William Bainbridge, born on 7 May 1774 at Princeton, N.J., went to sea in a Philadelphia merchantman at the age of 15. He developed rapidly as a seaman and leader and attained command of the ship Hope by the end of 1793. During ensuing years, he took her on trading voyages to European ports, calling often at Bordeaux, as well as to the islands of the West Indies.
After trouble with Republican France and with the Barbary pirates prompted the United States to revive its Navy, Bainbridge was commissioned a lieutenant and given command of Retaliation. While that 14-gun schooner was protecting American merchantmen in the Caribbean on 20 November 1798, Retaliation encountered the French frigates L'Insurgente and Volontaire and their superior firepower forced him to surrender. As a prisoner on board Volontaire, Bainbridge tricked the senior French officer into recalling L'Insurgente which had been pursuing Montezuma and Norfolk and thus permitted these small American warships to escape. During his imprisonment at Guadaloupe, Bainbridge did everything in his power to protect and to further the interests of his countrymen who were also held captive, and he was later permitted to return to home in Retaliation as a cartel ship carrying other Americans who had been held captive on the island.
Promoted to master commandant and given command of Norfolk, one of the warships he had saved from capture, Bainbridge joined Commodore Thomas Tingey's squadron in waters surrounding the Leeward Islands on 24 May 1799. On 5 June, his brig engaged a 14-gun French privateer and was about to force the enemy ship to surrender when the wind of a sudden storm carried away Norfolk's two top masts, allowing her opponent to escape.
Following repairs at St. Kitts, Norfolk cruised with Ganges and assisted that flagship in capturing the French privateer Vainqueur. At the end of July, Norfolk and Retaliation, recently recaptured and once more flying American colors, left St. Kitts escorting a large group of merchant ships. When the convoy encountered a large French frigate, Bainbridge ordered his charges to scatter and then lured the enemy warship away from the merchantmen, beginning a long chase in which the American brig finally escaped. The American convoy later reassembled and proceeded on to New York where it arrived on 12 August without having lost a single ship.
In September, Bainbridge got underway in Norfolk for Hispaniola to combat both picaroons and French privateers. In one instance, the brig acted as a forerunner of a World War I "Q" ship. On 30 October, off Gonaive Island, she pretended to be a defenseless merchant ship, keeping her gunports closed to lure pirates. A barge manned by about 50 men approached her; but, after coming within cannon range, became suspicious and shied off under "...a broadside of round and canister which sprinkled all around them." Unfortunately, the wind failed as the Americans were beginning the pursuit and allowed the picaroons to row frantically away.
A short while later, Norfolk joined the frigate Boston; and, on 7 November, they captured a French armed sloop. Norfolk then sailed to Cuba for patrol duty in the vicinity of Havana. On 20 February 1800, she chased the French schooner Beauty into shallow water where the American brig could not follow. Bainbridge then used Norfolk's guns so effectively that he battered the enemy privateer, which had been a great plague to American commerce, to pieces. Thereafter, while Norfolk neither captured nor sank any enemy ships, she kept the coast of Cuba free of enemy warships until sailing for home escorting 23 merchantmen.
The convoy reached Philadelphia on 12 April 1800; and, a bit more than a month later, the 25-year-old Bainbridge received his commission as a captain. The Treaty of Mortfontaine soon ended hostilities with France obviating another voyage to the West Indies for the successful young officer, but a task far less to his liking awaited.
The Barbary Powers, city states along the coast of North Africa, had long claimed hegemony in the Mediterranean Sea and were demanding tribute from all nations whose ships traded in its waters. Placed in command of George Washington, a merchantman converted to a 32-gun warship, Bainbridge was charged with carrying the American payment for the year 1800 to the Dey of Algiers. After delivering the tribute, a cargo of stores and timber, to Algiers and while preparing to sail for home, Bainbridge was surprised to receive instructions from the Dey to carry a special mission to the Sultan in Constantinople. Although he did so under protest, Bainbridge took the opportunity to make friends there and received a letter of protection from the Capudan Pasha which enabled him to free several enslaved Americans and to sail for home with them unmolested. Upon returning to the United States, Bainbridge took command of the frigate Essex and sailed back to the Mediterranean with Commodore Richard Dale's squadron. He arrived at Gibraltar on 1 July 1801 and cruised the "middle sea" protecting American trade until the summer of 1802 when he returned home.
Following leave and shore duty, Bainbridge assumed command of the frigate Philadelphia and set out for the Mediterranean to join Commodore Preble's squadron in operations against Tripoli. Soon after reaching Gibraltar on 24 August 1803, the frigate began to hunt two corsairs reportedly preying upon American shipping near Cape de Gata, Spain. Two days later, Bainbridge captured the Moroccan ship Mirboka, operating under a commission of Tangier, and freed the privateer's prize, the American merchant brig Celia.
