Sunday, August 3, 2014

Today in History: USS Constitution Bombards Tripoli

Capt Preble
On this day in 1804 an American Navy Squadron, under the command of Captain Edward Preble aboard the frigate USS Constitution, bombarded Tripoli. Tripoli had declared war on the United States because we refused to pay the Sultan a large "tribute" he had demanded. Tripoli saw the young United States as a rich and easy prey. Their corsairs and pirates attacked American Merchantmen, seizing ships and cargo's and selling the crews into slavery. The American Navy had recently distinguished itself by defeating the French in the West Indies in the French/American Quasi-War (undeclared). The Constitution and a small squadron were sent to the Mediterranean to force Tripoli to terms.

The extract below is from the journal of Captain Preble, reporting the events as they took place on August 3rd, 1804 during the first attack on Tripoli. You have to bear with it a bit as the English language has "evolved" somewhat in the last 208 years, but it is still plainly understandable and very interesting.

3 August 1804
Extract from journal kept on board the U. S. Frigate Constitution
by Captain Edward Preble, U. S. Navy

Wind E b S. Standing off shore on the Starbord Tack the signal out to come within hail spoke the different Vessels and acquainted their Commanders that it was my Intention to attack the shipping & Batteries,--directed the Gun Boats & Bombs to be prepared for immediate service.--

US Navy attacking Tripoli
At 12 1/2 pm Tack'd & stood for the Batteries. Back'd the Main Topsail, at 1/2 1 pm made the general signal to follow the motions of the Commodore. filled the Maintopsail & stood in towards the Batteries, at 1/4 past 2 made the signal for the Bombs & Gun Boats to advance & attack the ships & Batteries. 1/2 past 2 general signal for Battle. the whole squadron advanc'd within point Blank shot of the Enemies Batteries & shipping, our Gun Boats in two divisions the 1st consisting of 3 Boats Commanded by Capt Somers the 2d of three Boats by Capt Decatur, at 3/4 past 2 the Action commenced on our side by throwing a shell into the Town, and in an Instant the whole Squadron were engaged.--the Enemies Gun Boats were Anchord with springs on, in three divisions the Eastern or van division consisted of 9 Boats the center of 7 Boats, and the Western or Rear of 5 Boats. As the wind was from the Eastward our Boats were ordered to lead in to Windward and attack the Enemy. the Rear & center division of the Enemies Boats are close under their Batteries, & the Van division consisting of their largest Boats are within Grape distance of the Bashaws Castle & fort English at 3 observed our Gun Boats engaged in close action with the Enemies Boats, while a tremendous fire was kept up by this ship and the rest of the Squadron. Capt Decatur with No. 4 Lt Trippe of No 6 & Lt Bainbridge of No. 5 & Lt James Decatur of No. 2 attacked the enemys Boats within Pistol shot. No. 1 Capt Somers fell to Leward but fetched up with the Enemys Rear of 5 Boats which he gallantly attacked disabled & drove in altho within pistol shot of the Batteries. No. 3 Lt Blake did not go into close Action, had he gone down to the assistance of Capt Somers it is probable they would have captured the Rear Boats. Capt Decatur Boarded and after a stout and obstinate resistance took possession of two of the Enemies Gun Boats, Lt Trip Boarded and carried a third. Lt James Decatur in the Act of Boarding to take possession of a fourth Boat was shot through the Head & Mortally wounded the officer next in command (Mn Brown) hauld off. Lt Bainbridge had his Latten Yard shot away early in the Action which prevented him from taking a Boat but he Galled the Enemy by a steady fire within Musket shot, indeed he pursued the Enemy until his Boat touch'd the ground under the Batteries. the Bombs kept their stations which were well chosen, by Lt Dent & Lt Robinson, who commanded them, and threw a number of shells into the town altho the spray of the sea occasioned by the enemies shot almost covered them, three different times the Enemies Gun Boats rallied and attempted to surround ours. I as often made the signal to cover them, which was properly attended to by the Brigs & Schooners, and the fire from this ship not only had the desired effect on the enemies flotilla by keeping them in check and disabling them, but silenced one of their principal Batteries for some time, at 1/2 past 4 pm made the signal for the Bombs to retire from action out of Gun shot, and a few minutes after the general signal to Cease fireing and Tow out the Prizes & disabled Boats. sent our Barge and Jolly Boat to assist in that duty. Tack'd ship & fired two Broadsides in stays which drove the Tripolines out of the Castle & brought down the Steeple of a Mosque, by this time the wind began to freshen from N E at 4 3/4 PM hauld off to take the Bombs in tow, at 5 pm Brought to, two miles from their Batteries, Recd Lt James Decatur on board from Gun Boat No. 2, he was shot through the Head (in Boarding a Tripoline Boat which had struck to him) he expired in a few moments after he was brought into the ship.-- We lay to until 10 PM to receive the Prisoners on board captured in the Prizes, then made sail & stood off to the N E the wind Veering to the E S E.--we have all the surgeons of the squadron on board dressing the wounded.--

Capt Decatur (center) attacking gunboats
During the Action we fired 262 Rounds shot besides Grape double head & Canister from this ship and were several times within 3 cables lengths of the Rocks & Batteries where our soundings were from 10 to 16 faths the Officers Seamen & Marines of the Squadron behaved Gallantly throughout the Action. Capt Decatur in Gun Boat No 4 particularly distinguished himself as did Lt Trip of No 6. Our loss in Killed & Wounded has been considerable the damage we recd in this ship is a 24 pound shot nearly through the center of the Mainmast 20 feet from the deck, Main Top Gallant R Yard & sail shot away, one of the Fore shrouds and the sails & running rigging considerably cut one of the 24 pounders on the Quarter deck was struck by a 24 pound shot which damaged the Gun and carriage and shattered the Arm of a Marine to pieces, Gun Boat No. 2 had her latteen yard shot away, & the Rigging & sails of the Brigs and Schooners were considerably cut. We captured 3 Gun Boats two of which carried each a long Brass 24 pounder & two Brass Howitzers and 36 men with a plenty of muskets pistols pikes sabres &c, the other mounted a long Brass 18 pounder & two Howitzers & 24 men 44 Tripolines were killed on board of the 3 boats and 52 made prisoners, 26 of which were wounded, 17 of them very badly 3 of which died soon after they were brought on board, the Enemy must have suffered very much in Killed & wounded among their Shipping and on shore, one of their Boats was sunk in the harbour several of them had their decks nearly cleared of men by our shot, and several shells burst in the Town, which must have done great execution. --

We have lost in Killed & Wounded Viz

    Killed                                        Wounded
    Lt James Decatur                     Capt Decatur slight
                                                      Lt Tripp[e] severely
                                                      10 Seamen &            
                                                           Marines wounded

    Total 1 Officer Killed
    2 Officers wounded
    10 Seamen and Marines Wounded

Live Long and Prosper...

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