« PreviousContinue »
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 Phil. adelphia 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 coun. try, 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 No. 134.
to escape, the Tripolitans were either cut down or driven overboard, until not an enemy remained on the
“ 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 fame 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 gain. ed the lower rigging, and ascended to the tops; they darted furi. ously 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.
The Intrepid herself was a fire-ship, having been supplied with combustibles, a mass of which, ready to be converted into the means of destroying other vessels of the enemy, if the opportu. nity should offer, lay in barrels on her quarter deck, covered only with a tarpaulin.
"With destruction thus encompassing them within and without, Decatur and his brave followers were unmoved. Calmly they put forth the necessary exertion, breasted the Intrepid off with spars, and, pressing on their sweeps, caused her slowly to withdraw from the vicinity of the burning mass. A gentle breeze from the land came auspiciously at the same moment, and wafted the Intrepid beyond the reach of the flames, bearing with it, however, a shower of burning embers, fraught with danger to a vessel laden with combustibles, had not discipline, order, and calm self-possession been at hand for her protection. Soon this peril was also left behind, and Decatur and his followers were at a sufficient distance to contemplate securely the spectacle which the Philadelphia presented. Hull, spars, and rigging were now enveloped in flames. As the metal of her guns became heated, they were discharged in succession from both sides, serving as a brilliant salvo in honor of the victory, and not harmless for the Tripolitans, as her starboard battery was fired directly into the town.
6. The town itself, the castles, the minarets of the mosques, and the shipping in the harbour were all brought into distinct view by the splendor of the conflagration. It served also to reveal to the enemy the cause of their disaster in the little Intrepid, as she slowly withdrew from the harbour. The shot of the shipping and castles fell thickly around her, throwing up columns of spray, which the brilliant light converted into a new ornament of the scene.
Only one shot took effect, and that passed through her top-gallant sail. Three hearty American cheers were now given in mingled triumph and derision. Soon after, the boats of the Siren joined company, and assisted in towing the Intrepid out of the harbour.”
The effect of this daring exploit was at once to place the name of Decatur high upon the list of the most distinguished naval officers. His commodore immediately recommended him for instantaneous promotion to the rank of post-captain ; the government at home readily adopted the suggestion, and his commission was sent to him, dated on the day of the burning of the Philadelphia. His brother officers, seniors in cornmand, who were passed over by this promotion, willingly acquiesced in it, and Congress passed a com
plimentary resolution, ordering a sword to be presented to him. Before the news arrived in the Mediterranean of the honors thus heaped upon him, he had earned a fresh title to them by still more brilliant achievements in the harbour of Tripoli.
Commodore Preble had made preparations, though with a very insufficient force, to bombard the town, and to make a simultaneous attack with gunboats upon the Tripolitan flotilla, which could not be assailed by the larger vessels, as it was protected by reefs and shoals. Six of these boats, very defective in construction and equipment, had been borrowed for this purpose of the king of Naples. They were arranged in two divisions of three boats each, the first division being commanded by Somers, and the second by Decatur. The object of attack was a flotilla of nineteen gunboats, protected by a ten-gun brig, several armed schooners and galleys, and batteries on shore that mounted one hundred and fifteen heavy guns. There is hardly a record in naval history of an attack made with such disparity of force, and crowned with entire success. Each of Decatur's boats singled out an opponent, ran on board of her, and carried her after a desperate fight, hand to hand, with pikes and cutlass
As Decatur was conveying his own prize out of the harbour, news was brought to him that his brother's boat had engaged and captured one of the largest of the enemy's squadron. She had struck, but as James Decatur was stepping on board to take possession, he was shot through the head by her commander. Grief and indignation urged Decatur to an imprudent and reckless attempt to obtain revenge. Leaving most of his crew in the prize, he pushed off in his own boat towards that of his brother's murderer, pursued her within the enemy's lines, ran on board, and jumped on her deck, followed only by one officer and nine men. This fearful inequality of numbers made the result of the conflict doubtful for twenty minutes ; three of the Americans were already disabled by wounds.
“At length Decatur was able to single out the treacherous commander, conspicuous no less by gigantic size than by the ferocity with which he fought, and to meet him face to face. Decatur was armed with a cutlass, the Turk with a heavily ironed boarding-pike. As the latter made a thrust at Decatur, he struck it violently with his cutlass, in the hope of severing the
head; but his cutlass, coming in contact with the iron, broke at the hilt, and left him without a weapon. Many a brave man thus disarmed might have turned to seek another weapon. But Decatur stood his ground, and, attempting with his right arm to parry the next thrust of his antagonist, received the point of it in his arm and breast. Tearing the weapon from the wound, he succeeded, likewise, by a sudden jerk, in wresting it from the hands of his adversary, who immediately grappled him; and, after a fierce and prolonged struggle, both fell with violence on the deck, Decatur being uppermost. During this time, the crews, rushing to the aid of their respective commanders, joined in furious conflict round their persons. A Tripolitan officer, who had got behind Decatur, aimed an unseen blow at his head, which must have decided his fate, had not a young man by the name of Reuben James, who had lost the use of both arms by wounds, rushed in and intercepted the descending cimeter with his own head, thus rescuing his beloved commander by an act of heroic self-sacrifice which has never been surpassed.
“ Just then the Tripolitan, exerting to the utiermost his superior strength, succeeded in turning Decatur, and, getting upon him, held him to the deck with an iron clutch of his left hand, whilst, thrusting his right beside him, he drew from his sash the shorter of two yataghans, which, for the very purpose of such close work, he carried in the same sheath. The moments of Decatur's existence seemed numbered ; scarce an interval remained to breathe a prayer for mercy in another world; a second brother was about to perish beneath the rage of the fierce Tripolitan. But the cool courage and fertile resources of Decatur came to his rescue in this extremity. Disengaging his left hand, he caught the right of the Tripolitan, stayed the yataghan as it was about to drink his blood, and, thrusting his own right hand into his pantaloons' pocket, suceceded in cocking a pistol which he had there, and, giving it the proper direction, fired. The Tripolitan relaxed his hold, and Decatur, disengaging himself from the heap of wounded and slain which the struggle had gathered around him, stood again that day a victor on the enemy's deck."
pp. 91 - 93.
We would gladly follow Commander Mackenzie's clear and spirited account of the other engagements before Tripoli, in which Decatur fully sustained his now brilliant reputation, and which finally compelled the Bashaw to make peace on reasonable terms. But we have said and quoted enough to show the character and merits of Decatur, and the attractiveness of this biography of him, which is a model of lively