Twelve Naval Captains - Molly E. Seawell

Edward Preble



The story of Commodore Preble is, in itself, not only exciting but amusing; and the gravest histories of him have not been able to keep the vagaries of the commodore's celebrated bad temper in abeyance. Preble was, unquestionably, one of the very greatest sea officers this country ever produced; and however ridiculous the outbursts of his fiery temper might make him, they never made him contemptible. "The old man has the best heart, if he has the worst temper, in the world," was always said of him by the junior officers who were the victims of his wrath. Preble seems to have come naturally by his impetuosity. His father before him, General Preble, brigadier in the provincial army, was one of the same sort, and it was commonly said by their neighbors and friends that "Ned has a good deal of the brigadier in him." The father and son were deeply attached to each other, although they often came in conflict. The last time was when Edward was about sixteen years old, in 1777. Men were so scarce, owing to most of them having enlisted in the continental army, that the old brigadier set his boys to hoeing potatoes on his farm near Portland, Maine. Edward had not worked very long when, throwing away his hoe, he declared he had no taste for such work, and walked himself off to the seacoast, where he entered the first vessel that would take him. The brigadier did not seem to regard this as wholly unjustifiable, and, seeing the boy was bent on the sea, got him a midshipman's commission in the infant navy of the colonies. In almost his first engagement Edward was taken prisoner, but was given his parole at New York. There is in existence a letter written to him at that time by his father the brigadier, which shows great affection for the boy, and the strongest possible desire that he should conduct himself honorably. The old man, then over seventy, reminds his son "not to stain his honor by attempting to escape." And another recommendation is followed by the utterance of a great truth which it would be well if every human being acted upon. It is this: "Be kind and obliging to all; for no man ever does a designed injury to another without doing a greater to himself."

Before this, an event had occurred which Preble occasionally alluded to in after life, and which, marvellous as it seems, must be accepted as true, for Preble was too close an observer to have been deceived, and too sensible a man to have assumed that he saw a thing which he did not really see.

In the summer of 1779 young Preble was attached to the Protector, a smart little continental cruiser, under the command of Captain Williams, a brave and enterprising commander. The Protector was lying in one of the bays on the Maine coast, near the mouth of the Penobscot, when on a clear, still day a large serpent was seen lying motionless on the water close to the vessel. Captain Williams examined it through his spy-glass, as did every officer on the vessel. Young Preble was ordered to attack it in a twelve-oared boat, armed with a swivel. The boat was lowered, the men armed with cutlasses and boarding-pikes, and quickly pulled toward the serpent. The creature raised its head about ten feet above the surface, and then began to make off to sea. The boat followed as rapidly as the men could force it through the water, and the swivel was fired at the serpent. This had no apparent effect, except to make the creature get out of the way the faster. Preble, however, had had a complete view of it for some time, and said, in his opinion, it was from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet long, and was about as big around as a barrel. This account must be accepted as exactly true in every particular, coming from a man like Edward Preble; and when he says he saw a sea-serpent from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet long and as big around as a barrel and got close enough to fire at it, it must be absolutely true in every particular. It must be remembered that Preble died long before sea-serpent stories became common.

Preble saw much service in the Revolution, and was the hero of a very daring achievement not long after his onslaught on the sea-serpent. He was then serving as first lieutenant on the Winthrop, a small cruiser. Captain Little, of the Winthrop, heard there was an armed brig lying at anchor under the guns of the British breastworks on the Penobscot. He gave per mission to Preble to cut the brig out, if possible. It was determined to steal in upon her at night, and carry her by boarding. On a dark night, therefore, Preble, with forty men, ran in unperceived, and the Winthrop got alongside her enemy. They all wore their white shirts over their jackets, so that they could tell friends from foes when once on the British vessel. The officer of the deck of the British ship mistook the little Winthrop for a tender of their own, and called out, "Run aboard!" "I am coming aboard," answered Captain Little, as his vessel shot along-side. Preble, with only fourteen men, leaped on the brig's deck, when the Winthrop caught a puff of wind and drifted off. As they passed ahead, Captain Little called out,

"Shall I send you some more men?"

