Pike & Cutlass: Hero Tales of Our Navy
George Gibbs

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The Tripolitans ashore and on the gunboats had hastened to their guns, and now, as the ketch was plainly seen, their batteries belched forth a terrific storm of shot that flew across the water. The men bent their backs splendidly to their work, jeering the while at the enemy as the balls whistled by their heads or sent the foam splashing over them. Out they went across the great crimson glare of the fire. It was magnificent. The flames swept up the shrouds with a roar, catching the woodwork of the tops and eating them as though they were tinder. She was ablaze from water to truck, and all the heavens were alight, – aglow at the splendid sacrifice. Then to the added roar of the batteries ashore came the response from the guns of the flaming ship, which, heated by the fierce flames, began to discharge themselves. But not all of them were fired so, for in a second all eyes were dazzled by a blazing light, and they saw the great hull suddenly burst open, with huge streaks of flame spurting from between the parting timbers. Then came a roar that made the earth and sea shudder. The fire had reached the magazine.

The waves of it came out to the gallant crew, who, pausing in their work, gave one last proof of their contempt of danger. Rising to their feet, they gave three great American cheers that echoed back to the forts while their guns thundered fruitlessly on.

Decatur and his men were safe under the “Siren’s” guns.

Is it any wonder that Congress gave Decatur a sword and made him a captain, or that Lord Nelson called this feat “the most daring act of any age”?


It should have been renown enough for one man to have performed what Nelson was pleased to call “the most daring act of any age.” But the capture of the “Philadelphia” only whetted Decatur’s appetite for further encounters. He was impetuous, bold even to rashness, and so dashing that to his men he was irresistible. But behind it all – a thing rare in a man of his peculiar calibre – there was the ability to consider judiciously and to plan carefully as well as daringly to execute. His fierce temper led him into many difficulties, but there was no cruelty behind it; and the men who served with him, while they feared him, would have followed him into the jaws of death, for they loved him as they loved no other officer in the American service. Once while the frigate “Essex,” Captain Bainbridge, lay in the harbor at Barcelona, the officers of the American vessel suffered many petty indignities at the instance of the officers of the Spanish guardship. Having himself been subjected to a slight from the Spanish commander, Lieutenant Decatur took the bull by the horns. He bade his coxswain pull to the gangway of the Spaniard, and he went boldly aboard. His lips were set, for he had resolved upon his own responsibility to make an immediate precedent which would serve for all time. The Spanish commander, most fortunately, was absent. But Decatur none the less strode aft past the sentry to the gangway and, lifting his great voice so that it resounded from truck to keelson, he shouted, —

“Tell your comandante that Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, of the ‘Essex,’ declares him to be a scoundrelly coward, and if Lieutenant Decatur meets him ashore he will cut his ears off.”

So among the men of the squadron Decatur came to be known as a man who brooked nothing and dared everything.

But when the crusty Preble took command in the Mediterranean he was not over-impressed with the under-officers of his command. Not one of the lieutenants was over twenty-four and none of those higher in authority had turned thirty. Decatur and Somers were twenty-five; Charles Stewart was only twenty-six, and Bainbridge the younger; Morris and Macdonough were barely out of their teens.

It was not the custom of the commander-in-chief to mince his words. So sparing himself the delicacy of secluding himself behind the saving bulkheads of the after-cabin he swore right roundly at his home government for sending him what he was pleased to call “a parcel of d – school-boys.” He was a martinet of the old style, and believed in the school of the fo’c’s’le, and not in young gentlemen whose friends at home sent them in by the ports of the after-cabin. He held the youngsters aloof, and not until he had tried them in every conceivable fashion would he consider them in his councils. A year had passed, and Decatur, Morris, Bainbridge, Macdonough, and Somers had helped to add glorious pages to naval history, before the old man, with a smile to Colonel Lear, the consul, consented to say, —

“Well, after all, colonel, they are very good school-boys!”

