Killing the Prisoners: What Did Decatur Order in Tripoli Harbor?

Frederick C. Leiner

‘Give No Quarter’

Heermann’s accounts provide a clear narrative. After days of battling storms and atrocious conditions on board, the Intrepid slowly wafted into Tripoli on the evening of 16 February 1804. According to Heermann, the “immediate plan” for the attack had been “a frequent subject of conversation” in the Intrepid ’s cabin among Decatur and his four fellow officers—Lieutenants James Lawrence, Joseph Bainbridge, and Jonathan Thorn and Heermann—in the nearly two weeks leading up to the attack.

During these conversations, Decatur distilled his directives into 11 “rules.” The second rule was “to give no quarter.” Heermann’s “Reminiscences” reports Decatur’s explicit justification for why no prisoners were to be taken: “First, because we did not expect any; secondly, our force was too small to guard many prisoners; [and] thirdly, as we had a right to expect hard fighting at close quarters, and pursuit to a considerable distance, the prisoners within might seize a critical moment to turn the scale against us.” 6

More than 100 cannon in batteries and on gunboats protected the captured frigate inside the harbor. The water was smooth the night of the raid. In the moonlight, the U.S. sailors could see the bashaw’s castle and the city’s prominent buildings and minarets as the ship slipped by a Tripolitan gun battery, which did not open fire. The Philadelphia lay directly ahead. The Intrepid sailed directly toward her and several small gunboats nearby. 7

Sixty men were to make the assault, while others were to take the Intrepid ’s boats off the bow and stern of the Philadelphia to prevent Tripolitan reinforcements from intervening. Decatur told Heermann that, in distributing responsibilities for the assault, he had run out of officers. Heermann was left on board the Intrepid —in command of seven men, anticipating that the Tripolitans guarding the Philadelphia , “when pressed hard, will be apt to retreat from the spar deck and board the ketch.” 8 If they tried to board, Decatur warned, “your safety will consist of giving no quarter.” Without the Intrepid , there was no escape for the Americans, and Decatur ordered the doctor “at all events, to defend her to the last man.” 9

As the Intrepid drew close to the Philadelphia , Decatur quietly passed the word for his assault groups to gather on deck. The silence was broken when the Intrepid was 100 feet or so away from the looming frigate. A lookout on board the Philadelphia hailed in Arabic to demand what ship was that, and what was she doing. Decatur was ready for this moment. Standing next to him was Salvadore Catalano, the pilot, who spoke enough Arabic to make himself understood. Catalano called out that the ketch was from Malta and had lost her anchors in a gale. He asked if she could tie up to the anchored frigate for the night. The lookout called back with permission. Just as the Intrepid was about to come into contact with the much larger frigate, however, the wind shifted. Blowing from the frigate toward the ketch, the wind pushed the Intrepid about 20 yards away from the Philadelphia . 10

Charles Morris, then a 19-year-old midshipman, later recalled this as “a moment of great anxiety.” Quietly, Decatur motioned Lieutenant Lawrence to lower the Intrepid ’s boat and make fast a line from the Intrepid ’s bow to the Philadelphia ’s bow. At the same time, Decatur directed Midshipman Thomas Anderson to gather the nine men he had brought over from the U.S. brig Syren the day before, man the Syren ’s boat (which the Intrepid was towing), row over to the frigate’s stern, and toss up another line. (The Syren had accompanied the Intrepid to Tripoli but lagged far behind her in the failing wind.) With hawsers between the ketch and the frigate fore and aft, the sailors in the Intrepid would pull themselves to the Philadelphia . The Syren ’s boat began to row across. But a Tripolitan boat, perhaps from the frigate, met the ketch halfway. Without a word, the Americans handed their line over, the two lines were knotted together, and each boat rowed back to its own ship. With links between ketch and frigate established, Anderson passed the line up to the Intrepid ’s deck. Her crew began to haul the ketch closer and closer to the frigate by main force. 11

When only a few yards separated the Intrepid from the Philadelphia , an unknown Tripolitan looked down into the ketch from the frigate’s deck, realized who the men massed on her deck with cutlasses and pikes and axes must be, and screamed an alarm. But the U.S. sailors were almost there. A moment later, the ketch nudged up against the frigate.