"No," coolly answered Preble; "I have too many already."

He had then secured the few men on deck, and soon had possession of the brig. The British batteries on shore opened fire on him, but Preble managed to take the vessel out without serious damage and without losing a man.

At the end of the Revolution the navy practically ceased to exist, and Preble went into the merchant service, as so many of the officers were forced to do. But in 1798, when the quasi war with France took place, he re-entered the navy, which had been created anew. He was commissioned lieutenant in 1798, and was lucky enough the very next year to get the Essex, frigate of thirty-two guns. In her he started on what was then the longest cruise ever made by an American man-of-war. He went to the Indian Seas, to give convoy to a valuable fleet of merchant vessels engaged in the China and India trade, and which were liable to be attacked by French cruisers. He had no opportunity to distinguish himself especially in this duty, although he took care of the ships and got them all safely to New York. Soon afterward, the United States and France having come to terms, Preble went ashore and remained for two years. His health was bad in the beginning, but being much improved, in 1808 he reported for duty, and was assigned to the Constitution, forty-four guns, then preparing for a Mediterranean cruise.

At that time the relations of the United States with the piratical powers of the Barbary coast were most unsatisfactory. After years of sub-mission to their exactions,—a submission which seems almost incredible now,—the United States government determined to do in the end what it should have done in the beginning. This was to send a powerful squadron to attack these pirates of the land as well as the sea, and to force them to respect the persons and liberties of Americans. Preble was given the command of this squadron, with orders to punish Algiers, Morocco, Tunis, and especially Tripoli, so that it would not soon be forgotten. He hoisted the broad pennant of a commodore on the Constitution, and had under him the Philadelphia, a heavy frigate of thirty-eight guns, and five small vessels,—the Enterprise, Argus, Nautilus, Vixen, and Siren. It was a remarkable squadron in many ways. The Constitution  was probably the heaviest frigate afloat, and able to withstand a cannonade as well as any line-of-battle ship. In Preble she had a commander worthy of her.

Preble was then about forty years of age, and his temper had not been sweetened by dyspepsia, of which he had been a victim for a long time. The Constitution  was destined, under his command, to win for herself the famous name of "Old Ironsides" from the way in which her stout timbers resisted the tremendous cannonade of the forts and fleets at Tripoli. It was in this splendid cruise, too, that she gained her well-maintained reputation for being a lucky ship. In all her great battles she never lost her commanding officer, nor did any great slaughter ever take place on her decks, nor was she ever dismasted or seriously injured by war or weather, nor did she ever take the ground. Up to this time the Constellation  had been the favorite frigate of the navy, but, beginning with Preble's great cruise, the Constitution  became, once and for all, the darling ship, not only of the navy but of the nation.

The only other heavy frigate in the squadron was the Philadelphia, thirty-eight guns, commanded by Captain William Bainbridge. Her tragic fate and the glorious manner in which it was avenged is one of the immortal incidents of the American navy.

The five small vessels were commanded by five young men, lieutenants commandant, according to the rank of the day, of which three—Hull, Decatur, and Stewart reached the greatest distinction. Somers, the fourth, had a short but glorious career. The fifth, Captain Smith, was a brave and capable officer, but his name has been overshadowed by the four young captains, who made a truly extraordinary constellation of genius. Among the midshipmen in the squadron were two, Thomas MacDonough and James Lawrence, who achieved reputations equal to the three great captains.

In the summer of 1803 the squadron sailed, as each ship was ready, for Gibraltar, which was the rendezvous. On the way out, the young officers on the Constitution  had a taste of the commodore's temper, which was far from pleasing to them; but they also found out that he had an excellent heart, and even a strict sense of justice, as soon as his explosions of wrath were over. And before very long they discovered the qualities of promptness, courage, and capacity which made Commodore Preble a really great commander. While off Gibraltar, on a dark night, the Constitution  found herself quite close to a large ship. Preble immediately sent the men to quarters, for fear the stranger might be an enemy, and hailing began. The stranger seemed more anxious to ask questions than to answer them. This angered the fiery commodore, and he directed his first lieutenant to say if the ship did not give her name he would give her a shot. The stranger called back: "If you give me a shot, I'll give you a broadside." Preble, at this, seized the trumpet himself, and, springing into the mizzen rigging, bawled out: "This is the United States ship Constitution, forty-four guns, Commodore Edward Preble. I am about to hail you for the last time. If you do not answer, I will give you a broadside. What ship is that? Blow your matches, boys!" The answer then came: "This is his Britannic Majesty's ship Donegal, razes, of eighty guns."

