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then rejoined the Mediterranean squadron as first lieutenant of the frigate New York, under Captain James Barron. The strength of the squadron was now considerably increased, and its commander had at last received orders which authorized more active proceedings against Tripoli. Decatur was eagerly looking forward to the beginning of hostilities as an opportunity of acquiring distinction; but before he could strike his first blow for his country, he was again involved, though not this time as a principal, in an "affair of honor," as it is called, the tragical issue of which obliged him to return home for a season. While the squadron was lying at Malta, Midshipman Bainbridge and one of his messmates visited the theatre, and met some British officers there, who seemed disposed to insult them. The remainder of the story may be given in Mr. Mackenzie's own words.
"One of them observed, in allusion to our war with Tripoli, which as yet had certainly not been conducted with special vigor, 'Those Yankees will never stand the smell of powder!' The young Americans went into the lobby to consult about the notice to be taken of this remark, which, whether intended or not to be heard by them, was most grating to their feelings. They were soon followed by the British officers, and, as they walked up and down the lobby, the individual who had made the offensive remark, walking in the contrary direction, ran rudely against Midshipman Bainbridge. The offence was repeated three several times. Convinced, at the third encounter, that the collision resulted from a fixed determination to insult him, Mr. Bainbridge knocked the offender down. The individual who had gone so far out of his way to insult an unoffending boy, and that boy a foreigner, enjoying the hospitalities of a country where the insulter was at home, proved to be no less a personage than the secretary of Sir Alexander Ball, the governor.
"He was a professed duellist, and had sought this occasion to practise his art, whilst he showed his mingled a version and contempt for Americans, a fashionable feeling among the English of that day. A challenge from the duellist was received by Mr. Bainbridge on board the New York on the following morning. Bainbridge was equally unskilled in the use of the pistol and the code of duelling. He was about to accept the invitation, and make use of the agency of a friend as young and inexperienced as himself, when Decatur, being informed of the occurrence, sent for Bainbridge, telling him that his antagonist was a professed duellist, who meant to take his life, and would do it if they two boys went out together, and offered himself to act as his friend.
“Decatur now appeared and returned the answer to the challenge. As the friend of the challenged party, he selected pistols for the weapons, fixed the distance at four yards, and the word to be given, Take aim,' and to fire at the word 'Fire.' The second of the challenger objected to these terms, and proposed ten paces. He said to Decatur, This looks like murder, Sir.' Decatur replied, 'No, Sir; this looks like death, but not like murder. Your friend is a profound duellist; mine is wholly inexperienced. I am no duellist, but I am acquainted with the use of the pistol. If you insist upon ten paces, I will fight your friend at that distance.' The Englishman replied, ‘We have no quarrel with you, Sir.' Decatur refusing to consent to any modification of his terms, unless he was substituted for Joseph Bainbridge, the parties met upon that footing. Decatur gave the word, Take aim,' and kept their pistols extended until he observed the hand of the Englishman to become unsteady. He then gave the word,Fire.' Bainbridge's ball passed through his adversary's hat. The Englishman, sure of his man at ten paces, missed Bainbridge entirely.
"Decatur now informed young Bainbridge, that he could not save his life unless he fired low. It was the business of the Englishman, who had given the first offence wholly without provocation, to offer atonement; but no such offer was made. The combatants were again placed face to face, the word given as before, and the Englishman fell mortally wounded below the eye." pp. 56–58.
Sir Alexander Ball demanded that Bainbridge and Decatur should be given up, to be tried by the civil courts for violation of law; and we could wish that the request had been complied with. But the American commodore chose to evade it by sending both the officers home for a season.
Decatur was absent a little over four months, and then came back and took command of the schooner Enterprise. Soon after he returned, the frigate Philadelphia was captured by the Tripolitans, having grounded on a rock in their harbour, where she was exposed to an overwhelming force. This was a serious loss, diminishing the strength of Preble's squadron nearly one half, while the frigate in the hands of the enemy added much to the defences of their port. Decatur conceived the daring plan of recapturing the frigate in a night attack and either bringing her out of the harbour, or destroying her by fire. The commodore consented that he should make the attempt, and the prize ketch Intrepid was fitted out
for this purpose as a fire-ship, and placed under his command, with a crew of seventy volunteers. He was accompanied by the brig Siren, under his old friend Stewart, to pick up his boats and crew, in case he should find it necessary to fire the ketch as well as the frigate.
"In order to form a just estimate of the hazard of Decatur's proposed attack, it should be premised that the Philadelphia had forty guns mounted. These were double-shotted, and kept ready for firing. A full complement of men to serve her batteries was kept constantly on board of her. She was moored within half gun-shot of the Bashaw's castle, and the Molehead and Crown batteries, and within effective range of ten other batteries, the whole mounting together one hundred and fifteen guns of heavy calibre. Three Tripolitan cruisers, mounting together twentysix guns, two galleys, and nineteen gunboats, lay between her and the shore, at distances from her of from two to three cables' length. All these vessels were in like manner fully manned and kept ready for an attack. Such were the formidable defences which protected the Philadelphia, when Decatur with his little ketch of sixty tons, mounting four small guns, and having a crew of seventy-five souls, undertook her capture and destruction."p. 70.
