry Dearborn, now Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of war. “I assure you I am not in pursuit of pleasure—excepting such as the destruction of the piratical vessels in the Mediterranean can afford me,” Preble wrote. “If Tripoli does not make peace, I shall hazard to destroy their vessels in port if I cannot meet them at sea.”
And he added: “None but a real friend would have given me the kind advice which you have respecting the government of temper. Be assured it shall be attended to.”7
· · ·
NOTHING ABOUT his command was calculated to improve the new commodore’s temper. One early and spirited display of his legendary short fuse, however, did him some good with the officers and men under his command who were already growing weary of what one midshipman, Charles Morris, termed their captain’s “ebullitions of temper.” Nearing the Straits of Gibraltar on the evening of September 10, the Constitution’s lookout had spotted through the lowering haze just at sunset a distant sail, tracking the same course but far ahead. A few hours later, dark night settled in and they were suddenly on her: the same ship, apparently, and almost certainly a ship of war. The Constitution’s crew was brought swiftly and silently to their action quarters—no beating of the drums, but every gun crew at its station, gunports open and guns run out, the men peering down their barrels at the stranger, slow matches smoldering at the ready to set off their charges the instant the order to fire came. Only then did Preble give the customary hail.
“What ship is that?”
Across the water a defiant echo came back: “What ship is that?”
“This is the United States ship Constitution. What ship is that?”
Again the question was repeated, again with the same result. At which Preble grabbed the speaking trumpet and, his voice strained with rage, shouted, “I am now going to hail you one last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you.”
“If you fire a shot, I will fire a broadside.”
“What ship is that?” Preble thundered one last time.
“This is His Britannic Majesty’s ship Donnegal, eighty-four guns, Sir Richard Strahan, an English commodore. Send your boat on board.”
Now the volcano erupted. Leaping to the netting, Preble bellowed, “This is the United States ship Constitution, forty-four guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat aboard any vessel.” And then, turning to his crew, he bellowed an equally loud, and theatrical, aside. “Blow on your matches, boys!”
An ominous silence ensued, broken by the sound of a boat splashing down and rowing across. A shamefaced British lieutenant came on deck and apologetically explained that his ship was in fact the frigate Maidstone, no eighty-four-gun ship of the line at all. Her lookouts had been caught napping, and they had not seen the Constitution until they heard her hail; they had no expectation of encountering an American ship of war in these waters, and uncertain of her true identity and desperate to buy time to get their own men to quarters, they had stalled and dissembled.
The apologies were accepted; more important, as Morris later recalled, “this was the first occasion that had offered to show us what we might expect from our commander, and the spirit and decision which he displayed were hailed with pleasure by all, and at once mitigated the unfriendly feelings” that their commander’s irascibility had produced.8
Throughout the fall of 1803 the commodore was vexed by the subtleties of Levantine politics, the difficulties of securing reliable translations of Arabic and Turkish documents, and a furious altercation with Commodore John Rodgers, who insisted that as senior captain, owing to the earlier date of his commission, only he was entitled to fly a commodore’s broad pennant on the Mediterranean station. Then disaster: on November 24, on the passage from Gibraltar to Malta, the Constitution spoke a passing British frigate that gave them the appalling news that the Tripolitans had captured the American frigate Philadelphia and all her crew on the last day of October. The available facts were few but devastating. Chasing a corsair running into Tripoli harbor, the American frigate had struck a shoal and helplessly surrendered to Tripolitan gunboats that had poured out from the town; the enemy had since refloated her, and she now stood in Tripoli harbor, snug under the guns of the forts that ringed the shoreline. “This affair distresses me beyond description,” Preble confessed to the secretary of the navy in a dispatch two weeks later, “and very much deranges my plans of operation for the present.”
Although Preble never publicly let slip a word of criticism of the Philadelphia’s officers, he poured out his despair and dismay in his private letters. To the secretary he continued:
I fear our national character will sustain an injury with the Barbarians—would to God, that the Officers and crew of the Philadelphia, had one and all, determined to prefer death to slavery; it is possible that such a determination might save them from either.… If it had not been for the Capture of the Philadelphia, I have no doubt, but we should have had peace with Tripoly in the Spring; but I now have no hopes of such an event—… 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. I am surprised she was not rendered useless, before her Colours were struck.9
And in a letter to his wife, he laid bare how much the circumstances of the Philadelphia’s loss had racked him, heart and soul, beyond the blow to his operational plans: “Captain Bainbridge, together with all his officers and crew, amounting to 307 men, are slaves and are treated in the most cruel manner, without a prospect of ever again beholding their friends. I hope to God such will never be my fate! The thought of never again seeing you would drive me to distraction … May Heaven preserve us both.… I most sincerely pity the cruel fate of poor Bainbridge. I know not what will become of them. I suspect very few will ever see home again.”10 There were reports that the pasha of Tripoli was going to demand $3 million as ransom for his prisoners. “A pretty good asking price,” Preble sarcastically observed.11
Adding to Preble’s troubles were a raft of vexations large and small. The Constitution was in need of repairs again. Chafing under Preble’s stern discipline, a half-dozen crew members had deserted and taken refuge on British warships; he was constantly doling out punishments for drunkenness and neglect of duty, two or three dozen lashes apiece, throwing a man in irons for “impertinence.”
