YEARS AFTER THE TRIPOLITAN War, Stephen Decatur, commander of the United States, would send the flag of the British frigate Macedonian to Dolley Madison by a young lieutenant, the son of Paul Anderson, Secretary of the Navy at the beginning of the War of 1812. When the lieutenant, arriving during the Naval Ball of the Christmas festivities of 1812, laid the trophy at her feet, the usually self-controlled Dolley, the center of warmth and witticisms, conceded that she blushed like a schoolgirl. The reason has never been well explained.
But one is privileged to believe it was because the enemy standard had been sent to her by one of the most intrepid and certainly the most handsome officer of the U.S. Navy, whose physical strength and virility were in such contrast, as the bewitchingly feminine Dolley must have observed, to the frail delicacy of her beloved but diminutive Jimmy Madison, the President. If Dolley was not stirred by Decatur’s magnetism she was different from virtually all other women who met him, and most men also, because few could be indifferent to this graceful, athletic officer whose broad shoulders, slim waist, curly brown hair and warm, dancing brown eyes, usually tender in conversation but alert and piercing under the excitement of action, made him distinguished physically in nearly any gathering.
His biographers—and quite a number have written of him in sympathetic and none in disparaging vein—seem to agree that he drew the notice of ladies wherever he appeared, and the allurement went much beyond the appeal of the resplendent naval uniform of the day; while the seamen and others who kept journals dealt with him in terms ranging from admiration to reverence.
Said Marine Private Ray: “The intrepid Decatur is as proverbial among sailors, for the good treatment of his men, as he is for his valour. Not a tar, who ever sailed with Decatur, but would almost sacrifice his life for him.”
There was something more mystical about Decatur than his vivid personality and the stimulating glow of his presence, for when he married Susan Wheeler, daughter of Luke Wheeler, wealthy merchant and Mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, his union was with a young lady who had fallen in love with him desperately before she had ever seen him, merely from looking at an Italian miniature of him.
And it was characteristic of his devotion to the United States and to its naval service that he told the beautiful girl, when he proposed, that he had already made vows to his flag which had precedence, because if not steadfast to it, he would not then be worthy of her. Somewhere along the line he had read Richard Lovelace.
17 November 2019
From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. 5043ff:
10 November 2019
From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. 4200ff:
Wild beasts roamed the Barbary shore during the era of the American war. The most common was the hyena, called the dubbah. There were panthers, wild boar, ostriches, and antelopes, while snakes and scorpions abounded.
Though the harbor was commodious, it was shallow and could not grant ingress to vessels drawing more than five or six fathoms, or from thirty to thirty-six feet.
The dominating structure of the harbor was the gray old Castle (now neatly restored) which, partly in ruins, loomed above the shore. It was a formidable stronghold in appearance, while inside it was composed of a series of splendid chambers, arched colonnades, and circling courts, brilliant with mosaics.
Beneath was a labyrinth of subterranean passages where captives were imprisoned and the condemned were executed.
In those days a wide, circular beach stretched in front of the town and toward the east, and much of the city was built in a crescent extending eastward from the tip of the peninsula, and westward for a distance facing the Mediterranean beyond the reef which formed the harbor.
In this city of flat-topped houses, sometimes built from and on heaps of ancient rubble; of mosques, narrow streets, of baths with their clustered cupolas; of fruit trees and date palms giving their scant shade, but with the soft afternoon breeze often coming pleasantly from the Mediterranean, lived a population of extremes in poverty and opulence. For the more consequential men the coffee bazaar was the place of assembly and, in the absence of newspapers, the forum where information was exchanged.
These bazaars were strictly for coffee and no other refreshments were served. Inside they were smoky kitchens, and Arabs of distinction never entered them, but sent their slaves, who brought the coffee in vessels to the arbor-covered marble benches outside.
These were in effect couches, richly draped with carpets and mats, on which the chief men would sit cross-legged—“bear-like,” as Eaton described the posture in Tunis—and sip their beverage leisurely. Sometimes the females of the castle might prefer their coffee flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves, but the men at the bazaar drank theirs black, thick, and straight.
As these patriarchs of wealth sipped, behind them stood their slaves, often three to one master. One held his pipe, a second his kerchief, and the third his coffee cup, thus releasing his hands while he conversed. Any distinguished Tripolitan Arab required both hands to emphasize and illustrate his words.
Often he would do this by jabbing or drawing designs with the finger of one hand on the palm of the other. On state occasions the chief officials and wealthy men appeared in flowing, gold-embroidered robes of satin and velvet, and, when seasonal, in rich furs.
