Stephen Decatur - First Barbary War

First Barbary War

The first war against the Barbary States was in response to the frequent piracy of American vessels in the Mediterranean Sea and the capture and enslavement of American crews for huge ransoms. President Jefferson, known for his aversion to standing armies and the navy, acted contrary to such sentiment and began his presidency by sending U.S. naval forces to fight the Barbary states rather than continue paying huge annual tributes to the petty North African kingdoms. On May 13, 1801, at the beginning of the war, Decatur was assigned duty aboard the frigate USS Essex to serve as the first lieutenant. The Essex, bearing 32 guns, was commanded by William Bainbridge and was attached to Commodore Richard Dale's squadron which also included the Philadelphia, the President and the Enterprise. Departing for the Mediterranean on June 1, this squadron was the first American naval squadron to cross the Atlantic.

On July 1, after encountering and being forestalled by adverse winds, the squadron sailed into the Mediterranean with the mission to confront the Barbary pirates. Arriving at Gibraltar, Commodore Dale learned that Tripoli had already declared war upon the United States. At this time there were two Tripolitan warships of sizable consequence berthed in Gibraltar's harbor, but their captains claimed that they had no knowledge of the war. Dale assumed they were about to embark on the Atlantic to prey on American merchant ships. With orders to sail for Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, Dale ordered that the Philadelphia be left behind to guard the Tripolitan vessels.

In September 1802, Decatur transferred to the 36-gun frigate USS USS New York as 1st Lieutenant under Commodore James Barron. While en route to Tripoli the five-ship squadron to which New York was attached encountered gale force winds, lasting more than a week, which forced the squadron to put up in Malta. While there Decatur and another American officer were involved in a personal confrontation with a British officer which resulted in Decatur returning to the United States. There he took temporary command of the newly built 18-gun brig USS Argus which he sailed to Gibraltar, relinquishing command of the ship upon arrival to Lieutenant Isaac Hull. In exchange Decatur was given command of the USS Enterprise, a 12-gun schooner.

On December 23, 1803, the Enterprise and the Constitution confronted the Tripolitan ketch Mastico sailing under Turkish colors, armed with only two guns and sailing without passports on its way to Constantinople from Tripoli. On board were a small number of Tripolitan soldiers. After a brief engagement Decatur and his crew captured the ship, killing or wounding the few men defending the vessel. After its capture the small ship was taken to Syracuse, condemned by Commodore Preble as a legitimate prize of war, and given a new name, the Intrepid.

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