From the “Statement of the circumstances attending the destruction of the frigate Philadelphia, with the names of the officers and the number of men employed on the occasion, as laid before the President by the Secretary of the Navy, November 13, 1804.”:
On the 31st January, 1804, Commodore Preble, lying with his squadron in the harbor of Syracuse, gave orders to Lieutenant Charles Stewart, commanding the brig Syren, of 16 guns, and to Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, jr., commanding the ketch Intrepid, of 4 guns and 75 men, to proceed to Tripoli, and to destroy the frigate Philadelphia of 44 guns, then lying in the harbor of Tripoli. Lieutenant Decatur had orders to enter the harbor in the night, board and set fire to the Philadelphia; and Lieut. Stewart was ordered to take the best possible position, without the harbor, to cover the retreat.
Under these orders, they proceeded immediately to the coast of Tripoli; but, owing to the very heavy gales of wind that usually prevail there in the winter season, the enterprise could not be undertaken until the 16th of February, when Lieutenant Stewart, having taken the best possible position to effect the object of his instructions, Lieutenant Decatur, at seven o’clock in the night, entered the harbor of Tripoli, boarded, and took possession of the Philadelphia.
This frigate, at the time she was boarded, had all her guns mounted and charged, and was lying within half gun shot of the Bashaw’s castle, and of his principal battery. Two Tripolitan cruisers were lying within two cables length on the starboard quarter, and several gun boats within half gun-shot on the starboard bow, and all the batteries on shore were opened upon the assailants. About twenty men in the Philadelphia were killed, a large boat full got off, and one man was made prisoner.
After having gained possession of the frigate, Lieut. Decatur set fire to her store rooms, gun room, cock pit, and birth deck; and with a firmness highly honorable to him, his officers and men, they remained on board until the flames had issued from the ports of the gun deck and the hatchways of the spar deck, and they continued in the ketch, along side the frigate, until the fire had communicated to her rigging and tops.
Lieutenant Decatur did not lose a man, and had but one slightly wounded.
From Edward Preble’s orders to Stephen Decatur, 31 January 1804:
UNITED STATES’ FRIGATE CONSTITUTION,
Syracuse Harbor, January 31, 1804.
Sir: You are herby ordered to take command of the prize ketch, which I have named the Intrepid, and prepare her with all possible, despatch for a cruise of thirty days, with full allowance of water, provision, &c., for seventy-five men. I shall send you five midshipmen from the Constitution, and you will take seventy men, including officers, from the Enterprise, if that number can be found ready to volunteer their services for boarding and burning the Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli; if not, report to me, and I will furnish you with men to complete your complement. It is expected you will be ready to sail to-morrow evening, or some hours sooner, if the signal is made for that purpose.
It is my orders that you proceed to Tripoli, in company with the Syren, lieutenant Stewart, enter that harbor in the night, board the Philadelphia, burn her, and make good your retreat, with the Intrepid, if possible, unless you can make her the means of destroying the enemy’s vessels in the harbor, by converting her into a fireship, for that purpose, and retreating in your boats and those of the Syren. You must take fixed ammunition and apparatus for the frigate’s 18-pounders, and if you can, without risking too much, you may endeavor to make them the instruments of destruction to the shipping and Bashaw’s castle. You will provide all the necessary combustibles for burning and destroying ships. The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance, and I rely with confidence on your intrepidity and enterprise to effect it. Lieutenant Stewart will support you with the boats of the Syren, and cover your retreat with that vessel. Be sure and set fire in the gun-room births, cock-pit, store-rooms forward, and births on the birth-deck.
After the ship is well on fire, point two of the 18-pounders, shotted, down the main hatch, and blow her bottom out. I enclose you a memorandum of the articles, arms, ammunition, fire-works, &c., necessary, and which you are to take with you. Return to this place as soon as possible, and report to me your proceedings. On boarding the frigate, it is probable you may meet with resistance-it will be well, in order to prevent alarm, to carry all by the sword. May God prosper and succeed you in this enterprise.
I have the honor to be, Sir, your obedient serv’t,
From Stephen Decatur’s report to Edward Preble, 17 February 1804:
Lieut. Commandant S. Decatur’s Report to Com. Preble.
On Board the Ketch Intrepid, at Sea ,
February 17, 1804.
Sir: I have the honor to inform you, that in pursuance to your orders of the 31st ultimo, to proceed with this ketch off the harbor of Tripoli, there to endeavor to effect the destruction of the late United States’ frigate Philadelphia, I arrived there in company with the United States’ brig Syren, lieutenant commandant Stewart, on the 7th, but owing to the badness of the weather, was unable to effect any thing until last evening, when we had a light breeze from the N.E. At 7 o’clock I entered the harbor with the Intrepid, the Syren having gained her station without the harbor, in a situation to support us in our retreat. At half past 9 o’clock, laid her alongside of the Philadelphia, boarded, and after a short contest, carried her. I immediately fired her in the store-rooms, gun-room, cock-pit, and birth-deck, and remained on board until the flames had issued from the spar-deck, hatchways, and ports, and before I had got from alongside, the fire had communicated to the rigging and tops. Previous to our boarding, they had got their tompions out, and hailed several times, but not a gun fired.
The noise occasioned by boarding and contending for possession, although no fire-arms were used, gave a general alarm on shore, and on board their cruisers, which lay about a cable and a half’s length from us, and many boats filled with men lay around, but from whom we received no annoyance. They commenced a fire on us from all their batteries on shore, but with no other effect than one shot passing through our top-gallant sail.
The frigate was moored within half-gunshot of the Bashaw’s castle, and of their principal battery-two of their cruisers lay within two cables’ length on the starboard quarter, and their gunboats within half gunshot of the starboard bow. She had all her guns mounted and loaded, which, as they became hot went off. As she lay with her broadside to the town, I have no doubt but some damage has been done by them. Before I got out of the harbor, her cables had burnt off, and she drifted in under the castle, where she was consumed. I can form no judgment as to the number of men on board, but there were twenty killed. A large boat full got off, and many leapt into the sea. We have made one prisoner, and I fear from the number of bad wounds he has received he will not recover, although every assistance and comfort has been given him.
I boarded with sixty men and officers, leaving a guard on board the ketch for her defence, and it is the greatest pleasure I inform you, I had not a man killed in this affair, and but one slightly wounded. Every support that could be given I received from my officers, and as each of their conduct was highly meritorious, I beg leave to enclose you a list of their names. Permit me also, sir, to speak of the brave fellows I have the honor to command, whose coolness and intrepidity was such as I trust will ever characterise the American tars.
It would be injustice in me, were I to pass over the important services rendered by Mr. Salvadore, the pilot, on whose good conduct the success of the enterprise in the greatest degree depended. He gave me entire satisfaction.
I have the honor to be, sir, &c.,
Wonderful painting of the Battle of San Domingo (6 Feb 1806) by Nicholas Pocock, now in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.