History does not record why Edward Preble—seventh on the list of ten captains then in service—was selected to take command of the U.S. Navy’s Mediterranean Squadron in the Spring of 1803.
In the two years since the bashaw of Tripoli had declared war on the United States in May of 1801, two previous commodores had shown themselves to be less than aggressive in prosecuting the war against the North African state. But even before Preble had entered the Mediterranean, it became obvious that things were about to change significantly, that such lethargy was soon going to be a thing of the past.
As Preble’s flagship—the frigate Constitution—neared the Strait of Gibraltar in the gathering darkness of the evening of 10 September 1803, lookouts reported what Preble determined to be a warship. Ordering the Constitution’s crew to quarters and her guns run out, Preble closed to within hailing distance. After several unsuccessful attempts to get the mysterious ship to identify herself, Preble grabbed a speaking trumpet and shouted: “I am now going to hail you for the last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you!”