"I don't believe you," answered Preble, "and I shall stick by you till morning to make sure of your character." In a few minutes a boat came alongside, with an officer, who explained that the stranger was the Maidstone, frigate, of thirty-eight guns, and the delay in answering the hails and the false name given were because the Constitution  had got close so unexpectedly that they wanted time to get the people to quarters in case she should prove an enemy. This one incident is said to have worked a complete revolution in the feelings of the officers and men toward Preble; and although he was as stern and strict as ever, they could not but admire his firmness and cool courage in an emergency.

Arrived at Gibraltar, Preble met for the first time his five young captains. Not one was twenty-five years of age, and none was married. At the first council of war held aboard the Constitution  there was a universal shyness on their part when asked their views by the commodore. The fame of the "old man's" temper and severity had preceded him, and his boy captains felt no disposition whatever to either advise him or to disagree with him. When the council was over, Preble remained in the cabin, leaning his head on his hand, and quite overcome with dejection and depression. To Colonel Lear, an American consul, then on board, Preble bitterly remarked: "I have been indiscreet in accepting this command. Had I known how I was to be supported, I certainly should have declined it. Government has sent me here a parcel of schoolboys, to command all my light craft!"

A year afterward, when the "parcel of school-boys "had covered themselves with glory, Colonel Lear asked the commodore if he remembered this speech.

"Perfectly," answered the commodore. "But they turned out to be good schoolboys."

After collecting his squadron at Gibraltar, Preble, with three vessels, stood for Tangier. The Emperor of Morocco pretended to be very friendly with the Americans, and sent them presents of bullocks, sheep, and vegetables; but Preble, while treating him with respect, yet kept his ships cleared for action and the men at quarters day and night, lest the Moors should show treachery. On going ashore with some of his officers to pay a visit of ceremony to the Emperor, he gave a characteristic order to the commanding officer of the ship: "If I do not return, enter into no treaty or negotiation for me, but open fire at once." On reaching the palace he was told that the party must leave their side-arms outside before entering the Emperor's presence. Preble replied firmly that it was not the custom of the American navy, and that they should enter as they were,—which they did. The Emperor soon found what sort of a man he had to deal with, and Preble had no further trouble with him. A few weeks after the arrival of the squadron, Preble heard the news of the loss of the Philadelphia. Nothing better shows the steadfast and generous nature of the man than the manner in which he accepted this misfortune. No regrets were heard from him; no railing accusations against Bainbridge; but a prompt and determined grappling with the terrible complication of having a great part of his force turned against him; and the most tender consideration for the feelings as well as the rights of Bainbridge and his men.

Preble was enabled to provide himself with bomb-vessels and gunboats by the aid of the King of Naples, who, like all the other European sovereigns, wished to see the nest of pirates exterminated. The first one of the "schoolboys" to distinguish himself was Decatur; who, in February, 1804, crept by night into the harbor of Tripoli, and earned immortality by destroying the Philadelphia  as she swung to her anchors, in the face of one hundred and nineteen great guns and nineteen vessels which surrounded her. The destruction of the Philadelphia  not only wiped away the stain of losing her, in the first instance, but was of the greatest advantage to Commodore Preble in the bombardment of Tripoli, as the frigate would have been a formidable addition to the defence of the town.

In the summer of 1804, his preparations being made, Commodore Preble sailed for Tripoli, where he arrived on the 25th of July. He had one frigate,—the Constitution,—three brigs, three schooners, two bomb-vessels, and six gunboats. With these he had to reduce an enemy fighting one hundred and nineteen great guns behind a circle of forts, with a fleet of a gun-brig, two schooners, two large galleys, and nineteen gun-boats, all of which could be maneuvered both inside the rocky harbor and in the offing.

