Early action with the Swedes
Sweden was officially neutral during the French Revolutionary wars, but was actively engaged in war with Tripoli when American ships arrived in the Mediterranean. In May 1802 USS Boston arrived off Tripoli to deny the use of its harbor to the corsairs of the Barbary States. Boston was smaller than most of the American frigates, armed with 32 guns, and had been built by the city of Boston under subscription as a gift to the United States. A veteran of the Quasi-War, Boston carried the United States Minister to France, Robert Livingston, to his post before joining the American squadron in the Mediterranean.
Boston found upon its arrival off Tripoli a squadron of Swedish vessels already engaged in an attempted blockade of the harbor. The American ship soon found that the Barbary corsairs were faster, more readily handled, and yielded less leeway – meaning they could sail closer inshore – than the heavier Swedish ships. Boston encountered the same difficulties, and the blockade was largely ineffective, which was what impelled the Americans to request smaller, handier vessels to work with the larger frigates. Until such ships arrived the blockade remained ineffective, and once inside the harbor the corsairs were protected by the heavy shore guns.
On May 16 Boston was joined by the Swedish frigate Froja in a chase of a Tripolitan corsair, which the two frigates managed to cut off from reaching the harbor, forcing the corsair to run itself aground. A half dozen corsairs and gunboats sailed from the port to attempt to reach their stricken ally. Boston turned from the first corsair and engaged the rescuers at long range, while the Swedish vessel damaged the beached corsair with gunfire before turning to support Boston. The two frigates ran across the harbor exchanging fire with the more lightly armed Tripolitan vessels, which could neither close with their enemies nor inflict any damage.
It was the style of the Tripolitans to overman their vessels, in order to run alongside a ship and capture it by boarding and overwhelming its crew. Both Boston and the Swedish frigate used their heavier gun batteries to force the Tripolitans to keep their distance. When Boston detected another ship entering the harbor it broke off the engagement to investigate the intruder, which turned out to be another Swedish ship. Boston then returned to the corsairs, all of which withdrew to the shelter of the harbor batteries. No vessels were sunk or captured, though all of the Tripolitan ships were damaged in varying degrees.
The Swedes later negotiated a separate treaty with Tripoli, under which their ships would be free of the raids of the Tripolitans, and the Swedish fleet withdrew. USS Constellation, a 38 gun frigate and veteran of the Quasi-War, arrived to enforce the continuing American blockade of Tripoli in late May. Boston returned to the United States and was placed in reserve at the Washington Navy Yard, where the ship remained until 1814, when it was burned during the British attack on Washington during the War of 1812. The First Battle of Tripoli Harbor, as the action of May 16, 1802 became known, was the first time the United States Navy operated in concert with the navy of an ally.