Philadelphia, accompanied by schooner Vixen, next escorted American merchantmen along the southeastern coast of Spain and then visited Malta en route to Tripoli where they established a blockade. Soon after, Bainbridge sent Vixen to sea to hunt for two Tripolitan warships which had been reported to be preying on merchantmen in the Mediterranean. While the schooner was away, Philadelphia ran aground off Tripoli harbor on 31 October while chasing a corsair vessel. Efforts to refloat the frigate failed and, to make matters worse, Philadelphia's guns could not bear on the attacking Tripolitan gunboats, who began firing on the frigate with impunity. Able neither to defend his ship nor to escape, Bainbridge surrendered.
Freed some 19 months later, Bainbridge came home late in 1805 and received assignment to the New York Navy Yard. Financial embarrassment as a result of his extended captivity, however, forced him to request release from active duty in order to enter merchant service. He continued so engaged until the spring of 1808 when he received orders to command frigate President. Not only did he take command of that 44-gun frigate but also, in her, broke the broad pennant of a commodore for the first time, taking command of the station comprising the waters along the southern Atlantic coast. That duty lasted until 1810 at which time Bainbridge took up merchant service once again.
Yet, by 1811, it seemed unlikely that circumstances would permit him his commercial ventures for long. For years, the Wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had resulted in friction between the United States and the warring powers. Since the Royal Navy generally controlled the oceans, Great Britain abraded American sensibilities much more than did France; and war with the old mother country became increasingly more probable with each succeeding provocation. When Bainbridge heard of the incident between his former command, President, and HMS Little Belt just 50 miles off Cape Henry, Va., he made haste to get home and offer his services in Washington.
He performed his first important deed for the country in the War of 1812 when he joined Commodore Charles Stewart at the outset in opposing the Madison administration's overly cautious and purely defensive naval policy and to convince influential members of Congress to champion an aggressive approach to the sea war. This campaign not only succeeded in altering the policy but also quickly brought enduring fame to the Navy in the form of some of its most spectacular single-ship victories.
Moreover, Bainbridge later contributed one of those brilliant victories himself. After serving ashore initially at the Charlestown (Boston) Navy Yard in 1812, he relieved Isaac Hull as captain of Constitution when Hull asked for and received a leave of absence after his own great triumph over HMS Guerrière. Sailing in command of a small squadron made up of Constitution, Essex and Hornet, Bainbridge took his unit south to hunt British shipping and to protect American shipping in the waters off Brazil. On 29 December 1812, he encountered the 38-gun British frigate, HMS Java, near Bahia, Brazil.
Bainbridge cleared his ship for action and attacked straightaway. There followed a lively action of maneuver and cannonade, each frigate striving to cross the other's "T" without being overtaken by that fate herself. Bainbridge suffered two wounds during the fight. Early on a sniper's ball struck him in the hip; and, later, he sustained grievous splinter wounds when a cannonball shattered Constitution's wheel. Nevertheless, Bainbridge retained command and fought his ship superbly. Steering by means of tackles below decks, he succeeded in raking Java time and again until his battered adversary could do nothing but strike her colors. So badly damaged was the British ship that Bainbridge took off her surviving crewmen and burned her.
In February 1813, he returned to Boston where he spent the rest of the war supervising the construction of the 74-gun ship-of-the-line Independence. When that ship-of-the-line finally put to sea from Boston on 3 July 1815, she wore the pennant of Commodore Bainbridge and led a squadron headed for the Mediterranean to chastise the Algerine pirates. By the time that Bainbridge's squadron arrived, however, Commodore Stephen Decatur had already accomplished the mission for which both his and Bainbridge's squadrons had been dispatched. Though his squadron had arrived too late to help impress upon the Barbary pirates the virtues of restraint, Bainbridge took over as commander of the American naval forces in the Mediterranean when he arrived and Decatur, his junior, went home. In that role, he performed a service just as important as, if less glamorous than, Decatur's by keeping the pressure on the Barbary states to adhere to their newly learned behavior.