On the morning of the 3rd of August the four hundred officers and men of the Philadelphia, confined in the dungeons of the Bashaw's castle, were gladdened by the sight of the American flag in the offing, and soon the music of the American guns showed them that their comrades were battling for them. On that day began a series of desperate assaults on the forts and war ships of Tripoli that for splendor and effect have never been excelled. Preble could fire only thirty heavy guns at once, while the Tripolitans could train one hundred and nineteen on the Americans. During all these bombardments, while the gunboats, in two divisions, were engaging the Tripolitan gunboats, running aboard of them, with hand-to-hand fighting, sinking and burning them, the mighty Constitution  would come into position with the same steadiness as if she were working into a friendly roadstead, and, thundering out her whole broadside at once, would deal destruction on the forts and vessels. In vain the Tripolitans would concentrate their fire on her. Throwing her topsail back, she would move slowly when they expected her to move fast, and would carry sail when they expected her to stand still, and her fire never slackened for an instant. It was after this first day's bombardment that the sailors nicknamed her "old Ironsides." She and her company seemed to be invulnerable. Escapes from calamity were many, but accidents were few. One of the closest shaves was when, in the midst of the hottest part of the action, a round shot entered a stern port directly in line of Preble, and within a few feet of him. It struck full on a quarterdeck gun, which it smashed to splinters, that flew about among a crowd of officers and men, wounding only one, and that slightly. Had it gone a little farther, it would have cut Preble in two.

After one of the fiercest of the boat attacks a collision occurred between Preble and the scarcely less fiery Decatur, which is one of the most remarkable that ever occurred in a man-of-war. At the close of the attack Decatur came on board the flagship to report. Preble had been watching him, and fully expected that all of the Trion gunboats would be captured. But, after taking three of them, Decatur found it impossible to do more. As he stepped on the Constitution's  deck, still wearing the round jacket in which he fought, his face grimed with powder, and stained with blood from a slight wound, he said quietly to Preble: "well, Commodore, I have brought you out three of the boats." Preble, suddenly catching him by the collar with both hands, shook him violently, and shrieked at him: "Aye, sir, why did you not bring me more?" The officers were paralyzed with astonishment at the scene, and Decatur, who was scarcely less fiery than Preble, laid his hand upon his dirk. Suddenly the commodore turned abruptly on his heel and went below. Decatur immediately ordered his boat, and declared he would leave the ship at the instant; but the officers crowded around him and begged him to wait until the commodore had cooled down. Just then the orderly appeared, with a request that he should wait on the commodore in the cabin. Decatur at first declared he would not go, but at last was reluctantly persuaded not to disobey his superior by refusing to answer a request, which was really an order. At last he went, sullen and rebellious. He stayed below a long time, and the officers began to be afraid that the two had quarrelled worse than ever. After a while one of them, whose rank entitled him to seek the commodore, went below and tapped softly at the cabin door. He received no answer, when he quietly opened the door a little. There sat the young captain and the commodore close together, and both in tears. From that day there never were two men who respected each other more than Preble and Decatur.

For more than a month these terrific assaults kept up. The Bashaw, who had demanded a ransom of a thousand dollars each for the Philadelphia's  men, and tribute besides, fell in his demands; but Preble sent him word that every American in Tripolitan prisons must and should be released without the payment of a dollar. The Tripolitans had little rest, and never knew the day that the invincible frigate might not be pounding their forts and ships, while the enterprising flotilla of gunboats would play havoc with their own smaller vessels. The Tripolitans had been considered as unequalled hand-to-hand fighters; but the work of the Americans on the night of the destruction of the Philadelphia, and the irresistible dash with which they grappled with and boarded the Tripolitan gunboats, disconcerted, while it did not dismay, their fierce antagonists.

