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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND

Bombardment of Tripoli, 1804

Old Ironsides' Battle Record: Documents of USS Constitution's Illustrious Deeds

Constitution joined the Navy's Mediterranean squadron for the first time in September of 1803, and remained there until October 1807. Her mission was to protect American shipping in the Mediterranean on which the Barbary corsairs were preying. In August 1804, the American Navy massed enough ships to attack the heavily defended harbor of Tripoli. American ships bombarded the harbor and engaged Tripolian vessels five times during August and early September 1804. The documents that follow are excerpts from Captain Edward Preble's journal as well as the log book kept by Nathaniel Haraden, Constitution's sailing master, detailing the attacks of August 3, 7, and 28, as well as the final action on September 3.

3 August 1804
Extract from journal kept on board the U. S. Frigate Constitution
by Captain Edward Preble, U. S. Navy, Saturday, 4 August 1804

Wind E b S. Standing off shore on the Starbord Tack the signal out to come within hail spoke the different Vessels and acquainted their Commanders that it was my Intention to attack the shipping & Batteries,--directed the Gun Boats & Bombs to be prepared for immediate service.--

At 12 1/2 pm Tack'd & stood for the Batteries. Back'd the Main Topsail, at 1/2 1 pm made the general signal to follow the motions of the Commodore. filled the Maintopsail & stood in towards the Batteries, at 1/4 past 2 made the signal for the Bombs & Gun Boats to advance & attack the ships & Batteries. 1/2 past 2 general signal for Battle. the whole squadron advanc'd within point Blank shot of the Enemies Batteries & shipping, our Gun Boats in two divisions the 1st consisting of 3 Boats Commanded by Capt Somers the 2d of three Boats by Capt Decatur, at 3/4 past 2 the Action commenced on our side by throwing a shell into the Town, and in an Instant the whole Squadron were engaged.--the Enemies Gun Boats were Anchord with springs on, in three divisions the Eastern or van division consisted of 9 Boats the center of 7 Boats, and the Western or Rear of 5 Boats. As the wind was from the Eastward our Boats were ordered to lead in to Windward and attack the Enemy. the Rear & center division of the Enemies Boats are close under their Batteries, & the Van division consisting of their largest Boats are within Grape distance of the Bashaws Castle & fort English at 3 observed our Gun Boats engaged in close action with the Enemies Boats, while a tremendous fire was kept up by this ship and the rest of the Squadron. Capt Decatur with No. 4 Lt Trippe of No 6 & Lt Bainbridge of No. 5 & Lt James Decatur of No. 2 attacked the enemys Boats within Pistol shot. No. 1 Capt Somers fell to Leward but fetched up with the Enemys Rear of 5 Boats which he gallantly attacked disabled & drove in altho within pistol shot of the Batteries. No. 3 Lt Blake did not go into close Action, had he gone down to the assistance of Capt Somers it is probable they would have captured the Rear Boats. Capt Decatur Boarded and after a stout and obstinate resistance took possession of two of the Enemies Gun Boats, Lt Trip Boarded and carried a third. Lt James Decatur in the Act of Boarding to take possession of a fourth Boat was shot through the Head & Mortally wounded the officer next in command (Mn Brown) hauld off. Lt Bainbridge had his Latten Yard shot away early in the Action which prevented him from taking a Boat but he Galled the Enemy by a steady fire within Musket shot, indeed he pursued the Enemy until his Boat touch'd the ground under the Batteries. the Bombs kept their stations which were well chosen, by Lt Dent & Lt Robinson, who commanded them, and threw a number of shells into the town altho the spray of the sea occasioned by the enemies shot almost covered them, three different times the Enemies Gun Boats rallied and attempted to surround ours. I as often made the signal to cover them, which was properly attended to by the Brigs & Schooners, and the fire from this ship not only had the desired effect on the enemies flotilla by keeping them in check and disabling them, but silenced one of their principal Batteries for some time, at 1/2 past 4 pm made the signal for the Bombs to retire from action out of Gun shot, and a few minutes after the general signal to Cease fireing and Tow out the Prizes & disabled Boats. sent our Barge and Jolly Boat to assist in that duty. Tack'd ship & fired two Broadsides in stays which drove the Tripolines out of the Castle & brought down the Steeple of a Mosque, by this time the wind began to freshen from N E at 4 3/4 PM hauld off to take the Bombs in tow, at 5 pm Brought to, two miles from their Batteries, Recd Lt James Decatur on board from Gun Boat No. 2, he was shot through the Head (in Boarding a Tripoline Boat which had struck to him) he expired in a few moments after he was brought into the ship.-- We lay to until 10 PM to receive the Prisoners on board captured in the Prizes, then made sail & stood off to the N E the wind Veering to the E S E.--we have all the surgeons of the squadron on board dressing the wounded.--

