Stephen Decatur and Intrepid
In December 1803, as Philadelphia lay sheltered under the guns of Tripoli being refitted by its captors, Lt. Stephen Decatur, in command of the American sloop-of-war Enterprise, captured the Tripolitan ketch Mastico. Mastico was condemned as a prize and taken into the US Navy as USS Intrepid. Decatur then developed a plan by which the Tripolitan built Intrepid would be used to enter the port under a ruse of war, allowing American sailors to board the Philadelphia and either retake the frigate or burn it to deny its use to the Tripolitans. The crew of Philadelphia were at that time being used as slave labor, housed in a fortress from which they had full view of their former ship.
With his plans approved by American Commodore Edward Preble, Decatur asked for volunteers, and in February 1804 sailed from Syracuse in Intrepid with 80 men, the majority being US Marines. Intrepid rendezvoused with USS Syren outside of Tripoli harbor and took aboard another eight men, adjusted its rigging to appear as a more slovenly Tripolitan vessel, and entered the harbor in the early evening of February 16, 1804. Its men carried combustibles made of pitch and shredded rope fibers and canvas. Intrepid crept across the harbor slowly, in a meandering course, to mask its intent of approaching Philadelphia, which by that time had been re-gunned by the Tripolitans.
Intrepid flew British colors, a legitimate ruse of war for the time (as long as they flew an American flag when combat began), and carried Sicilian volunteers fluent in Arabic. The men of the boarding party remained concealed below decks, armed with cutlasses and bayonets, under strict orders to avoid the use of firearms unless absolutely necessary. The men below waited in silence for more than three hours as Intrepid crept towards its target, impeded by contrary winds. When Decatur and his men finally did board the frigate, it was through complete surprise, and more than two dozen Tripolitans were killed in the attack without the loss of a man of Decatur’s party. They next inspected the ship to see if it could be taken out to sea.
It took just a cursory look for Decatur to realize that Philadelphia was inadequately rigged to get underway, and Intrepid was too lightly built to take the heavier vessel under tow. With the now aroused Tripolitans opening fire from the shore on both ships Decatur ordered his men to set the frigate ablaze. Meanwhile Syren moved inshore to provide covering fire for the raiding party. The fires on Philadelphia grew quickly, soon burned through the mooring lines, and Philadelphia began to drift toward the rocks near the harbor fortress. Convinced that the ship was beyond saving by the Tripolitans, Decatur ordered his men back aboard Intrepid, which left the harbor under heavy fire.
The destruction of Philadelphia made Decatur a national hero when word of the act reached the United States. Officers of European navies acknowledged the daring nature of the raid, although there is no evidence that Lord Nelson called in the most daring act of the age, as he is often quoted as having said. The Pope did praise Decatur’s raid, saying that, “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble and humiliate the anti-Christians barbarians on the African coast in one night than all the European states had done for a long period of time.” Decatur was promoted to Captain for his efforts, and upon return to Syracuse resumed command of Enterprise.