« ZurückWeiter »
pp. 37 – 39.
Decatur. Decatur wounded the young man where he had proposed, and remained unhurt himself. The anecdote is chiefly interesting as showing, that, in this affair, in which he was the party aggrieved, and had sought redress with the advice of his father, he was influenced by the same merciful reluctance to take life in a private quarrel, which controlled him on another and more fatal occasion.”
This is horrible; the father urges his youthful son to fight a duel, and the latter shows his “ merciful reluctance to take life by determining to shoot his adversary only in the hip, this resolution itsell, and the exact fulfilment of it, betraying long practice and much skill in the use of the weapon appropriated to these miserable encounters. party aggrieved,” also ; that is, he was the challenger; and his opponent, the young mate of a merchantman, had probably never before held a pistol. We are not told whether the latter was crippled or maimed for life by the magnanimity of his antagonist.
A change in the government of the French republic, which brought Bonaparte into power, led to the conclusion of a treaty with the United States, and extinguished for the present all Decatur's hopes of obtaining distinction in naval war. Congress hastened to carry into practice its system of economy by reducing the navy to a minimum ; all but thirteen of the ships were directed to be sold, and seven of these were dismantled. Most of the officers, also, were to be discharg. ed, and the selection of those who were to be retained was a delicate and painful duty. Decatur remained as lieutenant, and his younger brother as midshipman ; but their father retired, again became engaged in commercial affairs, and continued in this pursuit for the rest of his life. He was a successful and respected merchant.
Our ships of war were hardly dismantled or sold, and the officers and crews discharged, before our government was again informed, through its relations with some of the Barbary powers, of the necessity of maintaining a navy.
We had been content to pay tribute to these pirates for some years, thinking that the United States needed not to be ashamed of a policy which had been followed, for a long time, by the leading maritime powers of Europe. But the corsairs could not agree about the division of this black-mail among themselves ; each wished to enhance the price of his magnanimous engagement not to plunder the commerce of the Christians. The Bashaw of Tripoli had duly received the stipulated tribute ; but he complained that we had given him nothing, while his brother pirate at Algiers had received from us the present of a fine frigate. Another of his grievances was, that the Bey of Tunis had received nearly as much as himself, which was not granting to the worthy Bashaw that preëminence among pirates which he claimed, and to which, indeed, he was justly entitled. The American government continued to “speak him fair,” but being a little apprehensive lest he should help himself to a few presents out of our commerce, they concluded to send an armed squadron to watch his motions. This was the more necessary, as their Highnesses of Tunis and Algiers, also, had similar grievances to be redressed, and had begun to hold menacing language towards the mutinous Christian powers. The frigates President, Philadelphia, and Essex, and the schooner Enterprise, were fitted out for the Mediterranean, under Commodore Dale ; and Decatur joined the squadron as first lieutenant of the Essex, then commanded by Bainbridge.
“The orders, under which Commodore Dale acted, having been prepared in ignorance of the actual declaration of war against us by Tripoli, contemplated rather precautionary measures, in restraining her cruisers from putting to sea, and depredating on our commerce, than actual hostilities. Nothing beyond restraint, and the consequent protection of our trade, was effected by this squadron, except in a very brilliant action which took place off Malta, between the schooner Enterprise, of twelve light guns, commanded by Lieutenant Sterrett, and the Tripolitan ship Tripoli, of fourteen guns, commanded by Rais Mahomet Sous. The engagement, which the Tripoli began, lasted three hours, when the Tripoli struck, having lost her mizzen mast, and had twenty of her crew killed and thirty wounded. Lieutenant Sterrett, having no orders to make captures, threw all her guns and ammunition overboard, cut away her masts, and completely dismantled her, leaving her only one spar and a single sail to drift back to Tripoli, and bear to the Bashaw the message, that such treatment was the only tribute he would ever receive from Americans.” — pp. 52, 53.
After this cruise, which continued about a year, Decatur allowed himself a respite of only two or three weeks, and then rejoined the Mediterranean squadron as first lieutenant of the frigate New York, under Captain James Barron. The strength of the squadron was now considerably increased, and its commander had at last received orders which authorized more active proceedings against Tripoli. Decatur was eagerly looking forward to the beginning of hostilities as an opportunity of acquiring distinction ; but before he could strike his first blow for his country, he was again involved, though not this time as a principal, in an “affair of honor," as it is called, the tragical issue of which obliged him to return home for a season. While the squadron was lying at Malta, Midshipman Bainbridge and one of his messmates visited the theatre, and met some British officers there, who seemed disposed to insult them. The remainder of the story may be given in Mr. Mackenzie's own words.
“ One of them observed, in allusion to our war with Tripoli, which as yet had certainly not been conducted with special vigor, • Those Yankees will never stand the smell of powder!' The young Americans went into the lobby to consult about the notice to be taken of this remark, which, whether intended or not to be heard by them, was most grating to their feelings. They were soon followed by the British officers, and, as they walked up
and down the lobby, the individual who had made the offensive re. mark, walking in the contrary direction, ran rudely against Midshipman Bainbridge. The offence was repeated three several times. Convinced, at the third encounter, that the collision resulted from a fixed determination to insult him, Mr. Bainbridge knocked the offender down. The individual who had gone so far out of his way to insult an unoffending boy, and that boy a foreigner, enjoying the hospitalities of a country where the insulter was at home, proved to be no less a personage than the secretary of Sir Alexander Ball, the governor.
