That So Small a Vessel . . .
As British colors snapped in the wind at the main above him, 23-year-old U.S. Navy Lieutenant Andrew Sterett inquired of the yellow-sided polacca that lay within hailing distance on 1 August 1801, what was the object of her voyage?
"To cruise after the Americans," replied Rais Mahomet Rous, the bearded captain of the 14-gun Tripoline man-of-war Tripoli. He then "lamented that he had not come along side some of them." At that, Sterett ordered the Stars and Stripes broken at the main. Musketry crackled from the American's deck, and the 12-gun schooner Enterprize soon embarked on giving the enemy captain cause to rue his lamentation.
Authorized by Congress on 27 April 1798, the Enterprize was designed as an answer to small fast men-of-war employed by the French. She was completed in 1799 at Baltimore, Maryland, by Henry Spencer's shipyard at a cost of $16,240. The ship sailed on her first cruise on 17 December 1799 under Lieutenant John Shaw and served in the Quasi-War with France, fighting five actions and capturing 19 vessels. When Shaw's health failed because of prolonged exposure to the tropics, Lieutenant Sterett, formerly first lieutenant of the frigate Constellation, relieved him in October 1800.
Under Sterett, the Enterprize captured the French privateer L'Amour de la Patrie and fought to a draw against a heavily armed French lugger manned by a crew of more than 150 men. The end of hostilities with France, however, prompted a reduction in size of the Navy with the Enterprize enjoying the distinction of being the sole ship of her type to be retained under the Peace Establishment Act. Her sailors were paid between $5 and $14 a month, depending upon their skills, and lived on a diet of beef, pork, bread, cheese, rice, peas, and distilled spirits.
Continuing depredations by the Barbary Corsairs reinvigorated the sea service. On 1 June 1801, the Enterprize, still with Sterett in command, sailed for the Mediterranean. Off Tripoli on 30 July, Commodore Richard Dale, in command of the American forces blockading the port, ordered Sterett to proceed to Malta, "there to take in as much water as you can possibly bring back," then to "make every Exertion" to return as quickly as possible. He cautioned Sterett not to "chace [sic] out of your way" en route to his destination, owing to the fact that the schooner's own water supply would not be great. Furthermore, the commodore instructed Sterett to be "particularly attentive to the Laws and regulation's of the Place, and not suffer your officers or People to get into any scrapes with the people on shore, or elsewhere."
Should anyone pose questions concerning the American squadron, Dale enjoined the Enterprize's commanding officer to simply tell them "that the Bey of Tripoli has declared war against the United States, that two of the Frigates [are employed] in convoying the Merchant Ships, of the United States to and from Different ports in the Mediterranean, that the President and your Vessel, at present are cruising between Tunis and Tripoli." If the Enterprize were to encounter an American vessel taken by the Tripolines while en route to Malta, Sterett was to take her into port and leave her there in charge of one of his officers and a few men. If encountering a captured American vessel, the Enterprize was to bring her along. "Should you fall in with any of the Tripolian Corsairs that you are confident, you can manage, on your passage to Malta you will heave all his Guns Over board Cut away his Masts, & leave him In a situation that he can Just make out to get into some port."
If on the other hand the Enterprize should encounter a corsair on her return voyage, Dale enjoined Sterett to "bring her with you if you think you can doe it with safety but on no account run any risque of your vessel or the health of your crew." Dale also directed Sterett to "use any colours as a deception when necessary, but on no account to fire under any but your Owne."
The ship, with four officers and 90 men on board, set out on her voyage and soon encountered the Tripoli and her crew of 80 about 21 miles west of Malta. After the Americans showed their true colors and opened the engagement, the Tripolines loosed half a broadside to no effect, and the action became general, continuing for three hours.
Three times the Tripoli closed to board, but each time was driven back by the Enterprize's fire. Lieutenant of Marines Enoch S. Lane's Leathernecks proved "eminently useful" in their marksmanship. When the Tripolines struck their colors, the Enterprize's crew gave three cheers of victory only to see their adversaries renew the battle. That happened twice more, the third and final time provoking the exasperated Sterett to order his gunners to fire until the Tripoli sank. Ultimately, Rais Mahomet cried out for mercy. Sterett, "listening to the voice of humanity, even after such perfidious conduct," ordered Mahomet to come himself or send some of his officers aboard the Enterprize. The Tripolitan demurred, saying that the polacca's boat had been shattered.
Sterett eventually sent a boat. The schooner's men soon discovered the dreadful carnage their guns had wreaked on board their adversary: 30 killed, including the second lieutenant and surgeon, and 20 wounded, including the captain and first lieutenant. The Enterprize's gunfire had shot her sails, masts, and rigging to pieces with the Tripoli taking 18 rounds between wind and water. Shortly after the Americans had taken possession, the mizzenmast toppled over the side into the sea.
Sterett saw to the wounded and, in accordance with his orders, left the Tripoli with only a spar for a mast and an old sail, then sent her on her way. "With heartfelt pleasure," Sterett later wrote, "I add, that the officers and men throughout the vessel, behaved in a most spirited and determined manner, obeying every command with promptitude and alertness. We have not a man wounded, and we have sustained no material damage in our hull and rigging."
Commodore Dale, when learning of the action, declared to James Leander Cathcart, a former U.S. consul to Tripoli, "[Y]ou see we make your promiss good to the Bey—that the Americans will fight—the Bey is much mortified, that so small a Vessel should take one of his corsairs." Writing to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith on 18 August 1801, Dale called Sterett "a Good Officer, [who] Deserves well of his country."
After further duty blockading Tripoli, the Enterprize sailed for home with Commodore Dale's dispatches. On 3 February 1802, Congress honored the gallantry of Sterett and his Sailors and Marines by asking that the President present the Enterprize's commanding officer with "a sword, commemorative of the aforesaid historic action." It also requested that all the ship's men be allowed a month's pay in recognition of their services that day.
Sterett returned to the Mediterranean in the Enterprize for a second cruise, sailing for home in April of 1802 and turning over command to Lieutenant Isaac Hull. Later, under the command of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr., the Enterprize captured the ketch Mastico. Renamed the Intrepid, commanded by Decatur and manned by a crew of volunteers, the ketch daringly entered Tripoli harbor and destroyed the frigate Philadelphia in what Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson called "the most bold and daring act of the age."
The Enterprize, rerigged as a brig and upgunned, served in the War of 1812, fighting a celebrated 1814 battle with the British brig Boxer, which neither of the opposing commanders survived. A musket ball felled Lieutenant William Burrows of the Enterprize early, and Captain Samuel Blyth of the Boxer was decapitated by a shot. Ultimately, the Enterprize hunted pirates closer to home in the West Indies, and there she ended her days, running aground off Little Curacao Island in July 1823. Part of her good fortune, however, continued to hold. She had lost not a man in her demise.