Rising young U.S. Navy officer Stephen Decatur earned famous praise for ‘the most bold and daring act of the age’—or did he?
Late in the evening on 16 February 1804, the ketch Intrepid , commanded by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, entered Tripoli Harbor. Almost becalmed in the dying breeze, the Intrepid drifted with agonizing slowness toward the captured American frigate Philadelphia , lying under the massed guns of the bashaw’s castle and harbor fortifications. As the Intrepid approached, a Barbary lookout on the Philadelphia spotted the Americans and cried out the alarm. The Intrepid tied onto the frigate. Decatur and 60 men boarded the Philadelphia , 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 service’s history. Almost equally known in American naval lore is that Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, upon learning of the raid, called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” It’s 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, “blessing” a seminal event led by one of the dynamic officers in the rising navy from across the Atlantic. It’s a dramatic story, loaded with symbolism.
But did Nelson actually call the burning of the Philadelphia “the most bold and daring act of the age”?
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 Decatur’s life, Washington Irving’s 1813 article in the widely read Analectic Magazine , Nelson’s 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 Cooper’s, the first edition of which appeared in 1839. 1