On the night of 16 February 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a small detachment of U.S. Marines to burn the USS Philadelphia.
In October 1803 the US ship had run around on an uncharted reef while patrolling Tripoli harbour during the First Barbary War (1801-1805). The captain, Bainbridge, did his best to refloat his ship under constant fire from the Barbary guns. He jettisoned his own guns to lighten the ship, then jettisoned everything not necessary to handle the vessel. Finally, in a last desperate attempt he had the foremast sawn off. Ultimately he had to surrender himself and his crew to Yusef Pasha in Tripoli.
The Corsairs refloated the ship and brought her into Tripoli harbour, where she served both as trophy and a powerful defense against the US fleet. There are reports that the Muslim call to prayer in this period was signaled by the firing of guns from the captured ship.
Next followed the action described by Horatio Nelson, at the height of his power on the eve of Trafalgar, as “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Stephen Decatur and his detachment of US Marines boarded a captured Tripolitan ketch. In a classic “ruse de guerre” they pretended to have lost their anchors in a storm, and sought assistance from the Barbary troops stationed aboard the captured Philadelphia. Decatur’s men stormed the ship and overpowered the Tripolitan sailors. With fire support from the American warships, the Marines set fire to Philadelphia, denying her use by the enemy. Thus began the legend that became the US Marines.
The legend was sealed a year later when the Marines led a mercenary force from Alexandria in Egypt to capture the city of Derna in modern day Libya. For the first time in history the US flag was raised in victory on foreign soil. The successes of the First Barbary War became enshrined in the official Hymn of the US Marine Corps.
The First Barbary War was a result of Muslim disruption of shipping in the Mediterranean in a manner that can only be described as officially sanctioned piracy. The US suffered particularly following the French Revolution, when they lost the protection of the Royal French Fleet. When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman to enquire concerning the ground for the attacks on US shipping, the ambassador replied that: It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every Muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. Seems things haven’t changed much in 200 years.
The Marines Hymn; author unknown.
From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.
Our flag’s unfurled to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in every clime and place
Where we could take a gun;
In the snow of far-off Northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes,
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.
Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.