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COM. PREBLE'S “INFERNAL."
URING the war waged by the United States against the
Bashaw of Tripoli in 1804, after several vigorous attacks, some of which were successful, had been made upon his flotilla before the port of his capital, the Tripolitans became so much intimidated that they no longer ventured outside the haven. Commodore Preble therefore conceived a plan for making an assault upon their shipping inside the harbor. He resolved to send in a fire-ship, or “infernal, which he had long contemplated, which was to be exploded among the Tripolitan vessels, by which Com. Preble not only hoped to destroy the enemy's shipping, but he trusted would shatter the Bashaw's castle, in which some of the American prisoners were confined, and otherwise damage the capital city of Tripoli.
The ketch Intrepid, which had rendered such signal service on the recent burning of the Philadelphia, was brought into requisition for this dangerous enterprise. A small apartment was planked up in her hold, just forward of her mainmast, and in this receptacle about one hundred barrels of powder in bulk, estimated at 15,000 pounds, were poured. Communicating with this room was a tube that led aft to another apartment, which was filled with combustible material. On the deck, directly over the magazine, were deposited fifty thirteen-anda-half-inch and one hundred nine-inch shells, with a great quantity of shot and pieces of iron and kentledge. A train was then run through the tube from the magazine to the after-room, and fusees, calculated io burn fifteen minutes, were connected with it in the proper way. The burning of the light-wood and splinters in the forward room, it was supposed, would keep the Tripolitans from boarding the vessel, for fear she was a fire-ship.
Lieut. Richard Somers, of the schooner Nautilus, volunteered for the expedition; and he, with Lieuts. Wadsworth and Israel, was engaged several days in preparing this floating mine.
It was determined that the Intrepid should enter the port the first dark night, proceed as far as possible into the galley mole — the inner harbor -- there to start a fire in the splinter-room, when her people were to retreat to the American squadron in swift rowing boats.
The enterprise was indeed dangerous. The adventurers had to enter a passage but 200 or 300 yards wide, on a dark night, in a slow sailing vessel, near to and under the guns of several batteries, which would only be prevented from firing upon them by mistaking their vessel for one that was endeavoring to run the American blockade. As they advanced they would be enfiladed by the galleys and gunboats of the enemy, whilst a cannonade alone upon a vessel filled with powder would be dangerous of itself, as the concussion of a cannon-ball with a nail or any other piece of iron might strike fire and ignite the powder. Once successful in the main objects of the expedition, the retreat had its dangers; whilst capping the whole, Cooper remarks, the enterprise was "one in which no quarter could be expected.”
But few were needed to make up the Intrepid's complement. Several officers volunteered for this service. One of them, Lieut. Wadsworth of the Constitution, was taken as second in command. Lieut. Jos. Israel was a volunteer, whose services however were refused, as the Commodore did not believe his assistance was necessary. Two swift rowing boats, one the Constitution's, pulling six oars, and the other the Siren's, pulling four, were selected to bring the party off after the train had been fired. The crew of the Nautilus was informed of the project, and every man volunteered to go. Of them the following four were selected :-James Simms, Thomas Tompline, James Harris, and Wm. Keith, all rated as seamen. It is believed the following six, from the Constitution, were selected by Lieut. Wadsworth: Wm. Harrison, Robt. Clark, Hugh McCormick, Jacob Williams, Peter Penner, and Isaac W. Downs. All these were seamen also.
A number of interviews took place between Com. Preble and Lieut. Somers during the preparations for the enterprise. On one of these occasions the Commodore burnt a port-fire to ascertain its time of explosion. When consumed, he inquired of Lieut. Somers if he thought the boats could get away from the reach of shells during the brief period it was burning. "I think we can, sir,” replied Somers. Com. Preble fixed his eye closely upon the young officer a moment, and then asked, should he lessen the time or make the port-fire shorter. “I ask for no port-fire at all, sir,” Somers answered quietly, but firmly. After this interview Somers declared his intention not to be captured. All the circumstances connected with the enterprise tended to strengthen this determination on the part of the two young officers who were to take the Intrepid in. Com. Preble feeling it to be a duty, pointed out to Lieut. Somers the importance of not permitting so large a quantity of powder to fall into the hands of the Tripolitans, who were supposed to be in want of ammunition, whilst an exaggerated idea of the horrors of Tripolitan captivity had gained credence in the American squadron. Somers and Wadsworth were both calm and quiet persons men whose simple declaration to perform any act was the guaranty of its execution, if accomplishment were possible, and the mere publication of their intentions seems to have made a profound impression upon their comrades.
