Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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Philadelphia II (Frigate)

(Frigate: 1,240 tons; length 130’; beam 39’; depth of hold 13’6”; complement 307; armament 28 18-pounder guns)

The city in Pennsylvania where the Continental Congress met during much of the American Revolution.


The second Philadelphia, a frigate originally named City of Philadelphia, was built at Philadelphia, Pa., for the United States Government by the citizens of the city in 1798–-1799. She was designed by Josiah Fox and built by Samuel Humphreys, Nathaniel Hutton, and John Delavue. Her carved work was done by William Rush of Philadelphia. Philadelphia was laid down about 14 November 1798; launched 28 November 1799; and commissioned 5 April 1800, Capt. Stephen Decatur, Sr., in command.

Putting to sea for duty in the West Indies, the frigate arrived on the Guadaloupe Station in May 1800 and relieved frigate Constellation. During this cruise she captured five French armed vessels and recaptured six merchant ships which had fallen into French hands.

Returning home in March 1801, Philadelphia was ordered to prepare for a year's cruise in the Mediterranean as part of a squadron commanded by Commodore Richard Hale. At his own request, Decatur was relieved of the command of Philadelphia by Capt. Samuel Barron. The squadron, with Commodore Hale in frigate President, arrived Gibraltar 1 July. Philadelphia was directed to cruise the Straits and blockade the coast of Tripoli, the Bashaw having seized American merchantmen for ransom and threatened to make war on the United States.

Philadelphia departed Gibraltar enroute the United States 11 May 1802, arriving in mid-July. In ordinary until 21 May 1803, when she recommissioned, she again sailed for the Mediterranean 28 July. She arrived Gibraltar 24 August, Capt. William Bainbridge in command, and two days later recaptured the American brig Celia from the Moroccan ship-of-war Mirboka, 24 guns and 100 men, and brought them both into Gibraltar. Following a month of negotiations with the Sultan of Morocco at Tangiers in September, the frigate then sailed for Tripoli in company with schooner Vixen in early October, the two ships intending to establish a close blockade of that port.

The frigate cruised off Tripoli until 31 October, when she ran aground on an uncharted reef off Tripoli harbor. All efforts to refloat her failed and, under fire from shore batteries and from four Tripolitan gunboats on her lee quarter (a position where the frigate could not return fire), Capt. Bainbridge spiked his guns and surrendered Philadelphia to the enemy, her officers and men made captive. With the help of a favorable tide the Tripolitans floated the warship and towed her into Tripoli harbor, where she could be plundered at their convenience.

Three months later, Capt. Edward Preble (then in Constitution at Syracuse, Sicily planning a campaign against Tripoli come Spring) organized a port raid against the poorly defended frigate in Tripoli harbor. A captured Tripolitan ketch, commissioned as Intrepid and commanded by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, sailed in company with brig Syren in early February. Disguised as a Maltese merchant ship, and flying British colors, Intrepid entered Tripoli harbor on the afternoon of 16 February 1804. On the pretense of having lost her anchors in the recent storm, the ketch asked permission to moor alongside Philadelphia until morning. Lines went across, and the ketch drew near the frigate.

An alert Tripolitan guard shouted out a warning that the strangers were Americans, but only moments later the ships touched and Decatur and sixty of his volunteer crew swarmed on board Philadelphia, charging with swords and boarding pikes. The sudden attack overwhelmed the Tripolitan’s, about twenty were killed in the melee and the rest leapt overboard, got away in a boat or fled below decks. Within fifteen minutes the frigate was fired and flames literally chased the attackers out of the ship, violent winds sweeping the fire out of hatchways, gun ports and scupper holes. Intrepid pulled furiously away, just escaping the rising flames that engulfed the rigging and tops of the burning frigate. As Midshipman Ralph Izard Jr. later wrote, “It is a miracle that our little vessel escaped the flames, lying within two feet of them & to leeward also!” Philadelphia drfted as she burned, coming ashore under the walls of the Pasha’s castle.

“The Bashaw,” wrote the Danish consul, “saw the whole business with his own Eyes, – the fire ship was beyond reach before they could give orders – the Fregate was totally burnt.” Preble commended Decatur and his men to the Secretary of the Navy, saying their “…conduct in the performance of the dangerous service assigned them, cannot be sufficiently estimated – It is beyond all praise…”

Updated, Dr. Timothy L. Francis, 02 Novenber 2007

Published: Thu Aug 20 09:02:51 EDT 2015