Capture of the Frigate USS Philadelphia,
31 October 1803: Selected Naval Documents

In October 1803 the U.S. Frigate Philadelphia (Captain William Bainbridge) and Schooner Vixen arrived off Tripoli, with which the United States had been at war, though without much energy, for nearly two and a half years. Under orders from the new US Mediterranean commander, Commodore Edward Preble, they were to closely blockade the North African port in an effort to bring the hostilities to a satisfactory conclusion. Captain Bainbridge soon sent Vixen off to look for some enemy cruisers, while keeping his frigate nearer Tripoli to maintain the blockade. On 31 October Philadelphia sighted an enemy vessel running just off shore and pursued. Realizing that the water was becoming shallow, Bainbridge turned seaward and ran aground on an uncharted reef.

The Tripolitans quickly sent a large force of gunboats to attack the stranded Philadelphia, which was listing so severely that her broadside guns could not fire on the enemy. Though the frigate's crew worked for hours to lighten their ship, throwing overboard guns, equipment and supplies, and ultimately cutting away her foremast, she remained stuck fast. Essentially defenseless, and with Tripolitan reinforcements approaching, Bainbridge surrendered his ship and crew.

Philadelphia was pulled off by her captors and taken to Tripoli harbor, where she represented not just a humiliating defeat, but also a potentially serious threat to American warships and commercial shipping in the Mediterranean sea. Preble resolved to destroy her, a project heroically and successfully carried out in mid-February 1804. However, Philadelphia's officers and men remained captives until the war ended in June 1805.


[31 October 1803]

To Secretary of the Navy from Captain William Bainbridge, U. S. Navy

(Copy.) Tripoli 1st Novemr 1803

SIR, Misfortune necessitates me to make a communication, the most distressing of my life, & it is with the deepest regret that I inform you of the loss of the United States Frigate Philadelphia under my command by being wrecked on Rocks between 4 & 5 Miles to the Eastward of the Town of Tripoli; The circumstances relating to this unfortunate event are: At 9 A M about 5 Leagues to the Eastward of Tripoli, saw a Ship in shore of us, standing before the Wind to the Westward, we immediately gave chase, she hoisted Tripolitan Coulors & continued her course verry near the shore; about 11 Oclock had approached the shore to 7 fathoms Water, commenced firing at her, which we continued by running before the Wind untill half past Eleven, being then in 7 fathoms water and finding our fire ineffectual to prevent her getting into Tripoli gave up the pursuit & was beating, off the land when we ran on the Rocks in 12 feet water forward & 17 feet aft. Immediately lowered down a Boat from the Stern, sounded & found the greatest depth of water a stern, laid all sails aback, loosed top Gallt Sails and set a heavy press of Canvass on the Ship, blowing fresh to get her off, cast Three Anchors away from the Bows, started the Water in the hold, hove overboard the Guns except some abaft, to defend the ship against the Gun Boats, which were then firing on us, found all this ineffectual, then made the last resort of lightning her forward by Cutting away the Fore Mast, which carried the Main Top Gall' mast with it, but labour & enterprize was in Vain; for our fate was direfully fixed. I am fully sensible of the loss that has occurrd to our Country & the difficulty which it may further involve her in with this regency, and feel beyond description for the Brave unfortunate Officers & Men under my command, who done every thing in their power worthy of the character & stations they filled, & I trust on investigation of my own conduct that I will appear to my Government and my Country, consistant to the station in which I had the honour of being placed.

Striking on the Rocks was an accident not possible for me to guard against, by any intimation of Charts, as no such shoals was laid down in any on Board, and every careful precaution (by three leads kept heaving) was made use of in approaching the shore, to effect the capture of a Tripolitan Cruizer, & after the Ship struck the Rocks, all possible measures were taken to get her off, and the firmest determination made not to give her up as long as a possible hope remained; although annoyed by the Gun Boats, which took their possition in such a manner as we could not bring our Guns to bear on them not after cutting away part of the Stern to effect it, when my Officers & self had not a hope left, of its being possible to get her off the Rocks; & having withstood the fire of the Gun Boats for four hours & a reinforcement coming out from Tripoli, without the least chance of injureing them in resistance, to save the lives of Brave men, left no alternative but the distressing one of hauling our coulors down & submitting to the enemy whom chance had befriended - In such a Dilemma the Flag of the United States was struck however painfull it will be to our fellow Citizens to hear the news, they may be assured that we feel in a National loss equally with them, Zeal of serving our Country in doing our duty, has placed us in that situation, which can better be conceived than described & from which we rely on our Countrys Extricating us. The Gun Boats in attacking fired principally at our Masts, had they directed their shot at the Hull, no doubt but they would have killed many.