Although Decatur’s success in the destruction of the “Philadelphia” had removed a dangerous auxiliary battery from the harbor of Tripoli, the bashaw was far from overawed, and, with the officers and crew of the “Philadelphia” as hostages, declined to consider any terms offered by the Americans; and so it was resolved by Commodore Preble to make an attempt upon the Tripolitan batteries and fleet. The Americans had the “Constitution,” – “Old Ironsides,” – Commodore Preble, and six brigs and schooners mounting twelve and sixteen guns each. Preble had also succeeded in borrowing from “the most gracious king of the Sicilies,” who was then at war with the bashaw, two bomb-vessels and six single gunboats, – quite a formidable little force of a hundred and thirty-four guns and about a thousand men.

It was not until the morning of the 3d of August, 1804, that the weather, which had been very stormy, moderated sufficiently to allow the squadron to approach the African coast. The gunboats were unwieldy craft, flat-bottomed, and, as the sea made clean breeches over them, they were a dozen times in danger of sinking. But by ten o’clock the sky to the southward had lightened, and the heavy storm-clouds were blowing away overhead to the westward. “Old Ironsides” shook the reefs out of her topsails and, spreading her top-gallant-sails, she beat up for the entrance of the harbor of Tripoli with two of the gunboats in tow. Her tall spars, seeming almost to pierce the low-rolling clouds, towered far above the little sticks of the “Siren” and “Nautilus,” which bore down directly in her wake. The sea had lashed out its fury, and, before the little fleet had reached the reef, the gray had turned to green, and here and there a line of amber showed where the mid-day sun was stealing through.

Stephen Decatur, on gunboat No. 4, had been given command of the left division of three gunboats. Casting off the tow-lines from his larger consorts, he got under weigh, and bore down for a rift between the reefs at the eastern entrance to the harbor, where the Tripolitan fleet, cleared for action, lay awaiting him. The wind was on his bow, and he was obliged to hold a course close to the wind in order to weather the point.

The gunboat lumbered uncertainly in the cross-sea, for she had no longer the steady drag of the “Constitution’s” hawser to steady her. The seas came up under her flat bottom, and seemed to toss rather than swing her into the hollows. She was at best an unsteady gun-platform, and nice sail-trimming was an impossibility. But they got out their sweeps, and that steadied her somewhat. Great volumes of spray flew over the weather-bow as she soused her blunt nose into it, and the fair breeze sent it shimmering down to leeward.

Decatur stood aft by the helmsman, watching the quivering leeches, and keeping her well up into the wind. Beside him stood his midshipmen, Thomas Macdonough – afterwards to win a great victory of his own – and Joseph Thorn. Both of them had smelt powder before, and Macdonough had been one of the first on the deck of the ill-fated “Philadelphia.” This was to be a different sort of a fight from any they had seen. It was to be man to man, where good play of cutlass and pike and youth and American grit might mean victory. Defeat meant annihilation. But youth is good at a game of life and death, and as they looked at Decatur there was never a moment’s fear of the result. They leaned against the rail to leeward, looking past the foam boiling on the point to the spars of the African gunboats, and their eyes were alight with eagerness for battle.

The men were bending steadily to their sweeps. Most of them were stripped to the waist, and Decatur looked along the line of sinewy arms and chests with a glow of pride and confidence. There was no wavering anywhere in the row of glistening faces. But they all knew the kind of pirates they were going to meet, – reckless, treacherous devils, who loved blood as they loved Allah, – the best hand-to-hand fighters in the Mediterranean.

The ring of the cutlasses, loose-settled in their hangers, against the butts of the boarding-pistols was clear above the sound of the row-locks and the rush of the waters, while forward the catch of a song went up, and they bent to their work the more merrily.

As they came under the lee of the Tripolitan shore and the sea went down, Decatur ordered the long iron six-pounder cast loose. They had provided solid shot for long range at the batteries, and these were now brought up and put conveniently on the fo’c’s’le. But for the attack upon the vessels of the fleet they loaded first with a bag of a thousand musket-balls. At point-blank range Decatur judged that this would do tremendous execution among the close-ranked mass of Tripolitans on the foreign vessels. His idea was not to respond to the fire of the enemy, which would soon begin, until close aboard, and then to go over the rail before they could recover from their confusion. He felt that if they did not make a wreck of him and batter up his sweeps he could get alongside. And once alongside, he knew that his men would give a good account of themselves.

