"When within sure distance the Constitution opened her battery with round and grape-shot upon the thirteen gun-boats and galleys which had engaged the Americans' small craft. This storm of shot sunk one of the gun-boats, disabled two and put the rest to flight. Commodore Preble then ran in along the batteries, within musket-shot distance and fired three hundred round shot besides grape and canister into the Bashaw's castle, the town, and the batteries. He silenced the castle and two of the batteries and then hauled off. No lives were lost on the American fleet."
"Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." In 1794 Congress commissioned the construction of six frigates to give teeth to that bold declaration. One of the new navy's first tasks was to protect American shipping from the Barbary States, what is now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. We sent Preble.
Taken from, Brown, John Howard, "American Naval Heroes." (Boston: Brown & Company, 1899). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
At this time our situation with respect to Morocco and Tunis was critical, and as to Tripoli it had been hostile for two years. The administration of President Thomas Jefferson had adopted the same policy pursued toward these powers by European countries in giving them presents or annuities in conformity to their prejudices and habits, at the same time making an occasional display of force by sending men-of-war in their seas, and by thus intimidating them keeping down their demands to a reasonable amount.
The tribute had been paid regularly previous to 1793, without recourse to the expense of a naval demonstration, and the demands of the African governments had become exorbitant and threatening. Great sums had been paid in specie and in articles of war, and this was especially exacting on the part of Algiers. The new Bashaw of Tripoli who had deposed his elder brother, and not satisfied with the tribute already levied on our government determined to exact more by sending out cruisers to prey upon the American trade.
Commodore Edward Preble, in command of a small US squadron, was sent to deal with the situation in 1803. On September 17 he appeared with the Constitution and the John Adams in Tangier bay and hoisted a white flag in token of peace, but with all his men at quarters by way of precaution.
On October 11, Commodore Preble met with the Sultan. Before he left his ship, he gave orders that should his party be forcibly detained, no consideration for their safety should be made, but that the fleet should open fire on the town. On approaching the Bashaw the commodore refused to lay aside his side arms according to Moorish custom, and negotiated a promise of the restoration of all American vessels recently captured and a ratification of the treaty of 1786.
Commodore Preble now formally declared the blockade of Tripoli and sent notices of the fact to the ministers and consuls to be communicated to the respective neutral powers. On October 22, he was informed of the disastrous loss of the US ship Philadelphia, which had run aground in Tripoli Harbor and was captured, along with its crew, by the Tripolitans who used the ship as a floating battery and the crew as slaves.
On December 14, 1803, Preble sailed with the Enterprise and captured a ketch in sight of Tripoli, under Turkish colors. She had on board two Tripolitan officers, a number of Tripolitan soldiers, and forty or more men and women, who were slaves belonging to the Bashaw and his subjects. Commodore Preble at first determined to release the vessel and men claimed by the Turkish captain, supposedly neutral, and to retain the Tripolitans as prisoners, but before executing the order he learned that the captain had been active in the capture of the Philadelphia, having on this very vessel carried to the Philadelphia one hundred Tripolitans armed with cutlasses and muskets, and flying the Tripolitan flag, had assaulted the ship and plundered the officers. Upon receiving this information Commodore Preble retained the ship as a prize and the crew as pirates.
Commodore Preble succeeded in conveying supplies and information to Captain Bainbridge and his officers and men in prison, and tried several times to effect their ransom, but did not think it wise to submit to the extravagant terms demanded by the regency.
Finding that no additional vessels were likely to arrive speedily from the United States he negotiated with the King of Naples for a loan of gun-boats, and effected the loan of six gun-boats and two bomb-vessels completely fitted for service, with permission to ship twelve to fifteen Neapolitans to serve on each boat under the American flag. His force then consisted of the Constitution, six smaller ships, six gun-boats, and two bomb-ketches, the entire fleet manned by 1,060 men.
The enemy had on his castle and the several batteries in Tripoli harbor 115 guns, and also had two schooners, a brig, and two galleys. He had in his crews and the garrisons of his forts and batteries 3,000 men, and the Bashaw had called to the defense of the city more than 20,000 Arabs.
