A Connecticut Yankee, son of a Revolutionary brigadier general, short, rotund Isaac Hull went to sea at an early age at his father’s urging and already had qualified as a ship’s master by 1798, at age 25. He accepted a proffered commission as a lieutenant in the then forming U.S. Navy in March of that year and, having had little formal education, hired a tutor to improve his penmanship and letter-writing ability. He was assigned to the Constitution, and during nearly four years in the frigate, he rose from fourth to first lieutenant, serving in her throughout the 1798–1801 Quasi War with France.
Detached from the Constitution in April 1802, Hull next became first lieutenant of the light frigate John Adams , but soon was ordered to command of the schooner Enterprize . He sailed her to the Mediterranean then exchanged commands with Stephen Decatur, taking over the brig Argus . Promoted to master commandant in May 1804, he was one of Commodore Edward Preble’s “boys”—that generation of young officers destined to shape the legacy of the Old Navy. In early 1805 Hull provided the naval-command component in the successful taking of Derne, Tripoli, by General William Eaton and a force of U.S. Marines and Arabs. Ordered home later that year, after peace had been gained, Hull was promoted to captain in April 1806.
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