One or two efforts were made to get into the harbor, but they failed, owing to light winds. Certain movements being noticed that made Lieut. Somers believe the Intrepid was suspected, he determined to enter the harbor upon the night of the 4th of September. The appointed day arrived. Before leaving his vessel, the Nautilus, Lieut. Somers explained to the four men he had chosen from it, the dangerous nature of the expedition upon which they were bound. He in. formed them he desired no man to go in with him who did not prefer death to capture ; such, he said, was his own determination, and he wanted all who accompanied him to be of the same mind. Three cheers from the boat's crew was the reply that he received, and, it is reported, each man separately asked to be the one to apply the match to the train! Such was the spirit of the infant marine.
Somers took leave of his fellow-officers, the four seamen doing the same, shaking their hands, and giving vent to their feelings in premonitions of approaching doom. This was done in good faith, and yet with cheerfulness. No enterprise, however dangerous, had been undertaken in the squadron that started upon its mission with so many forebodings of impending evil. The four seamen from the Nautilus disposed of their effects orally to their associates, “like those who are about to die with disease."
It would appear the Constitution's boat did not reach the Intrepid until dusk. When that crew was mustered, Lieut. Israel was found among the party. It is asserted he secreted himself in the boat to take part in the expedition, while on the other hand it is affirmed be came with a final order from Com. Preble to Lieut. Somers.
Lieuts. Stewart and Decatur, with others of Somers' friends, visited him aboard of the Intrepid before he weighed anchor. These three were about the same age, had all been instructed in seamanship together, and had been “intimately associated in the service during the last six years.” Stewart and Decalur knew the dangers that attended the expedition, and they felt a deep concern for the fate of their friend. Somers was grave but tranquil. Conversing for a while, he took from his finger a ring, which he broke into three pieces ; 10 his two friends he gave each a piece, and retained one part for himself.
As night closed in, three gunboats were observed just within the western passage of the harbor, through which the Intrepiit had to pass. Decatur warned his friend to take care that they did not board him. Somers replied that the enemy had become so shy, he thought it more likely that they would cut and run rather than advance to meet him.
At eight o'clock the night was far enough advanced to cover the movement, when the Intrepid weighed anchor. The stars shone overhead, but upon the water there hung a haze that rendered objects uncertain — favorable circumstances for the enterprise, for while it would prevent the character of the Intrepid being easily made out, there was light enough to enable the ketch to steer clear of the rocks. The Argus, Vixen, and Nautilus stood in with the Intrepid, all sailing with a light but fair easterly wind.
The last man to leave the Intrepid was Lieut. Washington Reed. It was near nine o'clock when he did. At that hour "all was propitious. The most perfect order reigned in the ketch. The good-byes between the officers were serious and affectionate ; Somers was calm but cheersul, while the common men seemed in high spirits."
The Vixen and the Argus stopped a little distance from the rocks, to atack the enemy's galleys or gunboals should they attempt to follow Lieut. Somers out upon his retreat. The Nautilns lessenec her sail and advanced with the Intrepid as close in as was thought safe, with the special duty of bringing off the two boats in the retreat.
Midshipman Ridgely, of the Nautilus, directed by Lieut. Reed, fastened his eye through a night-glass upon the Intrepid. This young officer was, probably, ihe last person in the American fleet who saw the Intrepid. To ihe last, it is thought, the ketch was advancing, though distance and darkness render the fact uncertain.
Ordered by Com. Preble, the Siren bad followed the other vessels
in toward the harbor, keeping, however, more in the offing than they. In almost breathless silence, every eye was fixed upon ihe western entrance and the inner harbor. A brief time passed, when the slowly booming cannon of the enemy's nearest batteries told them that the Intrepiit had been discovered. It was now near ten o'clock. Capt. Stewart and Lieut. Carrol were in the Siren's gangway, with their eyes riveted upon the point where the Intrepid was known to be, when the Lieutenant exclaimed, “Look, see the light!” At that moment a light, moving and waving, as though a lantern were carried hurriedly along the deck of a vessel, was observed ; then it sunk from sight. A half-minute may have passed, when suddenly the harbor shone with meridian brilliancy; the firmament flamed with a fiery glow that paled the overhanging stars; earth, sea, and heaven were shaken in an awful convulsion ; a burning mast, with its sails, and a broken hull shot upward in the air ; a city rocked, turrets trembled; whilst bursting shells mingled their shrieks with the cries of the terrified Tripolitans. Darkness and silence, as profound as the tomb itself, succeeded.
