Pike & Cutlass: Hero Tales of Our Navy
George Gibbs

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His men guessed something of what was in his mind, and by the time the big ship hove close aboard they were keyed up to the fighting pitch, waiting with the utmost impatience for the first shot to be fired. The dusk had fallen, but the great loom of the sails of the English frigate showed plainly as she came closer. They were scarcely a pistol-shot apart when a figure on the Englishman mounted the hammock nettings aft, and a voice came clearly across the water, —

“Ahoy, the frigate!”

Biddle paused a moment to gain time, and then giving a word to his division officers, lifted his speaking-trumpet, —

“What ship is that?”

“His Britannic Majesty’s ship-of-the-line ‘Yarmouth,’ Captain Vincent. Who are you? Answer, or I will be compelled to fire.”

Another pause as Biddle directed the American colors to be run up to the mast, and then said, —

“This is the American Continental ship ‘Randolph,’ Captain Biddle!”

Without the pause of a second a tremendous broadside was poured into the Englishman, and in a moment the battle was on.

Biddle had gained a slight advantage in position by waiting as he did, and the “Randolph’s” broadsides did great execution on the crowded decks of her adversary. But the “Yarmouth” men sprang to their guns, and in a few moments were firing their tremendous broadside of thirty guns as fast as they could be served and run out.

On the “Randolph” Biddle’s men were working well, but the crashing of the shot and the flying splinters were terrific. In fifteen minutes the decks were covered with the bodies of dead and dying men, and the surgeon and his mate below in the cockpit, covered with blood, were laboring to help such of those as could be aided, and the decks, in spite of the sand, were so slippery that as the ship rolled it was difficult to stand upright upon them. Many of the guns of one of the broadsides were disabled, and there was not a gun that had a full crew to man it.

Biddle walked to and fro from one battery to another, lending a word here and a hand there, acting as sponger or tackle or handspikeman, wherever he was most needed. The men fought with the energy of despair – the despair of the dying. If they were to die, they would die hard, and the guns were loaded as though they would fire as many times as they could in the short time left them. The English aimed more deliberately. But when the dreaded broadside came, it dealt a blow that shook the smaller ship from stem to stern.

Biddle, although badly wounded, refused to leave the deck, and, ordering a stool to be placed where he could best direct the firing, sat calmly down, though in great agony, and gave the orders to his officers, who repeated them to the men.

It has never been discovered just what happened on the “Randolph.” In spite of her losses, she was keeping up her fire wonderfully, when, with scarcely a warning of any kind, she blew up.

The force of the explosion was so great that the ship split in two, and sank immediately. The air was filled with guns, spars, and the blackened bodies of men, many of which fell upon the deck of the “Yarmouth.” An American ensign, neatly rolled in a ball, ready to be sent aloft on the “Randolph” if the others had been shot away, fell on the quarter-deck of the Englishman unsinged.

That national emblem was all, save a spar or two, that remained of the “Randolph.” Captain Biddle and three hundred and ten of her crew of three hundred and fifteen were blown to pieces and drowned. Four days later the “Yarmouth,” cruising near the same place, discovered a piece of the wreck to which five men, more dead than alive, had managed to cling.

The “Randolph” was lost, but the “Yarmouth” was so badly cut up that she could not follow the chase, and was obliged to lay to for repairs. What, if any, difference there might have been had the “Randolph” not been destroyed by explosion from within it is not easy to say; but all authorities agree that the fight, while it lasted, was one of the most determined in history. Captain Biddle at the time of his death was but twenty-eight years old, and the infant navy and the colonies lost one of their most intrepid officers and gallant seamen.


It was on the deck of the “Enterprise,” before Tripoli, in 1804. The crew had been called aft, and Decatur, smiling, stood on his quarter-deck.

“My men,” said he, “the ‘Philadelphia’ is in the hands of the enemy. A few days from now and we may see American guns turned against American sailors. The commodore has given us permission to sail in and blow her up. Will you go?”

Into the air flew a hundred caps, and three wild American cheers were the answer.