Sometimes the squadron was blown off, and sometimes it had to claw off the land, but it always returned. The loss of the Americans was small; that of the Tripolitans great. One of the American gunboats exploded, and a terrible misfortune happened in the loss of the ketch Intrepid  and her gallant crew. Reinforcements were promised from the United States, which did not come in time, and Preble met with all the dangers and delays that follow the making of war four thousand miles from home; but he was the same indomitable commander, feared alike by his enemies and his friends. On the 10th of September the President, forty-four guns, and the Constellation, thirty-eight guns, arrived; the John Adams had come in some days before. By one of those strange accidents, so common in the early days of the navy, Commodore Barron had been sent out in the President  to relieve Commodore Preble by the government at Washington, which, in those days of slow communication, knew nothing of Preble's actions, except that he was supposed to be bombarding Tripoli. The season of active operations was over, however, and nothing could be done until the following summer. Meanwhile the Bashaw had a very just apprehension of the return of such determined enemies as the Americans another year, and gave unmistakable signs of a willingness to treat. To that he had been brought by Commodore Preble and his gallant officers and crews. Knowing the work to be completed, Preble willingly handed over his command to Commodore Barron. He had the pleasure of giving Decatur, then a post captain, the temporary command of the Constitution. Before leaving the squadron, he received every testimonial of respect, and even affection, from the very men who had so bitterly complained of his severe discipline and fiery temper. It was said at the time, that when the squadron first knew him he had not a friend in it, and when he left it he had not an enemy. At that day dueling was common among the privileged classes all over the western world, especially with army and navy officers; but so well did Commodore Preble have his young officers in hand that not a single duel took place in the squadron as long as he commanded it.

The younger officers were supplied with an endless fund of stories about "the old man's "outbursts, and delighted in telling of one especial instance which convulsed every officer and man on the Constitution. A surgeon's mate was needed on the ship, and a little Sicilian doctor applied for the place and got it. He asked the commodore if he must wear uniform. To which the commodore replied, "Certainly." Some days afterward the commodore happened to be in the cabin, wearing his dressing-gown and shaving. Suddenly a gentleman in uniform was announced. Now, in those days flag officers wore two epaulets, the others but one, and the commodore himself was the only man in the squadron who was entitled to wear two. But the stranger had on two epaulets; besides, a sword, a cocked hat, and an enormous amount of gold lace.

The commodore surveyed this apparition silently, puzzled to make out who this imposing personage was, until, with a smirk, the bedizened Sicilian announced himself as the new surgeon's mate. Furious at his presumption in appearing in such a rig, Preble uttered a howl of rage, which scared the little doctor so that he fled up on deck, closely followed by the commodore, his face covered with lather, and the open razor still ~n his hand. The little doctor ran along the deck, still pursued by the commodore with the razor, until, reaching the forward end of the ship, the poor Sicilian sprang overboard and struck out swimming for the shore, and was never seen on the ship again.

Preble transferred his flag to the John Adams, and visited Gibraltar, where he was received with distinction by the British officers. He had many friends among them, especially Sir Alexander Ball, one of Nelson's captains; and the great Nelson himself knew and admired the services of the Americans before Tripoli. The Spaniards and Neapolitans, who had suffered much from the corsairs, rejoiced at the drubbing Preble had given them, and at the prospect that the Americans imprisoned in the Bashaw's castle would soon be released. The Pope, Pius the Seventh, said: "This American commodore has done more to humble the piratical powers of the Barbary coast than all the Christian powers of Europe put together."

Preble sailed for home in December, 1804, and reached Washington the 4th of March, 1805, the day of President Jefferson's first inauguration. The news of his success and the early release of the Philadelphia's  officers and men had preceded him. Congress passed a vote of thanks to him and the officers and men under him. President Jefferson, although of the opposite party in politics from Preble, offered him the head of the Navy Department, but it was declined. Preble's health had steadily grown worse, and soon after his return to the United States it was seen that his days were few. He lingered until the summer of 1807, when at Portland, Maine, near his birthplace, he passed away, calmly and resignedly. He left a widow and one child.

Preble was in his forty-seventh year when he died. He was tall and slight, of gentlemanly appearance and polished manners. He left behind him a reputation for great abilities, used with an eye single to his country's good, and a character for probity and courage seldom equaled and never surpassed: