Rising young U.S. Navy officer Stephen Decatur earned famous praise for âthe most bold and daring act of the ageââor did he?
Late in the evening on 16 February 1804, the ketchÂ IntrepidÂ , commanded by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, entered Tripoli Harbor. Almost becalmed in the dying breeze, theÂ Intrepid drifted with agonizing slowness toward the captured American frigateÂ PhiladelphiaÂ , lying under the massed guns of the bashawâs castle and harbor fortifications. As theÂ IntrepidÂ approached, a Barbary lookout on theÂ PhiladelphiaÂ spotted the Americans and cried out the alarm. TheÂ IntrepidÂ tied onto the frigate. Decatur and 60 men boarded theÂ PhiladelphiaÂ , scattered or killed her harbor watch, and burned the ship. They then made good their escape in the Intrepid, with only one sailor slightly wounded.
The raid into Tripoli Harbor helped establish the reputation of the U.S. Navy, small as it then was, and is an iconic part of the serviceâs history. Almost equally known in American naval lore is that Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, upon learning of the raid, called it âthe most bold and daring act of the age.â Itâs no wonder such a statement has assumed a hallowed aura. Nelson was a brilliant and daring naval officer, perhaps the greatest admiral in the long maritime history of England, and if he said the raid was without equal, his audience (posterity) can accept it as truth. Equally important, there is the sense of a laying-on of hands by Nelson, who died 18 months later in the moment of his greatest triumph at Trafalgar, âblessingâ a seminal event led by one of the dynamic officers in the rising navy from across the Atlantic. Itâs a dramatic story, loaded with symbolism.
But did Nelson actually call the burning of theÂ PhiladelphiaÂ âthe most bold and daring act of the ageâ?
No contemporary or near-contemporary biography of Decatur, and no early account of the Barbary Wars, contains the Nelson quote. In what may have been the first attempt to provide the public with an account of Decaturâs life, Washington Irvingâs 1813 article in the widely readÂ Analectic MagazineÂ , Nelsonâs comment is absent. An 1819 collective biography of early American military and naval officers, written when Decatur was alive, makes no reference to the Nelson quote. The first full-scale biography of Decatur, published in 1821 (just after his death), contains no hint of it, nor does the first great history of the U.S. Navy, James Fenimore Cooperâs, the first edition of which appeared in 1839.Â 1
The first recounting of the âmost bold and daring act of the ageâ quote was in 1846, by Alexander Slidell Mackenzie in his biographyÂ Life of Stephen DecaturÂ .Â 2Â Mackenzie (1803â48) entered the Navy as a midshipman in January 1815. He actually glimpsed Decatur once. As a 12-year-old midshipman on board the brigÂ ChippewaÂ , Mackenzie watched as Decatur sailed into Gibraltar Bay in the frigateÂ GuerriereÂ in October 1815, having led the naval war against Algiers. The commodore appeared at the gangway of his ship, descended into his gig, and was rowed to theÂ IndependenceÂ , the squadron flagship. Thirty years later Mackenzie wrote of himself, âThe writer well remembers the impression made on his mind by this spectacle.â Mackenzie watched Decatur âwith an intense and overpowering interest, and with a thrill of patriotic pride in his boyish heart, still freshly remembered, and almost felt.âÂ 3
Over his naval career, Mackenzie wrote a number of well-regarded books, including travel narratives and biographies of John Paul Jones and Oliver Hazard Perry. Mackenzie is now remembered for theÂ SomersÂ affair, in which he ordered the hanging of Secretary of War John Canfield Spencerâs son, Philip Spencer, who was then serving as a midshipman on Mackenzieâs ship. The incident supposedly inspired Herman MelvilleâsÂ Billy BuddÂ . A court of inquiry and a court-martial exonerated Mackenzie, although public opinion condemned him. His naval career continued, and he had command positions in the Mexican War.Â 4
In any event, in his Decatur biography Mackenzie provided a full account of the dramatic approach of theÂ IntrepidÂ , the boarding of theÂ PhiladelphiaÂ , her burning, and the escape of Decaturâs band. The biographer referred to the admiration of Commodore Edward Preble and the entire U.S. Mediterranean Squadron for the feat. Mackenzie continued that as the news spread, âall Europeâ came to admire the raid, concluding:
At this period, Nelson was in command of the British fleet engaged in blockading Toulon, having his flag aboard theÂ VictoryÂ . When the news of Decaturâs achievement reached him, he is said to have pronounced it âthe most bold and daring act of the age.âÂ 5
For more than a century thereafter, naval historians, whether or not they cited Mackenzie, accepted that Nelson had made that comment. In a detailed chronicle of the Navyâs early years, used as a text by a generation of U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen, Edgar Stanton Maclay recounted Decaturâs raid in detail and concluded that âNelson, who at this time was in command of the British blockading fleet before Toulon, expressed it [as] âthe most bold and daring act of the age.ââ In his 1905 history of the Barbary Wars, Gardner W. Allen provided the Nelson quote without equivocation and without citation. In his 1950 group profile of the sailing Navyâs captains,Â Prebleâs BoysÂ , popular historian Fletcher Pratt used the quote and opinedâquite erroneouslyâthat Nelson âwas a man who did not lightly scatter praise.âÂ 6
Many modern biographers of Decatur, and recent naval historians, also accept that Nelson made the statement, although over time, with increasing reservations. In their biographies of Decatur, written in 1931 and 1937 respectively, Irvin Anthony and Charles Lee Lewis both used the Nelson quote without reservation and without citations.