During the Action we fired 262 Rounds shot besides Grape double head & Canister from this ship and were several times within 3 cables lengths of the Rocks & Batteries where our soundings were from 10 to 16 faths the Officers Seamen & Marines of the Squadron behaved Gallantly throughout the Action. Capt Decatur in Gun Boat No 4 particularly distinguished himself as did Lt Trip of No 6. Our loss in Killed & Wounded has been considerable the damage we recd in this ship is a 24 pound shot nearly through the center of the Mainmast 20 feet from the deck, Main Top Gallant R Yard & sail shot away, one of the Fore shrouds and the sails & running rigging considerably cut one of the 24 pounders on the Quarter deck was struck by a 24 pound shot which damaged the Gun and carriage and shattered the Arm of a Marine to pieces, Gun Boat No. 2 had her latteen yard shot away, & the Rigging & sails of the Brigs and Schooners were considerably cut. We captured 3 Gun Boats two of which carried each a long Brass 24 pounder & two Brass Howitzers and 36 men with a plenty of muskets pistols pikes sabres &c, the other mounted a long Brass 18 pounder & two Howitzers & 24 men 44 Tripolines were killed on board of the 3 boats and 52 made prisoners, 26 of which were wounded, 17 of them very badly 3 of which died soon after they were brought on board, the Enemy must have suffered very much in Killed & wounded among their Shipping and on shore, one of their Boats was sunk in the harbour several of them had their decks nearly cleared of men by our shot, and several shells burst in the Town, which must have done great execution. --

We have lost in Killed & Wounded Viz

Killed Wounded
Lt James Decatur Capt Decatur slight
Lt Tripp[e] severely
10 Seamen & Marines wounded

Total 1 Officer Killed
2 Officers wounded
10 Seamen and Marines Wounded

Source: Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1942), 4: 338-40.


Extract from log book kept by Sailing Master Nathaniel Haraden, U.S. Navy,
on board U.S. Frigate Constitution, Saturday, 4 August 1804

Fresh breezes from E b N. We are standing off shore 2 or 3 Miles from Tripoly with a signal out, for the Squadron to come within hail -- We spoke them, & directed the Gun Boats & Bombards to be ready for immediate service --

We made a short board off till 12 1/2 Noon when we tacked in for the Batteries, and made signal for the Gun boats & Bombards to cast off -- Our Gun boats are in two divisions -- The first is commanded by Capt Somers of the Nautilus, Lt Decatur & Lt Blake; The 2d division by Capt Decatur of the Enterprize, Lt. Tripp[e] & Lt. Bainbridge The Bombards are commanded by Capt Dent of the Scourge & Lt. Robinson of the Constitution --

The Enemy's gun boats are the same in number as on Saturday last, and are stationed in three divisions as a line of defence -- The two Western divisions are close under the Batteries, and the 3d consisting of their largest boats carrying either long 24 or 32 pounders is to the Eastward, and under cover of Grape from the Batteries -- A few minutes after we tacked in towards the batteries we backed the main topsail to make some arrangements in the Squadron --

At 1 1/4 P.M. made the Nautilus signal to make more sail, & a few minutes after made signal for the Bombards to take their stations, and for the Gun boats to advance Capt Decatur and Lieuts J. Decatur. Tripp & Bainbridge led in for the Eastern division of the Enemy's Gun boats -- At 2 P.M. made signal to advance -- We were now within gun shot of all the Enemys batteries and stood in within a mile of them before a shot was exchanged -- At 2 3/4 Bombard No. 1 hove a shell -- The enemy's batteries and Gun boats immediately commenced firing which we returned with our Larboard Guns --

Capt Decatur boarded and after a stout resistance took possession of two of the enemy's Gun boats; Lieut Trip boarded & carried a third -- Lt. J. Decatur in the Act of boarding a third was mortally wounded and the Officer next in command hauled off--

Lt Bainbridges boat was partly disabled in proceeding to the Attack -- however she was in, and in close action Capt Somers was some way astern when the signal to advance was made -- He came up with every possible expedition, received the fire of four boats, and pursued them within musket shot of the Bashaws castle The Bombards kept their stations and continued to throw shells, altho nearly covered with the spray of the Enemys shot.--

Gun boat No. 3 was not in close action.

Three different times we made the general signal to cover the Boats --

At 4 P.M. the Enemy's boats attempted to surround Capt Somers -- The Vixen bore down to his support, and we immediately hove about & gave them our starboard Guns, on which they all retreated under the Batteries. At 4 1/2 P.M. made the Bombards signal to haul off, and a few minutes after, the general signal to cease firing, and tow out the prizes, and disabled boats.