But as they came up towards the point the wind shifted, and the head of the gunboat payed off. Even with their work at the sweeps, he now knew that it would be no easy matter for all the Americans to weather the point, for two of them were well down to leeward. But his brother, James Decatur, in gunboat No. 2, and Sailing-Master John Trippe, in gunboat No. 6, had kept well up to windward, and so he felt that he should be able to count on at least these two. As they reached the line of breakers, one of the gunboats to leeward, under Richard Somers, was obliged to go about, and in a moment the two others followed. Then the young commanders of the windward gunboats knew that if the attack was to be made they alone would have the glory of the first onslaught.

What Decatur feared most was that Preble, on the “Constitution,” would see how terribly they were overmatched and signal the recall. But as they reached the point, Decatur resolutely turned his back to the flagship, and, putting his helm up, set her nose boldly into the swash of the entrance and headed for the gray line of vessels, three times his number, which hauled up their anchors and came down, gallantly enough, to meet him.

There was very little sound upon the gunboat now. The wind being favorable, the Americans shipped their sweeps, and sat watching the largest of the Tripolitan vessels, which was bearing down upon them rapidly. They saw a puff of white smoke from her fo’c’s’le, and heard the whistle of a shot, which, passing wide, ricochetted just abeam and buried itself beyond. Thorn stood forward, waiting for the order to fire his long gun. But Decatur gave no sign. He stood watching the lift of the foresail, carefully noting the distance between the two vessels. Trippe and James Decatur had each picked out an adversary, and were bearing down as silently as he, in spite of the cannonade which now came from both the vessels and batteries of the Turks. The shots were splashing all around him, but nothing had been carried away, and the American jackies jeered cheerfully at the wretched marksmanship. As the Tripolitans came nearer, the Americans could see the black mass of men along the rails and catch the glimmer of the yataghans. Then Decatur ordered his own men to seize their pikes and draw their pistols and cutlasses.

At the word from Decatur, Thorn began training the fo’c’s’le gun, which in the steadier sea would have a deadly effect. The distance was a matter of yards now, and a shot came ploughing alongside that threw spray all along the rail and nearly doused the match of the gunner of the fo’c’s’le. But not until he could see the whites of the eyes of his adversaries did Decatur give the order to fire. As the big gun was discharged point-blank into the thick of the crowded figures, Decatur shifted his helm quickly and lay aboard the Tripolitan. So tremendous had been the execution of the musket-balls, and so quickly had the manœuvre been executed, that almost before the Tripolitans were aware of it the Americans were upon them. The few shots from the Turkish small arms had gone wild, but a fierce struggle ensued before the Americans reached the deck. At last Decatur, followed by Thorn, Macdonough, and twenty-two seamen, gained the fo’c’s’le in a body, and the Tripolitans retreated aft.

The Tripolitan boat was divided amidships by an open hatchway, and for a moment the opposing forces stopped to catch their breath, glaring at one another across the opening. Decatur did not pause long. Giving them a volley of pistol-bullets at close range, he dashed furiously down one gangway, while Macdonough and Thorn went down the other, and, with a cheer, cut down the remaining Turks or drove them overboard. A half-dozen went down a forward hatch, and these were made prisoners.

It was a short fight, with an inconsiderable loss to Decatur, but the Tripolitan dead were strewn all over the decks, and the Turkish captain was pierced by fourteen bullets. The Tripolitan flag was hauled down, and, taking his prize in tow, Decatur put his men at the sweeps again, to move farther out of the reach of the batteries.

By this time James Decatur and John Trippe had got into the thick of it. Following Stephen Decatur’s example, they dashed boldly at the larger of the bashaw’s vessels, and, reserving their fire for close range, they lay two of them aboard. John Trippe, Midshipman Henley, and nine seamen had gained the deck of their adversary, when the vessels drifted apart, and they were left alone on the deck of the enemy. But Trippe was the man for the emergency. So rapidly did they charge the Turks that their very audacity gave them the advantage, and Trippe finally succeeded in killing the Tripolitan commander by running him through with a boarding-pike. They fought with the energy of despair, and, although wounded and bleeding from a dozen sabre-cuts, struggled on until their gunboat got alongside and they were rescued by their comrades.