Boarders Away

Decatur and Morris were the first two Americans to jump onto the side of the frigate, but soon, in Heermann’s memorable phrase, the “boarders hung on the ship’s side like [a] cluster [of] bees.” 12 Up the side they went, over the rail onto the frigate’s spar deck. In front of this torrent, Tripolitan sailors jumped overboard, and others who resisted were overwhelmed by U.S. sailors stabbing and slashing with cutlasses and pikes. In a few seconds of frantic fighting, the Americans seized control of the deck. Only one was slightly wounded. 13

Heermann recalled the action in detail:

After the first exclamation of “Ali Mohamed!” the sound of voices and the clashing of arms, left, during the contest nothing of distinct perception to the ear; and the fire of small arms now commencing from the two cruizers close by (xebecs) and followed soon after by the cannon of the bashaw’s castle and other batteries, together with the whooping and howling on shore, filled the air. . . . Some of the Enemy in retreating, had gone up the rigging, some in the channels, some jumped overboard, and others [hid] in the hold of the ship. . . . As a signal of success, and also for assistance of men and boats from the Syren , a rocket was fired. 14

The U.S. sailors did nothing to stop “one large boat load [who] made their escape; many leapt into the sea & it is supposed a number hid themselves below.” The raiding parties went below in search of armed defenders. There were none. Decatur ordered each assault group to lay their “combustibles.” Men dashed back to the Intrepid to haul the explosive charges to their planned destinations on the frigate. As the minutes ticked away, the Tripolitans kept up an inaccurate fire with small arms and cannon but did not counterattack. Although two large Tripolitan corsair vessels lay close by, they did not intervene. 15

Who Gave the Order?

But the fight was not over. According to his 1828 affidavit, Heermann heard from his post on board the Intrepid one of the U.S. sailors standing lookout on the recaptured Philadelphia call out “in quick succession the approach of [the] enemy’s boats, and their retreat, with an interval of time just sufficient to execute the order[s] which grew out of it—‘of killing all prisoners,’ and draw[ing] from the ketch part of a supply of ammunition, small arms, and pikes, for the defence of the ship.” 16

Heermann also stated that prisoners were killed in his 1826 “Reminiscences”:

The advance of armed boats from the shore at this moment led to the death of every prisoner above deck; and from the apparent necessity of making a rigorous resistance on board the Frigate suspended for a while her being fired. The boats however retreating again, when the gun deck was all of a sudden beautifully illuminated by the candles of the crew. The squads, supplied with combustibles, repaired to their stations [and then, on Decatur’s order, lit fires to burn the ship]. 17

To be sure, in neither account did Heermann identify who gave the order, or how many Tripolitan prisoners were slain. Killing prisoners is an ugly business, and it is not surprising that Heermann provided no additional details, particularly because that was not the purpose of his accounts. What is surprising is that he stated under oath in an affidavit, and in a separate account in Mrs. Decatur’s bid for financial relief, that the Americans had done so at all.

According to Heermann’s affidavit, “The whooping and screaming of the enemy, on being boarded and defeated, drew an almost instantaneous and continued fire of small arms from two xebecs lying near; and that, after throwing a rocket by Captain Decatur, which was done immediately upon possession being had of the ship, a brisk cannonade commenced, and was kept up from the castle and other batteries.” 18 With the sailors outnumbered and encumbered with prisoners, Heermann recalled two orders: that sailors were sent back to the Intrepid for a “supply of ammunition, small arms, and pikes, for the defence of the ship” and “of killing all prisoners.”

The tactical situation is not perfectly clear from the surviving eyewitness accounts, but as enemy gunboats approached, it appears Decatur understood a counterattack was in the offing. Decatur was ruthless enough to order that prisoners be killed. Moreover, his three lieutenants—Lawrence, Thorn, and Bainbridge—all were below deck at least for some of this time, directing the laying of combustibles to fire the ship. Decatur likely was the only commissioned officer on deck, and he was the senior officer. The accounts do not state explicitly who gave the order, but who besides Decatur could have done so?

Heermann was the only person in Decatur’s expedition who asserted that the Americans killed their prisoners. But there is a reference in a Tripolitan document suggesting the same thing. Two weeks after the raid, the bashaw’s minister, Sidi Muhammed Dghies, wrote to Captain William Bainbridge, the former commander of the Philadelphia who was then a prisoner in Tripoli. Dghies said that “three of the Guards of the Frigate have been found dead on the shore between Tripol[i] and Mesurat covered with wounds. How long has it been since Nations massacred their Prisoners?” 19 Bainbridge passed a translation of the letter to Commodore Edward Preble, commander of the Mediterranean Squadron, but wrote Dghies that it was “an incontrovertible fact, that the Americans always treat their Prisoners with the greatest humanity and give [quarter] the moment opposition ceases.” 20

Preble’s own response to Dghies was less definitive:

I regret that any lives were lost in destroying the Frigate, [but] the Men who were killed in taking possession of her, had a right to expect their fate from the opposition they made, and the alarm they endeavoured to create. Our People were few in number, and had everything to apprehend from an attack by their Cruisers and armed boats[.] The Officer who conducted the expedition has not reported to me any Massacre or inhumanity.” 21

The fact that the Tripolitans saw dead bodies with many wounds two weeks later does not necessarily mean those men had surrendered and then were killed deliberately as the gunboats approached; they may have been killed at any point in the fighting.

Yet in two accounts, Heermann stated that the prisoners on the Philadelphia’s deck were killed. Moreover, he contrasted the order to kill prisoners with his attempt, minutes later, to save the life of a wounded Tripolitan. Near the end of the assault, the Naval Chronicle reports, a Tripolitan sailor “jumped on board the ketch, from the gun deck of the ship; but as he was severely wounded, and the motive for making no prisoners no longer existed, the doctor spared his life.” 22

‘Expressely against the Law of Arms’

What are we to make of the doctor’s account?

Heermann heard an order issued to kill the prisoners, and his statements make clear that prisoners were killed. He did not state explicitly that he saw Tripolitan prisoners executed; that may be due to his indirect writing style. It is also possible that because the alleged killings took place on the deck of the Philadelphia , which was alongside but far above where Heermann stood on the Intrepid , he may not have been able to see the killing. Nevertheless, he clearly understood that it happened.

Lewis Heermann is the only known source for the claim that Decatur’s men killed prisoners. Historians have deemed him a reliable eyewitness: His affidavit and the Naval Chronicle are widely cited sources on the burning of the Philadelphia and have not had their accuracy or honesty otherwise questioned. Moreover, it is doubtful that Heermann, a respected senior naval surgeon in the 1820s who venerated Decatur, would have fabricated something so morally problematic as killing prisoners, not least because other veterans of the raid, including then-Captain Charles Morris, were alive to correct his account if it were false.

Assuming, then, the accounts are true—does it matter? Surely, it does. First, Heermann’s accounts add an important and disturbing element to the story. The order to kill prisoners is crucial to understanding Decatur, demonstrating not only the desperation he felt, but also his ruthless dedication to the mission and his men. How we understand Decatur as a man and as a leader must be affected by Heermann’s accounts.

Second, Heermann raises difficult issues. Long before the raid into Tripoli Harbor, killing prisoners had been proscribed under the law of nations and was considered an egregious moral violation in Western culture. For instance, in Book III of On the Law of War and Peace (1625), the Dutch theorist of international law Hugo Grotius cited a host of ancient Greek writers, Saint Augustine, and others to set forth the principle that prisoners of war may not be killed and makes clear that those who violate that law are guilty of a great crime. In the 1599 play Henry V , Shakespeare depicts the 1415 Battle of Agincourt. As the battle winds down in Act IV, Henry, panicking as the French reinforce their lines, orders, “Then every soldier kill his prisoners!” After the deed is done, Fluellen, a Welsh captain in the English service, declaims, “Kill the poys and the luggage? ’Tis expressly against the law of arms; ’tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offert—in your conscience, now, is it not?” Like the English king in the play, Decatur likely saw the tactical situation teetering out of control and wanted to be able to defend against a counterattack without having Tripolitan sailors in his midst. Nevertheless, if we believe Heermann, Decatur had planned on killing prisoners from the outset, unlike Henry V.

Prisoners of war have been killed during and after many battles across the centuries, although revenge, not the tactical situation, has been the more common motive. During the American Revolution, the British Army gave no quarter to the Continental Army in a number of battles, including a September 1777 engagement still known as the “Paoli Massacre.” 23 After the siege of Jaffa in March 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte—outraged that Ottoman troops had severed the heads of French prisoners and had violated their parole to fight against French forces—ordered hundreds of prisoners killed. 24 At Fort Pillow in the Civil War, on 12 April 1864, Confederate soldiers under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred dozens of black soldiers who had tried to surrender. 25 During World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, in revenge for the massacre at Malmédy, U.S. soldiers shot German prisoners, particularly from SS units. 26

The Effect on Decatur’s Legacy

If a commander today ordered enemy prisoners killed, it is impossible to imagine the Navy not investigating such a report, with severe consequences to the perpetrators. Indeed, had Heermann reported in 1804 the events he wrote about in the 1820s, the Navy might have investigated it contemporaneously. Of course, that did not happen, and Heermann’s narratives have been hiding in plain sight for almost two centuries.