Syracuse, the port town in southern Sicily where Preble had decided to base his squadron and where the Constitution began to undergo three weeks of repairs in late November, proved a constant headache, and a discipline problem too. Things had started well. The local officials and leading citizens hastened to make the Americans welcome, and the town’s somnambulant economy had undergone an instant revival with the sudden influx of dollars. Two new hotels in the “English style” had opened to cater to the Americans; the leading opera singers of Sicily had hastened to Syracuse when word went out across the island that American officers showed their appreciation for their favorite performers by throwing gold coins on the stage. “The Inhabitants are extremely friendly and civil, and our Sailors cannot desert,” Preble optimistically reported to Secretary Smith on December 10, 1803.12
On the other hand, that very dependency on the American trade had quickly translated into a swaggering contempt on the part of Preble’s young officers for local law and authority. It was an attitude unintentionally encouraged by Preble himself, who had set the tone with his own high-handed impatience with the mostly innocent pettifogging of the local governor, an indecisive man who brought out the worst of the commodore’s temper. Preble so cowed the poor man that the Americans were soon a law unto themselves. All an American officer had to do was utter the magic words “I shall inform the commodore.” Disciplining the cocky Americans ultimately fell to the commodore himself, who was distracted by a thousand other details. In the end he admitted somewhat helplessly that “great irregularities have been committed by some of our officers” and passed the problem on to his successor, saying he hoped the new commander might “make an example” of some of the worst offenders.
But the town was also frankly dangerous, as well as dreary, filthy, wretchedly poor, and depressingly decayed from its ancient grandeur of classical times. Mobs of beggars followed the Americans in the streets; at night gangs of cutthroats marauded more or less at will. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur and Midshipman Thomas Macdonough were returning to their ship, the brig Enterprize, one night not long after the Americans’ arrival when they were accosted by three armed men in a narrow street. The officers drew their swords and, keeping their backs to a wall, fought off their attackers, wounding two. All three of the assailants then fled, and Macdonough chased one of the men into a nearby house and up to the roof, where the man tried to escape capture by leaping to the ground—killing himself in the fall.
The Sicilian nobility did not wear well either. They kept up a show of ostentation, but soon there was a story making the rounds about the dinner party given by Lieutenant Decatur aboard the Enterprize during which one of the guests, a Baron Cannarella, was intercepted by Decatur’s servant as he was about to slip two silver spoons into his pocket. (The servant held out his tray and deadpanned, “When you have done looking at them, sir?”)13
It would be months before Preble’s urgent request for reinforcements, especially a frigate to replace the Philadelphia, could reach Washington and be acted on, and so his reduced squadron, now consisting of one frigate, two eighteen-gun brigs, and three schooners, settled in for the winter, biding their time in their less than completely easy new home.
But something was afoot; a careful observer could see the commodore was in a state of expectant tension as the new year began. On February 3, 1804, Preble wrote to several of the American consuls in the Mediterranean and to Secretary of the Navy Smith, informing them that he had somewhat surprisingly decided to condemn, and take into his service as a lawful prize, a vessel he had stopped and boarded off Tripoli in late December. She was a ketch, a tall two-masted vessel, fore and aft rigged like a schooner. Though sailing under Ottoman colors when Preble had halted her, her crew had acted more than a little suspiciously—showing outright panic when the Constitution revealed herself to be American, hauling down the false British colors she had been flying and raising the Stars and Stripes in their place. On searching the ketch, the Constitution’s boarding party had found sidearms and clothes apparently belonging to officers of the Philadelphia.
Since then, a Maltese merchant captain who had been in Tripoli harbor the day the Philadelphia was taken had come forward; Salvador Catalano told Preble that he had seen the very same ketch haul down her Turkish colors, raise the Tripolitan flag, and take aboard a hundred soldiers, then make her way out to the stranded Philadelphia, where she led the way, plundering and taking the American crew prisoner.
American navy department regulations required prizes to be sent back to the United States for adjudication and condemnation by a prize court, but Preble brushed that aside, pointing out in his dispatches that “there cannot be the smallest doubt of her being a lawful prize” and that in any case—and this had lame excuse written all over it—“she is not a proper Vessel to cross the Atlantic at this season of the year.”14
The crew, and forty-two slaves who were being shipped in her hold, were removed from the ketch, and soon the vessel was a beehive of activity. Lieutenant Decatur was seen leading daily work parties of his officers and men: towing her to the mole; ferrying boatloads of weapons, muskets, cutlasses, boarding pikes, and tomahawks from the Constitution; bringing up two guns from the hold. The commodore was now calling the ketch the Intrepid. On January 31, Preble ordered Lieutenant Charles Stewart to prepare his eighteen-gun brig Syren for a cruise and be ready to sail “as soon as the Signal is made.”15
On the same day that Preble had written the American consuls of his decision to condemn the ketch as a lawful prize, the Constitution’s sailing master, Nathaniel Haraden, noted in his logbook: “Towards evening sailed the Syren and the Prize. The prize was commanded by Capt Decatur and had on board 70 of the Enterprizes men and Officers. Six Officers from the Constitution were also on board her. They stood out to the Southd and are bound on some Secret Expedition.”16
· · ·
STEPHEN DECATUR Jr. was young, twenty-five years old, but he had already made a mark for himself in the American navy as a natural leader, one who inspired men rather than bludgeoned them into doing their duty. Brought up in Philadelphia, the political and maritime capital of the young nation, son of a captain of the American navy who commanded the Philadelphia during the Quasi War with France, Decatur perfectly looked the part of the dashing naval officer. Tall, trim, broad-shouldered, an excellent shot, a strong swimmer, a good horseback rider, with a mop of curly dark hair, slightly rakish sideburns, and puppy-dog brown eyes, he was the stuff nineteenth-century heroes were made of. He was also known for an aversion to corporal punishment as a means of discipline in an age when that was the norm, and was “proverbial among sailors, for the good treatment of his men,” said one marine private who hadn’t a good word to say about anyone else.17 Preble had singled out Decatur for this job, taking a chance on a man who had not yet distinguished himself with any great feat but who seemed to have the drive and dash that it would take.
