Steven Decatur burned the captured frigate Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor.
At the end of the American Revolution, the American merchant navy found it's self at a strong disadvantage. The ships sailing under the American flag no longer had the protection of the Royal Navy so they were prime pickings for anyone who wanted to take them on. The foremost of these pirates were the Barbary corsairs. The Muslim countries in the north of the African continent, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, sponsored these pirates for a cut, and also ran a rather impressive protection racket. By the paying of "tribute" a nation could have their ships protected. Some countries would pay this tribute as just the cost of doing business in the Mediterranean. Others would whisper into the pirate's ears to ensure that that attacked only the right ships. That brought a whole new meaning to the term, "cut throat competition".
American, not having a navy worthy of mention, paid tribute at first. It also paid ransom for captured American sailors and citizens. If a seaman or passenger was captured by the Barbary corsairs, they were condemned to life as slaves until they could be redeemed. At one time, in many seacoast towns, various churches would take up collections to relieve the suffering of Christians held by the Moors.
After a while, the American government grew tired of paying tribute. (The War-Hawks in Washington cry was "Thousands for Defense, but not one Penny for Tribute") and dispatched a newly formed naval force to blockade the port of Tripoli. One of the ship detached on this mission was the 36 gun frigate, U.S.S. Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the Philadelphia ran aground on a uncharted reef in Tripoli harbor and was captured on October, 31 1803. The pirates were able to re-float the ship and changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean. Lt. Steven Decatur led a volunteer mission in which he sailed a captured Libyan ship which he had renamed Intrepid with a hand picked crew, under the guns of the harbor's many fortresses as well as the guns of the Philadelphia. Using swords, daggers, boarding pikes and axes, he retook the Philadelphia. There was no way he could sail the ship out of the harbor, so to prevent the pirates from retaking the ship, he put her to the torch.
This was one of the key events that brought the fledgling U.S. Navy to the world's attention. No less that the greatest of all admirals of the age of fighting sail, Horatio Nelson noted the incident and stated this was the "most bold and daring act of the age."
Not bad praise from a man who was well noted for his aggressive nature.
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