In his 2004 work, James Tertius de Kayâthe first of four 21st-century biographers of Decaturâwrote that âWhen Admiral Nelson heard the story on board his flagshipÂ VictoryÂ off Toulon, he roared with laughter and pronounced it âthe most bold and daring act of the age.ââ It is unclear why de Kay imagined that Nelson would think the news was hilarious.
Spencer Tuckerâs 2005 biography, tracking Mackenzieâs closely, stated that Nelson, off Toulon in the Victory, âis said to have called the action âthe most bold and daring act of the age.ââ In his 2005 biography of Decatur, Robert Allison wrote that Nelson was âreportedâ to have uttered the famous line. Allison added, âAlthough it is quite unlikely that Nelson did say thisâthere is no contemporary reference, and the first published account appeared in Alexander Slidell Mackenzieâs biography of Decatur, forty years after the eventâit is also possible that Mackenzie heard of it from a sailor who had been in the Mediterranean at the time.â
In a bizarre formulation, Leonard Guttridge wrote in his 2006 biography of Decatur that âAdmiral Lord Horatio Nelson was described as impressedâ by Decaturâs mission. Guttridge presumably was concerned about the provenance of the Nelson quote, opted not to use it, but provided a neutered construct instead: No one described Nelson as âimpressed.â The recent biographers of Charles Stewart, commander of the brigÂ SyrenÂ , which escorted theÂ IntrepidÂ to Tripoli and back to the squadron, were more dismissive, calling the purported Nelson quote an âapocryphal tale.âÂ 7
Among writers about the Navy, Glenn Tucker wrote inÂ Dawn Like ThunderÂ (1963) that âapplause came from an unexpected quarter. Lord Nelson, who knew about such things, who at the time was off Toulon blockading the French fleet, said when he heard of the feat that it was âthe most bold and daring act of the age.ââ Ian W. Toll noted inÂ Six FrigatesÂ (2006) that Pope Pius VII praised the American Mediterranean squadronâs actions, and âNelsonâin naval circles a higher authority than the popeâwas said to have remarked that Decaturâs mission to destroy theÂ PhiladelphiaÂ was âthe most bold and daring act of the age.ââ As recently as 2008, George Daughan inÂ If by SeaÂ provided the Nelson phrase without equivocation.Â 8
There have been efforts to figure out if Nelson uttered the famous line. In 2002, after recounting the event and Mackenzieâs quotation of Nelson, I wrote a âQueryâ in The Marinerâs Mirror, a leading maritime journal, seeking an answer:
Some accounts have it that Nelson uttered or wrote the comment to Sir Alexander Ball, the civil governor of Malta. Is the Nelson comment apocryphal? I would be grateful to learn if there is a Nelson (or Ball? or another officer who ostensibly heard Nelson?) letter or document with this phrase.