Ten days went by with no word or sign.
On February 12, unable any longer to hide his apprehensions of disaster, Preble ordered a lookout posted on the masthead of the Constitution to keep watch for Decatur’s or Stewart’s return.
Another week passed; then, at ten in the morning on the nineteenth, a Sunday, there they were, both American ships, running into the harbor. Atop the Constitution three numeric signal flags, no doubt long at the ready, flashed out at once: 2-2-7.
A tense minute passed as the Syren’s signal officer flipped through the signal book to locate the meaning—“Business or enterprise, have you completed, that you was sent on?”—and assembled an answering hoist. And then the flags Preble had been waiting for broke forth gloriously on the Syren’s peak: 2-3-2, “Business, I have completed, that I was sent on.”18
The commodore spent much of the rest of the day pouring out his relief in a flood of correspondence, beginning with a letter to the secretary of the navy, to whom he could convey the first good news he had had for nearly a year.
At 10 AM the Syren and Ketch Intrepid arrived from the coast of Tripoly after having executed my orders highly to my satisfaction, by effecting the complete destruction of the Frigate late the Philadelphia in the Harbour of Tripoly on the night of the 16th Inst by burning her with all her Materials. The Frigate was moored in a situation from whence she could not be brought out. Of course it became an object of the first importance to destroy her. It has been effected by Lieut Decatur and the Officers and Crew under his command in the most gallant manner. His conduct and that of his brave Officers and Crew is above all praise.
Later that day the commodore dashed off a second letter to Secretary Smith.
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. I wish as a stimulus, it could be done in this instance; it would eventually be of real service to our Navy. I beg most earnestly to recommend him to the President, that he may be rewarded according to his merit.19
Preble’s elation—an ebullition of joy rather than temper, for once—only increased as the full details of Decatur’s feat became known. It was a coup of the first order, a model naval operation, a redemption after months of shame.
The two ships had left Syracuse in company in a moderate breeze and pleasant weather at five p.m. on the third, the small and none too strongly built Intrepid at one point taken under tow by the Syren as they cleared the southernmost reach of the harbor.
On board the Intrepid was a crew of sixty-four volunteers from the Enterprize, along with all of the Enterprize’s officers, among them Midshipman Macdonough; Decatur’s second in command, Lieutenant James Lawrence; and Lieutenant Joseph Bainbridge, brother of the Philadelphia’s now imprisoned captain. From the Constitution Preble had sent five midshipmen, including nineteen-year-old Charles Morris, to complete the company. Salvador Catalano, the Maltese merchant captain who had confirmed the ketch’s identity and who knew Tripoli harbor well, had volunteered to serve as pilot. Surgeon’s mate Lewis Heermann, who had been confidentially informed of the mission in advance and asked by Decatur for an official report on any men or officers who ought to be excluded for physical causes, begged to be allowed to go along too. Decatur had proposed having Heermann sail on the Syren, which was to stand outside Tripoli harbor during the actual attack, but Heermann argued he’d be of more use accompanying the men directly into action, where his “professional services might be the most useful.” Decatur at last relented, so long as the doctor promised to “get into a place of safety” on the ketch “in the moment of danger.” Heermann replied that he considered “the permission you have given me to go in as an order.”20
Only after they were under way did the crews finally learn their true destination: the cover story Preble had put out was that they were bound for Malta so the Intrepid could be rerigged. On board the Syren all hands were mustered at nine the following morning and the commodore’s orders read aloud. They would “proceed with all possible dispatch for the Coast of Tripoly.” Before nearing the coast they were to disguise the brig “to give the appearance of a Merchant Vessel”: striking down the topgallant masts that unmistakably marked a man-of-war, repainting her sides with a new color, housing the guns and shutting the gunports, concealing her deck with quarter cloths. The Intrepid, less likely to raise suspicion, would make its way into the harbor first under cover of night, supported by the Syren’s boats; on reaching the Philadelphia, they would board and burn her, having equipped themselves with “combustibles” for the purpose. Since “on boarding the Frigate it is probable you will meet with Resistance,” the commodore cautioned, “it will be well in order to prevent alarm to carry all by Sword.”
He concluded: “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.”
The crew let out three hearty cheers. When Stewart asked for volunteers from the Syren’s crew to take part in the actual attack, the entire crew stepped forward.21
THE PASSAGE to Tripoli was miserable. The Intrepid was barely seaworthy. Conditions aboard would have been bad under the best of circumstances, but crowded with a vastly larger crew than she was ever intended to carry, the ketch bordered on the uninhabitable. Decatur, the three lieutenants, and the surgeon were packed into the tiny cabin; the six midshipmen and the pilot slept on a platform laid atop the water casks on one side of the hold, with barely enough room to squeeze in under the deck; the eight marines occupied a corresponding arrangement on the other side; and the men were left to their own devices to find a place among or on the casks. The officers had embarked with less than an hour’s notice and been told to bring only a single change of clothing. “To these inconveniences were added … the attacks of innumerable vermin, which our predecessors the slaves had left behind them,” recalled Midshipman Morris. The ship’s provisions, also hastily loaded, turned out to be putrid when the casks were opened.
