A Timely Victory
Outraged by the seizure of American vessels and other humiliations by the so-called Barbary pirates, in 1801 President Thomas Jefferson sent a squadron of ships to the Mediterranean. He hoped to coerce the Sultan of Morocco, the Dey of Algiers, the Bey of Tunis, and the Bashaw of Triploi to cease such practices. The appearance of three frigates and a schooner had the desired effect on the others, but the Bashaw was a different story. Having declared war on the United States, the Tripolitan took advantage of his tactically secure fortress-like city and remained intransigent. American Commodore Richard Dale, unsure of how far he was to go with offensive actions, opted for a rather ineffectual blockade of Tripoli. This first U.S. Navy deployment to the Mediterranean would have been a desultory disappointment were it not for a fiery young lieutenant then commanding the schooner Enterprise .
Lieutenant Andrew Sterrett had served under Captain Thomas Truxtun as third lieutenant in the Constellation during the Quasi-War with France. In the midst of a battle with a French frigate, in which one of Sterrett's gunners lost his nerve and deserted his post, Sterrett cornered the man and ran him through with his sword. The incident later caused a great deal of debate, and Sterrett inspired his supporters and appalled his detractors when he wrote to his brother, "You must not think this strange, for we would put a man to death for even looking pale in this ship."
Sterrett's bellicosity was still evident when he took command of the Enterprise as part of the Mediterranean squadron. Encountering the 14-gun corsair Tripoli , commanded by Rais Mahomet Rous, Sterrett approached flying a British Union Jack, a common deceptive practice in those days. Sterrett hailed the Tripolitan, and asked what business had taken him to sea. Rous replied, "I am hunting Americans," then added, "Alas, I have not found any so far."
Sterrett sardonically replied, "Is that so?" and hoisted his American colors. His men fired a volley of musketry that was answered by a broadside from the corsair. The two ships commenced a running gun battle that lasted nearly three hours. Twice during the fierce engagement the Tripolitan captain struck his colors as a sign of surrender, but when the Americans sent a boat to board, Rous reopened fire and ran his colors back up. After a third resumption of devastating fire, the Tripolitan at last tore down his colors and this time tossed them into the sea. In his after-action report to the squadron commodore, Sterrett wrote:
The carnage on board was dreadful; she having 30 men killed and 30 wounded, among the latter was the Captain and first lieutenant. Her sails, masts and rigging were cut to pieces with 18 shot between wind and water. Shortly after taking possession, her mizzenmast went over the side. . . . With heartfelt pleasure I add, that the officers and men throughout the vessel behaved in the most spirited and determined manner, obeying every command with promptitude and alertness. We have not had a man wounded, and we have sustained no material damage in our hull or rigging.
It was a minor victory among minor ships from minor nations, yet it came at a formative time when the fledgling U.S. Navy was just emerging onto the world stage. In that context, it was a major victory and the harbinger of greater things to come.