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Perilous Fight

Perilous Fight

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Add This - Perilous Fight

Written by Stephen BudianskyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Stephen Budiansky

  • Format: Trade Paperback, 448 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • On Sale: January 17, 2012
  • Price: $17.95
  • ISBN: 978-0-307-45495-9 (0-307-45495-9)
Also available as an eBook.

Chapter 1

That America would have a navy at all in 1812 on the eveof her mad war against Britain was the direct result of events of a decadebefore that had spoken more to the young nation's heart than to her mind. The American mind was dead set against the temptations that the republic's foundersbelieved always led governments to war and tyranny. A solid majority of America's political leaders opposed on principle the very notion of a standing navy, a solid majority of Americans opposed the taxes that would be required topay for one, and no sane American of any political inclination thought that anynavy their country could ever possess would be able to contend with those ofthe great European powers.

Yet from the Anglophile merchants of New England to thebackwoods farmers on the frontier, Americans had been stirred by the glory that had been won by the captains and men of the tiny United States navy in worldsfar away ever since its founding in 1794, and it was that glory that had kep tthe service alive against all rational calculation to the contrary.

Edward Preble had no illusions about the price to be paidfor that glory. "People who handle dangerous weapons," he once wrote,"must expect wounds and Death." Preble was a man of action to the core, possessed of a legendary decisiveness and a volcanic temper. Just a year before joining his country's young navy in 1798 as a not-so-young thirty-seven-year-old lieutenant, Preble had taken exception to something a fellow merchant sailor had said to him in Boston, and cracked him over the head with a musket. Preble ended up paying his victim's room and board and medical bills while herecovered, then gave him $200 for his troubles; he never apologized, though.

The first week of February 1804 found Commodore Edward Preble, forty-two years old, captain of the frigate Constitution and commander of America's six-ship Mediterranean squadron, going prematurely bald and gray.His dark blue eyes were as fierce as ever, but he was increasingly given tobouts of racking physical debilitation from a griping stomach complaint that laid him low for days at a time. On the outside he usually managed to keep up afront of self-control and even optimism; inside he was blackened by darts of despair at the task before him, at his mission in life, at the distressing runof bad luck that kept coming his way.

Just a year before taking command of the Constitution the previous May, he had tried to resign his commission from the navy altogether, pleading his shattered state of health, which had kept him bedridden more oftenthan not for weeks on end. Writing the secretary of the navy, Robert Smith ,with his decision, Preble had enclosed a statement from his physician confirming that he was "reduced to a distressing state of debility andemaciation," adding, "he is extremely susceptible of injury from thecares and fatigues of business." His ship's surgeon agreed that theburdens of the job had proved too much for a man of Preble's hard-driving and easily provoked temperament.

But Secretary Smith had spurned the resignation, orderingPreble on furlough to get some rest, and slowly his health had improved enough for him to return to the endless vexations of commanding one of the three plumships of the tiny American fleet. For more than two years the American squadron in the Mediterranean had been waging an anemic battle against the Barbary corsairs that were raiding American ships traversing the region. For centuries the semi-independent Muslim states of Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli had flourished on piracy and tribute extorted from European shippers that sailedthe Mediterranean. On May 14, 1801, the pasha of Tripoli had made known his dissatisfaction with the amount of tribute he had been receiving from the United States in return for allowing American ships to pass unmolested: in a symbolic declaration of war, the pasha had sent his men to chop down the flagstaff in front of the American consul's residence.

Little had happened since. The American naval force foundit could not effectively blockade Tripoli's harbor and had been reduced to defensive measures, convoying American ships rather than directly confrontingthe Tripolitan corsairs. American consuls in the region warned that the UnitedStates' prestige was plummeting-as was her navy's, both at home and abroad. Jefferson's cabinet, true to the anti-navalist credo of the Republican party,was strongly inclined to simply pay off the pasha and be done with it; Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin wrote the president that he considered the decision "a mere matter of calculation whether the purchase of peace is not cheaper than the expense of a war."

