Out of the darkness came the equally belligerent reply, “If you fire a shot, I will return a broadside
“What ship is that?” demanded Preble.
“This is His Britannic Majesty’s ship Donegal , 84 guns, Sir Richard Strachan, an English commodore!” a decidedly British voice returned, then imperiously ordered, “Send a boat on board!”
Quickly climbing into the shrouds, Preble formidably shouted back: “This is the United States ship Constitution , 44 guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel!” Then turning to his crew, but still speaking loud enough to be heard on the other ship, he said, “Blow your matches, boys!”
As glowing embers flared along the Constitution ’s rail, the sound of a boat being lowered to the water could be heard, and soon one emerged from the darkness carrying a British lieutenant. Once aboard the American ship, the lieutenant explained apologetically that he was not from the Donegal , a ship of the line, but from the Maidstone , a 32-gun frigate. His captain had delayed answering Preble’s challenge because—England and France then being at war—he thought that he might have encountered a French vessel and needed time to get his crew to quarters.
That early display of an aggressive spirit would be verified in the months to come, when Preble and “his boys,” as his officers came to be known, would engage their Barbary enemies with impressive intrepidity, taking the war to Tripoli in ways that would serve as inspirational precedent for a Navy that was just beginning to get its sea legs.