USS Philadelphia (1799)

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USS Philadelphia
United States
NameUSS Philadelphia
Laid downNovember 14, 1798
LaunchedNovember 28, 1799
CommissionedApril 5, 1800
FateCaptured October 31, 1803, re-captured and burned by the U.S. Navy February 16, 1804
General characteristics
Class and type Philadelphia-class frigate
Length157 ft (48 m) between perpendiculars[1]
Beam39 ft (12 m)
Depth13 ft 6 in (4.11 m)
Complement307 officers and crew
  • 28 × 18-pounder guns
  • 16 × 9-pounder long guns (replaced with 16 x 32-pounder carronades in 1803)

USS Philadelphia, a 1240-ton, 36-gun sailing frigate, was the second vessel of the United States Navy to be named for the city of Philadelphia. Originally named City of Philadelphia, she was built in 1798–1799 for the United States government by the citizens of that city. Funding for her construction was the result of a funding drive which raised $100,000 in one week, in June 1798.[2] She was designed by Josiah Fox and built by Samuel Humphreys, Nathaniel Hutton and John Delavue. Her carved work was done by William Rush of Philadelphia.[3] She was laid down about November 14, 1798, launched on November 28, 1799, and commissioned on April 5, 1800, with Captain Stephen Decatur, Sr. in command.[4] She was captured in Tripoli with William Bainbridge in command, and perhaps best remembered for a raid led by Stephen Decatur that burned her down.

Service history[edit]

Putting to sea for duty in the West Indies to serve in the Quasi-War with France, she arrived on the Guadeloupe Station in May 1800 and relieved the frigate Constellation. During this cruise she captured five French armed vessels and recaptured six merchant ships that had fallen into French hands.[5]

Returning home in March 1801, she was ordered to prepare for a year's cruise in the Mediterranean in a squadron commanded by Commodore Richard Dale. At his own request, Decatur was relieved of the command of Philadelphia by Captain Samuel Barron. The squadron arrived at Gibraltar on July 1, with Commodore Dale in the frigate President. Philadelphia was directed to cruise the Straits and blockade the coast of Tripoli, since in May 1801 the Pasha Yusuf Karamanli had threatened to wage war on the United States and had seized U.S. merchant vessels for ransom.[5]

Philadelphia departed Gibraltar for the United States in April 1802, arriving in mid-July.[6] In ordinary until May 21, 1803, when she recommissioned (having her sixteen 9-pounder long guns replaced with sixteen 32-pounder carronades at this time), and sailed for the Mediterranean on July 28, 1803. She arrived in Gibraltar on August 24 with Captain William Bainbridge in command, and two days later recaptured the American brig Celia from the Moroccan ship-of-war Mirboka (24 guns and 100 men), and brought them both into Gibraltar.[5]


Philadelphia burning off Tripoli

During the First Barbary War, Philadelphia, accompanied by USS Vixen, cruised off Tripoli until October 31, 1803, while giving chase and firing upon a Libyan navy ship it ran aground on an uncharted reef two miles (3 km) off Tripoli Harbor. The captain, William Bainbridge, tried to refloat it, first laying the sails aback, and casting off three bow anchors and shifting the guns aftward, but a strong wind and rising waves drove her further aground.

Next they jettisoned many of its cannons, barrels of water, and other heavy articles overboard in order to make it lighter, but this too failed. They then sawed off the foremast in one last desperate attempt to lighten it. All of these attempts failed and Bainbridge, in order not to resupply the pirates, ordered holes drilled in the ship's bottom, gunpowder dampened, sails set afire and all other weapons thrown overboard before surrendering. The officers and men were made slaves of the Pasha.[7]

Philadelphia, which had been refloated by its captors, was too great a prize to be allowed to remain in the hands of the Tripolitans, so a decision was made to recapture or destroy it. The United States had captured the Tripolitan ketch Mastico, renamed her Intrepid, and re-rigged the ship with short masts and triangular sails to look like a local ship.