There was no response. The Nelson Letters Project, which began in 1999, represented a systemic British scholarly effort to locate and record all of Nelsonâs unpublished letters, and provided an opportunity for finding a letter in which Nelson wrote his famous line, if he ever did. ButÂ Nelson: The New LettersÂ (2005) does not contain or refer to such a letter.Â 9
In the early 1990s, W. M. P. Dunne began work on what was to be a magisterial scholarly biography of Decatur. Dunne died in late 1995, with his magnum opus incomplete. His family provided copies of his manuscript to a number of naval historians, and such was Dunneâs influence that two of the recent Decatur biographers, de Kay and Guttridge, dedicated their Decatur biographies to Dunneâs memory. Bill Dunne, who had a forceful personality and relished debunking myths, had made efforts to discover if Nelson had really said the famous line.
Dunne proved that at the very least, Nelson learned the details of Decaturâs raid into Tripoli Harbor. After the mission, theIntrepidÂ , along with her escort theÂ SyrenÂ , sailed back to join the American squadron, then moored in the harbor of Syracuse, Sicily. They arrived on 19 February 1804. Decatur rejoined his own command, the schoonerÂ EnterprizeÂ , and the squadron commander, Edward Preble, immediately ordered the Enterprize to Messina for repairs. She was beset by a northeasterly gale, however, and sailed into Valletta, Malta, on 25 February. Several days later, Stewart sailed the Syren into Valletta. He carried Prebleâs 24 February 1804 dispatch to Sir Alexander Ball, the civil governor of Malta and one of Nelsonâs â band of brothersâ:
As it is probable you may hear various accounts of the capture and destruction of the Tripolitan Frigate late the United States FrigateÂ PhiladelphiaÂ in the Harbour of Tripoly, I beg leave to mention the transactions relative to that affair. On the 3rd inst[ant] I sent the KetchÂ IntrepidÂ of 4 Guns, with 11 Officers, and 59 Seamen and Marines, under the command of Lt. Decatur, to Tripoly with orders to burn the Frigate. TheÂ SyrenÂ Brig accompanied her to anchor off the Harbour, send in her boats to assist, and cover the retreat of the Ketch. The weather was unfavourable until the night of the 16th Inst[ant] when they arrived, the Brig took her position, and the Ketch entered the HarbourâWas hailed from the batteries and the FrigateâAnswered from Malta and the rig of the Vessel deceived the enemy until she was alongside the Frigate; they were then fatally undeceived. Lieut. Decatur boarded with his Men, and carried her after a short conflict in which upwards of 20 Tripolines were killed on the DecksâOne large Boat load made their escape, some ran below & probably perished in the flames; and many jumped overboard. As soon as complete possession was gained, she was set on fire, and totally destroyed. All her Guns were mounted and loaded; and two of their Corsairs lay within half Musket shot of her. As soon as she was in flames, the Batteries, Bashawâs Castle and Corsairs commenced firing on the Ketch. One Cannon shot passed through her Top Gall[an]t sail was all the damage she received. We did not lose a man, and had only one wounded. . . .Â 10
Thus, not only did Ball have a detailed account from the American squadron commander, but he also could and did speak about the raid to both Stewart and Decatur. As captains of visiting foreign warships, they paid courtesy calls on Ball. It is safe to assume that Ball, as a British admiral, had at least some professional interest in the raid.
In a letter dated 17 March 1804, Ball reported the incident to Nelson, quoting Prebleâs letter at great length (the exact material above).Â 11Â Thus, Nelson knew the details of the burning of theÂ PhiladelphiaÂ in Prebleâs own words, albeit through Ball, including that Decatur had been in command. However, there is no record in the National Maritime Museum of later correspondence from Ball to Preble, Decatur, or Stewart, in which Ball might have shared Nelsonâs praise with one of the Americans, had Nelson written him in response with the phrase.Â 12Â Of course, Nelson may have written the words ascribed to him in a subsequent letter to anyone in his wide circle of correspondents. The published Nelson correspondence, including Nicholas Nicolasâ 19th-century multivolume collection, does not contain a letter with the phrase, nor doesÂ Nelson: The New LettersÂ . While it is still possible that a Nelson letter could be discovered that contains the quote, the chances for such a discovery seem quite small.