Still, spirits were high, the weather was unusually fair and mild, and the afternoon of February 7, 1804, found the two ships approaching their destination. But there were already indications of a coming gale; the wind was out of the west and freshening. When Morris and Catalano went ahead in a boat to scout the approach to the harbor, they found the surf breaking right across the narrow harbor entrance, hemmed in by a series of menacing shoals and reefs, and Catalano declared that “if we attempted to go in we would never come out again.” Decatur ordered the attack called off, and with the wind shifting to the north and mounting quickly to gale force, the ships had to laboriously tack their way windward through the night to be out of sight of the town when dawn broke. The Syren’s anchor was wedged so tight in the rocky bottom it took half the night to try to haul it in; three times the men at the capstan were knocked down by the bars, and several were seriously injured when the cable parted under the strain. In the end, the brig rolling up to its gunwales and daylight approaching, Stewart ordered the cable cut and the anchor left behind. And then the wind began to blow in earnest.22
For four days they were blown eastward, scudding on nearly bare poles, the crew so sick most of the time that they didn’t have to worry about contending with their rotten food. The gale finally blew itself out on the tenth, and then began an arduous five days of working back westward. The storm, the hardships on board, the disappointment of the abandoned first attempt were beginning to take their toll. Morale was dropping dangerously; they had surely been seen from shore by now, the men were saying; the town would be thoroughly alarmed and the Philadelphia so heavily guarded that they didn’t stand a chance.
On the fifteenth they were again nearing Tripoli. Again the attempt had to be abandoned as night fell before they had come close enough to catch sight of the town and take a bearing; it was now impossible to find the harbor entrance in the dark.
The morning of the sixteenth of February began with light winds, pleasant weather, and a smooth sea: an auspicious start. The two vessels kept far apart during the day. Now the timing was critical; Decatur aimed to reach the harbor entrance just after dark while not arousing suspicions by obviously loitering outside the harbor. “The lightness of the wind allowed us to keep up all appearance of an anxious desire to reach the harbor before night,” recalled Morris; all sail set, to aid the deception a drag of spars, lumber, and ladder was dropped astern to further check their speed. The Intrepid aimed to pass as a Maltese trader, flying English colors; the crew was now completely concealed below save a half dozen on deck dressed in Maltese garb. As the sun set behind the white walls of the city and castle, the Intrepid was two miles from the eastern entrance of the harbor, the Syren about three miles behind. In the last glow of light they saw the English consul’s house along the shore raise the English colors in recognition of theirs.
The plan was to drop anchor under cover of dark and wait for the boats of the Syren to come up before entering the harbor. But the wind was now dropping rapidly, and Decatur began to fear that unless he went ahead at once there would not be enough wind to carry the Intrepid in at all. Observing that “the fewer the number the greater the honor,” he gave orders to proceed without the planned reinforcements.
The wind wafted them slowly into the harbor, a crescent moon barely lighting the looming batteries of the forts that ringed the shoreline, the water smooth. Then the Philadelphia came into view, anchored just four hundred yards from the castle, seven hundred yards from the battery on the molehead, with a few smaller ships nearby. The Intrepid made straight for the frigate, her crew now stretched out on the deck, swords, axes, pikes at the ready. “At last the anxious silence was broken by a hail … demanding our character and object,” Morris recalled. Catalano, speaking in Arabic, answered that they had come from Malta to load cattle for the British garrison there, and they had lost their anchor in the gale. Could they tie up to the frigate for the night? Permission was granted.
Catalano kept up a running conversation as the gap between the two ships narrowed. The guard on the frigate asked what the other large ship was that they had seen in the offing. Catalano replied it was the Transfer, a brig that the pasha had purchased from the British in Malta, and which the Tripolitans were expecting.
Just as the Intrepid was about to make contact alongside the Philadelphia, the wind shifted, blowing directly from the frigate, sending the ketch about twenty yards off. “This was a moment of great anxiety,” Morris remembered. “We were directly under her guns, motionless and powerless, except by exertions which might betray our character.” But the Intrepid was towing one of the Syren’s boats, which had been sent over a few days earlier, and with a coolness that bordered on the preternatural, the boat was “leisurely manned” and rowed toward the frigate carrying a line. They were met by a boat from the frigate with another rope, and the two lines were made fast; the Intrepid’s boat returned, and the rope was passed onto the deck where the crew, still hidden, began hauling in the line as they lay facedown, slowly closing the distance between the vessels once again.
There were still a few yards to go when the Tripolitans realized at last that something was wrong. A cry went up from the guard on the frigate’s deck. “Americanos! Americanos!” The captain of the guard hailed Catalano and asked if there were any Americans on board; Catalano replied they were only Italians and Englishmen. Again the guard shouted a warning, and the Tripolitan captain, now convinced, shouted out an order to cut the line. The strain of keeping up the pretense suddenly became too much for the Maltese pilot: Catalano cried out to Decatur, “Board, Captain, board!”
Decatur’s booming voice responded at once with a peremptory command that froze every man in his spot: “No order to be obeyed but that of the commanding officer!”
A few more agonizing seconds passed as the last gap closed. Then, leaping onto the frigate’s main chains, Decatur shouted, “Board!”23
“Not a man had been seen or heard to breathe a moment before,” recalled Heermann, the surgeon’s mate who had begged to be included on the mission; “at the next, the boarders hung on the ship’s side like cluster bees; and, in another instant, every man was on board the frigate.”
