219 years ago, on the night of February 16, 1804, a young Lieutenant in the United States Navy led the first of his two expeditions that year into Tripoli Harbor, this one to set fire to, and destroy, the frigate USS Philadelphia, which–some months earlier–had run aground and been captured by the Tripolitan army of Pasha Yusuf, who had unofficially declared war on the US in May of 1801, thereby complicating efforts by the United States to rid the surrounding waters of Barbary pirates.
Steven Decatur and his band of about eighty volunteers, most of whom were United States Marines, deprived the Pasha of his trophy ship by disguising their own vessel, USS Intrepid, as a merchant ship traveling under a British flag, sailing into Tripoli Harbor in the early evening, and carefully maneuvering themselves near the Philadelphia. Decatur and his men managed to board her, and in fewer than ten minutes, took charge of the ship. Unable to tow the much larger Philadelphia out of the harbor with his own ship, Decatur followed his orders of last resort, and set it on fire, completely destroying it.
Every one of Decatur’s men made it out alive, and no less a sailor than Lord Horatio Nelson is said to have observed it “the most bold and daring act of the age,” with Pope Pius VII declaring that “the United States, though in their infancy, has done more to humble and humiliate the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast in one night than all the European states have done for a long period of time.”
Following his successful escapade, Steven Decatur resumed his previous role as commander of the USS Enterprise,** only to lead a second attack on Tripoli Harbor in August of 1804, in which he rescued several captive Americans. Sadly, Decatur’s brother James was killed in the attack, and Decatur himself narrowly escaped a fatal sword blow, after which he sought out his brother’s killers, and slew the captain of the Barbary gunboat himself.
Decatur’s naval career was storied: He was promoted to Captain at the age of 25, and by the start of the War of 1812 had attained the highest rank in the Navy, that of Commodore. His actions were cut short when he was captured by the British and held in Bermuda until the war’s end. Subsequently, he fought in the Second Barbary War, but the chance of future career advancement was nullified on March 22, 1820, when he was killed in a duel. He was just forty-one years old.
Those sixty-or-so United States Marines who accompanied Decatur into Tripoli Harbor and onto the Philadelphia all those years ago? They immortalized their exploits in the first verse of the Marine Corps Hymn:
Several years ago, the President’s Own US Marine Band performed in Washington, PA, and Mr. Right and I went to the show. (It was tremendous.) This isn’t from our performance, but it’s very similar:
And the final verse:
Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.
God bless the troops.
**There were several ships of this name in the US Navy, over the course of many years, and they are all honored in the name of the Starship USS Enterprise, of Star Trek fame.