18. Recovering a Warship
From 1801 to 1805, a fledgling America fought The First Barbary War against the Barbary states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli. At issue was the Barbary states’ predation on – or piracy of – 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 managed to refloat the Philadelphia, and towed her into 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. The result was one of the US Navy’s earliest deception operations.