Morris had leapt at the same moment as Decatur, an instant before the actual order to board was given, and happened to reach the deck first, all apparently unbeknownst to Decatur. Morris turned just in time to see Decatur coming over the rail with his sword arm lifted, ready to strike him; Morris shouted the watchword—“Philadelphia”—just in time to avoid becoming the first, self-inflicted casualty of the operation.
Several of the guards promptly leapt over the opposite rail and swam the short distance to shore; others got aboard a boat and fled. But a few turned to fight, and the minutes that followed were pure butchery. To avoid spreading the alarm, no firearms were used; it was all stabbing and slashing at close quarters, the dead heaved over the side when it was done.
But the whooping and screaming of the Tripolitans had spread the alarm nonetheless, and a hail of musket fire began from two xebecs lying near. Decatur sent a rocket arcing into the sky to signal the Syren that the Philadelphia had been taken; it was answered by a cannonade from the castle and the other batteries around the harbor.
The boarding party had been divided into teams, each under a lieutenant and each assigned a part of the ship to set afire; watching from the Intrepid, where he had dutifully remained, Heermann saw the frigate’s gun deck “all of a sudden beautifully illuminated” by the lanterns the men carried as they moved to their stations. Then Decatur was on the deck, making his way forward to aft, shouting the command “Fire!” down each hatchway, and in a minute billows of smoke and flame were pouring from every corner of the ship. Decatur was the last to get off, “literally followed by the flames,” Heermann said.24
As the fire ran up the rigging and set the tops ablaze, the Intrepid’s men, now giddy with their triumph, stood transfixed at the spectacular “bonfire”—and more than a bit oblivious to the extreme danger they were still in. In approaching the Philadelphia, they had deliberately placed themselves on the lee side to ease their getaway; now the bow was shoved off and the jib set, but the huge draft created by the fire repeatedly drew the ketch back in, and her main boom became entangled with the large ship’s quarter gallery. The men were still noisily laughing and clowning when a furious Decatur leapt atop the companionway, drew his sword, and announced he would cut down the first man who made another sound. That promptly restored order. The boats were got out to tow the bow around, the sweeps were manned, and slowly and laboriously the ketch was brought off and the land breeze began to carry her out to sea. A single cannonball passed through the ketch’s topgallant sail, but the fire from the shore was otherwise mercifully inaccurate. There had been no loss of life and but a single casualty among the Intrepid’s crew.
At eleven o’clock the men aboard the Syren saw the blazing tops of the frigate’s masts fall over, and at midnight the fire burned through her cables and she drifted slowly ashore in the direction of the pasha’s castle. Then, as the flames and heat reached her guns, they went off one after another, a derisory ghostly cannonade taking the Americans’ final revenge, a few of the shots actually striking the castle walls.
By six the next morning the Syren and the Intrepid were forty miles to sea. They could still see the glow of the burning ship on the horizon.25
THE DESTRUCTION of the Philadelphia brought a rare moment of relief to the agonizing apprehensions that had weighed on Captain William Bainbridge since surrendering his ship in October. In the house in Tripoli where the officers of the Philadelphia were being held, they were awakened the night of Decatur’s raid by “a most hideous yelling and screaming from one end of the town to the other,” mingled with a “thundering of cannon from the castle.” Opening a window, they were able to look out to the harbor and see the frigate ablaze. “A most sublime sight,” Bainbridge wrote, “and very gratifying to us.”
The next morning a strong guard appeared at the door. The pasha, who had watched the entire spectacle from a front-row seat in his own quarters overlooking the harbor, was said to be in a rage. The Philadelphia’s surgeon’s mate, Jonathan Cowdery, was curtly informed he would no longer be permitted to tend to the sick members of the crew or any of the other patients in the city that he had been treating, including the pasha’s own daughter. There were rumors the officers would be moved to the castle; or, as Bainbridge put it, “what they call a Castle, which in fact was a most loathsome prison.”26
But most of these shows of displeasure abated almost as soon as they had arisen. Despite Preble’s pangs back in December as he contemplated Bainbridge’s captivity—a “slave, treated in the most cruel manner”—the Philadelphia’s officers had, in fact, enjoyed considerable freedom and privileges since they had landed in the pasha’s hands, and that was not about to change for the very simple reason that, as the pasha very well knew, they were literally worth their weight in gold. The officers had been allowed to take up residence in the spacious house previously occupied by the last American consul in Tripoli before the war began. The Danish consul was allowed to visit them every day and supplied them with bedding and arranged for credit with local moneylenders. After signing a pledge that they would not attempt to escape, the prisoners were eventually allowed to stroll around the town and even the countryside; Cowdery was regularly invited to visit the pasha’s gardens and often left loaded down with baskets of oranges, figs, dates, pomegranates, and olives, gifts from the pasha and his ministers.