Preble was delayed in attacking the city by adverse winds that increased to a gale until August 3, when he attacked the shipping at the entrance to the harbor, then directed the squadron stand for the batteries, and cast off the gun-boats. The bomb-vessels then began throwing shells into the city. This drew a response from the entire line of batteries in which 200 guns directed their fire at the squadron, then within musket-shot of the principal batteries.
In some examples of American heroism that day, Lieutenant Trippe boarded one of the enemy's large boats with only Midshipman Jonathan Henley and nine men. His boat fell off before any more could join him and he was left to conquer or perish with the fearful odds of eleven to thirty-six. In a few moments fourteen of the enemy were bleeding corpses, and twenty-two were prisoners, seven of them badly wounded. Lieutenant Trippe received eleven saber wounds, some deep and dangerous. The blade of his sword yielded and he closed with his adversary and both fell. In the struggle Trippe wrested the Turk's sword from him and with it pierced his enemy’s body.
Lieutenant Bainbridge had his boat grounded within pistol shot of the enemy's battery, but though exposed to continuous volleys of musketry he succeeded in getting off. Captain Somers with his single boat attacked and drove off five fully-manned boats, leaving them in a shattered condition with many dead and wounded on board.
Lieutenant James Decatur, the brother of Captain Stephen Decatur, engaged one of the enemy's largest boats which struck only after losing most of her men, and at the moment the brave lieutenant was stepping on his prize, he was shot through the head by the Turkish captain who escaped while the Americans were recovering the body of their unfortunate commander.
The Constitution kept the enemy's flotilla in disorder, keeping in constant motion and going to the help of any weak point in the line of battle. She was frequently within danger line of the rocks and her broadsides effectually silenced any battery she could bring them to bear upon. She was not able to remain long before a single fort as it was necessary to wear or tack to help some gun-boat or to direct her fire against a more destructive battery in another part of the harbor.
After two and a half hours' combat the commodore signaled for the gun-boats and bombs to retire from the action, and for the brigs and schooners to take the gun-boats and their prizes in tow. In fifteen minutes the squadron was out of reach of the enemy's shot and the commodore hauled off to give tow to the bomb-ketches.
The damage to the squadron was a mainmast of the Constitution cut thirty feet from the deck by a 32-pound shot, sails and rigging considerably cut, one of her quarter-deck guns injured by a wind shot, and a mariner's arm shattered by a piece of the broken shot, the only casualty on board. The other vessels and boats suffered in their riggings and had several men wounded, Lieutenant Decatur being the only man killed. The extremely bad marksmanship of the enemy and the constant and rapid fire of the American guns confused the enemy and their shot went wide of the mark.
Of the loss to the enemy no definite knowledge could be gained. On the three boats captured with one hundred and three men on board, forty-seven of them were killed and twenty-six wounded, leaving only thirty fit for duty. Three other boats with their crews went to the bottom of the harbor and the decks of the remaining vessels were swept of numbers. On the shore several guns were dismounted, the town was considerably damaged and a large number of men were killed and wounded.
The Bashaw and his people had apprehended danger, but they had little suspected so complete a disaster to their fleet, batteries and town. In fact when the Bashaw saw the squadron standing in he observed, "They will work their distance for tacking; they are a sort of Jews, who have no notion of fighting."
The palaces and terraces of the houses were covered with spectators when the fight began, expecting to see the Bashaw's boats drive the strangers from the harbor. They soon sought safety in the country and bomb-proofs, and while the fight lasted no spectators were to be seen on shore. One of the officers of the Philadelphia then in captivity reported a Turk as asking "if those men that fought so were Americans or infernals in Christian shape sent to destroy the sons of the prophet. The consuls tell us the Americans are a young nation, and gained their independence through the aid of France; that they had a small navy and their officers were inexperienced, and that they were merely a nation of merchants, and that by taking-their ships and men we should get a great ransom. Instead of this their Preble pays us a coin of shot, shells and hard blows, and sends a Decatur in a dark night with a band of Christian dogs, fierce and cruel as the tiger, who killed our brothers and burned our ships before our eyes."