But the story of the treachery of the Turkish captain and Stephen Decatur’s revenge for the death of his brother makes even the wonderful defensive battle of Trippe seem small by comparison.

James Decatur, having got well up with one of the largest of the Tripolitan vessels, delivered so quick and telling a fire with his long gun and musketry that the enemy immediately struck his colors. He hauled alongside and clambered up and over the side of the gunboat to take possession of her personally. As his head came up above the rail his men saw the Turkish commander rush forward and aim his boarding-pistol at the defenceless American. The bullet struck him fairly in the forehead, and Decatur, with barely a sound, sank back into his boat.

In their horror at the treachery of the Tripolitan, the Americans allowed the boat to sheer off, and the Turk, getting out his sweeps, was soon speeding away toward the protection of the batteries.

Stephen Decatur, towing his prize to safety, had noted the gallant attack, and had seen the striking of the Turkish colors. But not until an American boat darted alongside of him did he hear the news of the treacherous manner of his brother’s death. The shock of the information for the moment appalled him, but in the place of his grief there arose so fierce a rage at the dastardly act that for a moment he was stricken dumb and senseless. His men sprang quickly when at last he thundered out his orders. Deftly casting off the tow-line of the prize, they hoisted all sail and jumped to their sweeps as though their lives depended on it. Macdonough’s gun-crew were loading with solid shot this time, and, as soon as they got the range, a ball went screaming down towards the fleeing Tripolitan. The men at the sweeps needed little encouragement. They had heard the news, and they loved James Decatur as they worshipped his brother, who stood aft, his lips compressed, anxiously watching the chase. The water boiled under the oar-blades as the clumsy hulk seemed to spring from one wave-crest to another. Again the long gun spoke, and the canister struck the water all about the Turkish vessel. The Tripolitans seemed disorganized, for their oars no longer moved together and the blades were splashing wildly. Another solid shot went flying, and Decatur smiled as he saw the spray fly up under the enemy’s counter. There would be no mercy for the Tripolitans that day. Nearer and nearer they came, until the Turks, seeing that further attempts at flight were useless, dropped their sweeps and prepared to receive the Americans. They shifted their helm so that their gun could bear, and the shot that followed tore a great rent in Decatur’s foresail. But the Americans heeded it little more than if it had been a puff of wind, and pausing only to deliver another deadly discharge of the musket-balls at point-blank range, Decatur swung in alongside under cover of the smoke.

As the vessels grated together, Decatur jumped for the Tripolitan rigging, and, followed by his men, quickly gained the deck. Two Turks rushed at Decatur, aiming vicious blows with their scimetars; but he parried them skilfully with his pike, looking around him fiercely the while for the captain. As he thought of his brother dying, or dead, he swore that no American should engage the Turkish commander but himself. He had not long to wait. They espied each other at about the same moment, and brushing the intervening weapons aside, dashed upon each other furiously.

Decatur was tall, and as active as a cat. His muscles were like steel, and his rage seemed to give him the strength of a dozen. But the Mussulman was a giant, the biggest man in the Tripolitan fleet, and a very demon in power and viciousness. So strong was he, that as Decatur lunged at him with his boarding-pike he succeeded in wrenching it from the hand of the American, and so wonderfully quick that Decatur had hardly time to raise his cutlass to parry the return. He barely caught it; but in doing so his weapon broke off short at the hilt. The next lunge he partially warded by stepping to one side; but the pike of the Mussulman in passing cut an ugly wound in his arm and chest. Entirely defenceless, he now knew that his only chance was at close quarters, so he sprang in below the guard of the Turk and seized him around the waist, hoping to trip and stun him. But the Tripolitan tore the arms away as though he had been a stripling, and, seizing him by the throat, bore him by sheer weight to the deck, trying the while to draw a yataghan. The American crew, seeing things going badly with their young captain, fought in furiously, and in a moment the mass of Americans and Tripolitans were fighting in one desperate, struggling, smothering heap, above the prostrate bodies of their captains, neither of whom could succeed in drawing a weapon. The Turk was the first to get his dagger loose, but the American’s death-like grasp held his wrist like a vise, and kept him from striking the blow. Decatur saw another Turk just beside him raise his yataghan high above his head, and he felt that he was lost. But at this moment a sailor, named Reuben James, who loved Decatur as though he were a brother, closed in quickly and caught on his own head the blow intended for Decatur. Both his arms had been disabled, but he asked nothing better than to lay down his life for his captain.

