Thursday, October 02, 2008

Our Country Right or Wrong - Stephen Decatur

One of my self appointed missions in this peripatetic blog is to shed just a little more light on some great persons that history has, if not forgotten, stored away for another day or reduced to one quote or a place name.

Although I'm not always as attentive to our heroes on the sea as I have been with those on land, one early American, Stephen Decatur, Jr. has not gotten his due, at least for a long, long time. Frankly, as much time as I have spent reading American history the past 30 years or so, I knew very little more than his name and that he was in the Navy, until a few years ago when I began spending a little time on the Barbary Wars.

Decatur was a third generation sailor, his grandfather sailing for the French and his father a Revolutionary War Navy man. Junior made his name during America's first actual foreign war after the Revolution (as opposed to the quasi-war with France before the turn of the century), sometimes called the Barbary War, which commenced with Jefferson's first term in 1801 and continued on for several years. The marauding pirates or corsairs out of Tripoli (hence the line in the song - "from the shores of Tripoli") had made the Mediterranean Sea a dangerous place for American shipping. It was worth fighting a war over. Morocco and Algiers also engaged in pirating acts against us. Essentially, if we were to sail what they believed was their sea, we, like the European nations, would have to pay them tribute. To Jefferson's credit, and I discredit him enough in this blog that this may come as a surprise, he fought back. Nevertheless, the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, declared war upon us for our refusal to pay tribute.

About two and a half years after the war started the new commander, Commodore Edward Treble, suffered a blow. His second most powerful ship, The Philadelphia, along with a considerable portion of his fighting force, was captured while blockading Tripoli and chasing a smaller ship, when it foundered on a shoal and, listing, was unable to fire its guns at the surrounding attacking enemy ships.

Eventually, the Tripolitans timidly took possession of the ship, needing first to be assured they would not be attacked when they did. Once aboard and seeing there would be no danger to them, they ravaged the ship to the degree that their own officers began slicing off hands to stop them. The majority of captured sailors, rank and file men, were thrown into a dank cellar in the castle in which they would have to live for some time. They were abused and treated as slaves, which, was not at all uncommon in the world at the time for prisoners. Remember, America was a slave power for over 60 more years. However, Tripoli saw itself as a sophisticated power and preferred not to slaughter captured men, at least in theory. Besides, they could be ransomed, and that was a better result.

Officers were treated better. Captain William Brainbridge, an unlucky, if brave and accomplished man, who suffered one naval humiliation after another to this point, and other officers were put up in an old house formerly occupied by the American consul, which was far more livable than an unfinished basement. They even attended dinners given by their captors. This also was not unusual for officers. The ship's doctor became the Pasha's doctor and given more freedom still. Americans also treated captured officers better than the run of the mill military man.

Brainbridge used the opportunity well. He was allowed to send letters out and at first encoded them so that he could provide Preble with data. Soon after, odd sounding letters were forbidden to be sent by him. However, he discovered that by using lime juice, he could write in invisible ink and was able to communicate important information.

Although the men were badly treated, and at least 5 of them became Muslims to free themselves of the slavery (one even became the worst overseer of his former mates). Another killed himself and still another died from abuse, they eventually gained some freedom to walk the town in small groups and buy things for themselves. Preble was able to provide them with money and other items for their comfort. Still, it was a hellish existence from which they could not wait to escape. The local Pasha put up on them of first millions, but then a half a million dollars.

The Philadelphia itself was repaired by the locals and they even salvaged the canons thrown overboard. It was tied up in the Tripoli harbor in front of the Pasha's own palace. Boarding it and successfully sailing away seemed unlikely. Unbeknownst to Treble, the Tripolitans were not able to successfully man and utilize the large ship themselves, and the Pasha was intending to sell it. Treble ordered it burned and asked the young Decatur, merely a lieutenant, but already commanding the ship Enterprise to tackle the raid. Seventy volunteers from his own ship and another went along.

First, Treble and Decature did surveillance themselves, and watched from the edge of the harbor. It was obviously quite dangerous for ships if you did not have expert knowledge, so, taking it out under the eyes of the Tripolitans and over 100 canon that the two men could count for themselves seemed more than could be accomplished. While they were out surveilling, the came across a Tripolitan merchant ship using a British flag as cover. They boarded and found possessions from the Philadelphia. This fit in with their plans. They took the men prisoner (only 60 as opposed to 300 plus remaining from the Philadelphia) and converted the ship to their own use. They intended to sail into the harbor under the guise of the merchant ship, with most of the men concealed below decks, and burn the big ship right in front of the castle and its harbor canon. It is not clear from history whether the plan was Bainbridge's, Preble's or Decatur's. Each has a claim.

