Unfriendly Harbor

Book Excerpt: ‘Decatur's Wake: The Fateful Rivalry Behind the Lightning Defeat of Barbary Terror’

Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat
Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat by Dennis Malone Carter / Wikimedia Commons

With the unanimous assent of his cabinet, the recently inaugurated Thomas Jefferson decided in May, 1801 to send a naval squadron to Tripoli, albeit with limited, defensive objectives: to provide safe convoy for American shipping, and to enhance the professionalization of the Navy with what amounted to cost-effective, on-the-job training in the Mediterranean.

Command of the small, first Mediterranean squadron—the frigates President, Philadelphia,  and Essex,  and the schooner Enterprise—fell to Commodore Richard Dale, one of the original six frigate captains. Shortly after reaching Gibraltar on July 1, 1801, Dale learned that the bashaw had months previously cut down the flagpole standing before the U.S. consulate in Tripoli, signaling the commencement of war.

The Essex was commanded by Captain William Bainbridge, who despite his latest professional humiliation had once again managed to land softly. Upon arrival in the Mediterranean with the Dale squadron, the Essex was ordered to gather up American merchantmen from the ports of Marseilles, Barcelona, and Alicante and escort them through the Straits of Gibraltar.

Square-shouldered and barrel-chested, Bainbridge in a portrait from his prime appears well-fortified against the vagaries of fortune in a snug tunic, epaulettes, and brass buttons, with neckpiece and bushy mutton chops partly obscuring the hint of early-onset mastiff jowls threatening to droop over his stiff stand-collar. His hair is carefully curled and tufted to give an impression, one presumes, of wind-tousled naturalness in the Romantic style. Tired, hooded eyes are fixed on the distance in anxious, appraising vigilance.

Bainbridge was a man who easily formed and conscientiously maintained lasting friendships, at least among his own kind. With his peers among the far-flung ranks of the world’s military, diplomatic, administrative, and maritime services, he was known to be considerate, generous, and loyal. With his clubby loquacity and genteel manners, he was able to bridge gulfs of culture, nationality, language, and geography to collect useful allies from Canada to Constantinople, from the Bering Sea to the Straits of Gibraltar.

But at the same time, Bainbridge lacked the common touch. He was openly contemptuous of the enlisted men under his command. "I don’t allow a sailor to speak to me at all," he’d brushed off one who’d had the temerity to try.

Never was there "so depraved a set of mortals as sailors," Bainbridge once complained to a commanding officer. "Under discipline they are peaceable and serviceable—divest them of that and they constitute a perfect rabble."

In the early navy, the preferred method of discipline was flogging—the lashing of bare backs with the multistranded cat-o’-nine-tails. Captains acted as judge and jury in the assessment of such penalties, a duty Bainbridge readily embraced. At times he could be more hands-on in the infliction of corporal punishment: Seaman John Rea, who had served under him on the George Washington, wrote publicly of how Bainbridge had split the skull of one drunken sailor—already shackled hand and foot in irons — with a sword blow to the head, sending the man into convulsions. He then had the bleeding man flogged. "I have no compassion on such a damned rascal," he reportedly said as the sentence was carried out.

Bainbridge would have been unpopular enough among sailors for his unhappily allied traits of snobbery, sycophancy, and brutish authoritarianism. But he also carried a reputation as a luckless loser sailing under a curse—a stigma that rendered his name toxic among seamen, a notoriously superstitious breed. For an officer with Bainbridge’s baggage, manning and maintaining a happy ship was no easy task. It is likely with this in mind that he chose Stephen Decatur to serve as his first lieutenant aboard the Essex.

With his dashing aura and a command style marked by mutual respect, inspiration through example, and disciplinary practices humane by prevailing standards, Decatur was, at twenty-two, already known as an emerging leader who won the affection, respect and loyalty of his men. He addressed them by their names. He rarely resorted to flogging—and rarely needed to. He preferred to slash whiskey rations instead.

In tapping the popular Decatur to serve as his primary interface with the ship’s crew, the imperious Bainbridge had made a shrewdly self-aware choice. Under the two of them, the vessel and her crew made an enviable impression. Perhaps too enviable.

On arrival at Barcelona, Essex had anchored in the harbor alongside a Spanish xebec serving as a guard boat. American frigates were still a rare sight in the port, and Essex excited much curiosity among the local elite, many of whom rowed out to the ship for impromptu tours. The Spanish visitors came away marveling at her "fine appearance," "the manly gentility of her officers," and "the clean and rugged vigor of her crew," the American consul William Willis recalled.