“I can’t take you all,” he explained; “the expedition is a dangerous one. We are going under the broadsides of the enemy, and I only want those of you who are ready. Now, lads, any of you who are willing to go, take one step aft.”

Without a second’s pause the crew of the “Enterprise,” to a man, stepped out; then, fearful lest others should get in the front rank, came towards the young commander in a body, elbowing and swearing at one another lustily.

Decatur smiled. With such a spirit there was nothing he might not accomplish. He picked out sixty-two of his youngest and steadiest men, each of them touching his tarry cap with a grateful “Thank’ee, sir,” as Decatur called his name.

That afternoon they tumbled joyfully down into a captured ketch, which had been named the “Intrepid,” and, stores aboard, hoisted their three-cornered sail for the harbor of Tripoli. As they hauled off, Decatur went below to see that all his supplies and combustibles were stored, when Midshipman Lawrence came towards him somewhere from the depths of the fore-hold, pushing along by the scruff of the neck a youngster, who was crying bitterly.

“I found this stowaway, sir,” said Lawrence, with a smile.

“Please, sir,” sobbed the boy, “don’t send me back. I want to see this ’ere fight, and I ain’t going to do no harm. Don’t send me back, sir.”

Decatur had looked up with a fierce frown, but the anxiety on the lad’s face was pathetic, and he smiled in spite of himself.

“You can go,” he laughed, “but I’ll put you in the brig – when we get back.”

On that six days’ voyage to Tripoli the wind blew a hurricane, and the masquerade of the American tars seemed likely to end in disaster, without even a fight for their pains. But as they sighted the coast the sea went down, and the arrangements were completed. The yellow sails of the “Siren,” their consort, hove again into sight, and by the afternoon of the 16th of February the two vessels were bearing down upon the dark line that lay shimmering purple under the haze of the southern sky.

The sun dropped down, a ball of fire, into the western sea, and by eight o’clock the towers of the bashaw’s castle loomed dark against the amber of the moonlit sky. To the left the stately spars of the doomed frigate towered above the rigging in the harbor, and floating at her truck was the hated insignia of the enemy.

The piping northern breeze bellied the crazy sail of the ketch and sent the green seas swashing under the high stern, speeding them good luck on their hazardous venture. Catalano, the pilot, stood at the helm, swinging the clumsy tiller to meet her as she swayed. By his side was a tall figure, a white burnoose about his shoulders and a fez set jauntily on his head – Decatur. Four others, in unspeakable Tripolitan costumes, lounged about the deck or squatted cross-legged. But the delusion went no further. For one of them, Reuben James, was puffing at a stubby black pipe, and another spat vigorously to leeward. The others were below, lying along the sides, sharpening their cutlasses.

On they sped, Catalano heading her straight for the frigate. As the harbor narrowed and the black forts came nearer, they could see the dusky outlines of the sentries and the black muzzles that frowned on them from the battlements. Over towards the east faint glimmers showed where the town was, but the wind had now fallen low, and the lapping of the water along the sides alone awoke the silence. A single light shone from the forecastle of the frigate, where the anchor watch kept its quiet vigil. She swung at a long cable, a proud prisoner amid the score of watchful sentinels that encircled her.

As placid as the scene about him, Decatur turned to the pilot and gave a low order. The helm was shifted and the tiny vessel pointed for the bowsprit of the “Philadelphia.” Nearer and nearer they came, until scarcely a cable’s length separated them. They saw several turbaned heads, and an officer leaned over the rail, puffing lazily at a cigarette. He leisurely took the cigarette from his mouth, and his voice came across the quiet water of the harbor, —

“Where do you come from?” he hailed.

Catalano, the pilot, answered him in the lingua Franca of the East, —

“The ketch ‘Stella,’ from Malta. We lost our anchors and cables in the gale, and would like to lie by during the night.”

The Tripolitan took another puff, and an ominous stir, quickly silenced, was heard down in the hold of the ketch. It seemed an eternity before the answer came, —

“Your request is unusual, but I will grant it,” said the Tripolitan, at last. “What ship is that in the offing?”