The initial indignities of the first hours after their capture—they were stripped of their money, uniforms, and swords; their pockets were searched; even their boots were pulled off to see if anything of value had been concealed there—still rankled, all the more when they saw the local citizens parading around in their clothes, and even more when the local clothes dealers showed up to offer them back at an exorbitant price. But all in all it was not a terribly arduous captivity for the officers.27
What really made life a burden to Captain Bainbridge was the dread of what would become of his honor and reputation. “My situation in prison is entirely supportable,” he wrote his wife the day after the disaster, “… but if my professional character be blotched—if an attempt be made to taint my honour—if I am censured, if it does not kill me, it would at least deprive me of the power of looking any of my race in the face.” So maddened was he at moments by contemplating the loss of “the beautiful frigate which was placed under my command,” he said, “that I cannot refrain from exclaiming that it would have been a merciful dispensation of Providence if my head had been shot off by the enemy, while our vessel lay rolling on the rocks.”28
Bainbridge once referred to himself as “the Child of Adversity,” and this was not the first humiliation he had suffered in his naval career.29 In 1798, during the Quasi War, he had surrendered without a shot his very first command, the eighteen-gun schooner Retaliation, to two French frigates that he had embarrassingly mistaken for British vessels he had spoken the day before and carelessly approached. Two years later he had suffered the torment of having to carry tribute to the dey of Algiers under the terms of the treaty the United States had accepted as cheaper than building a navy that could resist the Barbary corsairs’ depredations on American merchantmen. After unloading a shipment of guns, lumber, nails, and other supplies in Algiers, Bainbridge was summoned by the dey and told he must now run an additional errand with his warship. The dey needed to send his ambassador to Constantinople, along with a retinue of a hundred followers, a hundred black slaves, four horses, a hundred and fifty sheep, twenty-five horned cattle, four lions, four tigers, four antelopes, and twelve parrots, a lavish tribute that the dey hoped would restore his good graces with the sultan, with whom he was just at the moment out of favor. The humiliation was completed by the dey’s insistence that Bainbridge’s ship, the George Washington, a thirty-two-gun converted merchantman, fly the Algerian flag on this mission. When Bainbridge balked, the dey hinted that the only alternative was war. “You can, my friends, see how unpleasantly I am situated,” Bainbridge wrote William Jones and Samuel Clarke, old friends from Philadelphia, owners of a merchant shipping partnership he had sailed for in his days as a very young merchant captain. “If I go it will take a period of six months and for that space of time I shall be in the worst of purgatories, having two hundred infidels on board, being in a country where the United States is not known, no person to call on in case of emergency and not able to speak the language in a land where the plague ravishes and at the mercy of Devils.” The day of his departure, the George Washington’s log recorded, “The pendant of the United States was struck and the Algerian Flag hoisted on the Main top Gallant royal head mast … some tears fell at this Instance of national Humility.”30
But Bainbridge had a streak of bullying self-pity that had served him well in the past, and it did not take long for him to put it to use again in this latest humiliation. He had all of Decatur’s pride and vanity and touchy sense of honor with none of his dash; he was not a handsome man, with a rectangular head, heavy jowls, a florid complexion, thick lips, a deeply cleft chin, and a pugnacious air. Even Bainbridge’s admirers noted his “vehemence” and how when one of his “fierce” storms came over him he could barely speak, caught in a stammer that sounded like he was saying “unto unto unto” before he could get his words out.31
In only one of his letters following the loss of the Philadelphia did Bainbridge even come close to admitting responsibility for the disaster. He acknowledged to Preble that if he had not sent the schooner Vixen away a week before (on what he surely should have known was an ill-advised wild goose chase: two Tripolitan men-of-war were rumored to be somewhere on a cruise, but the report Bainbridge received from a passing merchant brig did not even say where they might be), it might have been possible to prevent the calamity.32 The Vixen could easily have come to his aid and helped tow the frigate off the rocks.
After that he became ever more stridently self-justifying, demanding to friends that they write back and reassure him he was not to blame. “Striking on the Rocks was an accident not possible for me to guard against,” he wrote Preble. The shoal was not marked on any charts. He had done “every thing” in his power to get the ship off: backing the sails, lightening the bows by throwing most of the guns overboard, finally cutting the foremast clear away; it was, however, “impossible.” Attempting to fight off the Tripolitan gunboats “would be only a sacrificing [of] lives without effecting our enemy or rendering the least service to Our Country … a want of courage can never be imputed when there is no chance of resistance.” The embarrassing fact that the Tripolitans had floated the frigate off the shoal forty hours later “adds to our calamity, but … 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 … witness the Hannibal at Algesiras, the Jason off St. Maloes, and several others.”33
No doubt at Bainbridge’s behest, the officers of the Philadelphia quickly closed ranks too, drawing up and sending to their captain a memorial on the first day of their captivity assuring him of their “highest and most sincere respect,” their “full approbation of your conduct,” and vouching that “every exertion was made … which either courage or abilities could have dictated.” But some of their consciences were far from clear over their own responsibility for the loss of the ship, which likely explained the eagerness to embrace Bainbridge’s assurances that it had been an unavoidable “accident.” Lieutenant David Porter had apparently urged Bainbridge repeatedly to continue the chase and insisted they were in no danger, even though they had no pilot aboard who knew the local waters; the moment the ship struck the reef, reported one of the ship’s men, Porter had turned as white as a sheet.34
Bainbridge importuned friends to send copies of American newspapers, and soon after the first reports of the Philadelphia’s loss reached the United States in March 1804, the American press had indeed rallied to Bainbridge’s support. The Republican newspapers hastened to absolve blame anywhere by labeling it “one of those inevitable misfortunes which no human foresight could have seen,” the Federalist prints equally acquitting the ship’s officers as they rushed to use the event to pillory the Jefferson administration for its “miserable, starveling, niggardly species of economy which by saving a dollar ruins a nation.”35
AS ALWAYS, the common sailors had a different story to tell; from the start they had loathed their captain and were far from convinced that he had done all he might have to resist capture.
They had also suffered a brutality in captivity that the officers escaped. The 283 crewmen were confined in a stone warehouse outside the castle that measured eighty by twenty-five feet—seven square feet to a man—with a rough dirt floor and a small grated skylight the only source of light or air. Accounts published afterward by one of the captives, William Ray, a marine private, recounted vicious beatings by the guards. A favorite was the bastinado on the bare soles of the feet: the prisoner would be thrown on his back, his ankles bound together and raised so the soles were nearly horizontal, and then two men, each armed with a three-foot bamboo staff as thick as a walking stick, would roll up their sleeves and swing down on the bottoms of the victim’s feet with all their might.