They wore shawls of the finest texture, jewels, and long silver pendants that served as charms. At noon, which British Consul Richard Tulley’s sister observed to be “an hour when no Moor of distinction leaves his house,” the city napped. Beggars were common on the winding streets.
In sharp contrast with the ornate garb of the wealthy was the wretchedness of the poor and of even the ordinary-run citizen, who was covered with a piece of dark brown homespun cotton, no more than an age-ripened blanket. Blindness was common among the beggars.
The glaring sun of the summer months, taken with the sand particles which filled the air when the ghibli blew from the desert, induced an eye-soreness or ophthalmia, which became aggravated by the presence of numerous busy insects. Dr. Leyden, who studied social and moral conditions of North Africa, and noticed that games of chance were prohibited as strictly as was alcohol, found the time of the average man occupied with “eating, drinking, sleeping, women, horses and prayers.”
Apparently cock-fighting, which thrived, was not regarded a game of chance, or else no wagers were laid. Ostrich-racing was another sport. He reported too that the saints were venerated, but, “any extraordinary qualification—a remarkable crime, sometimes pure idiotism raised them to the rank of saint.”
The women of the harem, usually Georgian or Circassian slaves who had been brought to Tripoli when young and trained for court or harem life, went out but rarely, and only to the mosques to fulfill a vow or make an offering; and then the journey was made from eleven to twelve at night in a palanquin enclosed with linen.
They were accompanied by a large train of guards who showed lights and shouted their approach. This crying was a signal for all common people to clear the streets, for none could look on the females from the seraglio without grave risk to his neck. Such was the city and society the United States was fighting, by no choice of the Jefferson administration, in its first formal war under the Constitution.
07 November 2019
From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. ~2750:
Captain Sterrett bore a British flag as he approached the Tripolitan ship, an expedient frequently practiced in the naval warfare of the day. He inquired of the Tripolitan the object of her cruise. The commander replied that he had come out to look for Americans but lamented that he had not yet found a single one. Sterrett promptly lowered the British and hoisted the U.S. colors and ordered a volley of musketry discharged across the Tripolitan’s decks.
The Tripoli replied with a partial broadside. It was 9:00 a.m. For three hours the ships lay alongside at pistol range and blazed away at each other with broadsides and small arms. Three times they came together and the Muslims tried to board. Each time they were beaten back with severe loss.
Fortunately the Enterprise had a small Marine Corps detachment, commanded by Lieutenant Enoch S. Lane, whose fire was particularly effective during the boarding efforts. An equal number of times the Tripolitans seemed to give up the contest and surrender. They struck their colors, but each time as the wary Lieutenant Sterrett drew close for boarding and as the American gun crews relaxed their efforts, came to the spardeck and cheered for their victory, the enemy ship hoisted her flag again, let loose a blast and renewed the battle. After the last deception Sterrett ordered the gunners to sink the craft, whose fire had grown steadily weaker under the unmerciful bombardment from the American guns. The seamen took up the cry of “Sink the villains.”
Finally the unhappy and treacherous Admiral Rais Mahomet Rous, who like his second in command was wounded, called out for mercy. He bent over the vessel’s waist in a supplicating position which appeared to be a genuine surrender.
Sterrett, not to be duped by further trickery, held his fire but told the commander to come aboard the Enterprise or send some of his officers. The Admiral replied that the Tripoli’s boat was so shattered it was unfit for use.
Sterrett then inquired what assurance he would have that his men would not be murdered if he sent a detail aboard the Tripoli. The Admiral threw his colors into the sea. After that and other supplications and assurances, the American commander decided to take the risk. When the boarding party headed by Lieutenant Porter reached the enemy deck it found a scene of death and desolation almost unparalleled in such small ship actions.
The ship was shot to pieces. Of her eighty men thirty were dead and thirty wounded, leaving but twenty to man the ship. The deck was covered with bodies, splinters, blood, and wreckage. The ship’s surgeon had been killed and there was no one on board to care for the wounded. With the two top officers wounded and the third officer dead, the distressed vessel was virtually out of control.
But the strange feature of this battle fought for three hours at close pistol range, with the two ships often lying alongside, was that when Captain Sterrett checked the American gunners, marines, and seamen, not an American had received a single scratch.
The reason can only be guessed at; partly chance, but mainly because the Barbary powers who were accustomed to boarding defenseless merchant vessels were not fitted by training or temperament for the fierce, desperate, pent-up fury of sea actions in the era of “iron men and wooden ships,” in which, for some reason, the Americans of that day seemed to excel.