Destruction of the USS Philadelphia
The First Barbary War (1801 – 1805), was fought between the United States and the Barbary states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli, over the Barbary states’ predation on American merchant shipping, and America’s refusal to pay tribute to halt the attacks. A US Navy squadron sailed into the Mediterranean to confront the Barbary pirates and to protect American shipping.
The squadron included the USS Philadelphia, a 1240 ton sailing frigate with 36 guns, which was quite powerful for its day. On October 31st, 1803, while chasing a pirate ship, the Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef two miles from Tripoli’s harbor. All attempts to refloat her failed, so her captain ordered her bottom holed, guns thrown overboard, and gunpowder spoiled before surrendering the ship and crew.
Notwithstanding her captain’s efforts, the Tripolitanians did manage to refloat the Philadelphia, and towed her into their harbor for salvage and restoration. The ship was too powerful a prize to allow to remain in the pirates’ hands, so the US Navy decided to recapture or destroy it, and the mission to do one or the other was assigned to Lieutenant Stephen Decatur.
Earlier, the US Navy had captured a Tripolitanian ketch and renamed her the Intrepid. It was restored to its original condition to look like a local ship, and on the night of February 16th, 1804, disguised as a Maltese ship flying a British flag, Decatur and a contingent of volunteers sailed her into Tripoli harbor. They feigned distress, claiming to have lost all anchors in a storm, and the pilot asked and was granted permission to tie up next to the Philadelphia.
Once tied up to the captured frigate, Decatur and his men overwhelmed her guards, using only cold steel without firing a shot so as not to alert the authorities. Upon confirming that the ship was repairable and seaworthy, but unable to sail her away themselves, Decatur and his men destroyed the Philadelphia by putting her to the torch, then made their escape.