The officers whiled away their days at the consul’s house with books and other diversions. A few days after their arrival Bainbridge ordered Porter to organize what he called “the College of Students,” instructing the midshipmen each day after breakfast in navigation and naval tactics. The Danish consul supplied the American officers with a volume of collected plays, which they proceeded to stage complete with scenery and costumes they set to work building and sewing. The crew meanwhile was set to hard labor, hauling three-ton stones in hand-pulled carts, boring cannons, unloading casks of gunpowder and supplies from the frigate, shoveling out an old wreck buried in the sand of the beach as they worked up to their armpits in the cold surf. Their diet was little more than bread, olive oil, and couscous.36
Like the officers, the men had openly rejoiced in the success of Decatur’s raid; unlike the officers, they suffered the full force of the pasha’s humiliated rage. Ray recounted what happened next:
Early in the morning, and much earlier than usual, our prison doors were unbolted, and the keepers … rushed in amongst us and began to beat every one they could see, spitting in our faces and hissing like the serpents of hell. We could not suppress our emotions, nor disguise our joy … which exasperated them more and more, so that every boy we met in the streets would spit on us and pelt us with stones; our tasks were doubled, our bread withheld, and every driver exercised cruelties tenfold more rigid and intolerable than before.37
But Ray’s bitterest recollections were of the indifference Bainbridge and the other officers showed for the men’s plight. “At numerous times, when we were on the very brink of starvation, and petitioned Captain Bainbridge for some part of our pay or rations, he invariably gave us to understand that it was entirely out of his power to do anything for us,” Ray wrote. The men resorted to petitioning Preble, and even the pasha, directly, and with more success (the pasha agreed to provide barrels of pork unloaded from the frigate to supplement the men’s meager rations).38
Soon after their arrival the men had been questioned closely by the pasha’s admiral about the circumstances of the ship’s surrender. Murad Reis was a character who would have been scarcely credible on the pages of a novel. Born in Scotland, he was originally known as Peter Lisle. In his younger years he had traveled to New England, where he developed a strong aversion to America and Americans; then in 1796 he took passage on a schooner out of Boston that was captured by Tripolitan marauders when it reached the Mediterranean. Seizing opportunity with remarkable panache, Lisle proceeded in quick succession to convert to Islam, marry the pasha’s sister, talk the pasha into declaring war against America, and assume personal command of the captured schooner, now fitted out as a twenty-six-gun man-of-war in the Tripolitan navy.
The “renegade Scotchman,” as the Americans called him, asked the men bluntly whether their captain was “a coward, or a traitor”: Reis said he had to be one or the other. Reis went on to express incredulity that the Americans had given up so easily. They might have known the frigate would float off the rocks as soon as the wind shifted, Reis pointed out; they might have realized that he had no intention of trying to board a frigate manned by three hundred well-armed men, or risk destroying such a valuable potential prize by firing his guns at the hull.
It was a telling point. While Bainbridge did order the ship scuttled and the magazine drowned, the flag was struck before the work was finished, and the Tripolitans, when they rushed aboard, were quickly able to plug the leaks. At a very minimum he could have played for time. And Ray noted that the crew was more than willing to fight; the only damage the Tripolitan gunboats had done up to the moment of the frigate’s surrender was to the rigging and sails: they were deliberately aiming high. “The man who was at the ensign halyards positively refused to obey the captain’s orders, when he was ordered to lower the flag,” Ray recalled. “He was threatened to be run through and a midshipman seized the halyards, and executed the command, to the general murmuring of the crew.” Ray also noted that Bainbridge had impatiently spurned the suggestion of the ship’s boatswain to try kedging the ship off by hauling in a line from an anchor cast astern, which might well have worked. But, as Ray bitterly observed, Bainbridge had once told a seaman, “You have no right to think”; that attitude seemed to be his guiding rule in this case as well.39
When Ray’s memoir was published in 1808, Bainbridge retorted that its author was “an ungrateful wretch who has no character to lose.” But there was little doubt that the feelings of contempt between Captain Bainbridge and the crews who served under him were widely shared and mutual. Bainbridge had a well-earned reputation as a hard horse, a flogging captain; Preble might have been a stern disciplinarian but Bainbridge was a brute, regularly meting out punishments of thirty-six lashes, putting a man in irons for six weeks for drunkenness, habitually addressing his crews as “you damned rascals.” As a merchant captain he had personally quelled two attempted mutinies with his own fists; as captain of the George Washington he had fractured a man’s skull hitting him over the head with the flat of a sword. While captive in Tripoli, Bainbridge expressed quite plainly what he thought of his crewmen in a letter to Preble: “I believe there never was so depraved a set of mortals as Sailors are; under discipline they are peaceable & serviceable;—divest them of that, and they constitute a perfect rable.” The feeling was returned in full. Thirteen men of the Philadelphia deserted at the very start of the cruise to avoid serving under Bainbridge. Ray in his memoir claimed that the Philadelphia’s crew was near mutiny at the time the ship struck the shoal in Tripoli harbor.40
Part of what so rankled the men of the American navy was how such treatment, and such attitudes, smacked of the despotism their nation had just finished fighting a revolution to be rid of. American seamen who left a record of their views frequently commented on their rights as free Americans and their resentments at the “petty tyranny” exercised by their officers.