Preble's and the Constitution's mission was to prove themwrong; or at least to prove that the navy had some value at all. Painfullyaware how much was riding on their mission, the secretary of the navyconfidently let be it known in Washington that Preble would be on station tenweeks from the date of receiving his orders. Instead, the months had slipped byas Preble struggled to get his ship seaworthy. The Constitution was only five years old but was literally rotting away at her moorings. She had served withdistinction during America's undeclared naval war with France from 1798 to 1800-the Quasi War, as it came to be called, triggered by French captures ofAmerican merchant ships trading with Britain and then by a wave of popularanger over the XYZ Affair, when an American delegation sent to Paris to resolvethe rising tensions was approached by three agents of the French government who demanded a large bribe. In February 1799 the Constitution had captured the French frigate Insurgente in the Caribbean; a year later she fought acourageous action to a draw with the much more powerful French fifty-two-gunwarship Vengeance. But with the signing of a peace treaty between America and France in September 1800, the ship had returned to Boston after one final cruise in the West Indies, and since June 1802 she had lain utterly neglected, accumulating weeds and decay, in the Charles River near Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard.

On May 20, 1803, Preble had come aboard, inspected herskeleton crew of one midshipman, one boatswain, and twelve men, and ordered a caulking stage brought alongside so he could examine the ship's bottom. The next day he climbed out onto the stage armed with a rake and began pulling upswaths of sea grass that had grown through gaping holes in the copper sheathing below the waterline.

Through the spring and summer of 1803 Preble worked dayafter day, morning to night, making "every exertion in my power," he wrote an old acquaintance, denying himself even "the pleasure of dining with a friend" as he urged the work on. Every seam of the frigate's planking had to be recaulked, a job that required all of the officers' roomsalongside the wardroom to be knocked out. There were cables to be made and tarred, ballast to be brought in, fifty-four thousand gallons of water in casksto be loaded, all new yards to be fitted, all of the ship's rigging to beremoved and rerigged. For the damaged copper sheathing to be replaced, the shipfirst had to be brought over to a wharf at Boston's North End, just across themouth of the Charles River, and all her guns and nearly all her ballast laboriously removed. Then the gunports had to be hammered shut and temporarily caulked tight to make them waterproof, everything that might slide around hadto be unloaded and the rudder unshipped, and then each day she was tipped overand held at a frightening angle by huge ten-inch-thick ropes running from herlower masts to a capstan on the wharf alongside. Massive poles braced the mastsagainst the edge of the deck to take the strain as the ship was heaved over, exposing her side all the way down to the keel, while relieving tackles running from the opposite side made sure she did not capsize altogether. Carpenters setto work from a stage, ripping off the old copper sheets and filling the exposedseams beneath with oakum. Then came a coating of tallow, tar, and turpentine;then sheets of tarred paper roofing felt; then finally the new sheets of copperhammered on. Sailing Master Nathaniel Haraden-his nickname was "Jumping Billy"over saw the back breaking schedule; work started at 5:15 each morning, and the laborers kept at it until seven at night, with an hour off for breakfast and dinner and fifteen minutes for grog at eleven and four. Some captains had found Haraden hardto take for having "assumed too much" in telling them how to run their ship, but the fact was no one knew the Constitution better, and the log Haraden kept of the repair operation spoke of a man justifiably proud of hismastery of the myriad technical complexities the job entailed. Preble told Secretary of the Navy Smith he thought Haraden knew his job and that he could keep him in line when he had to.

By August 9 the Constitution at last was ready to sail,awaiting only a favorable wind to carry her out of Boston harbor. Preble wrote a farewell letter to an old friend from Maine, Henry Dearborn, now ThomasJefferson's secretary of war. "I assure you I am not in pursuit of pleasure-excepting such as the destruction of the piratical vessels in the Mediterranean canafford me," Preble wrote. "If Tripoli does not make peace, I shall hazard to destroy their vessels in port if I cannot meet them at sea."

And he added: "None but a real friend would have given me the kind advice which you have respecting the government of temper. Be assured it shall be attended to."