The Ship was taken possession of a little after sun set & in the evening myself and all Officers with part of the Crew were brought on shore carried before the Bashaw who asked several questions from the Palace the Officers were conducted to the House which M* Cathcart lived in, where we lodged last night & this day the Minister has become guarantee to the Bashaw for us Officers and we have given our parole of honour - Enclosed you will receive a list of the Officers and a few of the People to attend on them, who are quartered in the American Consular House and we are to be provided for by such ways & means as I can best adopt, which will be on as equinonomical a plan as possible, the remainder of the Crew will be supported by this Regency.

We have all lost every thing but what we had on our Backs & even part of that was taken off, the loss of the Officers is considerable as they were well provided for a long station - Mr Nisson the danish Consul has been extremely attentive, & kindly offers every service of assistance -

I trust Sir, you will readily conceive the anxiety of mind I must suffer, after the enclosed Certificate from the Officers on my conduct, should you be pleased to express the Opinion of Government, you will much oblidge me

P.S. Notwithstanding our Parole we are not at liberty of leaving the house, or going on the Top of it, they have prevented our View of the Sea which they allowed at first. -


Stranding and capture of USS Philadelphia, 31 October 1803, sketch by William Bainbridge Hoff. It depicts Philadelphia under attack by gunboats off Tripoli, after she ran aground on uncharted rocks while chasing a small enemy vessel. Naval History and Heritage Command photograph #: NH 56734

[31 October 1803]

To Captain Edward Preble, U.S. Navy, from Captain William Bainbridge, U.S. Navy

TRIPOLI BARBARIE 6th Nov. 1803

SIR, I wrote you on the 1st inst. informing of the distressing event in the loss of the United States Frigate Philadelphia on the Rocks off Tripoli; since then, owing to the assistance of their Gun boats, and a strong Westerly wind that came on about 40 hours after we struck, which raised the Sea so as to enable them to get her off; this still adds to our calamity, but feel conscious that it was morally impossible, situation as we were, to effect it: however distressing it is to us, we feel some consolation in knowing that it is not the first instance where ships have been from necessity (of running aground) oblidged to surrender, and afterwards got off by the enemy, which could not have been effected by the ships company; - witness the Hanibal at Algesiras, the Jason off St Maloes, and several others.

We are confined to the American Consular House, notwithstanding our having given our parole of honor.

When a vessel of the United States appears off here, if she hoists a white Flag at the Fore & fires a Gun, and should the Bashaw hoist a white Flag & fire a Gun in answer, I presume a Boat with an Officer would be safe to come on Shore; - this I am told is their method.

Negotiating Bills here; for money will be attended with a great loss

Present my best respects to Colo Lear, who must excuse my not writing him at present.

Every wish attend you for glory & success, but I am doubtful of the Field

Wm BAINBRIDGE


[31 October 1803]