The fact that the Intrepid had explodid before she reached her destination, and before the splinter-room bad been lighted, gave just grounds to apprehend the worst; but it was hard to believe that they with whom they had only a brief while before parted from in full life and spirits, had so suddenly come to so fearful a death.
The explosion and its horrid accompaniments lasted less than a minute. Every eye was now engaged to perceive an expected signal, but in vain. The Nautilus displayed her lights to guide the retreating boals to her side, and throughout the dreary hours of that mournful night every ear and every eye was painfully strained to catch some sound or sight of the returning adventurers. Officers and crew bent over the hammock-cloths, anxiously looking toward the scene of ex plosion, whilst others suspended themselves from the sides of the ship, with lanterns levelled to the surface of the water, in the hope that the glancing beams would the quicker discover the objects of their earnest search. In the silence and darkness of that dismal night the eager watchers were easily deceived, and often imagined that they beheld the forms of approaching boats and glancing oars, or heard the distant jar of the ihumping oar in the creaking row-lock. The deepest sound that broke the silence of the gloomy hours or pierced its dismal darkness, was the Constitution's booming gun that, measuredly fired, moaned the requiem of the heroic braves who were never to return to their comrades again, or the fiery flash of the shoo!ing rocket that fitly emblematised :he fate of the unfortunate Intrepid.
Morning dawned, and hope became despair. The Argus, Viren, and Nautilus had hovered around the entrance of the harbor until sunrise, when they had a fair view of the fort. Not a vestige of the ketch or boats was to be seen ; but Com. Preble in his official letter states that one of the enemy's largest boats was missing, and three others were observed very much shattered and damaged, which the Tripolitans were hauling on shore ; whilst Capt. Bainbridge, then a prisoner in the Bashaw's castle in Tripoli, says in his journal in speaking of this enterprise, “which unfortunate scheme did no damage whatever to the Tripolitans; nor did it even appear to leave them in confusion.”
The Bashaw of Tripoli, desirous of finding out how many Americans had been killed in the explosion, offered a dollar for every body that was discovered. By the 6th, two days after the disaster, all the bodies were brought in. In the bottom of the Intrepid, which had drifted among the rocks, were found two bodies; in the Constitution's boat, which had drifted ashore, one body was discovered ; on the southern shore six corpses had drifted, and the remaining four were found afloat in the harbor.
The two bodies found in the bottom of the ketch, and the four discovered floating in the harbor, were seen by Capt. Bainbridge. He says they were so much disfigured it was impossible to recognise any feature known to us, or even to distinguish an officer from a seaman.
Mr. Cowdery, a surgeon's mate of the late frigate Philadelphia, who on account of his useful professional services was allowed many privileges in the city, observed more than Capt. Bainbridge. He saw all thirteen of the bodies. He was enabled to select, by the fragments of clothes found upon them and by their delicate hands, the three officers; and he was most probably right, since the Americans in Tripoli did not know how many officers were in the Intrepid.
The ten seamen were buried on the shore out of the city, near the walls. The three officers were entombed in one grave, on a plain a short distance to the south and east of the Bashaw's castle. Small stones were placed at the four corners of the last grave to designate its place; but these were soon after removed by the Turks, who would not permit what they deemed a Christian monument disfigure their land.” Several of the American officers imprisoned in Tripoli were allowed the consolation of paying the last sad offices to the heroic dead.
A monument to their memory, erected by their brother officers, stands in the Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.
To conjecture alone the historian is left, regarding the cause of explosion of the Intrepid. A number of theories have been advanced: one that a cannon-ball may have passed through her and struck fire upon a bolt, spike, or even a nail ; another, that it was caused by a hot shot; still another, by an accident on the Intrepid itself; also, that she grounded and was blown up to escape capture ; lastly, it is siaied the Intrepid was surrounded by two Tripolitan corsairs of a hundred men each, and to prevent being taken, the powder in her was ignited.
This last, saving the presence of the two gunboats, for which we have no official authority, but which may be readily believed, since three gunboats were seen at the western entrance of the harbor before the Intrepid went in, and the Tripolitans' early discovery of the ketch, is the most reasonable hypothesis. It is known Somers and all his men did not intend to be taken. Discovered, surrounded, outnumbered, what would Somers do? Just what he said he would. The circumstances bear out the supposition. The hurrying, moving, waving light along the deck of a vessel where it was known the Intrepid was, then sinking below, suggests the idea of a swist messenger to the splinterroom; darkness for a half-minute after the disappearance below of the light — time enough to execute the order — then the awful explosion. The aroused suspicions of the Tripolitans and the early discovery