In the meanwhile, without relinquishing his grip upon the Turk, Decatur succeeded in drawing a pistol from the breast of his shirt, and, pressing the muzzle near the heart of the Tripolitan, fired. As the muscles of his adversary relaxed, the American managed to get upon one knee, and so to his feet, stunned and bleeding, but still unsubdued. The Tripolitans, disheartened by the loss of their leader, broke ground before the force of the next attack and fled overboard or were cut down where they stood.

The death of James Decatur was avenged.

The other Tripolitan gunboats had scurried back to safety, so Decatur, with his two prizes, made his way out towards the flagship unmolested. His victory had cost him dearly. There was not a man who had not two or three wounds from the scimetars, and some of them had cuts all over the body. The decks were like a slaughter-pen and the scuppers were running blood. But the bodies of the Tripolitans were ruthlessly cast overboard to the sharks; and by the time the Americans had reached the “Constitution” the decks had been scrubbed down and the wounded bandaged and roughly cared for by those of their comrades who had fared less badly.

Decatur, by virtue of his exploit in destroying the “Philadelphia,” already a post-captain at the age of twenty-five, could expect no further immediate honors at the hands of the government; but then, as ever afterwards, he craved nothing but a stanch ship and a gallant crew. The service he could do his country was its own reward.


The old “Constitution” was out on the broad ocean again! And when the news went forth that she had succeeded for the seventh time in running the blockade of the British squadrons, deep was the chagrin of the Admiralty. This Yankee frigate, still stanch and undefeated, had again and again proved herself superior to everything afloat that was British; had shown her heels, under Hull’s masterly seamanship, to a whole squadron during a chase that lasted three days; and had under Hull, and then under Bainbridge, whipped both the “Guerriere” and the “Java,” two of their tidiest frigates, in an incredibly short time, with a trifling loss both in men and rigging. She was invincible; and the title which she had gained before Tripoli, under Commodore Preble, when the Mussulman shot had hailed against her oaken timbers and dropped harmlessly into the sea alongside, seemed more than ever to befit her. “Old Ironsides” was abroad again, overhauled from royal to locker, with a crew of picked seamen and a captain who had the confidence of the navy and the nation.

Her hull had been made new, her canvas had come direct from the sail-lofts at Boston, and her spars were the stanchest that the American forests could afford. She carried thirty-one long 24-pounders and twenty short 32-pounders, – fifty-one guns in all, throwing six hundred and forty-four pounds of actual weight of metal to a broadside. Her officers knew her sailing qualities, and she was ballasted to a nicety, bowling along in a top-gallant-stu’n-sail breeze at twelve knots an hour.

The long list of her victories over their old-time foe had given her men a confidence in the ship and themselves that attained almost the measure of a faith; and, had the occasion presented itself, they would have been as willing to match broadsides with a British seventy-four as with a frigate of equal metal with themselves. They were a fine, hearty lot, these jack-tars; and, as “Old Ironsides” left the green seas behind and ploughed her bluff nose boldly through the darker surges of the broad Atlantic, they vowed that the frigate’s last action would not be her least. The “Constitution” would not be dreaded by the British in vain.

For dreaded she was among the officers of the British North Atlantic squadron. As soon as it was discovered by the British Admiralty that she had passed the blockade, instructions were at once given out and passed from ship to ship to the end that every vessel of whatever class which spoke another on the high seas should report whether or not she had seen a vessel which looked like the “Constitution.” By means of this ocean telegraphy they hoped to discover the course and intention of the great American, and finally to succeed in bringing her into action with a British fleet. By this time they had learned their lesson. Single frigates were given orders to avoid an encounter, while other frigates were directed to hunt for her in pairs!

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