The officer had seen the “Siren,” which hovered outside the entrance of the harbor.

“The British ship ‘Transfer,’” said Catalano, promptly.

The ketch was slowly drifting down until a grappling-iron could almost be thrown aboard. Right under the broadside she went, and a line of dark heads peered over the rail at her as she gradually approached the bow.

The chains of the frigate were now almost in the grasp of Reuben James, on the forecastle, when the wind failed and a cat’s-paw caught the ketch aback. Down she drifted towards the terrible broadside. But at a sign from Decatur the eager Lawrence and James got into a small boat and carried a line to a ring-bolt at the frigate’s bow. A boat put out from the “Philadelphia” at the same time. But Lawrence coolly took the hawser from the Tripolitan – “to save the gentleman trouble,” he explained – and brought it aboard the “Intrepid.” A moment more, and the ketch was warping down under the “Philadelphia’s” quarter. It was a moment of dire peril. The slightest suspicion, and they would be blown to pieces.

Decatur leaned lightly against the rail, but his hand grasped his cutlass under his robe so that the blood tingled in his nails and his muscles were drawn and tense. Morris and Joseph Bainbridge stood at the rigging beside him, trembling like greyhounds in leash.

Suddenly they swung around and shot out from under the shadow into a yellow patch of moonlight. The watchful eyes above the rail saw the anchor and cables and the white jackets of the sailors below decks as they strove to hide themselves in the shadows. One glance was enough. In an instant the ship resounded with the thrilling cry, “Americano! Americano!”

At the same moment the “Intrepid” ground up against the side of the frigate. In an instant, as if by magic, she was alive with men. Throwing off his disguise, and with a loud cry of “Boarders, away!” Decatur sprang for the mizzen-chains. And now the hot blood of fighting leaped to their brains. The long agony of suspense was over. Lawrence and Laws sprang for the chain-plates and hauled themselves up. Decatur’s foot slipped, and Morris was the first on deck. Laws dashed at a port, pistols in hand. Nothing could withstand the fury of the charge, and over the rail they swarmed, cutlasses in teeth, jumping over the nettings, and down on the heads of the Tripolitans below. Though Morris was first on deck, Decatur lunged in ahead of him, bringing down the Tripolitan officer before he could draw his sword. One of them aimed a pike at him, but he parried it deftly, and Morris cut the fellow down with a blow that laid his shoulder open from collar to elbow.

Though surprised, the Tripolitans fought fiercely. They had won their title of “the best hand-to-hand fighters in the world” in many a hard pirate battle in the Mediterranean. Around the masts they rallied, scimetars in hand, until they were cut or borne down by the fury of their opponents.

After the first order, not a word was spoken and not a shot was fired. The Americans needed no orders. Over the quarter-deck they swept – irresistible, clearing it in a trice. Overwhelmed by the fierce onslaught, the Tripolitans fled for life, the sailors driving them up on the forecastle and overboard in a mass, where their falling bodies sounded like the splash of a ricochet.

So swift was the work that in ten minutes no Tripolitans were left on the deck of the frigate but the dead. Not a sailor had been killed. One man had been slashed across the forehead, but he grinned through the blood and fought the more fiercely. Then the watchers out on the “Siren” saw a single rocket go high in the air, which was Decatur’s signal that the “Philadelphia” was again an American vessel.

In the meanwhile the combustibles were handed up from the ketch with incredible swiftness, and the work of destruction began. Midshipman Morris and his crew had fought their way below to the cock-pit and had set a fire there. But so swiftly did those above accomplish their work that he and his men barely had time to escape. On reaching the upper deck, Decatur found the flames pouring from the port-holes on both sides and flaring up red and hungry to seize the tar-soaked shrouds. He gave the order to abandon, and over the sides they tumbled as quickly as they had come. Decatur was the last to leave the deck. All the men were over, and the ketch was drifting clear, while around him the flames were pouring, their hot breath overpowering him. But he made a jump for it and landed safely, amid the cheers of his men.

Then the great oars were got out, eight on a side, and pulling them as only American sailor-men could or can, they swept out towards the “Siren.”
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