Here's how they carried out the first great commando raid in U.S. history in February, 1804. The volunteers manned the captured ship, renamed by them the Intrepid. After a week's horrid delay due to a storm and the men being forced to eat rotten beef and biscuits, they entered the harbor flying British colors. The men huddled below decks while Decatur and a few others stayed on board and drifted into the harbor. Preble's own pilot, a Sicilian named Salvatore Catalano, spoke the local dialect and called to the men guarding the Philadelphia that he had lost his anchors and had to tie up next to their ship. He convinced the guards, but not for long.

As the Americans made ready to board the ship, the ruse was uncovered (it's not quite clear to me how, to tell the truth) and, at Decatur's bellowed order, the Americans below bearing swords and knives flowed out from below decks and boarded, killing many of the outnumbered Tripolitan guards onboard. Other guards leapt overboard and were overtaken by a small boat the Americans launched. As fate would have it Decatur slipped just before boarding and his lieutenant boarded ahead of him, a big honor at the time.

Although the men carried cutting weapons to do their work in order to keep the matter a surprise, once the ship was retaken a rocket was set off to give notice to another American ship waiting out in the harbor. Quickly, the ship was set afire in several different places. The rocket alerted the ground forces as to what was happening and they opened up their batteries on Decatur's little ship. Two pirate ships nearby began shooting small arms at them (but, fortunately, did not use their canon).

Ironically, the Philadelphia's restored canons, had been loaded to protect the harbor from the Americans, and began to be set off, even firing into the city itself. Decatur waited until it was too late for the Philadelphia to be saved for use and then made his escape with his men -- all of them. Not a man was lost. Only one was wounded (of course, we are not counting the beatings the captured sailors in the castle received for this event over which they had no control). Decatur, although not first to board, was last to leave it. Just after they began their escape, the powder in the Philadelphia caught fire and blew up.

The fire burned all night and lit up the harbor. It could be seen from 40 miles away. The skeleton of the ship was not recovered until about a hundred years later.

Perhaps I've failed in explaining how significant this achievement was. So, I'll quote the most revered of all sailors since Columbus -- Admiral Horatio Nelson of His Majesty's Navy. It was, he said, "the most bold and daring act of the age". That's like Michael Jordan saying some young star played the best basketball game he ever saw. Since Nelson bought the farm the following year, he probably didn't change his mind either. The Pope at the time said that more had been done for Christianity in that one raid than "the most powerful Christian nations" had done "for ages."

An irony worth mentioning. The Philadelphia's first captain was Decatur's father. His son was the last man to stand upon it.

Later in 1804, Decatur led six gunboats in and fought nineteen corsair ships, and had a lopsided victory that was part of a cumulative series of blows that helped resolved the war the following year (there is another fascinating episode by another intrepid soul I will keep to myself for now and write about another time). They captured three of the ships, sunk yet another and damaged the others. Afterwards they sat just below the city and pounded it relentlessly.

During the attack, Decatur lost his brother, James, who reputedly fought well but fell. Decatur, pleased as a character out of Homer that his brother died well, still sought revenge. He returned to the harbor and sought out the commander of the ship who killed his sibling right on his boat. The commander turned out to be a giant Turkman bearing a large boarding pike. Decatur, wielding only a cutlass went after him just the same. At first, Decatur got the upper hand when another Trilopitan tried to attack him from behind. An American who actually had lost the use of his arms during the fight threw himself in the way and took the blow. In the meantime, the giant had reversed his position with Decatur and seemed about to stab him with a knife he pulled out of his clothing, when Decatur pulled out his own weapon, a gun, and shot him dead. The fight is reported by an eye witness and is among official naval records, even if it seems larger than life and a little like professional wrestling today.

For his Philadelphia feat he was promoted to Captain at only 25 years old, the youngest ever, and soon was considered a senior member of the force. He received an official commendation and sword from congress and he and his men were lauded in public. One enterprising American composer took an old British drinking tune and wrote a tribute to Decatur and his men. Some words and rhymes from it may ring a bell with you, but I'll highlight to help -

"By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation . . .
And the turban'd head bowed to the terrible glare
Now, mixed with the olive, the laurel shall wave,
And form a bright wreath for the brows of the brave.

Indeed, the song was the prelude to our national anthem that the composer, Francis Scott Key, penned during the War of 1812, when, although extremely unprepared, we declared war on Great Britain. If it can be said that there was a bright spot for America while that war lasted (the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war was ended) it was some of the performances of its still fledging and long unsupported Navy. While not facing the full might of the British Navy, which was still engaged in conflicts with Napolean and elsewhere around the world, in individual contests, American sailors sometimes came out ahead, humbling its proud forebearer nation on more than a few occasions.