To Captain Edward Preble, U.S. Navy, from Captain William Bainbridge, U.S. Navy

Tripoli Barbary 12th Novr 1803

SIR I had the Honor of writing to you on the 1st & 6th Inst from this place giving an account of the loss of the United States Frigate Philadelphia late under my command: I now transmit you the Particulars of that unhappy event; The following bearings were taken from the Place where the Ship grounded - The Westermost of the small rocks which form the Harbor WbS 1/2 S; The Steeple of a Mosque near the Danish Consuls flag staff S W b W; Fort English to the East of the Town S W: bearings taken by point of compass - When the ship grounded her head was N E - After giving up the chase in pursuit of the cruizer, striking on the rocks was as unexpected to me as if it had happened in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea: Immediately laid all sails aback, ran all the guns aft; Sounded and found a sufficient depth of water astern, and a small distance from Each Side: a consultation of the officers was called when it was unanimously agreed to heave the guns overboard and start the water; this was done as expeditiously as possible and a fire kept up at the Gun boats from our stern and Weather Quarter Guns: In firing the lower stern chasers the stern caught fire which was put out without much confusion: the gun boats carrying brass 18 and 24 Pounders were keeping up a fire at us but directed their shot at our masts. Finding that the Guns & water did not lighten her sufficient the Officers were of opinion that the foremast should be cut away which was done but without the desired effect. A reinforcement of five more Gun boat coming upon our lee Quarter where it was impossible for us to fire a gun except down in the water; and the Weather Guns could not be depessed sufficient to heave within the distance of the boats; At 4 P. M. every hope was fled of our being able to get her off, and not the least power whatever of injuring our enemies, and saw no alternative but our eventually becoming prisoners of Tripoli; A Council of Officers was called when they were unanimously of opinion that it was impossible to get her off the rocks; And that continuing in our present situation would be only a sacrificing lives without effecting our enemy or rendering the least service to Our Country; In such a dilemma too painful to relate, the Flag of the United States was struck I trust that a want of Courage can never be imputed where there is no chance of resistance - distressing indeed to brave minds to be obliged to surrender without having had an opportunity of defence - Some Fanatics may say that blowing the ship up would have been the proper result. I thought such conduct would not stand acquitted before God or Man, and I never presumed to think I had the liberty of putting to death the lives of 306 Souls because they were placed under my command, And those persons who argue thus to have been in our situation would no doubt have had very different Ideas. I have zealously served my Country and strenuously endeavored to guard against accidents, but in spite of every effort misfortune has attended me through my Naval life. - Gaudaloupe and Algiers have witnessed part of them, but Tripoli strikes the death blow to my future Prospects, Al[t]hough I am conscious that my conduct will bear the nicest investigation, but I am no stranger to the censure of an ungenerous world & the regrets & mortifications which are incident to a change of public opinion which does not always follow meritorious exertions And an accident although occasioned by circumstances which no prudence could foresee or valor countroul may weigh against years of Arduous Services Yet I have consolation in believing that my friends are too sincere to let adversity of fortune change their opinion


[31 October 1803]

Extract from Diary of Captain Edward Preble, U.S. Navy

THURSDAY, Nov. 24th. [1803]

At 9 A. M. spoke His B. M. ship Amazon on a cruize the Capn of which gave me the melancholy and distressing Intelligence of the loss of the U.S. Ship Philadelphia. He said she ran on shore near Tripoly in chase of an Algerine schooner, that the Officers and Crew were made prisoners and the ship got off by the Tripolines and Towed into Tripoly. The loss of that ship and capture of the Crew with all its consequences are of the most serious and alarming nature to the United States; and if it should not involve us in a war with Tunis and Algiers in consequence of the weakness of our squadron, yet still it will protract the war with Tripoly.

Map of Tripoli and harbor with USS Philadelphia's location. The location is indicated by the ship symbol at the right side of the harbor inside red square.

Source: Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Vol. 3, Naval Operations Including Diplomatic Background From September 1803 Through March 1804, (Washington, DC: Office of Naval Records and Library, 1941), 171-175.


For further information:
Harris, Thomas. The Life and Services of Commodore William Bainbridge, United States Navy. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837.

Ray, William. Horrors of Slavery, or, The American Tars in Tripoli Containing an Account of the Loss and Capture of the United States Frigate Philadelphia ... : Written During Upwards of Nineteen Months' Imprisonment and Vassalage Among the Turks. Troy, NY: Printed by O. Lyon for the Author, 1808.

United States. Navy Department. Letter from the Secretary ... Communicating the Nature and Extent of the Services Rendered to the Captive Crew of the Late Frigate Philadelphia by the Danish Consul at Tripoli ...: March 5, 1806 Read. Washington: Way, 1806.

United States. President (1801-1809 : Jefferson). Communicating to Congress, a Letter Receivd from Capt. Bainbridge, Commander of the Philadelphia Frigate: Giving Information of the Wreck of That Vessel, on the Coast of Tripoli, and That Himself, His Officers, and Men Had Fallen into the Hands of the Tripolitans. Washington, D.C.: n.p., 1804.

Related Resource: Images of the battle in Tripoli Harbor.