On A Sneak Attack

The American warship, the frigate USS Philadelphia, lay in harbor in the north African town of Tripoli. The year was 1804, and the young nation of the United States was still feeling her way in international relations. The Mediterranean coast of Africa was awash in pirating, and the US, wanting to expand trade to the lucrative markets of the Italian peninsula and on to the Turkish coasts, was taking a serious hit to their shipping. What we today call the Barbary Pirates were taking American cargoes and the ships that carried them. President Thomas Jefferson ordered American frigates like the Philadelphia into African waters to stop this pirating threat.

What no one in the harbor–and certainly no one onboard the Philadelphia–knew was that a band of saboteurs had plans to destroy the warship as it rested at anchor there. According to the story, about 80 men disguised their boat with a square sail that mimicked local ships. They chose for their attack a night when the moon was new. No one seemed to notice much as the disguised vessel drew alongside the Philadelphia. In Arabic, one of the men on the ship asked if they could tie up to the American warship because they had lost their anchor. Permission was granted for them to do so.

Suddenly, a loud order was given, and about 60 of the men jumped onboard the Philadelphia. Within ten minutes, the ship was seized. The attackers had lost no casualties in the short skirmish. Now, the intent was for the marauders to sail the American ship out to sea and, in effect, steal it. But the ship was soon discovered to not be seaworthy. As a last resort, in order for the enemy to not be able to use it, the commander of the attackers ordered that the ship be burned. They put incendiary devices all around the large ship, and they set it ablaze. The commander then ordered all the attackers to return to their boat.

As the Philadelphia began to burn, the gunpowder began to ignite as well. Explosions rocked the harbor. In the confusion and fear caused by the burning vessel, the attackers were able to barely escape and made their way to the open sea, their mission happily accomplished. The fact that this feat could be accomplished without a single loss of life was amazing. This commander was lauded for his audacity and bravery. None less than British Admiral Lord Nelson is reported to have called the raid, “The most bold and daring act of the age.” Even the Pope at the time commented on how daring and bold the attack was.

It might surprise you to learn that, when the news of the destruction of the Philadelphia reached the United States, there was great rejoicing. Yes, this act was lauded by both press and public. And it might further surprise you to learn that the leader of this daring raid was actually an American naval captain named Stephen Decatur. And the party Decatur led was made up mostly of United States Marines. You see, the Philadelphia had been captured by the pirates, and Decatur had orders to take it back or, if that were not possible, to destroy it so the Barbary Pirates couldn’t use it.

And so he did.

That’s also why, in the Marine Corps Hymn, they sing, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli…”


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