A man on the Constitution who was about be flogged burst forth in what a shipmate described as a “patriotic speech”: “I thought it was a free country; but I was mistaken. My father was American born, and my mother too. I expected to be treated as an American myself; but I find I’m not.” (“Down with him and put him in irons,” responded an unimpressed lieutenant.) “Such outrages on human nature ought not to be permitted by a government that boasts of liberty,” agreed James Durand, who as a seaman aboard the frigate John Adams in 1804 saw men given eighteen lashes for such “crimes” as spitting on the deck. But, as Durand observed, “no monarch in the world is more absolute than the Captain of a Man-of-war.” John Rea, who served as an ordinary seaman on the George Washington under Bainbridge, bitterly ridiculed all the ceremony that emphasized the captain’s kingly authority: the ritual reading of the articles of war every Sunday to the assembled men, the mustering of the crew to witness punishment, the strictures against speaking back to an officer or expressing so much as an opinion; “all that ridiculous and absurd parade, common on board of English Men-of-War.”
Especially galling was the lordly attitude of the midshipmen. Following the Royal Navy model, these officers-in-training were referred to as “young gentlemen” (all officers were by definition “gentlemen”), but Rea dismissed them as “brats of boys, twelve or fifteen years old, who six months before had not even seen salt water, strutting in livery about a Ship’s decks, damning and flashing old experienced sailors.”41
The floggings and discipline, the hieratical rituals, the rigid distinctions between officers (who were “gentlemen”) and men (who were not) had indeed all been copied almost slavishly from the British example. When Preble, in command of the frigate Essex, had put in at Cape Town in March 1800 and had dined night after night with the officers of the British squadron there, he used the opportunity to acquire copies of British naval manuals and squadron orders, diligently studying and marking them up. The American navy’s regulations, first issued in 1798 and revised in 1802, drew directly, often word for word, from the British Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea. It was a natural recourse: the British navy was the most admired and powerful in the world; the two nations shared a common language and heritage. But the British example was already proving an uneasy fit with this new man, the American.42
THE TRIPOLITAN war dragged on for another year and a half. The Constitution came in several times to bombard the town; a harebrained scheme was hatched by William Eaton, the former American consul in Tunis (a sergeant in George Washington’s army, he was now calling himself “General” Eaton) to gather a band of Arab mercenaries in Cairo, march hundreds of miles across the desert, and replace the pasha of Tripoli with his presumably more compliant brother. But the bombardments were indecisive, and Eaton’s expedition was beset by repeated mutinies and delays. Eight United States marines who took part in the march did play a conspicuous part in bravely taking the fort at Darnah, five hundred miles east of Tripoli, which was as far as the expedition ever got; if it was not exactly “the shores of Tripoli” subsequently referred to in the famous first line of the “Marines’ Hymn,” their action may have helped put pressure on the pasha to come to terms.
In September 1804 the Intrepid had been sent into Tripoli harbor packed with five tons of powder and 150 shells. It was to blow up the Tripolitan gunboats and galleys while they lay at their anchorage at night, the crew escaping in two boats after the fuse was lit, but something went wrong and the ketch exploded prematurely, killing all thirteen men aboard. Preble thought the ship might have been boarded, and Lieutenant Richard Somers had bravely decided to blow up his command rather than surrender. His praise for Somers brought a hurt complaint from Bainbridge, who was convinced it was a slap at him for failing to do the same with the Philadelphia. Preble ended up apologizing to Bainbridge. Dr. Cowdery drew the job of supervising the burial of some of the corpses that had washed up on the shore afterward. They had been mangled by stray dogs when the pasha for days refused to allow them to be collected, after which the remains were placed on public display and the local populace was invited to hurl insults at them before they were finally buried.43
In the end a treaty was signed in June 1805, the ceremony taking place in the great cabin of the Constitution; the United States would pay no tribute but agreed to a $60,000 ransom for the captives in Tripoli. A twenty-one-gun salute echoed from the castle and was returned by the Constitution. The prisoners got so drunk (despite the strictures of Islam, some of the town’s Jewish and Christian shopkeepers sold alcohol) that Bainbridge delayed bringing them aboard the Constitution for a day until they were clean and presentable. Six men had died during their captivity; five others had “turned Turk,” converting to Islam, and either chose—or were not given any other choice by the pasha—to remain behind.
Dr. Cowdery was so worried that he would not be permitted to leave either—the pasha had at one point assured him he would not take $20,000 for his release, so valuable a physician had he proved to be—that the doctor deliberately botched an operation on a Tripolitan soldier whose hand had been shattered by a bursting blunderbuss: “I amputated all his fingers but one, with a dull knife, and dressed them in a bungling manner, in the hopes of losing my credibility as a surgeon in this part of the country.”44
On his return to America, Bainbridge was feted at huge banquets at Richmond, Fredericksburg, Alexandria, and Washington. He basked in it all. Preble, who had been replaced in his command in September 1804, had been welcomed as a conquering hero too; President Jefferson invited him to dine at the White House and Rembrandt Peale painted his portrait. But he was not so sure about it all. “The people are disposed to think that I have rendered some service to my country,” he cautiously told his wife. Three years later he was dead, at age forty-six. Though studiously avoiding public controversy, he had privately told friends the treaty with Tripoli was “ignominious” and a “sacrifice of national honor.” Bainbridge may or may not have remembered the words he himself had written the navy department on first arriving in the Mediterranean, back in September of 1800. “Had we 10 or 12 frigates and sloops in these seas,” Bainbridge insisted, “we should not experience these mortifying degradations.”45