Nothing about his command was calculated to improve the new commodore's temper. One early and spirited display of his legendary short fuse, however, did him some good with the officers and men under his command who were already growing weary of what one midshipman, Charles Morris, termedtheir captain's "ebullitions of temper." Nearing the Straits of Gibraltar on the evening of September 10, the Constitution's lookout had spotted through the lowering haze just at sunset a distant sail, tracking thesame course but far ahead. A few hours later, dark night settled in and theywere suddenly on her: the same ship, apparently, and almost certainly a ship of war. The Constitution's crew was brought swiftly and silently to their action quarters-no beating of the drums, but every gun crew at its station, gun ports open and gunsrun out, the men peering down their barrels at the stranger, slow matchess moldering at the ready to set off their charges the instant the order to fire came. Only then did Preble give the customary hail.

"What ship is that?"

Across the water a defiant echo came back: "What ship is that?"

"This is the United States ship Constitution. What ship is that?"

Again the question was repeated, again with the sameresult. At which Preble grabbed the speaking trumpet and, his voice strained with rage, shouted, "I am now going to hail you one last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you."

If you fire a shot, I will fire a broadside."

"What ship is that?" Preble thundered one lasttime.

"This is His Britannic Majesty's ship Donnegal, eighty-four guns, Sir Richard Strahan, an English commodore. Send your boat on board."

Now the volcano erupted. Leaping to the netting, Preble bellowed, "This is the United States ship Constitution, forty-four guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends hisboat aboard any vessel." And then, turning to his crew, he bellowed anequally loud, and theatrical, aside. "Blow on your matches, boys!"

An ominous silence ensued, broken by the sound of a boatsplashing down and rowing across. A shamefaced British lieutenant came on deckand apologetically explained that his ship was in fact the frigate Maidstone,no eighty-four-gun ship of the line at all. Her lookouts had been caught napping,and they had not seen the Constitution until they heard her hail; they had no expectation of encountering an American ship of war in these waters, anduncertain of her true identity and desperate to buy time to get their own mento quarters, they had stalled and dissembled.

The apologies were accepted; more important, as Morrislater recalled, "this was the first occasion that had offered to show uswhat we might expect from our commander, and the spirit and decision which he displayed were hailed with pleasure by all, and at once mitigated the unfriendly feelings" that their commander's irascibility had produced.

Throughout the fall of 1803 the commodore was vexed bythe subtleties of Levantine politics, the difficulties of securing reliable translations of Arabic and Turkish documents, and a furious altercation withCommodore John Rodgers, who insisted that as senior captain, owing to theearlier date of his commission, only he was entitled to fly a commodore's broadpennant on the Mediterranean station. Then disaster: on November 24, on the passage from Gibraltar to Malta, the Constitution spoke a passing Britishfrigate that gave them the appalling news that the Tripolitans had captured the American frigate Philadelphia and all her crew on the last day of October. The available facts were few but devastating. Chasing a corsair running intoTripoli harbor, the American frigate had struck a shoal and helplessly surrendered to Tripolitan gunboats that had poured out from the town; the enemy had since refloated her, and she now stood in Tripoli harbor, snug under the guns of the forts that ringed the shoreline. "This affair distresses me beyond description," Preble confessed to the secretary of the navy in a dispatch two weeks later, "and very much deranges my plans of operationfor the present."

Although Preble never publicly let slip a word ofcriticism of the Philadelphia's officers, he poured out his despair and dismayin his private letters. To the secretary he continued:

I fear our national character will sustain an injury withthe Barbarians-would to God, that the Officers and crew of the Philadelphia,had one and all, determined to prefer death to slavery; it is possible that such a determination might save them from either....If it had not been for the Capture of the Philadelphia, I have no doubt, but we should have had peace with Tripoly in the Spring; but I now have no hopes of such an event...I do not believe the Philadelphia will ever be of service to Tripoly; I shall hazard much to destroy her-it will undoubtedly cost us many lives, but it must bedone. I am surprised she was not rendered useless, before her Colours were struck.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from Perilous Fight by Stephen Budiansky Copyright © 2011 by Stephen Budiansky. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.