On the 7th the French privateer delivered a letter from the US consul saying that the Bashaw had very much lowered his tone and would probably treat for terms, but further movement in that direction not being apparent, Commodore Preble began a second assault with the bomb-vessels and schooners. These shelled the town and silenced a battery of seven guns. A hot shot from the enemy's battery passed through the magazine of one of Preble's prize boats and she was blown up with a loss of ten killed and six wounded, including Midshipman Spence who was superintending the loading of a gun when the explosion took place. He with the other survivors finished their work and discharged the gun while the boat was sinking, then jumped in the sea and were taken up by another boat. The American loss during the two hours' assault was twenty-two killed, two mortally wounded and four slightly hurt.
On the 9th Commodore Preble in the brig Argus reconnoitered the harbor, and the next day a flag of truce was seen flying from the shore. A boat was sent to answer, but was not allowed to land. It brought from the French consul a letter informing the commodore that the Bashaw would accept five hundred dollars each for the ransom of the prisoners of the Philadelphia and terminate the war without any consideration or annuity for peace. This demand amounted to $150,000. Commodore Preble rejected the offer, but for the sake of the captives, and to save the further effusion of blood, offered $80,000 and $10,000 for presents. The French commissary general undertook to negotiate the treaty when the Bashaw suspended it, declaring that he would await another attack of the Americans.
On the 27th the commodore stood in for Tripoli, and anchoring within pistol-shot of the enemy's line at three o'clock in the morning, they opened a brisk fire on the ships, town, batteries and castle which was warmly returned until daylight. Then the Constitution weighed anchor and stood in under the direct fire of Fort English, the castle, crown and mole batteries and signaled the gun-boats to retire from action. When within sure distance the Constitution opened her battery with round and grape-shot upon the thirteen gun-boats and galleys which had engaged the Americans' small craft. This storm of shot sunk one of the gun-boats, disabled two and put the rest to flight. Commodore Preble then ran in along the batteries, within musket-shot distance and fired three hundred round shot besides grape and canister into the Bashaw's castle, the town, and the batteries. He silenced the castle and two of the batteries and then hauled off. No lives were lost on the American fleet.
Commodore Preble then determined to send a fire-ship into the harbor to destroy the flotilla and at the same time to bombard the town. Captain Somers volunteered for this service and with the assistance of Lieutenants Wadsworth and Israel fitted out the ketch Intrepid for the dangerous expedition. In the ketch was stored 100 barrels of gunpowder and 150 fixed shells, with trains of fuses and other combustibles so fixed as to apply fire easily to the deadly magazine at the moment the venturesome crew should have placed the fire-ship in position. On the evening of September 4, 1804, Captain Somers selected two fast- rowing boats to use in the escape of his volunteer crew. His own boat was manned by four seamen from the Nautilus and carried Lieutenant Wadsworth and six men from the Constitution. At eight o'clock they parted from the squadron and under convoy of the Argus, Vixen and Nautilus who approached within a short distance of the batteries, the Intrepid with her dangerous freight gained the inner harbor, but as she neared the point of destination she was boarded and carried by two Tripolitan galleys of one hundred men each.
At this moment she exploded with an awful effect. Every battery was silenced and not a gun was fired afterward during the entire night. Captain Somers is said to have assured a friend before he started on his perilous expedition, that in case he should be boarded, as he apprehended, he would not be captured. It is very reasonable to suppose that finding the enemy in possession of his ketch, he seized a quick match and touched the trail of gunpowder that led to the mine, and in the explosion that followed he with his companions found a common grave with two hundred of the enemy.
Shortly after this action Commodore Preble obtained leave to go home, passing the command of the Constitution over to Captain Decatur. Congress voted the Commodore the thanks of the nation, and an emblematic medal was presented by the President with declarations of admiration and esteem. The next year peace was made with Tripoli, the American prisoners were ransomed, and the navy returned home.
Commodore Preble died in Portland, Maine, August 25, 1807. The Government ordered minute-guns to be fired, and other marks of naval mourning were ordered to honor the memory of the patriot and hero. He lived and died a Christian hero, and made one of the triumvirate of central figures of the early navy: Jones of the Revolution; Truxton of the West Indies; and Preble of the operations against Tripoli.