Tuesday, May 8, 2007

USS Philadelphia and America’s First War on Terror

The USS Philadelphia was a 1,240-ton frigate built in Philadelphia, PA, and was commissioned in April of 1800. The fledgling US Navy, which was created by Congress in 1794, was originally equipped with only six frigates. But when the United States was drawn into the Quasi-War with France in 1798, Americans quickly realized that they needed a bigger navy. In response to this urgent need for warships, the citizens of the city of Philadelphia donated the money to have this ship built, raising all of the funds through subscription drives. Shortly after the ship was commissioned, she sailed to the West Indies for several months, capturing five enemy warships and recapturing six American merchant ships that had previously been taken by the French. Then came the war with the Barbary Pirates.

Shortly after being inaugurated as the third president of the United States in 1801, Thomas Jefferson faced a serious problem. Since the early part of the Seventeenth Century, the northwest African Barbary States of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli made a living terrorizing European merchant ships. Each Barbary State had its own pirate fleet that would capture and confiscate defenseless merchant ships sailing in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic. The Barbary pirates would then turn the passengers and crew of these hapless ships into slaves. The Pirates justified these attacks by saying that the Koran allowed them to wage “jihad,” or holy war, against all nonbelievers, especially Christian “infidels.”

The Barbary States demanded that the Europeans negotiate treaties with them so that they would not attack European ships. The Europeans also had to give hefty gifts or “tribute” to the monarch of each State as a sign of respect. The only problem was that, whenever the rulers of the Barbary States needed more money, they would promptly break their treaties, capture more merchant ships, and hold them for ransom, forcing the Europeans to negotiate another, more expensive, treaty.

The Europeans decided to pay the Barbary States this extortion because they thought that it was cheaper than going to war with them. The Europeans didn’t see this as extortion, but simply as the price of doing business in the Mediterranean.

When Jefferson became president in 1801 he had had enough. He hated the Barbary pirates since 1785, when they first started blackmailing the new United States. At that time we had no navy, little money, and we desperately needed to trade in the Mediterranean in order to survive. America was in no position to fight a new war, so we paid. But by 1801 things had changed. We now had a constitutional government, a Navy, and a Marine Corps. So, shortly after taking the oath of office, Jefferson sent a naval task force of four warships to the Mediterranean to blockade Tripoli, the Barbary State that was currently demanding a new treaty with the United States. The 36-gun USS Philadelphia was part of that original task force (see top photograph). The ships were crewed by over 1,000 men, including almost half of the US Marine Corps, which in those days totaled less than 350 men. Jefferson did this on his own authority, without consulting Congress and without getting a declaration of war. With the Constitution in place for barely 12 years, Thomas Jefferson was sending American warships and Marines to fight in a far-off part of the world that few Americans had ever even heard of.

After enforcing a blockade on Tripoli for almost a year, the Philadelphia returned to the United States. But the blockade of Tripoli continued and in 1803 the Philadelphia (under the command of Captain William Bainbridge) was sent back to the Mediterranean as part of a larger task force, which included the 44-gun frigate USS Constitution and the 28-gun frigate John Adams. The entire task force eventually consisted of 10 warships under the command of Commodore Edward Preble on board the Constitution.

On October 31, 1803, while on blockade duty just outside of Tripoli harbor, the Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef while trying to pursue an enemy vessel. The Tripolitans quickly sent a large force of gunboats to attack the stranded American warship, which could not use its guns due to a severe list caused by its grounding (see center photograph). Tripolitan gunboats fired on and hit the Philadelphia while the frigate’s crew tried for several hours to lighten the ship, hoping this would allow it to float off the reef. They threw guns, equipment, supplies, and even the ship’s foremast overboard, but the Philadelphia remained grounded. With his ship unable to move or return fire, and with more enemy warships coming in for the kill, Captain Bainbridge decided to surrender. Bainbridge and his entire crew remained prisoners in Tripoli until the war ended in1805.

This was a terrible loss for the small American Navy and a horrible humiliation for the country as well. What made matters worse was that, shortly after the ship was lost, a strong gale blew in on November 2 and raised the sea level, allowing the Philadelphia to float off of the reef. The Tripolitans quickly brought the ship into Tripoli harbor and, after recovering the cannons the American sailors had thrown overboard, now had a fully equipped frigate that could be used against its former owners.

Commodore Preble could not allow the Philadelphia to remain in enemy hands. Since it was too dangerous for any American warship to sail into Tripoli’s well-fortified harbor, he planned a daring raid that was designed to destroy the frigate. On the night of February 16, 1804, a small four-gun ketch named Intrepid slipped into Tripoli harbor under the command of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur. Lieutenant Decatur and his crew of 70 volunteers sailed the Intrepid alongside the Philadelphia and then boarded the frigate. In a quick but savage battle, Decatur and his men soon overwhelmed the Tripolitan guards on board the warship. The Americans then set fire to the Philadelphia, making sure that the ship was burning brightly before they left. Decatur and his men went back on board the Intrepid and quickly started rowing away from the blazing frigate (see bottom photograph). The raid was a complete success and not a single American was killed. The Intrepid made it out of the harbor and the American task force sailing nearby picked up its crew. The Philadelphia burned to the waterline and sank, thereby keeping this valuable warship out of enemy hands permanently. British Admiral Horatio Nelson said that this was “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

Although the Philadelphia had a short life, she did make a substantial contribution to the US Navy before she was lost on that reef in 1803. The war with Tripoli continued after the destruction of the Philadelphia. America did not flinch after sustaining this significant setback. The United States continued to send more ships to the Mediterranean and it made it clear to the Barbary Pirates that America would not give in. By 1805, after four long years of blockade, naval confrontations, military failures, and an amazing overland expedition by the incredible William Eaton, the bashaw (or king) of Tripoli gave in and wanted to negotiate a new (and much cheaper) treaty with the United States. It was the first major overseas victory for both America and the US Navy. It was also America’s first major battle against Muslim terrorists who tried to intimidate and blackmail the nation. This all happened over 200 years ago.


Top Photograph: US Frigate Philadelphia off the coast of Morocco by Wells, published by J. Gold, London, England, in the “Naval Chronicle,” 1803.

Middle Photograph: “Stranding and Capture of USS Philadelphia, 31 October 1803.” Sketch by William Bainbridge Hoff.

Bottom Photograph: “Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804.” Oil on canvas by Edward Moran (1829-1901).