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William Bainbridge
May 7, 1774(1774-05-07) – July 27, 1833 (aged 59)
William Bainbridge.jpg
Place of birth Princeton, New Jersey
Place of death Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Place of burial Christ Church Burial Ground Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1798-1831
Rank Commodore
Commands held USS Retaliation
[USS Norfolk (1798)
Battles/wars First Barbary War
War of 1812
Second Barbary War
Awards Congressional Gold Medal

William Bainbridge (May 7, 1774 – July 27, 1833) was a Commodore in the United States Navy, notable for his victory over HMS Java during the War of 1812.



Born in Princeton, New Jersey, Bainbridge at the age of 14 went to sea in the merchant service, and was in command of a trading schooner (a fore-and-aft-rigged vessel with two or more masts) at an early age. The American trading vessels of that period were supposed to be excluded by the navigation laws from commerce with the British West Indies, though with the concealed or very slightly disguised assistance of the planters, they engaged in a good deal of contraband commerce.

By 1798, post-revolutionary France was no longer allied with the United States but was preying upon U.S. merchant shipping. This, coupled with the French Foreign Minister's refusal to discuss the matter with U.S. envoys unless substantial bribes and concessions were paid, known as the XYZ Affair, led in part to an exponential increase in popular support and federal funding for a standing navy to combat French predation on U.S. shipping. With the organization of the United States Navy in 1798, Bainbridge was included in the naval officer corps and appointed commanding Lieutenant of the schooner USS Retaliation. On November 20, 1798, Lt. Bainbridge surrendered the USS Retaliation to a French cruiser without opposition, the first ship in the nascent United States Navy to be surrendered. Bainbridge was not disciplined for this action.

In 1799, Bainbridge was appointed Master Commandant of the brig USS Norfolk of 18 guns and ordered to further cruise against the French.

Bainbridge paying tribute to the Dey.

In 1800, Bainbridge was given the ignominious task of carrying the tribute which the United States still paid to the dey of Algiers to secure exemption from capture for U.S. merchant ships in the Mediterranean. Upon arrival in the 24-gun USS George Washington, he made the tactical mistake of anchoring in the harbor of Algiers—directly under the guns of the fort. The dey demanded that he ferry the Algerian ambassador and retinue to Constantinople or be blown to bits on the spot. Bainbridge raised the Algerian flag on his masthead and submitted to the embarrassment of serving as the dey's messenger service.[1]

When the United States found that bribing the pirate Barbary states did not work, and decided to use force, he served against Algiers and Tunis. In command of the USS Philadelphia, he mistakenly ran the ship aground on the Tunisian coast on December 29, 1803. He surrendered his crew despite the fact that his ship did not suffer any battle damage. In fact the ship floated free of the unmarked sandbar after high tide and was captured by the Bey of Tunis.

Lieutenant Stephen Decatur commanding the USS Intrepid executed a night raid into Tripoli harbor on February 16, 1804 to destroy the Philadelphia. Admiral Lord Nelson is said to have called this "the most bold and daring act of the Age".[2][3]

A painting of a ship on fire. It floats in the water with flames reaching high over its masts
Philadelphia burning in Tripoli Harbor

The capture of the Philadelphia and its crew also motivated President Jefferson's decision to send William Eaton, a former Army officer, known for his brash and defiant diplomacy, to Tripoli in 1805 to free the 300 American hostages in what was the first U.S. covert mission to overthrow a foreign nation. William Eaton established a group of about 20 Christian (eight of which were US Marines) and 100 Muslim mercenaries to begin the takeover of Tripoli starting with Derna. He managed to trek with a small detachment of Marines led by Presley O'Bannon and his mercenary force over 500 miles. Supported at sea by Isaac Hull, Captain of the USS Argus, in an effective "combined operation," Eaton led the attack in the Battle of Derna on 27 April 1805. The town's capture, memorialized in the Marines' Hymn immortal “to the shores of Tripoli” and the threat of further advance on Tripoli, were strong influences toward peace, negotiated in June 1805 by Tobias Lear and Commodore John Rodgers with the Pasha of Tripoli.