Bainbridge himself returned to the United States late in 1815, sailing Independence into Boston in November. There, he remained, still flying his commodore's flag in Independence, for a little over four years. In April 1820, he put to sea in the ship-of-the-line Columbus and embarked on his last duty afloat. Once again, he cruised the waters of the Mediterranean Sea in command of the squadron that maintained respect for the commerce that travelled under the American flag. Bainbridge came back to the United States in 1821 and, after failing to supplant Isaac Hull at the Charlestown (Boston) Navy Yard, served as the president of the Board of Naval Commissioners in Washington during the mid-1820s. After that assignment, Bainbridge became commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, a post he held until 1831 and again briefly in 1833. Commodore Bainbridge died of pneumonia at Philadelphia on 27 July 1833 and was buried there at Christ Church.
The first Bainbridge was laid down early in 1842 by the Boston Navy Yard; launched on 26 April 1842; and commissioned on 16 December 1842, Comdr. Zachariah F. Johnston in command.
The brig departed Boston on 26 January 1843 and joined the Home Squadron. Following service along the Atlantic coast and in the West Indies, she arrived at New York on 3 May 1844. Putting to sea again on 26 June under Comdr. W. D. Newman, she sailed south for service in the Brazil Squadron. However, on 8 October of that year, Comdr. Newman died on board and was succeeded in command by Lt. Gabriel G. Williamson. Bainbridge operated along the Atlantic coast of South America before returning home in the autumn of 1847. After reaching Norfolk, Va., on 10 October of that year, she was laid up for repairs.
Reactivated on 13 March 1848, the ship, commanded by Lt. Albert G. Slaughter, departed Hampton Roads, Va., on 10 April and headed eastward across the Atlantic. After reaching the African coast, she patrolled the waters off that continent alert for any ships that might attempt to slip to sea with a cargo of slaves. Turning homeward later in the spring of 1850, she arrived at New York on 2 July and was decommissioned there on the 18th of that month.
Recommissioned on 8 October 1851, Comdr. John Manning in command, the brig sailed for Brazil on 2 November, but soon after reaching South America turned eastward and returned to the coast of Africa for another cruise devoted to combating the slave trade. Following almost two years of this arduous duty, she arrived back in New York on 15 August 1853 and was decommissioned there on the 30th for yard work.
Recommissioned on 19 October 1853, Lt. Charles G. Hunter in command, Bainbridge sailed for South America to join the Brazil Squadron then under Commodore William D. Slater. During the cruise, relations between the United States and Paraguay deteriorated to the point where Hunter felt that the interests and honor of the United States demanded that an American warship proceed to Asunción to correct the situation. Acting on this sentiment, he asked the Commodore for permission to undertake this mission himself in Bainbridge. Slater, possibly wary of "Alvarado" Hunter's judgment because of a reputation for impetuosity acquired by exceeding his orders during the Mexican War, refused.
Smarting from this rebuff, and probably suffering from mental illness, Hunter sailed for home in Bainbridge without permission. Arriving at New York on January 1855, Bainbridge was soon placed under the command of Lt. James H. Rowan and returned to South American waters where she resumed duty on the Brazil Station. She returned home late in the summer of 1856 and was decommissioned at Norfolk on 18 September of that year and laid up for repairs.
Recommissioned on 28 April 1858, the ship returned to the Brazil Squadron and participated in the 19-ship expedition commanded by Commodore William B. Shubrick to support diplomatic efforts seeking redress from Paraguay for firing on the Navy ship Water Witch during that ship's exploration of the Parana River and its tributaries. Bainbridge returned home in the autumn of 1860 and was decommissioned at Boston on 15 November.
In ordinary there in the spring of 1861 when the Civil War broke out, the brig was recommissioned on 15 May 1861 and sailed south on the 21st to Aspinwall, New Granada (Panama), to protect Union shipping, especially those carrying gold from California to New York, against vessels sailing under Confederate letters of marque. Following this duty, she served in the Gulf Blockading Squadron and, on 11 May 1862, captured the turpentine- and cotton-laden Confederate schooner Newcastle at sea in the gulf. On the 24th, she and Amanda took the steamer Swan west of the Tortugas with a cargo of cotton and rosin. On 11 June, Bainbridge seized Baigarry and that schooner's cargo of cotton in the Gulf of Mexico.
Early that summer, the brig sailed north for repairs, but on 3 August 1862, she sailed south again to join the East Gulf Blockading Squadron. In September, she headed back toward the Isthmus of Panama. Between 22 and 24 November, Bainbridge encountered a severe storm near Aspinwall that forced her to jettison all spars, sails, gun carriages, guns, shot, powder, provisions, and water. Following extensive repairs she sailed for New York where she arrived in May 1863.
Later that summer, she was assigned to Rear Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont's South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. On 21 August, while proceeding to her new station, she capsized during a severe storm off Cape Hatteras. All but one member of her crew perished.
James L. Mooney & Raymond A. Mann
13 December 2005