“ He was a professed duellist, and had sought this occasion to practise his art, whilst he showed his mingled a version and contempt for Americans, a fashionable feeling among the English of that day. A challenge from the duellist was received by Mr. Bainbridge on board the New York on the following morning. Bainbridge was equally unskilled in the use of the pistol and the code of duelling. He was about to accept the invitation, and make use of the agency of a friend as young and inexperienced as himself, when Decatur, being informed of the occurrence, sent for Bainbridge, telling him that his antagonist was a professed duellist, who meant to take his life, and would do it if they two boys went out together, and offered himself to act as his friend,
“ Decatur now appeared and returned the answer to the challenge. As the friend of the challenged party, he selected pistols for the weapons, fixed the distance at four yards, and the word to be given, Take aim,' and to fire at the word · Fire.' The second of the challenger objected to these terms, and proposed ten paces. He said to Decatur, . This looks like murder, Sir.' Decatur replied, “No, Sir; this looks like death, but not like murder. Your friend is a profound duellist; mine is wholly inexperienced. I am no duellist, but I am acquainted with the use of the pistol. If you insist upon ten paces, I will fight your friend at that distance.' The Englishman replied, “We have no quarrel with you,
Sir.' Decatur refusing to consent to any modification of his terms, unless he was substituted for Joseph Bainbridge, the parties met upon that footing. Decatur gave the word, • Take aim,' and kept their pistols extended until he observed the hand of the Englishman to become unsteady. He then gave the word, Fire. Bainbridge's ball passed through his adversary's hat. The Englishman, sure of his man at ten paces, missed Bainbridge entirely.
“ Decatur now informed young Bainbridge, that he could not save his life unless he fired low. It was the business of the Eng. lishman, who had given the first offence wholly without provocation, to offer atonement; but no such offer was made. The combatants were again placed face to face, the word given as before, and the Englishman fell mortally wounded below the eye.”
- pp. 56 - 58.
Sir Alexander Ball demanded that Bainbridge and Decatur should be given up, to be tried by the civil courts for violation of law; and we could wish that the request had been complied with. But the American commodore chose to evade it by sending both the officers home for a season.
Decatur was absent a little over four months, and then came back and took command of the schooner Enterprise. Soon after he returned, the frigate Philadelphia was captured by the Tripolitans, having grounded on a rock in their harbour, where she was exposed to an overwhelming force. This was a serious loss, diminishing the strength of Preble's squadron nearly one half, while the frigate in the hands of the enemy added much to the defences of their port. Decatur conceived the daring plan of recapturing the frigate in a night attack and either bringing her out of the harbour, or destroying her by fire. The commodore consented that he should make the attempt, and the prize ketch Intrepid was fitted out for this purpose as a fire-ship, and placed under his command, with a crew of seventy volunteers. He was accompanied by the brig Siren, under his old friend Stewart, to pick up his boats and crew, in case he should find it necessary to fire the ketch as well as the frigate.
“ In order to form a just estimate of the hazard of Decatur's proposed attack, it should be premised that the Philadelphia had forty guns mounted. These were double-shotted, and kept ready for firing. A full complement of men to serve her batteries was kept constantly on board of her. She was moored within half gun-shot of the Bashaw's castle, and the Molehead and Crown batteries, and within effective range of ten other batteries, the whole mounting together one hundred and fifteen guns of heavy calibre. Three Tripolitan cruisers, mounting together twentysix guns, two galleys, and nineteen gunboats, lay between her and the shore, at distances from her of from two to three cables' length. All these vessels were in like manner fully mạnned and kept ready for an attack. Such were the formidable defences which protected the Philadelphia, when Decatur with his little ketch of sixty tons, mounting four small guns, and having a crew of seventy-five souls, undertook her capture and destruction.”
The Intrepid entered the harbour at seven o'clock in the evening, under a very light wind, which gradually died away, so that it was nearly ten before the ketch came within hail of the frigate. Decatur's officers and crew had each an assigned station and service, to board with him, to guard the several decks of the frigate, to fire her in many places, or to remain in the ketch, and provide for retreat when the object was effected. As the Philadelphia began to loom up in the obscurity, under the faint beams of a crescent moon, the heart of every one of her assailants beat high with anxiety and excitement. Decatur stood at the helm, with the pilot and an Italian interpreter ; the men were hidden under the bulwarks, and a few officers alone remained standing, to represent the crew. He had intended to run under the Philadelphia's bows, and to board over her forecastle ; but the wind had entirely ceased, and the Intrepid was becalmed within a hundred yards of her prey.
“ The moon, which still lingered above the horizon, enabled Decatur to see ten or twelve of the crew looking over her ham. mock-rail. Decatur was now hailed from the Philadelphia, and