Sent two boats from the Constitution to assist in Towing out the Prizes Tacked within half a Gun shot of the Bashaws Castle & round Battery, and gave them a full broadside in stays, which drove them out of the Castle & brought down a steeple in the direction of the Castle.

By this time the wind freshened and began to Veer to N E.

At 4 3/4 P.M. we hauled off & made signal to take the Bombards & gun boats in Tow. At 5 P.M. brought to, two miles from the Batteries --

Rec'd Lt. J. Decatur from Gun Boat No. 2 -- He was wounded in the head and Expired in a few minutes after being brought on board.

Capt. Decatur reports that ten on our side were wounded & Sixty of the Enemy killed in the three Gun boats which we have captured -- We received on board fifty two Prisoners, twenty of whom are wounded -- Four of the wounded prisoners died soon after they were brought on board -- All the Surgeons in the Squadron assisted in dressing the Wounded --

Although the Constitution was exposed to the fire of all the Enemys batteries & Gun boats for upwards of two hours, Nine shot only struck her -- The Commodore had a very narrow escape -- He was close to a gun disabled by one of the enemy's shot; -- The shot broke & severely wounded one man -- the Commodores cloathes were cut in several places by pieces of the shot --

We had one of the fore shrouds, and the main Royal Yard cut away. Our main mast is wounded about 28 feet above deck with a 24 ball which came from the Bashaws Castle -- It is wooded about 15 Inches.--

During the action we were several times within three cables length of the reefs and the Western rocks. Our soundings were from 21 to 16 fathoms, hard bottom -- There were upwards of 200 shot that fell within 10 fathoms of the ship, and a number which hove the spray upon our deck.

Source: Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1942), 4: 338-40.


Extract from journal kept on board the U.S. Frigate Constitution, by Captain Edward Preble, U.S. Navy, Wednesday, 8 August 1804

At Anchor 6 miles N N E from Tripoly becalmed, the Gun boats & Bombs advancing with all their sweeps, at 1/2 past 1 a light Breeze from the N N E, We Immediately weighd & stood in for the Town, but the wind being on shore could not with prudence attack or allow any of the squadron to attack the Battries, as in case of a mast being shot away the loss of a vessel would probably ensue. at 1/2 past 2 PM Made the signal for the Gun Boats and Bombs to attack the Batteries & Town from the West, when they immediately opened a tremendous fire within half cannon shot of the Town & less than that distance of a Battery of 7 heavy 24 pounders this Battery in less than two hours was silenc'd excepting one Gun I presume the others were dismounted as the Walls were almost totally destroyed, the Bombs were well and effectually employed by Lt. Comdt. Dent & Lt. Robinson of the Constitution, Lt. Robinson from a dangerous position he took, threw 28 shells into the Town, but the well directed fire of heavy artillery from the Enemy obliged him to shift his station not however until the cloths of evry man in the Boat was wet through with the spray of sea which the Enemies shot threw over them, Lt. Dent threw 20 shells from a position not so favorable as Lt. Robinsons but which a strong Westerly current in shore would not allow him to change, At 1/4 past 3 PM a Frigate in sight in the Offing standing for the town, made the Argus's Signal to speak, ordered her chase the strange sail at 1/4 past 3 PM the magazine of one our Gun boats No. 9 Blew up & she immediately sunk -- She had on board thirty Officers seamen & Marines 10 of which were killed & six badly wounded, among the Killed were Lt. R. Caldwell 1st of the Syren Mr. Dorsey Midshipman and two good Officers. -- Mr. Spence Midshipmen & 13 Men were picked up unhurt --

The Enemies Gun Boats and Galleys 17 in number are all in motion under their Batteries, and appear to meditate an attack on our Bombs & Gun Boats, ordered the Argus Nautilus Vixen & Enterprize to Windward in reserve to cut them off from the harbour if they should attack, & the Syren & Vixen to leeward to support and cover any of our Boats that might be disabled, kept to windward with the Constitution -- ready to bear down & support the Whole, at 1/2 past 5 PM the Wind began to blow fresh from the N N E Made the signal for Bombs and Gun Boats to retire out of Gun shot of the Enemy and be taken in tow by their respective Vessels. at 6 PM Argus made the signal that the strange sail was a friend. in the Action of this day No. 6 Commanded by Lt. Wadsworth had her Latten Yard shot away. No. 4 Capt decatur a shot in the Hull, No. 8 lost 2 Men killed by a cannon shot, some of the other boats received trifling damage. the Gun Boats fired about 50 Rounds each. the Enemy must have lost many men & the buildings in the city must have received considerable damage from our shot and shells. All the officers & men engaged in Action behaved gallantly, at 3/4 past 6 all the Boats were in tow & the squadron in 35 fathoms Water hard bottom.

Source: Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1942), 4: 376-77.

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25 October 1999