A party of volunteers, led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, the son of Philadelphia's first master, was given the task. On February 16, 1804, under the cover of night and in the guise of a ship in distress that had lost all anchors in a storm and needed a place to tie up, Decatur sailed Intrepid next to Philadelphia. The Americans boarded the prize, and after making sure that she was not seaworthy, burned the ship where she lay in Tripoli Harbor.

Britain Viscount Nelson is said to have called this feat "the most bold and daring act of the Age".[8][9] a report which is open to doubt.[10]

Philadelphia's anchor was returned to the United States on April 7, 1871, when Mehmed Halet Pasha, the Ottoman governor, presented it to the captain of the visiting Guerriere. [11]

Local account of the destruction[edit]

In 1904, Charles Wellington Furlong, an American adventurer, went to Tripoli to investigate the sinking of Philadelphia and later wrote of it in his book, The Gateway to the Sahara: Observations and Experiences in Tripoli (1909).[12] In this book the following account, based on records from a local synagogue, is given:

Yusef Pashaw had equipped a number of corsairs.... His captains, Zurrig, Dghees, Trez, Romani and El-Mograbi, set sail from Tripoli and shortly sighted an American vessel [Philadelphia]. Zurrig left the others and daringly approached the ship, annoying her purposely to decoy her across the shoals. She stranded, but fired on the other vessels until her ammunition gave out, whereupon the Moslems pillaged her. The American Consul [actually the Danish consul, Nissen] was very much disheartened and tried to conclude arrangements similar to those recently made between the Bashaw and the Swedish Consul; but such an enormous tribute was demanded that no terms could be reached, so by order of the Bashaw the vessel was burned.... [Footnote 2: This of course was an erroneous idea. It may have been purposefully circulated through the town, particularly among the inhabitants other than Mohammedans.][13]

Furlong later reports in the same book, that he talked to other Arabs in Tripoli who said that the ship was not burned, but moved to the Lazaretto where it was dressed up as a trophy and its guns used to call the end of Ramadan. According to the detailed account of Hadji-Mohammed Gabroom, an American ketch was able to sneak in, kill some of the 10 guards, cause the others to flee, then set the ship on fire.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chapelle 1949, p. 549.
  2. ^ Canney, 2001, p. 52.
  3. ^ Toll, 2006, pp. 52–54.
  4. ^ Tucker, 1937, p. 17.
  5. ^ a b c "Philadelphia II". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command.
  6. ^ Tucker, 1937, p. 39.
  7. ^ Kilmeade & Yaeger, pp. 121–124.
  8. ^ Tucker, 1937, p. 57,
  9. ^ MacKenzie, 1846, pp. 331–335.
  10. ^ See, Leiner, Frederick C., "Searching for Nelson’s Quote", USNI News, United States Naval Institute, February 5, 2013, setting forth the evidence for and against that quote.
  11. ^ Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States (1873 - Part 1, Volume II ed.). Washington: Government Printing Office. December 1, 1873. p. 1140–1141. Retrieved February 16, 2018.
  12. ^ The Gateway to the Sahara: Observations and Experiences in Tripoli Archived November 22, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, by Charles Wellington Furlong. 1909., accessed December 2017.
  13. ^ The Gateway to the Sahara: Observations and Experiences in Tripoli Archived December 1, 2009, at the Wayback Machine, by Charles Wellington Furlong. 1909. Page 104., accessed December 2017.
  14. ^ The Gateway to the Sahara: Observations and Experiences in Tripoli Archived December 1, 2009, at the Wayback Machine, by Charles Wellington Furlong. 1909. pp. 106–12., accessed December 2017.


Further reading[edit]

  • London, Joshua E. (2011) Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New Jersey, p. 288, ISBN 0-471-44415-4, Book
  • Oren, Michael B. (2007) Power, Faith, and Fantasy, Chapter 3, W. W. Norton and Co., New York, ISBN 0-393-05826-3.
  • Willis, Sam (2007). Fighting Ships: 1750–1850, Quercus Books, London.
  • Zachs, Richard (2005). The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, Hyperion, New York.

External links[edit]