The USS Constitution was firing broadsides into the Tripoli forts as America’s six gunboats rushed into the shallow water of the harbor. The battle quickly spun into hand-to-hand fighting with US sailors wielding pikes and cutlasses as they boarded enemy gunboats. Among the United States’ boats was one commanded by Lt. Stephen Decatur and another commanded by his brother, Lt. James Decatur.
It was Aug. 3, 1804.
In the fighting, four of the U.S. gunboats, including Stephen Decatur’s, quickly closed with nine of the enemy boats and exchanged fire before Decatur collided with the Tripolitan boat at the end of the formation. Decatur and his crew of nineteen quickly leaped aboard the enemy vessel. After a short, brutal fight, they captured the boat, killing sixteen of the enemy, wounding fifteen others, and taking five prisoner.
Decatur began personally lowering the Tripolitan flag.
As that was happening, however, James Decatur’s boat closed with another enemy and, after raking it with fire, saw it strike its colors. As James Decatur stepped aboard the captured vessel, however, the gunboat’s Tripolitan captain shot him at point-blank range. Hit in the forehead, Decatur tumbled into the sea between the boats.
As the Americans struggled to pull their commander from the sea, the Tripolitan gunboat fled.
A short time later, Stephen Decatur was informed of what happened.
With a volunteer crew of eleven, Decatur went after the fleeing enemy boat and, as he closed on it, the Americans boarded her. According to the 1897 book, Twelve Naval Captains by Molly Elliot Seawell, the outnumbered Americans men were able to pause long enough to form a rough line that made the most of their number.
As they advanced, Decatur, armed with a pike, quickly located the boat’s captain, who was described as a “gigantic” man, and lunged at him. But the Tripolitan was able to grab the pike, wrench it from Decatur’s hands, and turn it against him. Decatur quickly drew his cutlass and used it to deflect a lunge of the pike but, in doing so, broke the blade of the cutlass. He leapt to the side as the boat’s captain again lunged with the pike, this time catching Decatur in the shoulder. Decatur wrenched the pike free of his shoulder and of his opponent and the two men began grappling on the bloody deck.
About this time, another Tripolitan sailor, seeing the struggle, raised his sword to attack Decatur and end the fight. As he began to strike, however, an American sailor named Daniel Frazier (other sources say the sailor was Rueben James) leaped into the sword’s path, shielding Decatur.
He saved his captain but was badly wounded in the head.
As the fight continued, the Tripolitan captain pulled a small dagger from his waist and tried to stab Decatur, but Decatur, despite his wound, was able to hold off the dagger with one hand and with the other, pull a small pistol from a pocket. He cocked it and shot the Tripolitan man in the stomach.
The man fell off Decatur, dying.
By then, the Americans were getting the best of the gunboat’s crew and slowly took possession of the boat. Twenty-one of the enemy were killed or disabled. Decatur immediately returned to the Constitution where his brother’s body was taken and stayed with him until he died.
At the end of the day, six Tripolitan gunboats were taken and the only American to die fighting was James Decatur. The man who saved Stephen Decatur, be it Daniel Frazier or Rueben James, is believed to have recovered from his wounds.
After the fighting finally ground to a halt, Decatur also learned that the USS John Adams arrived on the scene during the battle. Aboard her were papers announcing Decatur’s promotion to Captain.
He remains the youngest man ever to reach the rank in the United States Navy.