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William Bainbridge

naval commander during the Tripolitan War and the War of 1812

William Bainbridge

William Bainbridge was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on May 7, 1774. He entered the merchant marine at the age of fifteen, and at nineteen became commander of a merchant ship. From that time on he had an exciting, and distinguished, career.

In 1796, while commanding the ship Hope on a trip from Bordeaux to St. Thomas, he was attacked by a British schooner armed with eight guns and thirty men. Bainbridge returned fire until the schooner struck her colors. The Hope was armed with four nine-pound guns and nine men. Instead of taking the schooner as a prize, Bainbridge told the captain to "go about his business and report to his masters that if they wanted his ship they must send a greater force to take her, and a more skillful commander." On another occassion, the English ship Indefatigable, commanded by Sir Edward Pellew, impressed a seaman from on board the Hope. Bainbridge subsequently boarded the first English merchant ship he encountered at sea and impressed the best seaman she had on board, and told the merchantman's captain to report to his superiors that William Bainbridge had taken one of his majesty's subjects in retaliation for a seaman taken from the American ship Hope by Lieutenant Norton of the Indefatigable.

Upon organization of the U.S. Navy in 1798, Bainbridge's reputation for bravery and intelligence earned him command of the schooner Retaliation, with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander. That same year, during diplomatic difficulties with France, his ship was captured and he was imprisoned briefly. When the Retaliation returned to the United States it carried a number of American prisoners who had obtained their liberty because of Bainbridge's relationship with the Governor of Guadeloupe. This accomplishment gained him a promotion to the rank of Master-Commandant and command of the brig Norfolk.

The Norfolk was sent to the West Indies to report to Commander Christopher R. Perry. While there, Bainbridge captured the French lugger Republican and destroyed several other vessels. In recognition of these services, the merchants of Havana presented Bainbridge with a most complimentary letter.

In May 1800, Bainbridge was ordered to take command of the frigate George Washington and to carry tribute to the Dey of Algiers -- paid by the United States to insure the safety of American merchant ships sailing in the Mediterranean. As if this act wasn't bad enough, Bainbridge was then obliged to accede to a demand of the Dey to sail under a foreign flag on a diplomatic mission to the sultan of Turkey. Bainbridge would later write of this assignment: "I hope I may never again be sent to Algiers with tribute, unless I am authorized to deliver it from the mouth of our cannon."

On May 20, 1801, after the Tripolitan War broke out, Bainbridge was given command of the Essex and ordered to sail with Commander Richard Dale's squadron against the Barbary powers. On May 20, 1803, he was ordered to command the Philadelphia and sail againt Tripolitan corsairs. Soon after his arrival in the Mediterranean, he captured the Moorish ship-of-war Mesh-boha, and recaptured the American brig Celica. On October 31, 1803, while chasing a Tripolitan corsair, the Philadelphia was wrecked off the coast of Tripoli and Bainbridge was forced to surrender his ship and crew. Bainbridge and his men were held prisoner until 1805, but a mission led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur was able to sneak into the Tripoli harbor and burn the Philadelphia in order to prevent its use by the Tripolitans.

Soon after returning to the United States, Bainbridge was ordered to command the naval yard at New York, but he obtained a furlough and opted to re-enter the merchant service instead, where he served until 1808. In March 1808, with the possibility of war with England looming, Bainbridge was ordered back into naval service and placed in command of the frigate President. When war failed to come, Bainbridge again obtained a furlough and returned to merchant service.

In 1811, upon hearing that the President had been engaged in a battle with the British ship-of-war Little Belt, Bainbridge left his ship at St. Petersburg and returned to the United States. He was originally ordered to command the naval yard at Charleston, but on the declaration of war with Great Britain he requested the command of a frigate. Not only was his request granted, he got more than he asked for -- command of the Constitution, command of the frigate Essex, Captain David Porter and the sloop Hornet, and Captain James Lawrence. On December 29, 1812, the Constitution took on the British frigate Java, which was forced to surrender after a battle of three hours and fifteen minutes. The Java was almost completely destroyed and suffered 60 men killed and 101 wounded, while the Constitution lost but 9 killed and 25 wounded (including Bainbridge, who was struck twice during the battle).

Bainbridge was received with high honors upon his return to the United States, and then ordered to command the Charleston naval yard, where he served until 1815. That year the United States declared war against the regency of Algiers and fitted out a large squadron under the command of Bainbridge to protect American commerce in the Mediterranean. The war was over later that same year. Bainbridge spent most of the rest of his career commanding naval yards up and down the Atlantic coast.

Bainbridge died in Philadelphia, on July 28, 1833.

New Jersey
Stephen Decatur
Declaration of War
USS Constitution
James Lawrence

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Revolution to the Civil War, 1775/1783-1861 >> Middle 19th Century, 1845-1861 >> James Madison's Administration, 1809-1817

This page was last updated on May 07, 2018.