How historians now will tell the story of the raid to burn the Philadelphia , and what they will write about Decatur, only time will tell.


1. Heermann (1779–1833), a German immigrant, received a surgeon’s mate warrant in the Navy in February 1802. After serving in the Tripolitan War, He was promoted surgeon in November 1804. He later served at Norfolk, New Orleans, and as fleet surgeon in the Mediterranean squadron. F. L. Pleadwell and William M. Kerr, Lewis Heermann, Surgeon in the United States Navy (1779–1833) (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1923); Harold D. Langley, A History of Medicine in the Early U.S. Navy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

2. The one account that refers to the possible killing of prisoners is Ian W. Toll, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006). Decatur’s biographers include: Alexander S. Mackenzie, Irvin Anthony, Charles Lee Lewis, James T. de Kay, Spencer C. Tucker, Robert J. Allison, and Leonard F. Guttridge.

3. Charles W. Goldsborough, The United States Naval Chronicle (Washington: James Wilson, 1824), 257ff.

4. “Reminiscences of Lewis Heermann Surgeon U.S. Navy–1826,” Claim of Susan Decatur, Record Group 23, 23rd Congress, House Committee on Naval Affairs, Claims (HR 23A-D13.1, bundle 3), National Archives and Records Administration.

5. Affidavit of Dr. Lewis Heermann, 26 April 1828, in Dudley W. Knox (ed.), Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers [ NDBW ], 7 volumes, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1939–45), 3:418-20.

6. Heermann, “Reminiscences,” 4. Original punctuation revised for clarity.

7. Heermann “Affidavit”; Charles Morris, The Autobiography of Commodore Charles Morris , U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002), 26–30.

8. Heermann’s taking command of the Intrepid as soon as Decatur ordered “boarders away” was Decatur’s fifth “rule.” Heermann “Reminiscences,” 4.

9. Goldborough, Naval Chronicle , 257ff. Goldsborough must have heard this account from Heermann, whom he quotes but does not attribute here.

10. Morris, Autobiography , 28; Ralph Izard Jr. letter to Mrs. Ralph Izard, Sr., 17 February 1804, NDBW , 3:416–17.

11. Albert Gleaves, James Lawrence: Captain, United States Navy (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 49; Morris, Autobiography , 28; Ralph Izard letter, 3:416–17.

12. Heermann, “Reminiscences,” 8.

13. Morris, Autobiography , 30; NDBW , 3:416–17, Izard letter.

14. Heermann, “Reminiscences.”

15. Edward Preble letter to James Leander Cathcart, 19 February 1804, NDBW , 3:437-38.

16. Heermann, “Affidavit.” Quotation marks around “of killing all prisoners” are Heermann’s. 

17. Heermann, “Reminiscences,” 9.

18. Heermann, “Affidavit.”

19. Sidi Muhammed Dghies letter to William Bainbridge, 5 March 1804 NDBW , 3:474. 

20. Bainbridge letter to Dghies, 5 March 1804 NDBW, 3:475.

21. Edward Preble letter to William Bainbridge, 12 March 1804, NDBW , 3:489–90; Toll, Six Frigates , 213–14, equivocates, quoting Heermann’s affidavit but stating Preble “categorically denied the charge.” 

22. Goldsborough, Naval Chronicle , 257ff. (emphasis added).

23. Christopher Hibbert, Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes (New York: Avon Books, 1990), 158–59. 

24. Philippe Bohstrom, “ Mass Graves Found in Jaffa Date to Invasion by Napoleon ,” Haaretz , 24 May 2017.

25. Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 373.

26. Antony Beevor, Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge (New York: Viking, 2015), 221–22, 294–95, 332–33. Beevor notes on 364 that “[t]he shooting of prisoners of war has always been a far more common practice than military historians . . . acknowledge, especially when writing of their own countrymen.”

Mr. Leiner, a lawyer, is the author of The End of Barbary Terror: America’s 1815 War with the Pirates of North Africa (Oxford University Press, 2006) and Millions for Defense: The Subscription Warships of 1798 (Naval Institute Press, 2000), and is a frequent contributor to Naval History . He thanks William S. Dudley and Christopher McKee for their review of and comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
 

 
 

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