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Setting the record straight on Stephen Decatur

Jan 1, 2003

I enjoyed the recent article by A.M. Neyer on the clearing of Hell Gate ("Taming Hell-Gate was decades-long task," Issue No. 60).

One point of history must be corrected, though. Stephen Decatur (1779-1830), the hero of the war with the Barbary Pirates in 1803, was not the commander of the American ships, as mentioned in the article, but an intrepid young naval officer in the squadron.

The war arose because the Bey (the Arab ruler of North Africa) used his naval forces to capture the merchant ships of other countries and sell the passengers and crew into slavery or for ransom. European countries found it easier to pay tribute to allow its shipping safe passage. Our young country, under President Jefferson, decided to put an end to this practice and sent warships to do this task.

Unfortunately, the frigate U.S.S. Philadelphia was captured by the Barbary pirates. It was a 24-year-old Lt. Stephen Decatur who sailed a small fireship (a boat loaded with inflammables) into Philadelphia, setting it ablaze and burning it down to the waterline. Because of his actions, the frigate couldn't be used against the U.S. fleet.

At the same time, a detachment of marines was landed ashore and attacked Tripoli from the rear, while the Navy attacked from the sea. Thus the U.S. Marine song received half of its first line -- "to the shores of Tripoli." (The Marine Corps did not get to the "halls of Montezuma" until the Mexican War in 1846.)

During the War of 1812, we were preoccupied with fighting Britain, and the Barbary Pirates again began attacking our merchant ships. With the war over, in 1815, the U.S. government sent a squadron of nine warships under then-Commodore Stephen Decatur to wipe them out and seek compensation for the harm done to American ships and citizens.

Our commodore accomplished the task, and American ships were safe. It wasn't until 1830, when France captured North Africa, that the piracy of the Barbary Coast ended.

Ronald M. Goldwyn owns an Irwin 52 ketch and lives in Great Neck, N.Y.


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