Theoretically, there might be several ways to try to find out if Nelson really called the burning of theÂ PhiladelphiaÂ âthe most bold and daring act of the age.â One way is to try to determine if anyone in Nelsonâs circle of correspondents or friends repeated his comment in a letter to someone (anyone) else. This is a daunting task, like looking for a needle in a haystack. Nelson had a wide circle of naval officers, friends, and followers, and to pursue this theory to the logical extreme, any of them might have recounted the phrase from late March 1804 until 1846, when Mackenzie finished his manuscript. Even in the 21st century, when documents are increasingly available electronically, the task of looking for such a letter seems insurmountable.
However, there is another way to try to determine if Nelsonâs quote is realâtry to find out how Mackenzie learned of it. Thus far, that route has not proven any more fruitful. Although some of Mackenzieâs official correspondence and naval papers can be found, there apparently is no collection of his literary papers. While the publishers of his Decatur biography, Charles C. Little and James Brown, live on as Little, Brown and Company, today that company is unable to find the original draft manuscript or any notes Mackenzie may have made in submitting it.Â 13
Thus, the field is still open for a definitive answer: It is unclear if Nelson actually called the burning of theÂ PhiladelphiaÂ âthe most bold and daring act of the age.â
But here is a hypothesis. Anyone who reads Mackenzieâs biography will notice the effort he made to locate people who knew Decatur and to plumb them for information. In Mackenzieâs preface, he specifically acknowledged Commodore Charles Stewart for information concerning âincidents of the Tripolitan Warâ and Commodore Charles Morris âfor many new details in relation to the burning of the Philadelphia.âÂ 14Â Alone among the early officers of the Navy, Morris wrote a short autobiography, apparently in the 1840s (but not published until 1880), and although he writes in detail about theÂ PhiladelphiaÂ raid, he does not provide or mention the Nelson quote.Â 15Â The omission is some evidence that Morris was not Mackenzieâs source for the quote.
That leaves Stewart. Unfortunately, Stewartâs papers seem not to have survived. However, according to his biographers, in March 1822 Stewart sailed into Valparaiso, Chile, in command of the ship-of-the-lineÂ FranklinÂ . While in port, he made the round of meetings and dinners (the âstandard invitationsâ) with foreign officers and officials.Â 16Â One of the officers he met was Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, then the commander of the British South American Squadron. Hardy (1769â1839) had served as Nelsonâs flag captain on board theÂ VictoryÂ from 1803 onward, and famously kissed his friend and admiral as Nelson lay dying in the cockpit of theÂ VictoryÂ in the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar.Â 17Â There was no officer who was in Nelsonâs physical presence more than Hardy, and as his friend and direct subordinate, he dined with Nelson and frequently walked the quarterdeck with him.
Here, then, is the hypothesis: When Hardy met Stewart socially in 1822, he learned that they both had been in the Mediterranean at the same time, almost 20 years earlier. Upon discovering that Stewart was Decaturâs friend, Hardy told him whatÂ hisÂ friend, Nelson, had said about the raid into Tripoli Harborâthat the burning of theÂ PhiladelphiaÂ was âthe most bold and daring act of the age.â Stewart remembered what Hardy had said and later told Mackenzie.
To return to Mackenzieâs actual language, he wrote that Nelson âÂ is saidÂ to have pronounced it âthe most bold and daring act of the age,ââ indicating that Mackenzie recognized the multiple-hearsay nature of whatever was told to him. I concede that this hypothesis is highly conjectural. Even if Stewart was the source for the Nelson quote, he might have heard it from another British officerâalthough none of them had Hardyâs near-constant access to Nelson in 1804.
It is easy to question the Nelson quote as âquite unlikelyâ or âapocryphalâ because, apparently, there is no contemporary account of it. In our modern day, we distrust the oral tradition as unreliable and susceptible to manipulation. Fair enough. Given the standards that Mackenzie set for himselfâhe âclaim[ed] to have sought truth diligently from every source within his reachââand the overall reliability of his Decatur biography, it is difficult to believe he fabricated the Nelson quote.Â 18Â Indeed, by using the passive voice (âis saidâ), Mackenzie indicated he was not vouching for the quote, but passing along what someone had communicated to him. That someone may have been Stewart, having spoken with Hardy; perhaps in the fullness of time, we will have an answer.