By then, Decatur was a commodore. I won't go into his exploits in that war, but, they were significant. Decatur actually was a prisoner when, near the end of the war, he finally had to surrender his ship to a much more powerful force. But, after his release, he was soon back in the Mediterranean in what is called the Second Barbary War and this time put an end to tribute and the capture and ransoming of American sailors by the Barbary nations.

Now that there was peace with Britain and Napoleon was defeated by the Brits and their allies, the Americans turned their full force against Algiers ruled by Dey Omar the Agar, whose assassinated predecessor had been merciless during the time the Americans could not spare fighting vessels to protect their merchants. This time Decatur was sent back with ten ships, the largest contingency of American ships to that time, until, the second squadron under Bainbridge, seventeen strong, sailed after him. Within one week of his arrival, Decatur's squadron captured a ship bearing an Algerian admiral, followed by a second ship.

When he sailed to Algiers and confirmed the captures, he was quickly able to secure a treaty. Although Algiers insisted on keeping some American property the prisoners were released to him. He returned the two recently taken ships as "a favor" to the Dey. Although Decatur had thought the refusal to return the property fair (go figure) he was resolute and gave them three hours to sign, permitting no delay. He signed.

He was then off to Tunis and forced a similar treaty with them. One difference. America had been paying tribute to the North African powers for some 30 years including, in reality, at the end of the Tripolitan War, although it was couched otherwise. This time Decatur demanded and received $60,000 in payment for the taking by Tunisians of two American ships. He next sailed to Tripoli where Karamanli still ruled and demanded $30,000 for U.S. ships that Tripoli held for Britain during the Americans war with them. Not only that, but he demanded and received the release of prisoners from a number of European nations from him, making him somewhat of an international hero.

He had turned three decades of American embarrassment and centuries of it for the Europeans on its head. I don't mean to suggest that Bainbridge or another commodore could not have accomplished the same with the firepower provided them, but, Decatur was the one America trusted with the job and he perfectly accomplished it.

Decatur later became a Navy Commissioner and a social figure of note. His life ended in 1820 with a duel, a ritual to which he was no stranger. He was challenged by James Barron, a captain who Decatur had criticized and sat judgment upon unfavorably in a court martial. The weapons were pistols. Decatur made it known he intended only to wound. His second, ironically, was William Bainbridge. Neither Bainbridge or the opposing second helped settle the affair after Barron made what seemed like an attempt at it. Decatur was a crack shot. He succeded in only wounding Barron, but was fatally hit himself and died in agony the next day. His funeral was a huge event attended by president Monroe, congress, the supreme court justices and over 10,000 citizens.

His popularity at the time of his death perhaps best explains my puzzlement why he is not a househeld name today like other early American figures, such as Daniel Boone's, Davey Crockett, Kit Carson, Admiral David Farragut, and so on, although he was so revered in his time and accomplished so much more than they. I rate John Paul Jones in the same league with Decatur, but he has many times over the other man's fame. Why?

He is strangely best remembered today for the towns named after him. You've probably heard of Decatur, Illinois but there were many more named for him. There are also schools and a string of Navy ships which bear or bore his name. Although his exploits (which also include some duels and sword fights) are not much remembered these days any more than his great commando raid is, he is sometimes also remembered for one quote, a toast he made -- "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!" Toasts are shorter these days, so we are more familiar with the abbreviated version, which he did not say -- "My country, right or wrong!" Most often, the quote is remembered, but not the man.

There have been a few Decatur biographies you can find on Amazon which all seemed to have come out in the last few years. Although these are not my sources, they are probably worthwhile for books purely on Decatur. Sometimes, I have to admit, I don't remember my own sources, but I do with this subject. They are Henry Adams History of the United States, 1801-1809, Frank Lambert's The Barbary Wars and Joseph Wheelan's Jefferson's War, the first of which is an all time classic worth every second if you are obsessed by history (probably deadly if you are not), and the last two written just this millenium, are much more focused on the subject and faster, easier reads.


  1. Decatur, yeah, Decatur. John Paul Jones, yeah, John Paul Jones! The first American naval war heroes, yeah, they don't suck, yeah.Heh,heh,heh....

  2. Oh boy. Bear has from free time and is stomping on my posts. Why me? Why can't I get a normal groupie who loves everything I do?

  3. This isn't stomping, this is cheering. We love these guys. You missed the Beavis and Butthead tone I was going for.

  4. Let me see - "Bear said . . .

    Yep. You are right. My bad.

    Ummm, yeah, nautical heroes!


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .