Today in North African history: the burning of the USS Philadelphia (1804)

Stephen Decatur (d. 1820) is one of the US Navy’s first famous heroes, alongside Revolutionary War captain John Paul Jones, and among the earliest American war heroes in general. Technically we should call him Stephen Decatur Junior, so as not to confuse him with his father, who was also an important early American naval officer. But I’m only going to refer to Stephen Decatur Senior (d. 1808) once more after this sentence, so we don’t really need to be so exacting.

One of the most interesting things about Decatur’s career is that the operation that really made his reputation involved setting an American ship on fire. The USS Philadelphia was a frigate that first set sail in 1799 under the command of Stephen Decatur Senior (whose part in this story is now done), and saw service during the Quasi-War with France before heading to the Mediterranean in response to threats by the Pasha of Tripolitania (the northwestern part of modern Libya), Yusuf Karamanli, against American shipping. Those threats led in part to the First Barbary War (1801-1805), between Tripolitania and the United States, and it’s during that war that our story today takes place. On October 31, 1803, the Philadelphia, by this point commanded by William Bainbridge, ran aground in Tripoli’s harbor. Despite Bainbridge’s best efforts to refloat his vessel—and then, when that failed, to scuttle it—he and his crew were taken prisoner and the Philadelphia was salvaged by the Tripolitanians.

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