1. Washington Irving, âBiography of Commodore Decatur,âÂ Analectic MagazineÂ , vol. 1 (1813), pp. 502â10; Thomas Wilson,The Biography of the Principal American Military and Naval HeroesÂ (New York: John Low, 1819), vol. 2, pp. 99â118; S. Putnam Waldo,Â The Life and Character of Stephen DecaturÂ (Hartford: P. B. Goodsell, 1821); J. Fenimore Cooper,Â History of the Navy of the United States of AmericaÂ (New York: Stringer & Townsend, 1856; orig. pub 1839).
2. Alexander Slidell Mackenzie,Â Life of Stephen DecaturÂ (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1846).
3. Ibid., pp. 288â89.
4. See Buckner F. Melton Jr.,Â A Hanging Offense: The Strange Affair of the Warship SomersÂ (New York: Free Press, 2003);Dictionary of American BiographyÂ (New York: Charles Scribnerâs Sons, 1933), vol. 6, pp. 90â91.
5. Mackenzie,Â Life of DecaturÂ , p. 81.
6. Edgar Stanton Maclay,Â A History of the United States Navy from 1775 to 1898Â (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1898), vol. 1, p. 268; Gardner W. Allen,Â Our Navy and the Barbary CorsairsÂ (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1905), p. 173; Fletcher Pratt,Prebleâs Boys: Commodore Preble and the Birth of American Sea PowerÂ (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1950), p. 95.
7. Irvin Anthony,Â DecaturÂ (New York: Charles Scribnerâs Sons, 1931), p. 138; Charles Lee Lewis,Â The Romantic Decatur(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1937), p. 45; James Tertius de Kay,Â A Rage for Glory: The Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur, USNÂ (New York: Free Press, 2004), p. 59; Spencer Tucker,Â Stephen Decatur: A Life Most Bold and DaringÂ (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005), p. 57; Robert J. Allison,Â Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 1779â1820Â (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), p. 53; Leonard F. Guttridge,Â Our Country Right or Wrong: The Life of Stephen Decatur, the U.S. Navyâs Most Illustrious CommanderÂ (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2006), p. 18; Claude Berube and John Rodgaard,Â A Call to the Sea: Captain Charles Stewart of the U.S.S.Â Constitution (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005), p. 39.
8. Glenn Tucker,Â Dawn Like Thunder: The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. NavyÂ (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill., 1963), p. 283; Ian W. Toll,Â Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. NavyÂ (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), p. 258; George C. Daughan,Â If by Sea: The Forging of the American Navy from the Revolution to the War of 1812Â (New York: Basic Books, 2008), p. 370.
9. Frederick C. Leiner, Query (âStephen Decaturâ),Â The Marinerâs MirrorÂ , vol. 88, no. 2 (May 2002), p. 219; Colin White, ed.,Nelson: The New LettersÂ (Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: The Boydell Press, 2005) (publishing 507 of 1,300 newly found Nelson letters).
10. W. M. P. Dunne, âStephen Decatur, 1779â1820: A Critical Biography,â MSS (1995), pp. 281, 285â86, citing Dudley W. Knox, ed.,Â Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary PowersÂ (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1941), vol. 3, p. 446, E. Preble to S. Decatur, 20 February 1804; vol. 3, p. 456 , S. Decatur to E. Preble, 26 February 1804; vol. 3, pp. 454â55, E. Preble to A. Ball, 24 February 1804.
11. National Maritime Museum (NMM), Greenwich, England, Phillips-Croker Collection, CRK/1/132, A. Ball to H. Nelson, 17 March 1804 letter.
12. Email, Quintin Colville, Curator of Naval History, NMM, to F. Leiner, 19 November 2010.
13. Letter, Eve Rabinovits (executive assistant to the publisher, Little, Brown and Co.) to F. Leiner, 30 March 2011.
14. Mackenzie,Â Life of DecaturÂ , p. 4.
15. Charles Morris,Â The Autobiography of Commodore Charles Morris, U.S. NavyÂ (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002; orig. pub. 1880).
16. Berube and Rodgaard,Â A Call to the SeaÂ , p. 149.
17. See Ludovic Kennedy,Â Nelson and His CaptainsÂ (London: William Collins, Sons & Co., 1975); biographical sketch of Hardy atÂ www.royalnavalmuseum.org/info_sheets_thomas_hardy.htmlÂ .
18. Mackenzie,Â Life of DecaturÂ , p. 5.