One moonlit evening, Bainbridge was returning to the Essex after an errand on shore, when his captain’s barge was hailed from the neighboring xebec. A sentinel demanded that the boat’s ranking officer come aboard the Spanish vessel to provide identification. A midshipman replied for Bainbridge that it was the captain’s barge from the American frigate. An officer appeared on the deck of the xebec and repeated the demand to board. The Americans, continuing on their way, crossed in front of the xebec. The Spaniards jeered and threatened to fire on them.

"I cautioned them against firing into an American frigate’s boat," Bainbridge subsequently reported. "They immediately fired several muskets. I still rowed on, they repeated their fire, when I returned alongside the Zebec and requested to know if there was an officer on board of her; being answered in the affirmative, I again repeated to him that the boat belonged to an American frigate and the commanding officer was on board, of which they could not be ignorant, as she had been lying abreast of him all the evening."

Ignoring Bainbridge’s explanation, the officer repeated his demand that Bainbridge board the xebec. "A compliance with this improper and extraordinary demand," Bainbridge wrote, "would have been so inconsistent with the character of the officers of the American navy, that I did not feel disposed to submit to it, although exposed in an unarmed boat. I then attempted to shove off, when he again threatened, and he was in the very act of firing a third time. Disregarding his threats, I again refused not only to go on board, but declined any further explanation than I had already given. Finding me unyielding, he allowed me at length to depart."

The day after the standoff, an indignant Bainbridge marched off to the ranking local authority, the captain general of Catalonia, to protest. The captain general patiently heard Bainbridge out, then requested that he follow up with a written report. An incongruous combination of bravado and grievance, Bainbridge’s painstakingly detailed written narrative (excerpted above) spins his passive forbearance in the face of threats and hostile fire as bold defiance. The captain general didn’t bother to reply directly. Instead, he wrote to the American consul Willis—to complain of Bainbridge’s own incivility.

Bainbridge appealed up the chain, writing to the U.S. ambassador to Spain. Appending his written report, he asked that the ambassador take his grievance up with the Spanish government in Madrid, effectively elevating the affair into a full-blown diplomatic incident. The American ambassador duly protested to the Spanish minister of state. The minister in turn promised a prompt, impartial inquiry and favorable redress, if appropriate.

The Spanish officers, it emerged, felt they had been shown up in their own waters by their briskly efficient and crisply turned-out American counterparts. Returning from their excursions to the Essex, Spanish visitors — passing within just a few feet of the xebec — had been "loud in their praises of every object which they had seen on board the frigate," Willis recounted. "The Spanish officers, who were very young men, became so irritated, that they determined, by insulting treatment, to force from the harbor the object of their jealousy."

Decatur had his own, more direct, way of settling accounts with these belligerent, territorial young rivals. On returning to the Essex from a visit ashore, Decatur and a group of his fellow young officers had been, like Bainbridge just days before, detained under flimsy pretenses alongside the xebec by jeering Spanish officers. Decatur complained to the ranking officer—once. Unappeased by the response, he vowed to return in the morning, a pledge freighted with specific menace in the days of honor duels.

On the following morning, Decatur rowed back to the xebec as promised. When informed that the offending officer was not on board, he left a message: "Tell him that Lt. Decatur of the frigate Essex pronounces him a cowardly scoundrel, and that when they meet on shore he will cut his ears off."

Upon hearing of Decatur’s ominous words, the alarmed captain general summoned Willis for an immediate parley with the commodore in charge of the Spanish naval station at Barcelona and himself. Pledging to confine the Spanish officers to their vessel, the two Spanish officials requested that Willis likewise use his influence to restrain the young American hothead. Willis and Bainbridge together managed to talk Decatur down from the brink of a duel. The commander of the Spanish xebec was reprimanded, and the insults promptly ceased.

The Spanish government would eventually order the commander of the Spanish xebec to make a formal apology to Bainbridge. But by the time Bainbridge finally prized his vindication from the bureaucracy, a practical resolution to the underlying contretemps had long since been achieved, and the Essex had departed the port of Barcelona. Superfluous though Bainbridge’s exertions in this episode proved to be, his characteristic tenacity in the litigation of his own cause to the end can be seen as a clue to the riddle of this flawed officer’s naval tenure: Why was he so long and so often protected, promoted, praised through a career pocked with such conspicuous failure, like the calamity that would terminate his command of the Philadelphia?

This post is excerpted from Daniel Wattenberg’s Decatur's Wake: The Fateful Rivalry Behind the Lightning Defeat of Barbary Terror, available now as a Kindle Single.