Philadelphia aground off Tripoli, in 1803.

Bainbridge was imprisoned until June 3, 1806. On his release, he returned for a time to the merchant service in order to make good the loss of profit caused by his captivity. With the conclusion of the campaign against the Barbary states, the US Navy was downsized and nearly all of her frigates remained in port. Congress forced a change to this policy in early 1809. Bainbridge took command of the frigate USS President in 1809 and began patrolling off the Atlantic coast in September of that year. Bainbridge was transferred to shore duty in June, 1810.

When the War of 1812 broke out between the United Kingdom and the United States, Bainbridge was appointed to command the 44-gun frigate USS Constitution, in succession to Captain Isaac Hull. The Constitution was a very fine ship of 1,533 tons, which had already captured the HMS Guerrière. Under Bainbridge she was sent to cruise in the South Atlantic.

Bainbridge's tombstone at the Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia.

On 29 December 1812 he fell in with the 38-gun HMS Java, a vessel of 1,083 tons, formerly the French frigate Renommée. She was on her way to the East Indies, carrying the newly appointed lieutenant-governor of Bombay. She had a very inexperienced crew, including very few trained seamen, and her men had only had one day’s gunnery drill. The United States Navy paid great attention to its gunnery, which some captains in the British Navy had neglected, having grown accustomed to easy victories over the French or lacking the time and resources for gunnery practice. In these conditions, the fate of the Java was soon sealed. She was cut to pieces and forced to surrender, after suffering heavy losses, and inflicting very little damage to the Constitution, other than removing Constitution's helm with a well-aimed shot. During the action, Bainbridge was wounded twice, but maintained command throughout; even to replacing the missing helm on the Constitution with the one from the Java before she sank. To this day, the still-commissioned Constitution (anchored in Boston Harbor) sports the helm that Bainbridge salvaged from the Java.

After the conclusion of the war with Britain, Bainbridge served against the Barbary pirates in the Second Barbary War.

In 1820, Bainbridge served as second for Stephen Decatur in the duel that cost Decatur his life. Bainbridge had actually harbored a long-standing jealousy of Decatur.

Between 1824 and 1827, he served on the Board of Navy Commissioners. He died in Philadelphia and was buried at the Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia.

Namesakes and honors

Several ships of the Navy have since been named USS Bainbridge in his honor, including the U.S. Navy's first destroyer (DD-1), a unique nuclear-powered destroyer/cruiser (CGN-25), and a contemporary Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (DDG 96). Bainbridge Island, Washington is named after Commodore Bainbridge, as well as Bainbridge Township, Ohio; Bainbridge, Georgia; Bainbridge, Indiana; Bainbridge, New York; Bainbridge Street in Philadelphia, and Old Bainbridge Road in Tallahassee. The now-deactivated Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Port Deposit, Cecil County, Maryland, was named for him.

See also


  1. ^ Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace. New York: Basic Books. 2003. p12
  2. ^ Cooper, James Fenimore (May 1853). "Old Ironsides". Putnam's Monthly I (V). Retrieved 20 October 2009. 
  3. ^ Abbot 1896, Volume I, Part I, Chapter XVI

Further reading

  • Harris, Thomas, M.D. The Life and Services of Commodore William Bainbridge. (Philadelphia, Penn.; Carey Lea & Blanchard, 1837)
  • Barnes, James. Commodore Bainbridge. (New York, N.Y.; D. Appleton and Company, 1908)
  • Dearborn, H. A. S. The Life of William Bainbridge, Esq.. (Princeton, N.J.; Princeton University Press, 1931)
  • Long, David F. Ready to Hazard: A Biography of Commodore William Bainbridge, 1774-1833. (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1981)
  • London, Joshua E. Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005. ISBN 0-471-44415-4

External links



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