The Intrepid entered the harbour at seven o'clock in the evening, under a very light wind, which gradually died away, so that it was nearly ten before the ketch came within hail of the frigate. Decatur's officers and crew had each an assigned station and service, to board with him, to guard the several decks of the frigate, to fire her in many places, or to remain in the ketch, and provide for retreat when the object was effected. As the Philadelphia began to loom up in the obscurity, under the faint beams of a crescent moon, the heart of every one of her assailants beat high with anxiety and excitement. Decatur stood at the helm, with the pilot and an Italian interpreter; the men were hidden under the bulwarks, and a few officers alone remained standing, to represent the crew. He had intended to run under the Philadelphia's bows, and to board over her forecastle; but the wind had entirely ceased, and the Intrepid was becalmed within a hundred yards of her prey.
"The moon, which still lingered above the horizon, enabled Decatur to see ten or twelve of the crew looking over her hammock-rail. Decatur was now hailed from the Philadelphia, and
ordered to keep off. The pilot, Catalano, as previously instructed by Decatur, promptly answered that they had lost their anchors in the late gale under Cape Mesurado. He asked to be permitted to run a warp to the frigate, and ride by her until anchors could be obtained from the shore.
"The Tripolitan captain, recognized by Catalano to be the interlocutor, asked what brig that was in the offing; for, notwithstanding their precautions, the Siren had been seen. Catalano, with great tact, replied, that it was the Transfer, a former British man-of-war, which had been purchased for the Tripolitans at Malta, and whose arrival at Tripoli was anxiously expected.
"During this conversation, the Intrepid's boat, which lay ready with a rope led from the bow of their vessel, shoved off; and, pulling to the fore chains of the Philadelphia, made the end fast to one of the ring-bolts of her fore chains. A boat from the Philadelphia brought a rope from the after part of the ship, and passed it into the Intrepid's boat, which returned with it on board. A few of the crew began to haul on the lines, and the Intrepid was drawn gradually towards the Philadelphia. Some distrust was now awakened among the Tripolitans in the boat which had brought the line. They raised the cry of Americanos,' and it was repeated in terror throughout the ship. The Intrepid was repeatedly ordered off, and Decatur observed them taking the tompions out of the guns in readiness to fire. The surprise was not therefore perfect; the alarm had been given, the real country, character, and intentions of the visiters recognized, and the struggle seemed likely to prove sanguinary.
"As the vessels came in contact, Decatur sprang at the main chains of the Philadelphia, calling out, Board!' He clambered over the channels and rail, and reached the enemy's deck, being preceded an instant by Midshipman Charles Morris, and followed in the next by Midshipman Laws; and quickly, in succession, as they could find space to ascend through the gangway, the ports, and over the rail, by all the officers and crew, to the number of sixty, the remainder having been detailed to guard the ketch. Whilst they were mustering upon the quarter deck, the crew of the Philadelphia had also got up from below, and collected in a confused mass on the forecastle and in the gangways. Decatur waited in silence until his followers had collected around him, when, forming a front with his men across the deck, and placing himself at their head, he rushed, sword in hand, upon the Tripolitans. There was a contest, but, as Decatur reported, 'a short' one. The resistance was soon overcome. Crowded together, and trampling upon each other in the disorderly attempt 20 - No. 134.
to escape, the Tripolitans were either cut down or driven overboard, until not an enemy remained on the spar deck.
The American officers and men, now separating according to their stations, quickly overcame all resistance below, cutting down or driving overboard whomsoever they encountered. Many of the Tripolitans escaped in a boat which lay alongside; some may have reached the neighbouring cruisers and gunboats; many found a watery grave. Five minutes sufficed to clear the ship of every enemy. At the end of that time, or a very little later, Decatur found himself on the quarter deck of the Philadelphia, in full possession of that ship, and destined to be her last, as his father had been her first, commander." - pp. 73-75.
No firearms were used, all was carried by the sword. But the noise of the scuffle, the clash of arms, and the shrieks of the wounded, were heard on shore and among the Tripolitan cruisers, which were at anchor within one or two cables' length of the frigate. The alarm thus given, it was evident that the huge ship could not be got under weigh before the fire of the whole armament in the harbour would be directed upon her. The combustibles were therefore handed up from the ketch, and the plan arranged for destroying the frigate was carried into effect.
"Soon the sharp crackling of the flames gave sure indication that the destroying element had in turn assumed its mastery over the devoted vessel, to give way to no new conqueror. Clouds of smoke and flashes of flame began to issue from the ports and mount the hatchways. Decatur now ordered his followers to return to the Intrepid. They descended quickly, yet without confusion, and without accident, accompanied by a wounded Tripolitan, whom humanity forbade them to abandon to the horrible fate which probably awaited many of his comrades concealed in the recesses of the vessel.
"When all were safely assembled on the deck of the Intrepid (for so admirably had the service been executed, that not a man was missing, and only one slightly wounded), Decatur gave the order to cut the fasts and shove off. The necessity for prompt obedience and exertion was urgent. The flames had now gained the lower rigging, and ascended to the tops; they darted furiously from the ports, flashing from the quarter gallery round the mizzen of the Intrepid, as her stern dropped clear of the ship. To estimate the perils of their position, it must be borne in mind that the fire had been communicated by these fearless men to the near neighbourhood of both magazines of the Philadelphia.